Women and the Sea logo
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Myths and Mermaids
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Life in Port
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Going to Sea
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Lighthouse Keepers
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Changing Roles for Women
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Women in the Military
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Women in Wartime Production
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Early Yachting and Racing
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Women and the Sea in the 20th Century
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In This Chapter


Women Posing
as Sailors
Women and
the British Navy
Merchant and
Whaling Wives


Women and the British Navy

A large number of women started following their sailor-husbands to sea, and in the British navy during the eighteenth century, a few women even joined their husbands on battleships. The British Admiralty officially did not allow women on board, but records show that captains often let the wives of officers join the ship and share their husbands' cabins or hammocks and food rations.

Why would a woman leave home to travel on a ship of war? Many had no home or money while their husbands were at sea. The ship provided a home and a chance to share life, however harsh, with their husbands. The wives worked on the ship, mending or cleaning clothes or serving as captains' maids. In battle, they attended the wounded or carried gunpowder; a few were wounded themselves.

. . . He [the captain] is not to allow of any woman being carried to Sea in the Ship; nor of any Foreigners, who are Officers or Gentlemen, being received on board the Ship, either as passengers, or as part of the crew, without orders from his Superior Officers, or the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. . . . —Article XIV from Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea, 18085

Married Life aboard a Man-of-War
Life on board a man-of-war was hard for the wife of a sailor. She had to share her husband's hammock or bunk and his daily ration of salted beef, dried peas, hardtack, and cheese. She also had to try to stay out of the way of the ship's daily activities. Needless to say, privacy was in short supply on a ship that might carry four hundred sailors and marines.

Childbirth at sea was not uncommon, and sometimes a ship's guns were fired to hasten a difficult birth—a practice that gave rise to the saying, "a son of a gun."During the Napoleonic Wars, Captain W. N. Glascock of the Royal Navy wrote, "This day the surgeon informed me that a woman on board had been labouring in childbirth for twelve hours, and if I could see my way to permit the firing of a broadside to leeward, nature would be assisted by the shock. I complied with the request, and she was delivered a fine male child."

What could a wife do to pass the time while her husband worked aboard ship?

Make a list of tasks or activities she could perform. What would she do during battle?

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