"I Fell in with a Woman, Who I Thought Was All Virtue": Sex and Violence in Antebellum Seafarers' Confessions

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 11:30 AM
Edward C (Hyatt)
Matthew T. Raffety , University of Redlands, Redlands, CA
When Charles Gibbs, the most famous American pirate of the 1830’s, gave his confession to a clergyman from his jail cell, he blamed his crimes on his old girlfriend.  Gibbs’ compatriot, Thomas Wansley, blamed his mother.  In Thomas Jones’s “Voluntary and Free” confession in 1824, he blamed his owner’s mistress.  In testimony from 1843, Philip G. Melville, first mate of the packet shipToronto, blamed his indictment for rape on his alleged victim, Margaret Garrity, the lone female passenger on board.  According to reports, the mate of the Powhattan, George McCowen, flew into a rage over losing out to another seafarer over the attentions of a “pretty blackeyed” passenger.  Her fickle attentions led McCowen to attempt to “knock his rival’s brains out with a large billet of wood.” Although the seamen, pirates, and mutineers engaged in their crimes in a decidedly male environment, many pointed to a woman as the “Eve” in the narrative of their personal fall.  Even in the largely homosocial world of the ship, women represented a source of chaos and evil.

This paper examines the roles women played in antebellum seafarers’ confessional literature, exploring the gender and sexual politics that made culturally plausible the notion that even the manliest of men—seafarers and pirates—could be turned into “victims” of wily women.  Such tales served simultaneously as titillating entertainment and an opportunity to reassert cultural norms rooted in heterosexuality and threatened by the single-sex maritime subculture.  Men were roused into a fury when confronted by an alluring woman at sea, who could continue to turn a man bad long after he had left her side.  As such, women represented a lasting moral power—a power that went to sea with men and could restrain or unleash their dangerous natures even in the physical absence of women.

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