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Rock-a-bye baby all day long

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published January 19. 2014 4:00AM

Mary Caroline Smith was a capable woman. While her husband, Franklin, was away whaling, she ran the Smith household and raised five children. She knew how to live graciously, manage servants, and enjoy the benefits of wealth, but when the family fortune collapsed during the Panic of 1857, she adapted to a small house and a constrained life style.

Mary Caroline sometimes sailed with Franklin and assisted him by using a sextant to take accurate sightings. She also knew how to deliver babies, including her own. On one voyage she survived an unattended birth aboard her husband's ship, the Chelsea, off Stewart Island, New Zealand. It's a desolate spot, even today, and in 1840 there weren't any midwives or doctors to assist her. Mary Caroline must have wanted her mother, but New London was 10,000 miles away. Franklin entered the event in the ship's log: "We have had an addisshan to Capt. Smiths family … and I call her Chelsea Smith So Ends well (sic)".

In the early days of whaling it was considered unlucky for women to go to sea, but later it became acceptable, even desirable, to have captains' wives on board. It was hoped that their presence on "hen frigates" would curb the antics of men behaving badly.

Alcohol often fueled male mischief. For example, Mary Caroline's brother-in-law, James, went on an extended bender in Samoa with a Rhode Island skipper named Balance. After the men consumed two barrels of rum, Balance, now quite un-balanced, returned to his ship and ordered the crew to steer the vessel in circles around the bay until his men finally persuaded him to go sleep it off.

Another captain enjoyed drinking with his pet monkey, Mr. Joe; one night when they were both sloshed, Mr. Joe threw wet socks into the cabin stove causing the irate captain to pursue his pet all over the ship firing his gun wildly, but ineffectually, at the animal. Apparently in these cases no women were around to counsel restraint.

Some wives were reluctant companions; others saw travel as an adventure. Some incurred the wrath of disapproving families to follow their husbands. One woman's family was so incensed they erected a tombstone for her even though she was very much alive.

Conditions on shipboard were challenging. Dealing with omnipresent rats and roaches was a constant battle. Pigs, sheep and chickens roamed the deck, which was often dangerously slippery with slime and whale blood. Meals usually consisted of dried meat, dried beans, dried biscuits and boiled pudding. Sometimes worms floated in the soup.

Of course the captain and his lady had their own stateroom. One thoughtful husband had a sitting room built where his wife could enjoy some private time, but unfortunately its placement offered a direct view of the crew's designated open-air toilet.

Seasickness was a common woe. One woman observed that the ship made 20 knots a day - 10 up and 10 down. Another remarked that the motion of the ship was like "rock-a-bye baby all day long." Morning sickness must have been a real treat.

Between whale sightings boredom was a problem that affected everybody. Women kept busy sewing, reading and taking care of their children, if they had come along. Disease, especially smallpox, was always a threat; sometimes women had to nurse sick crewmen or take over navigational duties for incapacitated husbands. Whaling wives needed to be competent, flexible and, most of all, good sports.

In 1935 The Day gave Barnard Colby the assignment to write a series about local whaling captains before all memories of those days were lost. Colby's columns were later published by the Mystic Seaport in the book, "For Oil and Buggy Whips." This treasury preserves the story of a baby's entry into the brutal but exotic world that made New London great. Chelsea Street, on Franklin's former property at Fort Trumbull, still bears her name.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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