In a practice that began in the 1820s and peaked in the late nineteenth century, hundreds of wives of captains in the American whalefishery accompanied their husbands to sea. The predominantly white “sister sailors” were unusual among their contemporaries, traveling thousands of miles on voyages that might last years. At sea, they found themselves isolated and confined, cut off from networks of family and female friends, the only woman in all-male workplaces, exemplars of American white womanhood and middle-class domesticity abroad.
There have been very few serious studies of these “sister sailors,” and no examination of one of the most interesting aspects: their sexual lives. However, by reading their journals carefully, supplemented with logbooks, correspondence, missionary records, and other documentation, we can reconstruct the physically intimate relationships of these women and the impact of their presence on the dynamics of authority and fraternity among the ships’ multiracial crews.
I argue that the captain’s exclusive right to normative marital intimacy at sea sharpened the division and introduced new sources of friction between captain and crew, as the wife’s presence generated new heteroerotic tensions and disrupted homoerotic dynamics on shipboard. Although objectified by captain and crew alike, some women resisted in part through attempting to discourage the short-term sexual liaisons with local women to which most sailors felt entitled in foreign ports. Other captains’ wives, while expressing distaste, nonetheless nursed sailors through bouts of “ladies fever”. Still others ignored the crew altogether. The intensified conjugality, the confines of the ship, the absolute authority of their husbands, and the conflicts between maritime custom and domestic practice, inflated the sexual dimension of the seagoing wives’ identities, limited their agency, and elicited their complicity in the racial and gender dynamics of American imperialist expansion overseas.