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.

















  1. Joan Druett July 26, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    It is worth reading Daniel A. Cohen’s scholarly discussion of the female warrior phenomenon in his “The Female Marine and Related Works, Narratives of Cross-Dressing and Urban Vice in America’s Early Republic” (Univ Mass Press, 1997). He says that definitely hundreds, and most probably thousands, of women served as soldiers and sailors — for the reason that is given above, that life in camps or on ships was safer and easier than on the streets. The problem is to tell which of the narratives is genuine. There was a craze for female warrior stories in the early nineteenth century, triggered by a printer by the name of Nathaniel Coverly Jnr., who did so well with a fictive biography, “The Adventures of Louisa Baker”, that he followed it up with several sequels, which were eventually bound together as “The Female Marine”. Like Linda’s intriguing heroine, these women were all fictional, but — also like Patricia — their stories were inspired by real people.

    Did Hannah Snell exist? Definitely. After she bragged about her amazing feats to riveted audiences in London, her story was examined by the military, and passed the test. By the end of 1750 she was a famous figure — and is still famous today, despite her miserable death (8 February 1792) in a lunatic asylum. For interest, it is worth looking u booklet-biography published by Matthew Stephens as “Hannah Snell, the secret life of a female marine, 1723-1792” (Ship Street Press, London,1997). And of course there is the indispensable “Female Tars” by Suzanne J. Stark (Naval Institute Press, 1996).

    • lindacollison July 26, 2017 at 4:37 pm

      Thank you, Joan Druett. It is from your work and Susanne Stark’s work that I first learned of women on ships in former years. She Captains, Hen Frigates, She Was a Sister Sailor (editor), Petticoat Whalers. Thanks for your validation.

  2. Paula Lofting July 27, 2017 at 12:18 am

    Wow, an amazing story, Linda. I knew of lady pirates but wasn’t really aware of lady sailors. It’s hard to imagine in the environment that they weren’t soon found out, that no one questioned that they didn’t shave, or never undressed in front of the others or had breasts and how did they manage their periods? Seems incredible. Sailors were supposed to have been suspicious about having women on board so if they did discover a person’s gender. I wonder how that went down? Such an amazing subject for your books. Thank you.

    • lindacollison July 27, 2017 at 8:35 am

      Paula, thanks for your comment; it’s good to have a visitor from an earlier era! You bring up excellent points, all of which have been discussed and documented by maritime historians. Aboard ship, bathing was a rare thing. Partly because fresh water is conserved. Even today, aboard modern yachts with water makers, showers are short to conserve fresh water. Sailors didn’t undress to sleep either, as their watches were four hours on and four hours off, and all hands might be called at any time, day or night, to make a sail change. Because many young boys were taken to sea as apprentices or officer’s servants, or as midshipmen, young, hairless faces were common enough. Also, most of the age of sail (1500s-1800’s) was a clean-shaven period for officers and men. In my series Patricia, posing as Patrick, shaves her face, though she is teased by the other surgeon’s mate, for only having a few facial hairs.
      As for voiding, defecating and managing menstruation, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Having lived and worked aboard ships and boats with men, I lived it firsthand. First of all, it’s very dark belowdecks. Officers had use of private latrines which emptied directly into the sea. The common sailor used a bucket as a chamber pot or climbed out on the planks at the bow of the ship known as “seats of ease”. Here a hole was cut and a man dropped his trousers to relieve his bowels, and urinate too, if he needed to. People living in crowded conditions allow each other the courtesy of not staring when someone is going about their business. A woman could hold her urine all day, if need be, and relieve herself at night. And she takes care of her bloody discharge discreetly as well, using rags or oakum (fiber pickings from worn-out hemp ropes used for multiple purposes aboard.) As an aside, sailing alone with my husband across the Pacific in a small sailboat, he never knew when I was having my period during the crossing. Men are easily fooled, especially when no sex is involved. Well, sometimes even then 😉 Also, since hemorrhoids were very common among sailors because of diet and chronic dehydration, a scant blood stain on breeches wouldn’t be abnormal. Then again, some women might not have experienced heavy periods. And then again, there were women living as women aboard — the wives of warrant officers were allowed to be on board because the ship was their husband’s rightful home. They helped the surgeon in battle or they served as “powder monkeys” carrying shot and powder up from the magazine to the gun deck. You seldom hear about these women who were a silent, largely unseen part of British Naval history.
      Finally, some officers brought their comfort with them, a girl disguised as a cabin boy. The officers were all allowed personal servants. Cabin boys, we refer to them now. Mary Ann Talbot started her crossdressing life this way. And prostitutes — who were often allowed onboard when the ship was in port, to keep the men from deserting, might have finagled a way to remain on board after the captain gives word to send them ashore. The opening line of Barbados Bound (first published as Star-Crossed) is “I came aboard with the prostitutes the night before the ship set sail. It was a rash scheme but I was a brash girl with nothing to my name but a promise.”
      Lastly, some women working and living as men might have had protection and collusion from their mates.
      Thanks so much Paula, for your interest. I hope things are well in the Anglo-Saxon Viking era!

      • Paula Lofting July 28, 2017 at 7:14 am

        Haha, the AS world is fine. I’ve often had conversations about wether women would have fought at Hastings disguised as a man! Who knows. Thanks fir this fascinating insight Linda

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