A sailor’s heart

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection <a href="http://collections.anmm.gov.au/en/objects/details/13305/man-and-woman-kissing-across-two-vessels?ctx=4531e83e-6228-4760-a471-0f1bf8c24f31&idx=0">00035634</a>.

Photographer Samuel J Hood capturing the love of a sailor. ANMM collection 00035634.

Valentine’s Day is not usually a day associated with sailors. Roses and chocolates are hard to find at sea and some would say romantic prose has no place on the decks of ships – particularly ships which do not come equipped with a cocktail bar and a pool.

For centuries, mothers warned their daughters about falling in love with a sailor. Tales of seafaring rogues and cads abound. As recorded countless times in songs and ballads, heartbreak was the only outcome for someone who caught the eye of a roving sailor. He was bound to desert the fair maiden, who would then usually die a tragic death caused by loneliness, grief or shame. Not really the stuff to make the heart swoon on Valentine’s Day. But do sailors really deserve this bad reputation? Is it true that no one can anyone really ever compete with a sailor’s real and greatest love, the sea?

Continue reading

Mrs Cook’s Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day in 1779 Captain James Cook was killed in the Hawaiian Islands. Ironically perhaps, his death was the beginning of a long love affair with Cook by generations of people in the Western world who revered the great navigator. It was also the beginning of 56 long years for his wife Elizabeth Cook, without the love of her life.

When news of Cook’s death reached Britain the nation was deeply shocked. We can only imagine what his wife Elizabeth felt at the death of her husband of 17 years. Was the fact he died on Valentine’s Day a recurring wound for her?

Comparatively little is known of Elizabeth. She was born in 1741, the only child of Samuel and Mary Batts, who ran the Bell Alehouse at Execution Dock in Wapping. She was from a family of curriers (leatherworkers) and while not poor, like many women from the lower middle classes of the time, a naval officer with career prospects would have been a reasonable catch. In 1762 she married James Cook at St Margaret’s Church, Barking in 1762. Elizabeth was 21 and James 34 years old. As the eminent biographer of Cook J C Beaglehole put it, ‘it was a respectable rather than socially distinguished union.’

James’ cartographic and navigational skills saw his services in the Royal Navy in increasing demand. This of course meant many long periods at sea. Of their 17 years of marriage, James spent a total of only four years living with his wife.

While James’ career went from strength to strength, Elizabeth’s story is tinged with sadness.  When James was away on his ill-fated third voyage, Elizabeth had been busy embroidering a new waistcoat for him made from Tahitian tapa cloth he had brought back from his second voyage. She, and no doubt others, expected him on his return to be required to attend the Royal Court. The waistcoat remained unfinished.

Cook died at the age of 50, but Elizabeth reached the age of 94, surviving the death of her husband by some 56 years. She also outlived all of her six children. Three of them died in infancy, one from scarlet fever in his teens and two while serving in the Royal Navy. Nor were there any grandchildren to comfort her.

Elizabeth never remarried. She dressed in mourning black well after the accepted period of the time. Like many navy widows of the time, she cherished mementos of her husband. She carefully preserved items from her husband’s uniform, including his dress sword and shoe buckles. She continued to wear a cameo-style memorial ring and was wearing this in a portrait painted of her aged in her eighties.

She also kept a small, coffin-shaped, wooden ‘ditty box’ which held a tiny painting of Cook’s death and a lock of his hair. This little relic was carved by sailors on Cook’s last ship, HMS Resolution, as a keepsake for Mrs Cook.

While she lived in financial comfort with a pension provided by King George III and income received from the sale of books detailing Cook’s voyages, hers would have been a lonely family life until she died on 13 May 1835. Many of Elizabeth’s mementos of James were kept by her relatives and are now held in the State Library of NSW collection.

This embroidered map in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection is attributed to Elizabeth Cook and depicts the western hemisphere and route of Cook's three voyages to the Pacific. The four corners of the cloth are decorated with floral sprigs and the map is marked with lines of longitude and latitude. This intriguing mixture of navigational science and domestic arts seems to suture the schism between a love of service to empire and a love between two people.

This embroidered map in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection is attributed to Elizabeth Cook. It depicts her husband’s three voyages to the Pacific and is decorated with floral sprigs. This intriguing mixture of navigational science and domestic arts seems to suture the schism between a love of service to empire and a love between two people.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the love between Elizabeth and James was that in later life she burned all the letters she had received from him. Considering his time spent at sea, there must have been many.  As time passed after James’s death Elizabeth would have known that with the great reverence of James around the world there would be strong public interest in the contents of their letters.

Should we call them love letters? Although occasionally prone to outbursts of ‘cold rage’ (usually directed at ‘troublesome Natives’ rather than his crew) Cook was generally circumspect and not prone to outbursts of emotion. Were there love letters among them? We shall never know. But the effect of this incineration was that any opportunity for historians to know more about ‘the man’ James Cook and the dutiful yet perhaps forlorn Elizabeth, were lost to years of hagiographical historiography attempting to flesh out the character of the great navigator James Cook.

Hearts, flowers and bluebirds for Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner we take a look at a particularly lovely hand painted envelope from the museum’s naval history collection. A letter was sent by Stoker R Boland to his wife during World War II. Nothing unusual about that, is there? The letter no longer exists but the envelope with its bright and beautiful red roses, bluebirds and hearts does – and it’s just beautiful and quite a surprise. Boland was a stoker on board the destroyer HMAS Quickmatch and his job was hard and physical – keeping the boilers fed with coal.

The ship saw service in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and with the British Pacific Fleet undertaking assaults against Japanese bases and the home islands of Okinawa and Honshu. During this difficult and dangerous time, Boland found the time to not only illustrate the envelopes he sent to both his wife and his mother but also did a number of sketches of life on board his ship of war.

We don’t know much about Stoker R Boland but his drawings, illustrations and sketches offer a wonderful peek into his life. If you know anything about this man and his family, do let us know.

Lindsey Shaw, senior curator

PS What are you doing for your loved one this Valentine’s Day??