Heroines and Harlots: women at sea in the great days of sail, by David Cordingly

Tomboy tales of a wife on the ocean wave
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The Independent Culture

Today we have phone booths plastered with cards advertising the charms of ladies of the night. In late 18th-century London, gents on the razzle consulted the boisterously explicit Harris's List. How often they were naval types is reflected in the description of the attractions of Miss Devonshire of Queen Anne Street: "Many a man of war hath been her willing prisoner, and paid a proper ransom; her port is said to be well-guarded by a light brown chevaux-de-frieze... The entry is rather straight; but when once in there is very good riding... she is ever ready for an engagement, cares not how soon she comes to close quarters, and loves to fight yard arm and yard arm, and be briskly boarded."

That David Cordingly can offer this gem of double entendre as evidence of how women welcomed sailors home in one chapter, and in another use a quotation from Jane Austen's Persuasion to show how well naval wives coped, reflects the depth of his research. This book goes beyond the familiar world of everyday life in Nelson's navy to include the women of the great clipper ships, Boston privateers, Nantucket whalers and Orkney fishermen, to say nothing of asides on mermaids, figureheads and auguries of doom.

It looks at the truth behind the riveting but often apocryphal accounts of plucky tomboys who disguised themselves as men and fooled their fellow tars for years; it digs into diaries, letters, journals and official correspondence to tell the almost unknown story of the women who went as themselves. Despite the Royal Navy diktat that females were personae non gratae at sea, a remarkable number of women were tucked away in the poops and fo'castles of naval and mercantile vessels. Officially invisible but generally accepted, they offered creature comforts, nursed the sick, and brought up the babies born on long voyages.

The expression "son of a gun" apparently refers to the customary lying-in place between two gun-carriages, or trunnions. In 1811, the crew of a man-of-war took turns to feed and care for a hapless "daughter of a gun" whose father had been killed and whose mother died after giving birth. When the ship arrived in port they left her outside the Navy Hospital at Greenwich with £50 sewn into her wraps. The baby, remarkably healthy, was christened Sally Trunnion.

Not all the stories are happy ones. The sea has always been cruel, and while Cordingly looks on the bright side of life, he doesn't spare us the hazards. Shipwrecks and mutinies, pirates and enemy actions, left women picking up their men's bloodied limbs, clinging to spars in the sea and pleading (with occasional success) for protection from would-be rapists. The women who waited at home as absences stretched to years were more likely than not to find themselves widows.

Harbourside prostitution was a death sentence in an age when venereal disease was rife and childbirth hazardous. Most whores could expect to die within four years of their first sailor coming alongside. Ships themselves were ridden with hazards, with half of fatalities due to disease, a quarter to accidents and a quarter to casualties while under attack.

What is extraordinary and heartening is the tenacity and devotion of the women and men to each other. Sailors might visit brothels in every port, but often treated the women as wives, trusting them with pay packets and returning to the same one each time. There is a chapter on famous philanderers, but more typical was the naval hero Cochrane (the model for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey), who took his dashing wife Kitty to sea with him, and Nelson, who stuck to the plump and passionate Lady Hamilton till death.

As to women being unlucky on board, Cordingly reveals that more often than not they saved the the day. He tells the astonishing 1856 tale of a pregnant 19-year-old, the only person on board who could navigate after her captain husband fell ill, who talked the crew out of mutiny and took their 217-foot clipper round the Horn in mountainous seas. It shows that today's sailing heroines have a long line of doughty ancestresses.