You don’t hear about women whalers very often, even though they were not uncommon in the 19th century. In fact, Annie Osborn Anthony, daughter of a whaling captain from Martha’s Vineyard, had such a seafaring woman in her family. Today’s post references Annie’s sister-in-law Lucy Hobart Osborn, who will represent dozens of women who accompanied their husbands in worldwide voyages hunting whales.
In the foreground of the illustration above you can see a whaling crew attacking a sperm whale. Needless to say, a beast that’s been harpooned probably thrashed around quite a bit and could easily have caused a small boat or ship to capsize.
Just this week, a similar catastrophe occurred, but for a different reason. This time, a whale collided with a sailboat and caused it to sink in only 15 minutes, leaving its four occupants stranded at sea for several hours. The report mentioned a surprising fact: 1200 such collisions have occurred since 2007, according to the International Whaling Commission.
Needless to say, messing with whales is risky business. And because those brave 19th century women had spouses who were sea captains, they knew the dangers and chose to go anyway.
Annie Osborn’s brother Abraham escaped two close calls during his years at sea. You can read about his first tragic loss of the Ocmulgee at this earlier post.
Despite losing not only the ship Ocmulgee but also its entire cargo, Abe set out again in 1878 aboard the Osmanli. This time his wife Lucy and daughter Annie accompanied him.
The woman whaler in Annie Anthony’s family
Here is an account of the family’s narrow escape from the sea near Mexico, beginning with a report from the Whalemen’s Shipping List from New Bedford, MA:
“Osmanli got into the breakers at Altata, 160 miles north of Mazatlan, March 8, and became a total wreck. The crew lived on the beach two weeks and gained a scanty subsistence until the schooner Eldorado took them to Mazatlan. The men complained that Captain Osborn left them there to shift for themselves . . . .
“Abe Osborn had not only the responsibility for the vessel and the crew but for his wife and daughter. One may only guess how he tried to cope with the situation, and how he got Lucy and [daughter] Annie safely to the beach, probably in fog….”1
After Lucy and her child arrived home, they never sailed with Abraham again. Later, when Abe voyaged on the whaler Orca, mother and daughter met him in Boston. Enough is enough, right?
Fuel oil then and now
Seen through a 19th-century lens, whale hunts filled a need, much as today’s natural gas drillings, Alaskan pipeline, and Texas oil wells. Early Victorians used sperm oil to heat and illuminate buildings. Later, this fuel became an essential component of sewing machines, watches, and even locomotives.
Nowadays, the destruction of whales for their oil is viewed less as a necessary industry and more as an ecological crime. A student at the University of Texas wrote:
“Overhunting of whales has caused a change in deep-sea biodiversity and the potential ecological consequences are unknown. . . . Commercial whaling and human impact have caused the depletion of marine species, especially the top level in [the] food web. . . . the whaling industry killed more whales between [the] 1860s and 1900s than in the previous four centuries.”
Fortunately for the whales, beginning around 1859, kerosene oil replaced whale oil for lighting homes.
It’s little wonder that Annie Osborn did not want to marry someone like her brother, who attacked these giants to harvest sperm oil. Whale hunting was a dangerous, smelly, and messy process that involved absences of up to five years from home. Who knows? Maybe witnessing Lucy’s time away from Abraham made Annie more favorably inclined to engage in courtship with Daniel Anthony from landlocked Kansas.
Illustration from the Library of Congress. Photo by Jeanne Gehret
- Emma Mayhew Whiting and Henry Beetle Hough, Whaling Wives, p. 239.