A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview
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6
The Cruel Sea

IT Is HARDLY SURPRISING in a community where men earned their living from the sea that the sea extracted a heavy toll in return. Seafaring was a dangerous occupation and a mixed blessing. If it provided employment for a large number of skilled and unskilled mariners, it was also a risky means of earning a living. A single ship going down could leave at least half a dozen widows. The Newport Mercury constantly reported heavy mortalities on the coast of Africa. 72 Captain Croswell died on a voyage there, leaving a wife and five children. Casualties often occurred much closer to home: the Mercury described how a ship commanded by Captain John Malbone was consumed by fire off Point Judith when a boy dropped a candle in a cask of rum. Before the boats could be lowered, many passengers perished in the flames. John Coddington left a widow with six children to support when his vessel was hit by lightning. Captain Joseph Gardner wrote his owners that both his mate and another seaman were washed overboard in a storm. 73 Dr. Stiles reported that in Newport "from January 1, 1760 to January 1, 176I ... there died 210 Persons, of which 24 died at sea."74

These "Persons" who died at sea were usually men, and this is one reason why by 1774 white adult women drastically outnumbered white adult men. 75 This demographic imbalance came late in Newport's history, however; less than twenty years earlier men had outnumbered women by a small margin. 76 Historians have argued that this inequitable ratio resulted from a flight of males away from the older seacoast towns as available land and economic opportunity dwindled. 77 But this was clearly not the case in Newport, for the men were not fleeing. A better explanation for the sexual imbalance is the one suggested by Ezra Stiles's computations. If his figures are correct, this number multiplied over a period of fourteen years could easily contribute to the disparity between the number of men and the number of women in Newport by 1774. 78 Moreover, the drop in the number of

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