Remember the stories of great seafaring women in history? I don’t. Maybe it’s because there weren’t many.
This is especially true when you consider the iconic figures of James Cooke, who charted the Pacific Ocean, or Christopher Columbus, who explored western seas hoping to discover a new trade route to China and India.
I can’t even remember any fictitious seafaring women, but I did love the infamous Captain Hook from Peter Pan – a character familiar to most people. Sadly, the few celebrated stories of women who took to the sea float like scattered debris across a surface of largely undocumented female-centric nautical history.
In truth, this is understandable given the prevailing social norms attached to women before the twenty-first century. Women were expected to be wives and mothers; they were far too delicate to be exposed to the deep dark sea perils of unknown waters and ocean storms.
In fact, the reputation of any woman aboard an all-male ship would never survive the temptations and threats of violence from the crew. Even the bravest adventurous women would find this daunting. Yet scattered accounts of women who did take to the sea and challenge prevailing norms do exist.
Historical greats like our previous WomanScape feature about 19th century commander Ching Shih are indeed rare, but that’s what makes her pirate royalty even more compelling.
When Ching Shih married a Chinese pirate, she amassed an armada of 1500 ships that flourished well beyond her husband’s relatively modest wealth and influence. For women like Ching Shih, their ability to defy societal rules and take to the sea are almost by definition a life of piracy. It’s never an easy for women to break through barriers and compete in a male-dominated world.
Before Ching Shih, there were 18th century women like English-born Mary Read and Irish-born Anne Bonny, who fought alongside men. But the most engaging seafaring British figure I could find was a woman named Hannah Snell.
In 1723, Hannah dressed as a man and joined a pirate ship as a cook, not to fight or explore the ocean. Instead, she chased after a husband who had deserted her. After learning he had been convicted of murder and hanged, she traded her galley assignment to become a soldier at sea.
Entertaining stories about Hannah’s strength and character as “one of Britain’s most famous female soldiers” are well documented in Matthew Stephens’, The Secret Life of a Female Marine 1723-1792. Hannah sailed to India with the British Royal Marines enduring epic storms and great swashbuckling battles.
But when she sustained an injury to the groin, one she stitched herself to keep her gender secret, she decided it was time to return to Britain. Perhaps that sparked her desire to reveal her identity? When she did, the British press made her an overnight sensation. Thankfully, it ultimately helped her to win her right to a soldier’s pension.
While these stories highlight a few of the seafaring women that made history, they certainly underscore the belief that it wasn’t safe for women to be on the ocean. The exception to this, however, was a group of pearl-diving women who probably influenced the notion that mermaids existed. The “ama”, as they were commonly called, were women who earned a living diving for pearls in shark-infested waters. Their history in Japan dates back to 750 A.D.
Ama literally means “women of the sea.” Diving for pearls meant removing oysters from the inside their shell beds and carefully replacing the center of the shell with a new pearl-producing nucleus. The Japanese divers are world renown for their lung capacity when deep diving. They can hold their breath for up to two minutes! The best divers can reach astounding depths of 30 and 40+ feet, retrieving pearls for trade and sale in local markets.
Japan’s Kokichi Mikimoto is legendary for dominating the pearl market at the turn of the 19th century.
For a long time his products were dependent on women divers who worked in Toba or Shim City. Even though technology has introduced new farming methods since then, Mikimoto remains the leading standard and top brand in the pearl industry.
Pearl divers are found in many places of the world. The Pan Asian region is the most well-known area, but there are also divers in the Philippines, China, Tahiti. The art also stretches north to Africa and Arabia, and Haenyeo divers in Korea swim in the Jeju Island.
It’s easy to see how this ancient tradition of women diving naked and swimming with fish-like abilities would capture the attention of sailors around the world. Their existence likely fed into legends about the existence of mermaids and mythical female creatures able to live in the water.
Things are much different today for women who can live and work on the sea. I experienced this evolution first hand on a recent snorkeling expedition to Maui, Hawaii.
Together with my small group of shipmates aboard the Aliʻi Nui, we dove in crystal clear waters around a volcano crater called Molokini.
Even more exciting was the all-women crew that commanded our boat. When I asked Captain Nicole if it was unusual to have an all- female cast, she admitted it was rare.
But she also acknowledged her first mate Chloe and crew (Diane, Naya, Jordan and Molly) were well-qualified sailors and dive specialists, each able to build a successful career in the nautical industry.
Without exception, each of us is bound to the sea. We depend on the ocean’s life giving properties – from food and drink, to industries that support careers and travel adventures. My hope is that our world will welcome and respect all seafaring women, especially those working in special ways to save the oceans.
Whether we see women as captains of industry or industrious contributors to society, the strength and abilities of women are as deep as the oceans and wide as the reaches of our human imagination.