chapter  5
28 Pages

“The perils of crossings”: nineteenth-century navigations of city and sea


Writing at sea, on the whaling bark Louisa out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the captain’s wife Lucy Hix Crapo confided to her journal her New Year’s reflections for 1867:

Another year! Who can tell what is before us? None but him who carries the chart, and gives us the course, a point at a time, and as I have somewhere read, “We’re all steering in this life by a compass, which tells us only what we need by our wishes shifting from it” – and how often are we reminded of our necessities by this self-same invisible instrument. 1

For Lucy Crapo, instruments of navigation –  the chart, the course, the compass – are metaphorical but also quite literal. She prefaces every intimate diary entry with the current latitude and longitude and an account of the winds, according completely with the professional maritime language of the captain’s log. Her metaphorical use of the compass as an “invisible instrument” that guides our lives, calibrates our desires, originates in something that she “read somewhere.” Indeed, she could have read it most everywhere: metaphors of a ship’s position, of navigation and of shipwreck are rife in Victorian religious tracts, journalism, poetry and the novel. Lucy Crapo’s journal exhibits, as in this entry, a rich heteroglossia in its mix of the precise, professional language of the log and the reflective, emotional language of the private diarist. Of course, as the captain’s wife, and at sea with him, she has a vested interest in their position and the wind speed; her keeping of a personal diary in the format of a logbook is something she shares with numerous Victorian captains’ wives writing on board ship. Lucy, also in common with many women at sea, read much: on a whaling voyage especially, she had plenty of time to do so. Journals at mid-century are punctuated with lists and brief accounts of the current novels read, including those by Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Yonge, as well as the popular stories and other novels published serially in the periodical magazines in both England and America. These may have formed the cabin’s library before setting out or have been obtained in a foreign port or while “gamming” (exchanging visits with another ship at sea). Lucy Crapo’s figures of compass and chart demonstrate that she is quite aware of the symbiotic

concepts of navigation, of knowing one’s place and position.