Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Intrepid Women: Sarah Bowdich Quells a Mutiny, 1816

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Susan reporting:

In 1816, not all English ladies were leading a genteel, Austen-esque life in the country. At least one of them was sailingwith her infant daughter to Africa to meet her husband. Sarah Wallis Bowdich (1791-1856) was the only woman, let alone the only lady, on board a small merchant ship full of desperate men. Here's Sarah's own telling of what happened one evening, from her 1835 book Stories of Strange Lands, & Fragments from the Notes of a Traveller:

The surgeon whispered to me his apprehensions that all was not well, and that our people...were irritated and annoyed, and in a most discontented state. The first mate was in command of the vessel; and, though he was an admirable sailor, and a most obliging and excellent person, was very impetuous. The dinner was sent to table very ill-dressed, and the cook was summoned aft to receive a reprimand. He became impertinent, and the mate, seizing a butter-boat, threw it at his head....A general scuffle ensued, and the second mate, running to the chest of arms, loaded a brace of pistols, and stood in the door-way of the cabin, swearing to two men who came aft, that he would blow their brains out if they ventured a step further. I expostulated with him, but he only replied, "You do not know the danger, Ma'am; the men are in a state of mutiny, and if they seize on the small-arms, we may all be murdered." My child happened to be on deck; and, at the word murdered, I crept under the second mate's arm after her. She was perfectly safe, with Antonio [another sailor] beside her, as guard. My fellow-passenger [a convicted slaver!] was on the larboard side, striving by fair words to quell the tumult; but the first mate was nearly overpowered at the opposite gangway. In striving to reach my child, I became mixed up with their party; and, without knowing it, was close by the mate when when the cook made a plunge at him with the large knife with which he cut the meat. To seize the cook's arm, to snatch the knife out of his hand, and throw it into the sea, was an affair of impulse, not reflection; however, it probably saved the mate, for the knife had already cut through his waistcoat. This action, and my presence, seemed to produce a momentary pause, and gave time to those who were well-disposed to rally round their master. The cook was put in irons, and...went away muttering curses and threats; and I had no inclination to eat the offering with which he had tried to propitiate me....I accordingly threw it into the sea, and retired to the cabin, to prevent further identification with this painful concern.

But wait! This is only one tiny slice of this lady's amazing and accomplished life. More, much more, to follow on Thursday....

Above: Loaded pistols were served out to all the sure men by N.C. Wyeth, 1911, illustration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.

11 comments:

Felicity Flower said...

Very exciting! Looking forward to more. Was she on her way to Africa as a missionary?

Anonymous said...

Early for missionary work. Maybe her husband's engaged in the war effort? This is well past Napoleon's campaign in north Africa, but things were sufficiently uneasy that the English were still stationed there. But to bring one's wife is puzzling!

Jenny Girl said...

She would make a great heroine in a book! Can't wait to read more about her.

Pauline said...

So many women at sea and so few of their stories told. Thank you for bringing another seafaring lady to our attention.

ILoveVersailles said...

So I cheated, and googled Mrs.Bowditch, so I know why she's on her way to Africa, but I'll keep the spoiler to myself. You're right, tho, she really has some story!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I didn't intend to make this a guessing-game -- but now that it's sort of evolved into that, thank you, Versailles, for not spilling the Google-beans.

What amazed me most about Mrs. Bowdich is that, here again, is an extraordinary and independent woman who went her own way in life, and yet has become virtually invisible in history. Argh!

But enough of my soapbox-tirade. More about her on Thursday!

nightsmusic said...

I think she'd make a great heroine for a novel too! ;o)

I'm always happy to read about women during that time that weren't froth and frills and tea servers, but had backbone and an adventuresome spirit.

LorettaChase said...

But when we put stories like these in our novels, many people scoff and say, "Women didn't do that." Thank you, Susan, for shining a light on a woman who deserves to be remembered!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Loretta, we both know how true that is! Any time a novelist puts a woman in an unexpected historical setting, editors and readers are bound to challenge us, and say it's an anachronism. Real-life examples like Mrs. Bowdich's story need to be shared, if only to prove that there have always been brave, resourceful, adventurous women. :)

Shannon said...

I think you are absolutely correct. I only wish that there were more novelists out there who wrote the true stories of exciting women's lives. Historical text-books, blog posts like these, and novels with real-world characters are probably the only way we can dispel the myth that women always simpered at home by the fireplace.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Shannon, I can assure you that neither Loretta nor I write wimpy, tea-offering heroines in our books. But, yes, it IS often a battle to convince editors that women of the past did do more than pouring for the vicar. *g*

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