Whaling Wife


“She was a small woman, weighing less than a hundred pounds, and she could stand erect under her husband’s outstretched arm without touching it.” So the editor of this previously unpublished journal describes its author, his grandmother, Eliza Azelia Williams. Its lively pages contain her account of a thirty-eight-month voyage, from 1858 to 1861, on the whaler Florida with her husband, Captain Thomas William Williams. Eliza, was a reticent New Englander who did not feel that her personal problems were suitable subjects for her pen. (She does not, for instance, evsr mention in her diary that she was five months pregnant when the Florida sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. And only rarely does she refer to how much she missed the two small sons she had left at home with her parents in Wethersfield, Connecticut.) She was also a woman of sturdy courage, an endlessly curious—and tactful—American traveller to remote lands, and a reporter of broad sympathies and rare perceptiveness.

After she returned home, the journal which had helped her while away the long months afloat lay untouched in an old sea chest for a hundred years, until Harold Williams, the son of the boy born on the Florida, began to dig out old family records to write a history of his ancestors. Entitled One Whaling Family , the book will be published next month by Houghton Mifflin Company. The excerpts below, in which Eliza’s highly individual spelling has been retained except where it could not be deciphered, describe a dramatic part of American history and introduce, we believe, a remarkable American. —The Editors

In company with my Husband, I stept on board the Pilot Boat, about 9 o’clock the morning of the 7th of Sept. 1858, to proceed to the Ship Florida, that will take us out to Sea far from Friends and home, for a long time to come. I do not realize much yet that I am going away for any length of time; for this seems more like a pleasure trip just now. I fear it won’t seem so long.… The Ship looks very fine laying off in the distance; but we do not make much headway towards her. The wind is very light; my Husband is rather impatient to get to the Ship, but he has just hailed another Boat that is near, to take us on board; now they are rowing us along quite smart; the Ship looks large as we near it; we have reached her and the men have lifted me up the high side in an arm chair, quite a novel way it seemed to me. Now I am in the place that is to be my home, posibly for 3 or 4 years; but I can not make it appear to me so yet: it all seems so strange, so many Men and not one Woman beside myself; the little Cabin that is to be all my own is quite pretty; as well as I can wish, or expect on board of a Ship. I have a rose geranium to pet, that [a friend] has been kind enough to send me, and I see there is a kitten on board. I think it will not all be as pleasant as it is today; the motion of the Ship I shall be a long time getting used to. The Steward has called us to dinner. With the exception of the hard bread, it would seem a good deal like a dinner at home; but the water is very poor. I think I shall be a long time getting used to that.… There is no wind and the Tug Steamer is towing us along. Mr. Fish [one of the Florida ’s owners] has just given me the glass to look at the points of interest; there are not many now. The one of the greatest interest I think we have left behind; that of New Bedford. It looks beautiful from the water.… The Pilot has got most as far as he will go with us; kind Friends will soon leave us, and I presume they had rather go than stay here. I can not blame them, but I shall be lonely, though not alone, for I have a kind Husband with me. The Men are all quite busy on board the Ship, I hardly know at what. Now the Steamer is prepareing to leave us; all is hurry and bustle; one Man (a boat-steerer) is sick of his bargain, I expect, for he is prepareing to leave, hurrying his baggage on board the Steamer; and now the last adieus have been said; the parting kiss given, the parting tear dropped; and the Steamer is bearing kind Friends away, to be seen not again in a long time, perhaps never, by us; but we will not take a gloomy retrospect of the future, but trust in an all wise and good God, and hope for the best.… My Husband is about calling the Men together, and laying down the rules and regulations of the Ship, that they may know what is expected of them in future. I have seen the last faint outlines of the Steamer in the distance, watched the last curl of the smoke; and now I think I will go below.

September 8th. There is nothing of importance to write about today; nothing but the vast deep about us; as far as the eye can stretch there is nothing to be seen but sky and water, and the Ship we are in. It is all a strange sight to me. The Men are all busy; as for me, I think I am getting Sea sick. My Husband has just called me on deck to see the Sun set. It is a splendid sight to see the Sun set as it were in the water.