Category Archives: women sailors

Herstory: Seawomen of Iceland

To visit Reykjavik’s Maritime Museum you would think there were no seawomen in Iceland’s history. (As of November, 2017, that is.) I first came across the mention of Icelandic female fishers in A Brief History of Iceland by Gunnar Karlsson (copyright 2000, translated by Anna Yates). A single, telling caption beneath a photograph (of a  restored turf shack used by crews during the fishing season in previous centuries) caught my attention:

“This shack which has survived at Stokkseyri, south Iceland, is known as Puridur’s Shack after Puridur (translated as Foreman, or, helmsman) Einarsdottir, who for 25 years was helmswoman of a boat that fished from Stokkseyri in the first half of the 19th century. It was not uncommon for women to crew fishing boats, but they very rarely stood at the helm.” ( Karlsson, pg. 24.)

Except for the brief caption, Karlsson says nothing more of female fishermen.

A Google search soon brought up Margaret Willson’s book —  Seawomen of Iceland (University of Washington Press;2016.

Willson, a professor of anthropology and Canadian studies, has experience working aboard fishing vessels in Tasmania in the 1970’s. In her very readable, painstakingly researched book she finds evidence for women working at sea historically (and has identified over fifty born before 1900.) The author includes chapters on present-day seawomen and looks at the Icelandic fishing industry, workforce, and working environment at large.

“The historic and present contributions of the seawomen of Iceland are virtually invisible,” says Willson. “These seawomen, who in recent decades have formed as much as 13 percent of Iceland’s fishing fleet, are unrecognized, even within the communities where they live…. Nearly all Icelanders with whom I have spoken, with the exception of a few seawomen themselves, are sure seawomen never existed.”

By keeping silent, by ignoring, we forget — thereby editing history through exclusion; it’s herstory too.

Thuridur’s winter fishing hut in the village of Stokkseyri, has been restored; a sign next to it gives an account of her life.

Willson, Margaret. 2016. Seawomen of Iceland. (University of Washington Press; 2016. 233 pages with appendices, notes, bibliography, index, and photographs. Highly recommended.

Iceland’s Immigrant Song

Iceland’s original immigrant song may have been the poems composed by the helmsmen and women of the open rowboats, to aid them in remembering choice fishing spots. The first immigrants to Iceland were Norse, who arrived in the ninth century. They came primarily for the arable land, which was increasingly unavailable in Scandinavia.

Ranching and hay farming to feed the livestock became the main activities. Most landowners fished seasonally, to supplement their food supply.

For 500 years or so, Icelandic shipwrights built their open boats with driftwood. After the 15th century they used imported oak, spruce, and pine. According to the museum’s display, it took two men about six weeks, on average, to build a six-oar boat.

From the 900s until the late 1800’s Icelanders fished in open row boats crewed by family members and hired hands.

Only landowners could own fishing boats. Often the landowners’ sons, daughters, and wives rowed the boat and strung the lines. They made anchors and line-sinkers from lava rock — buoys and floats from driftwood.

 

Steam changed everything.  Gone were the open boats and the hand lines. Once steam trawlers came into use, factory workers knotted sisal hemp nets to catch more fish.

In the nineteenth century a fifth of Iceland’s population emigrated to North America. Today the population of Iceland is less than 350,000; less than five percent are employed in fishing. Tourism has become the leading industry.

Credits to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum and Margaret Willson. 2016. Seawomen of Iceland. University of Washington Press.

Women at Sea was a special exhibition at the museum in 2016. Why it isn’t a permanent feature is a mystery to me. In researching Icelandic seafaring women I came across Margaret Willson’s book, the Seawomen of Iceland, which I’ll review in a future blog.

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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Weymouth’s First Maritime Literary Festival March 12-13 2016

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I’m looking forward to attending England’s first maritime literary festival and meeting up with many of my nautical writer friends and acquaintances, and hopefully making new ones. Organized by James Farquharson, the event will be taking place the weekend of March 12-13, 2016 at The Royal Dorset Yacht Club and several other venues in Weymouth.

The festival includes 37 official events organized by James Farquarson, which are predominantly lectures given by well-known maritime historians David Childs, Anne Collier, Dr. James Davy, J.D. Davies, Richard Dunn, Dr. Steven Gray, Brian Lavery, and Barbara Tomlinson, maritime archaeologist Gordon LePard and wreck divers Graham Knott and Selwyn Williams, photographers Steve Belasco and Nigel Millard, sailing gold medalist Lijia Xu — and a significant number of well-known and emerging nautical novelists, autobiographers and nonfiction writers, including the ever popular Julian Stockwin and Old Salt Press author Antoine Vanner.

Nine of the presenters are women. They are Emma Banford (newspaper and magazine editor; sailor), Lizzie Church (Regency novelist), Fiona Clark Echlin (author, poet, playwright and academic), Anne Collier (historian and author), Angela Cockayne (artist), Laura James (author) and Kate Kelly (author and scientist), Barbara Tomlinson (author and Curator Emeritus, Natl. Maritime Museum), and Lijia Xu (gold medalist sailor and author).

For a complete list of speakers and events (which include a maritime church service and a Moby Dick Big Read, artistic exhibit, and showing of the movie) see the official programme. 

The events, held over the course of two days, are sold a la carte. I have so far bought tickets to three events and will surely add others.

A festival such as this is a great opportunity for writers to learn from each other and support maritime literature. We’re connected by the sea, both physically and thematically. This coming together is important to share ideas and inspirations. Gatherings also presents networking opportunities for writers. A dozen or so of us will be meeting informally throughout the weekend to discuss topics such as writing process, publishing opportunities and marketing strategies. What better place than an old port town to have a maritime literary festival? Yes, there will be a pub crawl!

For more information and to purchase tickets in advance please visit Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival website.

See you there?

Shining Light on our Ladies

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I’m delighted for Patricia MacPherson, my 18th-century cross-dressing protagonist, to be among those fictional ladies in the spotlight this week, as part of Helen Hollick‘s October blog tour celebrating female protagonists through the centuries. Blog tours are fun ways to be introduced to authors you might not otherwise be familiar with. Welcome aboard my blog, a Sea of Words; charting a course from imagination to publication. As you can tell from the title, the major focus of my blog is the process of writing.

I was thrilled when Helen invited me to participate because I’ve been at work for several years now on Leaving Havana, the third book in the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.

Patricia MacPherson came to me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She appeared in my imagination, insistent that I tell her story. It was the middle of the night while I was at the helm of the HM Bark Endeavour (yes! — I was taking my turn steering the famous replica ship!) on a passage from Vancouver to Hawaii in1999. My husband and I had joined the ship with a few dozen other middle-aged wannabe sailors, as “voyage crew” — temporary hands to help sail the old girl on a part of her journey around the world that year. When we signed on we agreed to stand our watch, climb aloft to make and furl sail, help clean and maintain the ship, and obey the captain and officers. For three weeks we essentially lived the lives of 18th century sailors, standing our watch, steering the ship, and scrambling up the ratlines and out on the foot rope beneath the yard arm high above the deck, to let loose or take in canvas. We took our turns at galley duty, we maintained the vessel, and when our watch was over we strung our hammocks from the deck head an slept, exhausted, until the ship’s bell roused us again. It was very much like a time machine back to life aboard an 18th century British sailing ship. I would later write an article published in Sailing Magazine about my experience, entitled Three Weeks Before the Mast.

But by the time I disembarked in Hawaii I also had the beginnings of a novel in my mind — a story about a young woman aboard an 18th century sailing ship — much like the ship I had just been a part of. The ship was my setting — I knew it intimately. Like me, my female protagonist would not be just a passenger.  One thing I had discovered first hand was that women can do anything men can do, when it comes to sailing or maintaining a ship. Maybe there was more truth than I realized to those old 18th century British ballads and broadsheets about girls going to sea dressed as men.

Although the character Patricia, had made herself known to me, and although I knew the setting like the back of my hand, I had a lot of research to do — six years’ worth — before I had a finished manuscript. In that research I discovered many documented cases of girls who really did go to sea disguised as boys. In most cases they were only discovered while being treated for life-threatening battle wounds. Think of the many who might never have been caught!

My novel Star-Crossed was published by Knopf in the fall of 2006 as a Young Adult historical novel. In 2007 it was chosen by the New York Public Library to be among the Books for the Teen Age.  I wrote the rough draft of a sequel, but Knopf wasn’t interested in a series; they had published it as a stand-alone. My agent declined.  But Tom Grundner, founder of Fireship Press and Editor-in-Chief, wanted to acquire my series and in 2011 Surgeon’s Mate; book 2 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series was published. In 2012 Fireship Press published a slightly revised Star-Crossed  (now out of print) as Barbados Bound; book 1 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series.   Tom was enthusiastic about my books and we were discussing a third book when he died suddenly. My plans for the third book were abandoned for a time, as I felt I had lost not just an editor but a mentor.

Patricia has languished for a few years, seemingly lost at sea, while I’ve completed several other novels I had in the works. Tired of waiting to be rescued, she has managed to jury-rig a sail and find the wind to fill it. She insists I continue her story. I’m not sure I could have, had I not found a new mentor and several trustworthy writing “mates” who know nautical history and are supportive and encouraging of our efforts — Patricia’s and mine. I am very grateful for these writers — and for the readers who have taken the time to let me know how much they want to read more adventures of Patricia MacPherson. Unlike Star-Crossed, the version Knopf published , the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure series are adult novels, not YA . Adobe Photoshop PDF

Barbados Bound (first published as Star-Crossed by Knopf in 2006 as a stand-alone YA historical novel.)

Portsmouth, England,1760. Patricia Kelley, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Barbadian sugarcane planter, falls from her imagined place in the world when her absent father unexpectedly dies. Raised in a Wiltshire boarding school sixteen-year-old Patricia embarks on a desperate crossing on a merchantman bound for Barbados, where she was born, in a brash attempt to claim an unlikely inheritance. Aboard a merchantman under contract with the British Navy to deliver gunpowder to the West Indian forts, young Patricia finds herself pulled between two worlds — and two identities — as she charts her own course for survival in the war-torn 18th century.

In writing Patricia MacPherson’s story I wanted to explore what it might have been like for a young woman in the eighteenth century to live, work and reinvent herself aboard a ship.  Although it’s a work of fiction, I have attempted to maintain historical accuracy.

Eighteenth century merchantmen and British Naval ships did indeed carry women — wives, girlfriends, passengers, prostitutes, laundresses — even though the Admiralty had rules on the books prohibiting it.  Children too, were commonly found aboard ships.  Some were born on the passage and some went to sea at an early age for their livelihood.

According to numerous sources, some women really did enlist in the navy and army in male disguise.  Several accounts tell of women who worked for months, and in some cases years, before being found out.  These impostors carried out their duties, performed bravely in battle and were only discovered to be female after being wounded in the line of duty.  (The artifice may have occurred more often than has been recorded, simply because some women may have successfully carried it off.)

Thought the work was hard and not without danger, a ship provided room and board, and a chance for adventure.  In fact, it still does.

Surgeon’s Mate; Book 2.

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It’s late October, 1762. After surviving the deadly siege of Havana, Patrick MacPherson and the rest of the ship’s company are looking forward to a well deserved liberty in New York. But what happens in that colonial town will change the surgeon’s mate’s life in ways she could never have imagined. Using a dead man’s identity, young Patricia Kelley MacPherson is making her way as Patrick MacPherson, surgeon’s mate aboard His Majesty’s frigate Richmond. She’s become adept at bleeding, blistering, and amputating limbs; but if her cover is blown, she’ll lose both her livelihood and her berth aboard the frigate. The ship’s gunner alone knows her secret – or does someone else aboard suspect that Patrick MacPherson is not the man he claims to be? Surgeon’s Mate, book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series, is a work of fiction inspired in part by the historical accounts of actual 17th and 18th century soldiers, sailors and marines who were in fact women. Included in this group were Christian Davies, Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy, Mary Anne Talbot, Deborah Sampson, to name but a few.

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(Here’s a photo of me at the 2012 Historical Novel Society Conference costume party — cross-dressed as Patricia’s male persona, Patrick MacPherson.)

Leaving Havana; Book 3 of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series 

In this work-in-progress Patricia continues her association with Yankee smugglers at great risk, and is reunited with three people from her past, making some rash decisions with enormous, life-changing consequences.  Look for it to be released by Spring, 2016…

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Now let me hand the microphone to Helen Hollick, an amazing historical novelist who writes in several different eras.  If you are an historical novel aficionado, chances are, you already know this author — a force of nature, she is. I had the good fortune to be on a nautical historical panel with her at the 2012 Historical Novel Conference in London and since I have become acquainted with her and her work I’ve been greatly inspired by her writing process and her writing style — not to mention her energy and willingness to encourage and promote historical fiction by emerging writers.

 

Helen Hollick

Helen lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with Forever Queen. She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, very engaging, somewhat salty, pirate-based fantasy adventures. The ocean connects us all, and that’s how I first found Helen. As a supporter of Indie Authors Helen Hollick is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award. Please check out her blog post today, Let us talk of many things

As for her ladies — her female protagonists and supporting characters – every sea captain needs a woman to come home to, but Captain Jesamiah Acorne (ex-pirate) has three to choose from: Tiola ( a midwife and a white witch) ‘Cesca, an English woman with a Spanish name (a spy) and Alicia… well, all Alicia wants is Jesamiah’s money…

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A rollicking nautical adventure!

Now, let me reacquaint you with Anna Belfrage.
Anna is a delightful author I featured here on my Sea of Words blog last year. (See, Anna Belfrage talks of time travel and other writing secrets)

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Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.  When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, chances are she’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

 Meet Anna’s ‘lady’…. She was blackmailed into marrying an unknown knight. She hadn’t expected having to save his life as well…

visit Anna and   – and a chance to win TWO of Anna’s books! Annabelfrage.wordpress.com

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We are historical fiction writers shining the light on our female protagonists; thank you for your attention!

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If you’ve enjoyed our posts please share and tweet #LightOnOurLadies. We appreciate your interest!  In case you came late to the party, here’s what you missed:

The first three weeks of the #LightOnOurLadies tour:

6th October: Helen Hollick  with Pat  Bracewell and  Inge Borg

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13th October: Helen Hollick with Regina JeffersElizabeth Revill and Diana Wilder

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20th October : Helen Hollick with Alison Morton  and Sophie Perinot

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Keep that spotlight shining, ladies!