This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Martha's Vineyard Magazine.
“For a girl or a woman to embark on a long whaling voyage required great fortitude and determination,” wrote Henry Beetle Hough, co-author with Emma Mayhew Whiting of Whaling Wives, published in 1953. Sailing with her whaling-captain husband meant that a wife could avoid a separation that might last as long as five years, but life as the only woman aboard ship was, said Hough and Whiting, “a prospect of bleakness and hazard.”
Whaling was one of the most diverse American industries in terms of race, but women were relatively rare. In its eighty-year active career, only five women sailed aboard the Charles W. Morgan. For the whaling wife it was a working world as much as a marital one, and she often took up the duties of shipboard bookkeeper, physician, adjutant, fellow disciplinarian, log keeper, occasional watchstander, and schoolmistress when children journeyed with her.
More than one woman served as navigator, either officially or in cases where the regular crew was ill or had died. Caroline Mayhew of West Tisbury guided the whaler Powhatan in 1846 after her husband and most of the crew were laid low with smallpox in the middle of the South Pacific. Another such pioneer was Honor Matthews Earle, shown at right aboard the Morgan at San Francisco in 1903 with her husband, Captain James A.M. Earle of Edgartown, and son, Jamie. Honor, a schoolteacher, met the captain while the Morgan lay over at Russell, New Zealand.
“Navigation came easily to me,” she said. “A whaler, you know, is not the place to have the liveliest time in the world, so I applied myself to learning navigation.” She had taken some navigation classes ashore but truly learned the art while cruising with her husband in search of whales, and eventually assumed the duties officially.
It might not quite be the legacy she would have wanted, but Honor Matthews Earle is commemorated today on a website for pipes and cigars. Captain Earle’s Honor Blend tobacco memorializes “Captain Earle’s wife Honor Matthews, a native of New Zealand whom he wed during one of his ports of call to Diamond Head in Hawaii.”
Probably no woman went to sea on more whaling voyages than Charity Randall, the wife of Captain John Oliver Norton of the Vineyard. Many whaling wives went on only one voyage, typically after their children were raised, to see the wider world. But Randall, whom one acquaintance described as “one of those slab-sided New Englanders,” went on every single voyage her husband took.
“She had to,” someone who knew both Nortons was quoted as saying in Whaling Wives. “Or he would never have come back alive.”