A love letter to seafarers

When researching the lives and experiences of seafarers over several centuries in preparation for the Maritime Museum's Life on Board gallery, I became particularly interested in the effects of separation from one’s family and home. The letters they exchanged with the loved ones they left behind can give moving insights into how seafarers coped when they were far from home.

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In the 1860s Captain Porter kept a series of journals aboard his ship the Jamna, which are now part of the Maritime Museum's collections in the Archives Centre. Like many seafarers he talks longingly of home and of his wife, Bess.

“when I cast a thought at Home, it seems like a beautiful Dream that I have passed through, almost to good to be real, but thank God, it’s not a Dream but the reality I have experienced, and if I am never permitted to enjoy such a season as those again, why I shall always be able to look back, to that happy time in the summer…I only wish I had my dear Bess with me now” [sic]

I was touched by his poetic language and happy memories and so I was delighted to find, almost 3 months further into the voyage, the entry for 11 October 1864:

“I found a letter today in my hatbox from Bess written and placed there for the express purpose of giving me a little pleasure in finding it which it did very much I must say”

It’s a charming image, his loving wife secreting a letter somewhere she knows it will not be uncovered for a while, in order to lift his spirits when they were far away from each other.

This sort of separation was not unusual for seafarers and their loved ones. Some were able to take their wives on board with them, indeed our Captain Porter mentions in his journals that next time he wants to bring Bess along, but for many the time at sea meant leaving wives and children behind.

woman clinging to a sailor on the shore, with sailing ships in the background

British Delftware tile, 'The Sailor's Farewell', from National Museums Liverpool's Decorative Arts collection - M2234 i

In the age of the internet and the mobile phone things have been made easier for seafarers, but anyone who has ever been separated from someone they love will attest that phone calls and texts simply aren’t the same.

As an island nation we have long relied upon shipping and seafarers. This is as true now as it was in Captain Porter’s time, though these days the way ports have grown in size and security has meant that for most of the population they are out of sight. More than 95% of everything you use, everything you see around you, has been made possible by shipping - from food, to clothing, to technology. The things we take for granted in life are most likely all brought here by seafarers.

So let’s show seafarers a little love and appreciation. Ask someone you know how much of everything they use arrives courtesy of the shipping industry and see what they say. Spread a little love and awareness for the invisible industry that underpins our economy, and for the men and women working long months away from their loved ones to bring us 95% of everything, from our morning cup of tea to the screen you’re reading this on.

Lead image: figureheads in the Life on Board gallery © Mina Bihi, Adjustment Bureau