Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Hannah Snell: A Woman and a Marine


On occasion, I've used this blog to talk about the women (both real and fictional) who disguised themselves as common tars. Hannah Snell is perhaps the most famous woman to ever pass herself as a man in the Wooden World.

There are a few ways in which Hannah's story is different from those I've touched on before. In the first, she didn't pass as a sailor, but as a marine. In the second, she continued her masquerade for far longer than almost any other woman in the 18th century, including the remarkable Deborah Samson.

Snell began her career chasing after her husband. A sailor by the name of James Summs, he abandoned her shortly before the birth and subsequent death of their child in 1746. Snell took on the persona and dress of a man to find her wayward spouse. Chasing after a lost husband is a trope of fiction involving women donning men's clothes. It is a more socially acceptable reason to cross-dress than merely seeking adventure or challenging the constraints of 18th century gender. Interestingly, she is not said to be seeking him for recompense or to rekindle their love. Rather, she seeks revenge. As Robert Walker put it in his 1750 biography of Snell, The Female Soldier: "there are no Bounds to be set either to Love, Jealousy or Hatred, in the female Mind.'"

Here the story becomes a bit too fanciful. Walker claims that she served in General Guise's Regiment against the Jacobites in 1746. Further, he claims that Snell was whipped 500 times before deserting. Leaving aside the difficulties of working in a campaign Scotland to the already crowded timeline of her biography, the idea that a topless Snell could still escape detection is difficult to believe at best.

More believable is her service in the marines. Signing on to a regiment at Portsmouth, she was drafted into the service of the sloop Swallow. Gaining the confidence of the officer of the marines aboard, she saw service as an attendant to the officers, and as a marine in the afterguard. During the arduous voyage of the Swallow, Snell "performed the several Offices of a common Sailor." She served at several engagements, including Pondicherry where Snell was wounded twelve times.

With the end of her military career came fame. She performed in a stage show and helped Robert Walker to write her biography. Unlike many other soldiers, much less women, Snell was able to secure a government pension on leaving the service.

For more on Snell's story, you can read about her in Matthew Stephens' biography of her life Hannah Snell: The Secret Life of a Female Marine, or enjoy a brief post over at the Eighteenth-Century Notes & Petticoats blog.


Though Snell is known as a soldier, it was her service in the marines that distinguished her, and the portraits of her in men's clothing stand in the liminal ground between soldier and sailor that marines occupied.

She joined the marines as a soldier from Colonel Fraser's regiment, which was a common practice at the time. Marines in Britain wore red-coated uniforms not unlike their army colleagues on the shore. Hannah Snell is, in fact, shown practicing the manual exercise in her regimentals in a contemporary print. It does not appear that she is wearing the uniform of the various marine regiments, as detailed in the 1742 Cloathing Book (helpfully digitized by the First Royal Regiment of Foote reenactors).


What is more directly relevant to this blog is the fact that, despite being known as "The Female Soldier," Snell is most commonly depicted in the everyday clothing of a man connected to the sea. While not sporting slop clothes specifically, she does carry a stick under her arm, and wears her cocked hat backward.

Snell's connection to the sea is strong. While I have not addressed the role of marines aboard their ship, and made no attempt to interpret their clothing, they are nonetheless an essential part of a mariner's world in the eighteenth century. Snell is clearly exceptional to the story of marines and sailors, but in an odd way it is also typical. She served as a soldier, first and foremost, but was comfortable climbing aloft and performing the duties of a tar.

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