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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 30

The historical Cape Cod and China Connection came to me again during a recent visit to a local maritime museum. This most recent trip to the past brought me face to face with several, nineteenth century ship captain’s wives from Cape Cod who sailed with their husbands in the American China Trade.'


Cape Cod Women Sailing to China in the Nineteenth Century

Brigantine Bark Lubra (Lucy Lord Howes)

Cape Cod shipbuilders built clipper and other ships for the American China Trade during the nineteenth century. Cape Cod also grew ship captains and often the women who married them. An exhibit at the Dennis Maritime Museum showcases a number of these resolute women, their husbands, and the ships they repeatedly called home.

Today we meet Persis Crowell Addy, Hannah Rebecca Crowell Burgess, Lucy Lord Howes, Rebecca Wood Howes, Anna Eldridge Hallet, Bethia Bearse, Mary Knowles, Clara Ellis, and one anonymous wife.

One of these women watched as Chinese pirates shot her husband to death. Another navigated her sick (and then decreased) husband’s ship back to port. At least three survived sinkings and rescues. All of them saw the world, explored diverse cultures, acted as ambassadors for their own culture, and were forever shaped by their experiences.

Canton Harbor (

What did these women generally do on board ship? They suffered from seasickness, gave birth, raised children, and sewed a never-ending pile of shirts and clothes. They were expected to entertain other captains and their families when in foreign ports like Canton, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. They looked forward to the days when they would meet another ship at sea to “gam” with the wives and children on board in a break from the frequent monotony of seagoing life. They also had the opportunity to share life together with their seafaring husbands.1

Persis Crowell Addy (photo courtesy of Jim Carr)

Persis Crowell Addy, herself the daughter of a prominent clipper ship owner and master mariner, married a ship captain from East Dennis. She and Captain John Henry Addy sailed in the 648-ton clipper Christopher Hall with coal and merchandise bound for Hong Kong in 1865. It was Persis’ first sea voyage.

They spent much of the summer of 1866 sailing between Burma and Shanghai with stops in Hong Kong. In January 1867, while sailing toward Howland’s Island to load guano for return to Cape Cod, the ship struck an uncharted reef near Western Samoa in the Navigator Islands.

As her husband’s ship sank beneath them, Persis was lowered with a rope secured around her waist into a lifeboat in stormy seas. She helped bail the little boat using an old hat and then a bucket. Though the survivors were concerned as they approached a small island that there could be unfriendly natives, they were warmly welcomed by the chief and his people. The shipwrecked crew were rescued several weeks later and returned to Cape Cod via Europe.

Hanna Rebecca Burgess (

Hannah Rebecca Crowell Burgess (married to Captain William Howes Burgess) began learning celestial navigation and how to compute the ship’s position on a voyage to the Far East aboard her husband's clipper ship Whirlwind in 1853. On a trip from Boston by way of San Francisco to Hong Kong aboard their then current ship, the Challenger, in 1855, they returned 350 Chinese coolies home. Rebecca (the name she preferred) enjoyed buying Chinese curios to bring home.

Sextant on display at the Dennis Maritime Museum

After sailing from Hong Kong upriver to Whampoa and Canton to arrange a cargo of tea for London, the Challenger left for Europe in January, 1856. It took them 108 days to reach London. Five weeks later they left for South America to take on a load of 1,600 tons of guano for France.

When her husband became ill and died off the coast of southwest Peru, Hanna’s (then age 23) years of studying navigation became essential. She took charge and brought the ship safely into port in Chile many hundreds of miles away.

Lucy Lord Howes (Dennis Historical Society)

Lucy Lord Howes (of Dennis) married Captain Benjamin Perkins Howes. After the American Civil War, Benjamin took command of a 308-ton brigantine bark and rechristened her, the Lubra. The couple sailed with their two-year-old, Carrie. Another daughter, Jennie, was born at sea a few months before they arrived in Hong Kong in late June 1866. Lucy was 26 years old.

Sailing for Yokohama, Japan (on their return to Boston) three months later with a load of tea and spices, the ship was attacked by Chinese pirates one day out of port off the Chinese coast. Lucy and Benjamin had just finished eating dinner on deck.

The pirates killed several members of the crew, locked the Captain and his family (except for the baby who was elsewhere with a nurse) in the main cabin, and ransacked the ship for hours looking for valuables (and possibly weapons). Lucy later wrote to her sister that

“‘We both sat on the sofa with little Carrie between us, she asleep a part of the time. We both fanned her to keep her quiet. I asked Benjamin if he thought we would have to go through the same scene again [being accosted by the pirates]. He answered that he could give me no courage to the contrary. He did not seem to think they would kill me and the children, at least, but we made up our minds to meet our fate and all go together. We both hoped to be shot, as that seemed the most merciful way of being killed.’”2

Graves of Benjamin Perkins Howes and Jennie Howes (photo by Jim Carr)

The next morning after a night of terror, the pirate chief came into the cabin and shot the Captain to death. Lucy fell on her husband, and as his blood flowed over her, she held down Carrie expecting to also be shot. But she was not. The pirates set fires on deck, opened up the ship’s supply of gunpowder, and left the ship to its fate.

Eventually, Lucy ventured up on deck and found a few other surviving crew members. They managed to put out the fires and somehow get the bark back to Hong Kong. The pirates were captured, tried, and hung. Benjamin and the baby, Jennie, who died of illness soon thereafter, were buried in Hong Kong in Happy Valley Cemetery.

Rebecca Howes (Historical Society of Old Yarmouth)

Rebecca Wood Howes (of South Yarmouth) married Captain Barnabas C. Howes (of Dennis), the son of a ship captain who spent many years in the China trade. Rebecca joined her husband in England in the Spring of 1875 for her only world voyage. They set sail in mid-June on the Swallow, an older clipper ship of more than 1,400 tons and 210 feet long. Rebecca was 33 years old.

After many months at sea with stops in England, Scandinavia, and Australia, the ship set sail from Newcastle, Australia, with a cargo of wool bound for Hong Kong. They arrived in Hong Kong in late April, 1876. After touring the island’s gardens in a rickshaw with her husband, Rebecca noted that “‘the streets seemed very noisy and full of Chinese….Their stores all open, nothing of Sabbath quiet.’”3

The Howes (Rebecca now being several months pregnant) also met up with another Cape Cod captain, Benjamin Bray (of Yarmouth), and his wife, who had arrived on his ship, the Comet. The “two couples shopped, climbed Victoria Peak, and picked up shells along the beach at Kowloon.” They also ventured out to the English cemetery at the edge of the city to pay their respects to Captain Howes who had been murdered aboard the Lubra a decade before.

Anna Hallet painted in Canton (Historical Society of Old Yarmouth)

Anna Eldridge Hallet married Captain Bangs Hallet (of Yarmouthport). She did not like the sea. She was always seasick. After begging off a trip to Asia in 1859, Anna wrote several letters to Bangs alluding to the guilt she felt for abandoning him on his voyage. He responded with chivalrous love, including having this (apparently idealized) portrait of Anna painted in Canton from description or sketch.

Clipper John Tucker off Hong Kong in 1859 (

The John Tucker ran aground on an uncharted reef in the East Indies in 1875. The captain and his family abandoned ship and drifted in an open boat for a week before making landfall on the China coast. They eventually traveled overland to India and returned to Cape Cod.

Bethia Bearse, wife of Captain Richard Bearse of Hyannis, was mobbed by Chinese women in rural China in 1856. They lifted up her dress to look at her legs and normal-sized feet.

Mary Knowles of Brewster had to get used to the concept of bargaining. She wrote from Hong Kong in 1867 that “‘I have bought a few little things but it takes some time to learn to deal with [the Chinese merchants]. They are such cheats. They ask two to three times as much for an article as they expect to get.’”4

Clara Ellis of West Harwich was the daughter of Captain Thomas Ellis. She sailed often with her father, visiting six continents before she was eighteen years old. She told her grandchildren that “as a young woman, she had known Amsterdam, Liverpool, Canton, Hong Kong, and other foreign ports better than see knew the villages of Cape Cod.5



1 Material cited in this Issue comes from several sources, including Sail Away Ladies by Jim Coogan (2008), Cape Cod Harvest; A Gathering in of Cape Cod stories by Jim Coogan and Jack Sheedy (2007), Sea Stories of Cape Cod and the Islands by Admont Gulick Clark (2000), Images in Time: Cape Cods Views from the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth (2003), and Dennis, Cape Cod: From firstcomers to newcomers, 1639-1993 by Nancy Thacher Reid (1996)

2 Jim Coogan, Sail Away Ladies, Pages 81-82

3 Jim Coogan, Sail Away Ladies, Page 96

4 Jim Coogan, Sail Away Ladies, Page 37

5 Jim Coogan, Sail Away Ladies, Pages 33-34


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