Category Archives: history

Women on board

Transgenders serving on ships is nothing new.

I’ve long been interested in women on ships in the Age of Sail — particularly women posing as men, passing as men, doing what was considered men’s work. This interest arose when I signed aboard HM Bark Endeavour, a sailing replica of Captain James Cook’s historic ship, and lived the life of an 18th century seaman for three weeks. This life included heaving, hauling, standing watch, taking my trick at the helm, and going aloft, out on the yard arm to make and furl sail. It included stringing my hammock from the deckhead, snug alongside the other recruits, and taking my turn in the galley. (Although my husband was aboard as crew too, we never once slept together — nor did we even sleep next to each other!) What I learned was that although the work is hard and requires some training, it doesn’t require a Y chromosome.

I’m not by definition transgender. Nor is my fictional character — though in her mid-18th century world she has found it more convenient to be male than female. Actually, she’s found it expedient to be male.  The term transgender first appears in 1974, according to Miriam Webster’s online dictionary, so the concept, as such, doesn’t exist in my series. But the problems are similar: Individuals not allowed to serve in the military because of their apparent sex.

As I’m writing my way through Patricia’s story in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures, I’ve learned a lot about life in the 18th century from a female perspective  — a young white female of British heritage. Much depended upon parentage and social standing.  Much depended on luck. And of course much depended on their sex.

Hannah Snell, Royal Marine. Born 1723, died 1792. Buried with the old soldiers at Chelsea Hospital, which was her wish.

The Age of Sail was an Age of War. The emerging nations of Europe waged battles — entire wars — at sea. The need for sailors, marines, and craftsmen continued for several centuries, offering a few hardy and daring females an opportunity to escape social and economic confines, to find adventure – or maybe they were just looking for three meals a day and a hammock to sleep in. For a destitute young woman, life aboard a ship was safer than life on the streets.

What we know about these desperate imposters comes mostly from naval records, broadsheets, and the romanticized biographies and fictionalized memoirs written by or about these cross-dressing or transgender figures. One of the most well known and well documented 18th century female soldier/sailor was Hannah Snell who served first as a soldier in General Guise’s regiment, then as a Royal Marine in Frasier’s Regiment under the name of James Grey. She saw action and was wounded several times in India  “Here is a Woman, and an English Woman, who, notwithstanding the many Dangers and Vicissitudes she underwent for near the Space of five Years, during her Travels, was never found out to be of the feminine Gender.” — from The Female Soldier; the Life and Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell. (Project Gutenberg) Hannah herself couldn’t write but she sold her story to a London publisher Robert Walker. After she left the service she performed military drills on stage in costume and sang military songs and The Gentleman’s Magazine reported her story for its readers’ enjoyment.  Hannah Snell’s story is unusual in that the Royal Hospital recognized her military service and granted her a pension.

Stories like Hannah Snell’s have inspired my historical novels. I’m not out to prove that cross-dressing or transgender women existed — we know they did — but to explore why they chose that path and how they might have carried it off. Although Hannah Snell’s memoir (published anonymously but likely penned by her publisher) claims finding her estranged husband was her inciting reason, I suspect that was a literary convenience for the publisher, and one the readers might readily accept. The chance of her finding her errant seaman husband was slim — but the chance of her earning a living was guaranteed. Not to mention respect, opportunity, adventure — and a pension.

There may not have been great numbers of cross-dressing women on board ships in the Age of Sail. But there were some. They existed. They carried it off. At least, for a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No trick-or-treat –it’s the night of the hungry ghosts

Woman UnderwaterOctober 19, 2016: Here in the U.S. we’re in full Halloween mode with last year’s zombie get-ups and this year’s creepy clown scare. In the American Southwest, Dia de Muertos pays homage to departed ancestors with gaily decorated skulls and charming skeleton mariache bands. But in my opinion no culture beats the Chinese when it comes to nasty ghouls. The sheer number and diversity is amazing.

Researching my novel Water Ghosts introduced me to the pantheon of malicious demons, devils and minor deities of the collective Chinese imagination. Among them are shui gui — ghosts of the drowned.  According to legend these unfortunates can only escape their watery hell if they find a living person to take their place. For seafaring and maritime people, water ghosts can be particularly troublesome; they’re known for their ability to deceive.

Traditionally, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month; it’s purpose is to appease the spirits of the departed who have been neglected by the living. During this festival the gates of hell are opened for the ravenous spirits to wander the earth in search of comfort — or revenge. On the evening before the festival people light water lanterns and set them afloat to invite the souls of drowned victims to the next day’s feast! The next day people offer food to the neglected dead and burn joss, or ghost money —  a traditional form of ancestor worship that goes back thousands of years. I was astonished to discover a variety of joss sold in Asian markets in Hawaii and California.  In Water Ghosts James burns Monopoly game money as a substitute for ghost money, to appease the dead.

Bob and I recently watched  Seventh Moon (2008), a horror movie directed by Eduardo Sanchez, about two Americans on their honeymoon in China during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Does it compare to Water Ghosts? Some of the supernatural elements are similar, but Water Ghosts takes place in the Pacific Ocean and the main ghost Yu, is a developed and complex character with his own story to tell. Maybe he deserves his own book?

 

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The Notorious Captain Hayes; a conversation with author Joan Druett

Joan Druett

The American-born seafarer William “Bully” Hayes was a notorious celebrity in his own lifetime and in the century after his death became the antihero of numerous accounts, novels, secondhand memoirs — and a Hollywood movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Michael O’Keefe.  At least two Pacific watering holes have called themselves Bully Hayes — one in Hawaii and one in New Zealand.

Much has been written about this 19th century adventurer, accused of countless cons, crimes, swindles and brutalities — some true, some embellished, some pure fiction. Overshadowing his misdeeds, or perhaps driving them, is the portrayal of Captain Hayes as a charismatic and dauntless character —  an enduring, mythical,  antihero.  This image was created largely by the popular media of his time, says maritime historian Joan Druett. Her latest book, The Notorious Captain Hayes; The Remarkable True Story of William ‘Bully’ Hayes, Pirate of the Pacific, is the most definitive biography written about the man, the myth, the legend. The author has spent years reading everything in print about Hayes, studying contemporary newspaper articles, letters, diaries, ship logs and shipping lists in an effort to separate fact from fiction.

The result? An objective but very engaging popular history of a sea captain, trader, showman and blackguard known for his many dupes and crimes — some mere swindles — others abhorrent (rape, coercion, and blackbirding — the transport of poor refugees as cheap labor). Joan likens the mythical Captain Hayes to Hollywood’s Captain Jack Sparrow. The bad guy we love, an enduring archetype.

JoanDruettJoan Druett is an award-winning author of numerous maritime history and nautical novels, and a former Fulbright Scholar. She is married to Ron Druett, a maritime artist who has illustrated many of her histories. They live in New Zealand. Here’s a conversation we had via email which gives some insight into her writing process:

Joan, what was the most surprising discovery you came across in your research for The Notorious Captain Hayes?

That he was so likeable! One chronicler of the many yarns told about this rogue wrote that he was “as charming a rascal as ever broached a keg or stolen port,” and everything I read about him — no matter how thunderously critical — confirmed this image.  It was little wonder, really, that he became magnified into the Robin Hood of the Pacific Ocean, because he was a-larger-than-life, charismatic figure. And yet the way he cheated people was truly shocking.”

In your preface you say “There was a lot of garbage written about him” Can you elaborate on your process of separating fact from myth?

By going through the newspapers of the time, including many shipping lists, I was able to build up a detailed timeline, and prove that he had an “alibi” for many of the farfetched yarns.  The first was that he took over the ownership of the clipper bark Canton during her voyage to Singapore in July 1854, but the shipping lists of the San Francisco papers had him in command of another ship on the Californian coast in July 1854. So he was innocent of that particular crime. And there were many other stories that were founded on idle gossip.  As well as this, Bully Hayes loved to tell tall tales about himself, and these were embellished and repeated all over the Pacific.”

You liken the myth of Bully Hayes to the now iconic Disney antihero, Captain Jack Sparrow – a great comparison and one which helps to explain his appeal.   Can you compare Captain Hayes’s him to any real life celebrities?

“It’s the combination of wickedness and likeability that makes Jack Sparrow a fictional version of Bully Hayes — that and the touch of humor.  And it is that combination that makes Bully Hayes stand out from political crooks and Wall Street pirates.  None of them as attractive as he certainly appears to have been.”

Your artist husband Ron has illustrated some of your past work. Did he have an artistic or other role in the making of the Bully Hayes biography?

“No.  The designer, the publisher and I had fun making up the jacket, as we wanted it to look like a “wanted” poster, and Ron had fun watching us at work.”

Joan, I’m an admirer of you work; your nonfiction is lively and your fiction has a sense of realism and historical accuracy. Do you have a preference?

“I used to say that I put on weight when writing nonfiction and lost it when writing novels.  How true that was I am not sure, but historical novels are very hard work.  Enjoyable, but not as easy as researching material, thinking about it, and then using it within a nonfiction framework.”

I’d hardly call researching material and writing a legendary man’s story easy. How long have you been researching Bully Hayes?

“Fifteen years!  I started in 2001, by reading everything in print.  Then I moved to newspapers.  As you can imagine, my eyesight kept on giving up on the job.  Trawling through microfilms isn’t fun. It was digitization that made the job possible.”

Hilo Bay

While reading Joan’s book this weekend on my e-reader I was reminded of a personal story associated with the myth of Bully Hayes and the long list of boats he became associated with — boats with evocative names such as Otranto, Black Diamond, Ellenita, Shamrock, Lotus, and many others — many of which came to a bad end. When Bob and I moved to Hawaii we bought Topaz, a 20-year-old sloop in need of some work, anchored off Hilo. I well remember closing the deal on the shores of backwater Reeds Bay, Bob writing the check to a scruffy, roguish, charming American sailor named Hayes. (We weren’t bilked: the boat was sound, had clear title, and we enjoyed many years sailing her). Our man Hayes immediately bought another boat named Pumpkin Patch and purportedly sailed to New Zealand with his wife and young daughter.  This was in 1993. After that, we lost track of him… Somehow –unfairly — I associate him with the legendary Captain William “Bully” Hayes, who died more than a hundred years ago but whose name and reputation lives on in the islands of the Pacific.

Follow author Joan Druett on her World of the Written Word blog.  For more information about her books, please visit  her website,  and Old Salt Press.

 

 

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Teenaged eunuchs

Water Ghosts took a long time to write, mostly because I got side-tracked with historical research, including Chinese maritime navigational techniques, Asian gods, goddesses, and ghosts — and court eunuchs during the Ming Dynasty.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might think of Varys when you hear the word eunuch. But what exactly is a eunuch?

A eunuch is a castrated male. That is to say, his reproductive glands have been removed or rendered inactive, much as we neuter horses, dogs and house cats.

Why did they do it?

Castration was done for various reasons but the purpose was to de-power males. To remove their ability to impregnate and procreate. It was often done to young boys, against their will. Castration was sometimes used to emasculate prisoners of war and to form a class of servants who would not be able to impregnate the women. Young eunuchs could be raised as the master desired and they were unable to knock up the ruler’s “property.” Men in power have always had to worry about who was sleeping with their wife or concubines and whose babies those women were really carrying. Men who abuse power can rape and castrate in an effort to manipulate not only those around them but to ensure their own genetic material gets passed on.

Eunuchs are not exclusive to imperial China.  The ancient Assyrians, Sumerians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans all castrated young males as punishment and for court service. A few societies emasculated young boys to keep their voices from changing, for singing purposes. These castrati are known to have existed from the Byzantine empire.

The eunuch Narses was a successful general under the Byzantine emperor Justinian. In fact, many eunuchs excelled as military leaders (See Wikipedia list of notable eunuchs.)

Yet the practice of castration was developed to a fine art throughout the long history of imperial China and became deeply entrenched in court culture.  At the end of the Ming dynasty there were said to be 70,000 eunuchs!

Sun Yaoting the last imperial eunuch, died in 1996.

In China castration didn’t just remove a male’s scrotum — the knife took his penis too. Those who survived were deformed, humiliated, and plagued with incontinence. They had to use a plug to keep their urine contained. In spite of the trauma, many eunuchs went on to achieve notoriety. One such violated man was Zheng He, who rose to become a powerful admiral in the Yongle Court during the early Ming Dynasty.

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Zheng He (a contemporary of Christopher Columbus) was born in 1371, with the name Ma He. Born Muslim, he became dedicated to  Mazu (also called Tianfei), Chinese goddess of seafarers. (As I began to read about the eunuch mariner I also began to learn about the Chinese pantheon, which includes an impressive array of gods, goddesses, deities, demons, and ghosts who direct or in some way influence the lives of millions of people, even today.)

The boy named Ma He was captured by the Ming army during the war in which the Mongols were defeated and his father was killed. He was castrated and sent to serve Prince Zhu Di, at first in the household and then as a soldier on the northern frontier. Ma He, renamed Zheng He, earned the young prince’s trust and later helped him usurp the throne to become emperor. The eunuch was made admiral, in charge of seven naval expeditions and in command of a fleet of ships to establish a Chinese presence and impose control over Indian Ocean trade.

These Chinese-built ships were enormous — larger than any wooden ships ever built in the history of the world — and are often referred to as the treasure fleet. Their primary purpose wasn’t to carry conquering armies, but instead to collect “tribute” from the societies they visited. The not-so-subtle message was, bow down to us, fill our holds with the best you have to offer, acknowledge us as your superiors — or else!

The very first of these voyages may have been part of the usurper’s attempt to capture Jianwen, his predecessor who may have escaped.  I made use of this supposition in Water Ghosts, which is really two stories: that of young James and the eunuch Yu, who lived more than six hundred years earlier.

I don’t make this stuff up! Well, some of it I do. But there is a lot of truth behind the fiction. My copy of Louise Levathes’s marvelous book, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, is heavily dog-earred and underlined, as is The Eunuchs of the Ming Dynasty by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai. And there were many more sources.

Water Ghosts is a contemporary adventure, a psychological study, and a ghost story — but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the water’s surface lies the unseen bulk of history that supports it. I hope readers connect with James and with Yu, the teenaged eunuch ghost who is trying so desperately to take what James has.

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Go Set a Watchman

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Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird influenced me greatly as a young reader. While Atticus was the hero of that book, I identified with young Scout, a tomboy (as I was) who revered her father (as I revered my own.) The book gave me a different perspective of racial inequality and injustice, but more than that, it was a story of the coming-of-age of a white girl in the deep South, raised by Atticus, her principled father and Calpurnia, his housekeeper/cook/nanny. I saw her insular town in Maycomb County, Alabama, through her eyes and learned of Southern manners, respect, ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, hypocrisy, incest and rape through her eyes – which is to say, through the author’s eyes. The fact that the story was told by a white girl does not diminish its importance. In fact, white people were instrumental in African Americans gaining their rights. Some of those white people were women.

Had Go Set a Watchman been published it would have set the world on its ear, back in 1960, less than a decade after Brown vs Board of Education and eight years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was radical for its time – too radical.

Go Set a Watchman was written before Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning “first novel” and was rejected. To me, it is a much more honest book, more straightforward, less crafted. From a writer’s point of view, it shows signs of being an early work, particularly the second half when Scout tends toward diatribes. Some reviewers have called it “flawed.” Of course it’s flawed, as are most books, particularly first books.

The art of writing — the craft of writing — is a process. Books don’t just spring perfectly formed, from a writer’s forehead. Stories have a way of morphing themselves and in fiction, even more so. A story – the same story – can be told from many different viewpoints. Stories are our parallel lives. They are all happening simultaneously, they are all true.

The best fiction isn’t about issues; the best fiction is about individuals. In telling one person’s story you tell a vital part of the human experience. Harper Lee allows Scout to do a little too much preaching in To Set a Watchman, but it does reveal the main character’s passionate idealism, which was ahead of its time. Harper Lee was at the vanguard of the great era of social change the sixties would bring.

On one level Go Set a Watchman is the story of a young woman’s separation from her father. Everyone sees the obvious racial theme but who’s talking about the other underlying theme?

In 2015, feminism is dead — or at least in a deep coma. In another version of the same story (Go set a watchman to kill a mockingbird ) an older Jean Louise returns home from New York — not a perfect place but a place where she has become an independent person. She comes back to the home she loves and the father she respects and she finds that he – and her boyfriend, the man who expects to marry her – are not the men she thought they were. She is ashamed of them. This is a theme not often explored in literature – daughter against father, daughter separating to become her own person, and turning down marriage in the process.

Had Go Set a Watchman been published it would have set the world on its ear, back in 1960, less than a decade after Brown vs Board of Education and eight years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was ahead of its time.

Still, it’s greatest value to me, is the story of a young woman coming of age whose father has greatly disappointed her. Atticus is a man of his time. He’s not evil, he’s just a man, as is Hank, whose hand she refuses. Scout is her own woman and is guided by her own watchman. Scout is the hero of Go Set a Watchman, not Atticus. Apparently a lot of people were disappointed in that. I for one, thought it was an honest novel, with an autobiographical ring of truth that first novels often have. There are infinite ways this story could be written. Maybe someone can write it from Calpurnia’s point of view.