Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Women Aren't Bad Luck

Detail from The Sailor's Joyful Return, artist unknown,
date unknown, National Maritime Museum.
In 1808, Cuthbert Collingwood wrote, 'I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel.'

Collingwood is quoted by several historians in relating the belief that women were bad luck at sea.[1] Dorothy and James Volo state in their Daily Life in the Age of Sail that this superstition is 'widely documented,' but provide only this quote as evidence.[2] Suzanne Stark, writing in Female Tars, is more measured in her assessment of Collingwood's words: 'one might suspect him of believing women at sea are bad luck.'[3]

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Linda Grant de Pauw does not mince words: 'Women at sea were not considered bad luck.'[4] 

David Cordingly, writing in his book Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, presents the evidence against this superstition:
As with so many sailors' superstitions, it is hard to discover the origins of the belief that a woman on a ship bring bad luck, and even harder to find any factual basis for it. Columbus, Magellan, and Drake might not have taken women on their epic voyages, but the ships of the Pilgrim Fathers were loaded with women and survived the Atlantic crossing, as did the hundreds of emigrant ships that followed in their wake...The British navy was prepared to turn a blind eye to the wives of warrant officers living on board; and the wives of captains, diplomats, and colonial governors frequently traveled overseas without bringing any harm to themselves or their fellow passengers. Those naval officers who did object to the presence of women on their ships seem to have regarded them as a nuisance, rather than a source of bad luck.[5]
Most historians agree that the belief that women were bad luck at sea, if it was present, took a back seat to a belief that women could cause real world trouble in a male dominated ship. Marcus Rediker summed up the likely situation nicely (albeit for an earlier age) in his essay "Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger": 'Many sailors saw women as objects of fantasy and adoration but also as sources of bad luck or, worse, as dangerous sources of conflict, as potential breaches in the male order of seagoing solidarity.'[6]

Stephen R. Berry did not even address superstition regarding women when he wrote in his A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, 'the entrance of females into the confines of this male community could create a sexually charged atmosphere.'[7] It was the tension of an 'aggressively masculine' society afloat converging with women that caused tension and raised the hackles of many a naval officer or merchant master.

General Wolfe incorporated British seamen's violent misogyny into his strategy to reduce Quebec in 1759. A naval officer wrote that Montcalm responded to Wolfe's 'cruelty' in devastating the region around Quebec with a threat to turn over his British prisoners 'to the mercy of the Indian savages.' Wolfe's reply was a threat to turn over 'all the French Ladies, without distinction...to the  delicate embraces of the English tars.'[8]
Detail from Grog on Board, Thomas Rowlandson, 1789, Royal Collection Trust.
More often than superstition, mariners harbored a misogyny that cast women as immoral temptresses, unwelcome distractions, or likely victims. In this light, Collingwood's later assertion that women were the cause of 'mischief' may not be superstition at all, but merely an officer expressing his concern about an under-sexed and over-masculine group driven to distraction and dangerous ill-discipline by the mere presence of women. Historians have often noted how women have taken the brunt of the blame for any incidents that did occur, despite sailors themselves being instigators of sexual violence or willing participants in consensual acts.[9]

Despite the academic debate involving all of these historians over decades, there is very little evidence that common sailors thought of women as bad luck. The topic is never breached in any sailors' memoir that I've ever read. There is evidence that sailors of earlier and later eras did believe women were bad luck at sea, but the period of 1740-1790 is not a particularly superstitious time among sailors in the first place.

If women were indeed considered bad luck at sea, the treatment of women discovered posing as men (like Hannah Snell) would have been very different from what Stark described in Female Tars:
When a seaman or marine was discovered to be a woman, she was not reprimanded, let alone convicted and punished for having duped the navy by enlisting under a false identity. On the contrary, she suddenly gained the kindly attention of her officers. Previous to the revelation of her gender, when she was merely one of hundreds of seamen, she was below the notice of her ship's commissioned officers unless she misbehaved, in which case she was severely disciplined. But as soon as it was discovered that she was a woman, the officers' attitude toward her changed; they were fascinated by her and treated her with gentle solicitude.[10]
There wasn't much call for sailors to craft or continue such a superstition under the sailing conditions of the period. While admitting that a woman's 'presence was clearly a temptation to sex-starved men and sometimes led to trouble,' Peter Earle found that 'most mariners seem to have been able to manage without women without any great difficulty. Most voyages were not all that long between ports, where there were always plenty of women to satisfy their lust.'[11]

In short, there is a lively academic debate around whether sailors in my period of study considered women to be bad luck at sea, but I simply haven't seen any evidence to prove that was the case.

[1] Cordingly, David, Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, New York: Random House, 2001, pages 154.
[2] Dorothy Denneen Volo, James M. Volo, Daily Life in the Age of Sail, London: Greenwood, 2002, page 155.
[3] Stark, Suzanne J., Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996, page 53.
[4] Grant de Pauw, Linda, Seafaring Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1982, page 15.
[5] Cordingly, Women Sailors, pages 154-155.
[6] Rediker, Marcus, 'Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger,' Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920Margaret S. Creighton and Lisa Norling ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996, page 9.
[7] Berry, Stephen R., A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, page 160.
[8] Author unknown, 'Letters of a Volunteer,' in Doughty, Arthur G., The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Quebec: Desault & Proulx, 1901, page 20, via Internet Archive, accessed August 15, 2018, <https://archive.org/stream/siegeofquebecbat00douguoft#page/20>.
[9] Cordingly, Women Sailors, page 237; Berry, Path in the Mighty Waters, page 161; Stark, Female Tars.
[10] Stark, Female Tars, page 111.
[11] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen, 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 101-102.

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