Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | January 7, 2011

Childbirth at Sea

Mary Brewster (1846), Martha Brown (1848), Mary Lawrence (1857) and Eliza Williams (1859) made no  journal entries for January 7th, during their respective years.

Since I was unable to share the expected journal entries of the usual four Sister-Sailors, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to discuss the taboo 19th century subject of childbirth — but not just typical childbirth on land, rather childbirth at sea! Yes, there really were women who gave birth while on board their husband’s whaling vessels and many of  those brave mothers did so without the assistance of a trained doctor or midwife – more often than not they were totally dependent on their husbands for assistance.

Those of you that follow this daily blog on a regular basis will know that of the four whaling wives, Eliza Williams is the only woman whose journal makes any mention of childbirth while ON BOARD a ship at sea. Likewise, Martha Smith Brewer Brown conceived her first and only child after she set sail with her husband. However, she delivered her child at Honolulu in August 1848, ten months after she left her home port.  Not one woman makes any mention of  first-hand childbirth experiences; most of the entries refer only to the “blessed event” after the fact – usually one to two months after the fact. Although there is little mention of such things in the women’s personal journals, there are several journal entries, included below, made by the crew and/or mates of other “Hen Frigates” or vessels carrying Sister-Sailors. 

So, why such “hush-hush” over sex and the seafaring wife?

Contemporaries of the American Victorian Era perceived women as being part of a “divinely appointed sphere” and so were to save the morals of the world and settle “the destiny of humanity by righteous example of  ‘true womanhood’ (Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book) and thereby save carnal males from their grossness.”  Hence, with such sentiment is it any wonder that anything to do with sexual relations between husband and wife  (or the marriage bed) and resulting pregnancy, were taboo topics?  Of course, for whom the woman was writing would also determine what she did and did not include — were her private thoughts meant only for her eyes or for others; perhaps her husband, child(ren) or family.  It’s possible many of the various women’s original journals did include entries about pregnancy and childbirth, but were edited out before being published.

Following are a few excerpts from the journals of various crewmen:

While at Desolation Island on August 17th 1840, one notation from a crew member of the Chelsea [New London, CT] reads: “….we have had an addisshion [addition] to Capt Smith’s Family in the course of this 24 hours of a daughter [added to the family] and I call her Chelsea Smith; so ends well.”  It was an old maritime tradition to call the call a baby after the ship.

On 18th February 1846, aboard the Nantasket out of New London, CT, Captain Parker Hempstead Smith’s wife went into labor and seaman John States wrote, “Last night we had an addition to our ship’s company, for at nine PM Mrs. Smith was safely delivered of a fine boy whose weight is eight lbs. This is quite a rare thing at sea but fortunately no accident happened.  Had anything occurred there would have been no remedy and we should have had to deplore the loss of a fine good-hearted woman….”

Then in April 1862, Charles Robbins of the Thomas Pope wrote, “Looking for whales….reduced sail to double-reef topsails at 9 pm Mrs. Robbins gave birth of a daughter and doing nicely latter part [of the day] fresh and squally at 11 am took in the mainsail…”

On August 30th 1872, while in the Indian Ocean, another log-keeper wrote, “This day Captain’s wife gave birth to a strong, healthy male child.”

This is not to say that all wives were “safely delivered”.  There were instances when the infant died at birth or the mother died a few weeks after birth – usually of  childbed fever. Medterms defines childbed fever as a “fever due to an infection usually of the placental site within the uterus. The fever is also called childbirth fever or puerperal fever. If the infection involves the bloodstream, it constitutes puerperal sepsis. In Latin a “puerpera” is a woman in childbirth since ‘puer’ means child and ‘parere’ means to give birth. The puerperium is the time immediately after the delivery of a baby.”

Fortunately, however, most of the wives and the children they delivered while on board their husbands’ ships, survived. Joanna Colcord of Searsport, Maine was born in March 1882, on board her father’s ship about sixty miles off the coast of New Caldonia (near Australia).  Eighteen months later, in 1883, Joanna’s little brother Lincoln was also born on board the Charlotte A. Littlefield as his father’s ship rounded Cape Horn (tip of South America).  Years later, in writing her memoirs, Joanna reported more than seventy citizens of that small Maine town had been born at sea, with only one childbirth fatality.



  1. Thanks for this!

    I’m working on a novel with a birth at sea in the 16th-c. and resources are hard to come by.

    • You’re welcome. I imagine that would be a very difficult century to find primary documents (or secondary for that matter) on such a topic. Not sure what type of ship/voyage you’re writing about, but as far as I know, at that time in history, there were no women on board whaling vessels. Whaling (other than with Inuits of Canada/Alaska) was only done using whales that had died and washed up or beached on shore.

  2. Hi Karlee, do you hold the copyright to the image of the woman giving birth with several people around her shown on your site? Or could you point me in the right direction. Nice site! With thanks

    • Hi Rosemary:

      No, I do not hold the copyright to the picture of the woman giving birth. The post you’re referring to was about two years ago and I really don’t remember where it came from, other than I found it on the Internet. However, most of the images I use with my blog-posts are from public domain; including the picture you’re referring to. There are several sites that have used the same image, so I am assuming it, too, is public domain. I’m interested in knowing what you would like it for. Perhaps I might visit your blog, too, if you have one.


  3. Hi Karlee, thank you for your reply, that is very helpful! I have contacted you on behalf of a friend who has written a local interest book about a cemetery here in Norwich, uk. It is due to be published soon. I have been helping her track down copyright to the images she wants to use in the book. I do not have a blog yet, however I hope we will set one up in the near future. I will keep up with your blog, keep up the good work.

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