Prize-wining New Zealand author, Joan Druett discovered a grave in an unkempt cemetery at Ngatangiia on Rarotonga while resting in the shade of a tree nearby.
The inscription on the stone read:
To the Memory of Mary-Ann, the beloved Wife of
Captn A:D Sherman, of the American Whale Ship Harrison
WHO departed this life January 5: 1850 Aged 24 years
That grave is the motivation for the book ‘Petticoat Whalers: whaling wives at sea, 1820-1920’.
The book is about the experiences of the women on board the windjammer whalers and in the boisterous ports of nineteenth century New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia, Chile and Peru, as well as on a host of islands, including the Cook Islands (then known as Hervey Islands).
We learn that an extraordinary number of women accompanied their husband-skippers on these long and perilous voyages despite the many dangers and privations.
The women went for several reasons – the main one being they didn’t like to be separated from their menfolk for the four of five years each voyage typically lasted.
American Eliza Brock called at Rarotonga on the Lexington in March 1854 and reported:
‘stoped at the Missionary’s house, Rev Mr Buzzacotts [and] had a very pleasant visit stayed there two days found them to be very fine Folkes, very pious people’.
Eliza visited Mr Buzzacott’s church ‘…just finished built by the Natives a very nice one [though] not quite equal to the Churches in America’.
She also met the Queen, ‘shook hands with her. She was dressed in a white Robe, with a wide long red belt around her waist.’
Another American, Lucy Smith, who called at Aitutaki on 12th January 1876, had this to say about her visit.
“There are 1500 inhabitants on the island and at least 1000 were on the shore to see us land. They filled the road leading to Mr Royle’s (LMS minister) house and as we went up the native police took little whips and whipped each to make room for us to walk and all that could get to the edge of the road held their hands to shake hands with us sometimes three extended their hands and caught mine at the same time. There are 600 children that attend school regularly… Mr Royle has charge with 70 native teachers under him… he is also assisted by his wife and daughter Alice they gave us a very cordial welcome and we enjoyed the day very much. We visited the schoolhouse and church large buildings built of Adobe with thatched roofs the pillars and rafters all covered with cloth made from the mulberry tree and painted with black figures*. We stopped until about four and when we came away brought a number of curiosities presented by Mr Royle and family.”(*note interesting use of tapa cloth)
Published by Collins, Auckland, NZ, 1991, housed in CILAMS’ Pacific Reference Collection.