Monday, September 12, 2011

Intrepid Women: Janet Schaw Weathers a Hurricane at Sea, 1774

Monday, September 12, 2011
Susan reporting:

Those of us who live along the Atlantic Coast are well aware that we're in the thick of hurricane season now, and there's much anxious watching of the Weather Channel to see what may be heading our way next. But in the 18th century, there was no radar, Weather Channel, or computer predictions of "weather events." The Royal Navy had such respect for the destructive power of hurricanes that they preferred to send their Caribbean fleet home to England for the storm season rather than risk the catastrophic loss of vessels and lives.

Merchant ships, however, often continued to sail throughout the autumn season. Janet Schaw (c.1731-c.1801) was a genteel, unmarried Scotswoman who sailed on board the Jamaica Packet to the West Indies and North Carolina in October, 1774. Included in her party were several family members, servants, and three North Carolina children returning home after attending school in Scotland. While little is known today of Miss Schaw's personal history, she did leave behind a wonderful, readable diary of her voyage as well as her keen, detailed observations of life in the West Indies and North Carolina on the eve of the American Revolution. Her Journal of a Lady of Quality is available here, or here to read on-line. Highly recommended!

One of the most vivid passages captures the fear, desperation, and uncertainty of being a passenger on board a wooden sailing ship in the middle of a hurricane:

"On the fourth evening of the gale (as it was now termed) the whole elements seemed at war: horror, ruin and confusion raged thro' our unfortunate wooden kingdom, and made the stoutest heart despair of safety. Just after the midnight watch was set, it began to blow in such a manner, as made all that had gone before seem only a summer breeze. All hands, (a fearful sound) were now called; not only the Crew, but every man who could assist in this dreadful emergency. Every body was on deck, but my young friend [18-year-old Fanny Rutherford] and myself, who sat up in bed, patiently waited that fate, we sincerely believed unavoidable. The waves poured into the state-room, like a deluge, often wetting our bed-clothes, as they burst over the half door. The Vessel which had one moment mounted to the clouds and whirled on the pointed wave, descended with such violence as made her trembled for half a minute with the shock, and it appears to me wonderful how her planks struck together, considering how heavy she was loaded. Nine hogsheads of water which were lashed on the deck gave way, and broke from their Moorings, and falling backwards and forwards over our heads, at last went over board with a dreadful noise. Our hen-coops with all our poultry soon followed, as did the Cab-house or kitchen, and with it all our cooking-utensils, together with a barrel of fine pickled tongues and above a dozen hams. We heard our sails fluttering into rags. The helm no longer was able to command the Vessel, tho' four men were lash'd to it, to steer her. We were therefore resigned to the mercy of the winds and waves. At last we heard our fore-main mast split from top to bottom, a sound that might have appalled more experienced Mariners, but we heard all in silence, never opening our lips thro' the whole tremendous scene...."

Above: De Windstoot (The Gust) by Willem van de Velde II, 1680, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


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