HANSON — All that was missing was the roll of the decks and the sea spray as storyteller Anne Barrett of Topsfield performed her one-woman show, “Life Aboard a Whaling Ship,” for the Hanson Historical Society’s annual fundraising dinner at Camp Kiwanee Thursday, May 2.
In 1856, New Bedford’s Mary Chipman Lawrence and her 5-year-old daughter Minnie joined Lawrence’s sea captain husband Samuel for a three-and-a-half year voyage on the whaling ship “Addison” before the outbreak of the Civil War led to the beginning of the end of America’s whaling industry. Barrett used Lawrence’s journal, published as “The Captain’s Best Mate: The Journal of Mary Chipman Lawrence,” as the basis for her performance.
Readings from the journal were interspersed with Barrett’s performance of sea chanties to bring the journal to life in the presentation funded by the Massachusetts and Hanson cultural Councils.
Mary was one of several whaling captain’s wives who brought boxes of Bibles aboard to distribute to crews, according to the book, “Rites and Passages: the Experience of American Whaling,” by Margaret S. Creighton [1995, Cambridge University Press].
“It is no place for a woman on board of a whaleship,” Creighton’s book quotes “Baltic” Captain James Haviland as saying in 1856.
While wives and children were not always embraced aboard ship, the journal Barrett brought to life presented a happier vision of the experience.
Lawrence’s journal painted a different picture.
“Ship owners and captains would discover there was a benefit tp having a wife and family on board,” Barrett would say as Mary. “It’s said that, sometimes, it had a rather a calming effect on the crews. … I would like to think that the ship and crew and my husband were the better for my being aboard.”
Life, as portrayed here was mundane, often congenial and sometimes comical, as when a sudden wave sent applesauce — made from the fruits of a stopover in New Zealand — flying across the galley floor.
Well, it seemed pleasant to Mary, except for an episode of food poisoning induced from leftover fried pilot fish, crew deaths from drownings while hunting the whales in longboats and harsh weather conditions.
“Often when I heard the sailors singing that song, I longed for my home port of New Bedford, even as I was enjoying the many pleasures of our voyage,” Barrett said after entering the stage singing a song about returning to New England.
As Barrett sat in a parlor chair, a table next to her held a framed photo of Mary and Minnie as well as a candle and a doll like the one for which Minnie sewed clothes as the voyage took place.
There was homesickness to deal with as well as the very real dangers of whaling under sail in the 19th century. Letters, for example could only be set home by way of New Bedford-bound whalers they passed along the voyage.
Stopovers in Maui in what was then known and the Sandwich Islands and Kodiak Island in what is now Alaska and Bristol Bay in the Arctic, prompted Mary’s now-cringeworthy descriptions of native peoples.
“I was much engaged with the appearance of the natives,” she wrote in her journal of the Hawaiians. “I confess that I am disappointed with the appearance of the natives. They are not nearly so far advanced in civilization as I had supposed. The good folks at home tend to hold them up as a model from which we would do well to copy. I do not doubt that there has been a great deal done for them, but there’s a vast deal more to be done to raise them very high on the scale of the world. From what I heard and saw, they are a low, degraded and indolent set.”
She did, however, admit in the journal that the influence of foreign sailors had been bad for the islanders.
One trip to arctic added more than 300 gallons of whale oil to add to 500 gallons already rendered from cetaceans on the journey, as well as whale bone, the baleen from right whales — then selling for the high price of $1.50 per pound — used in corsets and hoops for women’s skirts.
Barrett also outlined how Mary was an active member in the Falmouth Ladies’ Seamen’s Friends Association, which raised funds for furnishing, sewed bedclothes and supplied Bibles at the Sailor’s Home in the Sandwich Islands.
After the “Addison” returned from the voyage in June 1860, Barrett related, Mary Chipman Lawrence would be rolling bandages and knitting socks for the Union Army before the next year was out.
“Large-scale whaling diminished greatly at that time,” she said. “Of course, petroleum was taking over and the government purchased many whaling ships and sank them at the entrance to harbors of Savannah and Charlestown [to blockade Confederate shipping].”
Captain Samuel Lawrence went on to command a steamship for the Union Army, continuing that work after the war. The family later moved to New Jersey and finally Brooklyn. N.Y.
“The many lovely moonlit evenings on the ocean, the sparkling sun on the water, the interesting people we saw, the wonderful sights and the many friends that we made — all of those are memories that have lasted me a lifetime,” Mary wrote.
Barrett remained after the program to answer audience questions about Mary Chipman Lawrence and the program.