Joshua Slocum: A Man Made for Sailing

In this installment of ‘Profiles in History,’ we meet an old sailing captain whose industry becomes dominated by steam, leading him to try the unthinkable.
Joshua Slocum: A Man Made for Sailing
A photograph of Captain Slocum and his boat Spray from "Around the World in the Sloop Spray," by Joshua Slocum, 1903. Internet Archive. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
Mount Hanley sits along the coast of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Joshua Slocum (1844–1909) was the fifth of 11 children born to John and Sarah Jane Slocum in this coastal village. His education was remedial to say the least, ending in the third grade. He did, however, learn to read and write, two skills that would serve him well later in life. His greatest skill, though, would be honed at sea. As Slocum once noted, “the wonderful sea charmed me from the first.”
Joshua Slocum's childhood school is now the Mount Hanley Schoolhouse Museum. (Public Domain)
Joshua Slocum's childhood school is now the Mount Hanley Schoolhouse Museum. (Public Domain)

Most of his family, sans his father, were seaman, and Slocum would follow in those footsteps. Though according to Slocum, his father “was the sort of man who, if wrecked on a desolate island, would find his way home, if he had a jack-knife and could find a tree.” That ability apparently transferred to him. He began his maritime career as a fisherman’s cook after running from home at age 12. His skill at cooking, however, was abysmal. He humorously recalled that “the crew mutinied at the appearance of my first duff, and ‘chucked me out’ before I had a chance to shine as a culinary artist.”

When his mother died in 1860 shortly after the birth of the 11th child, Slocum didn’t just leave home; he left the country, joining a merchant crew and sailing for Dublin. For nearly the next decade, Slocum would sail all over the Pacific, from China to the West Indies and eventually to San Francisco. It was in the city of the Golden Gate where he would become master of a merchant schooner, sailing along the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Seattle.

Love and Ships

In 1869, Slocum became an American citizen. A year later he was given command of a barque―a three-masted, square-rigged ship―called Washington. He then sailed for Australia where he incidentally met a beautiful New Yorker by the name of Virginia Walker. The two were an instant match and practically an instant marriage, their wedding taking place merely weeks after meeting. Virginia would indeed be the love of his life, and they would have seven children together (four of which would survive to adulthood).

Virginia had always been an adventurer and proved a constant companion who preferred to sail along with her husband rather than stay behind. She joined him in places like Alaska, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Argentina.

"The Northern Light, Captain Joshua Slocum, bound for Liverpool, 1885," by W. Taber. Illustration taken from Joshua Slocum's book, "Sailing Alone Around the World." (Public Domain)
"The Northern Light, Captain Joshua Slocum, bound for Liverpool, 1885," by W. Taber. Illustration taken from Joshua Slocum's book, "Sailing Alone Around the World." (Public Domain)
While in Manila in 1875, he built a 150-ton ship for a client, and was repaid with a ship of his own. In 1882, while in Hong Kong, he bought out the master and part-owner of what he considered his “best command” and “the finest American sailing-vessel afloat.” The Northern Light was a three-deck, 1,859-ton ship that seemed to perform less than admirably. There was some poor luck aboard as well, as Slocum barely succeeded in putting down a mutiny the same year as the purchase.

Tragedy Upon Tragedy

Northern Light would not last long. By 1884, she required repairs that were too costly, and was henceforth sold off as a barge. This maritime tragedy, however, would pale in comparison to what would happen shortly thereafter. Slocum purchased the 325-ton barque, Aquidneck. He found this ship favorable, stating that “of all man’s handiwork [the Aquidneck] seemed to me the nearest to perfection of beauty, and which in speed, when the wind blew, asked no favors of steamers.”

His real beauty, however, would leave him. While in Buenos Aires, Virginia died suddenly at the age of 34, seemingly from heart failure. The loss was crushing for Slocum. According to Slocum’s son, Ben, “Father’s days were done with the passing of mother.” His youngest son, Garfield, recalled that his father became “like a ship with a broken rudder.” A few years later, Slocum would marry a cousin, Henrietta, but would not have any more children, and the marriage appears polar opposite of the one with Virginia.

The Aquidneck, with its six-man crew, made several merchant voyages. While in harbor at Antonina, Brazil, several members of the crew (four were known criminals) tried to rob the ship late one night. Henrietta alerted Slocum, who went above with his repeating carbine. Demanding the members come forward. One member grabbed him by the neck and tried to stab him, but Slocum got a shot off in time to wound him. Another member came forward with a knife, but Slocum shot him dead. Slocum was arrested for murder, but was acquitted on the basis of self-defense.

The Aquidneck would not leave Brazil. In December 1887, she became stuck on a sandbar for three days. As powerful waves smashed against her, she was soon broken and wrecked along the shores of Brazil. Undeterred and wishing to return to America, Slocum and his family (Henrietta and two sons) set to work building another ship out of local materials, parts of his wrecked ship, and the hull of a canoe. Henrietta made the sails. The day he launched his 35-foot boat, May 13, 1888, Brazil declared its slaves free. Slocum christened his small boat Liberdade (liberty in English) in honor of the occasion and sailed with his family 5,500 miles to the Potomac River in Washington. This adventure was recounted in his book “Voyage of the Liberdade,” which was published in 1894. The Liberdade was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution for a time.

What to Do Now?

Slocum had made a career of being a man of sail. The future of steam, however, had long arrived, and the demand for sailing ships floundered. Now that he was back in America, where steam ruled the commercial waves, he pondered his next move.
“When times for freighters got bad, as at last they did, and I tried to quit the sea, what was there for an old sailor to do?” Slocum wrote.

Slocum began considering life in the shipyard as a shipbuilder, a career for which he was extremely qualified. One Boston winter day in 1892, Slocum was approached by an old friend and whaling captain. “Come to Fairhaven and I'll give you a ship. But, she wants some repairs,” Slocum recalled his friend saying. It would be the beginning of Slocum’s greatest adventure.

Captain Joshua Slocum aboard Spray in Sydney,1896. Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons. (Public Domain)
Captain Joshua Slocum aboard Spray in Sydney,1896. Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons. (Public Domain)

On April 24, 1895, Slocum and Spray began the grand adventure. The Spray sailed from Boston to Nova Scotia where Slocum revisited his hometown for the first time in 35 years. Along with overhauling the boat, purchasing food, and meeting up with old friends, Slocum purchased a “tin clock, the only timepiece I carried on the whole voyage … on account of the face being smashed the merchant let me have it for a dollar.”

Slocum would use the clock with the smashed face and dead reckoning to guide him. “If I doubted my reckoning after a long time at sea I verified it by reading the clock aloft made by the Great Architect, and it was right,” he recalled, referencing the sun, moon, and stars.

He left the coast of North America toward the coast of Northern Africa with a plan to cruise through the Strait of Gibraltar. On the morning of Aug. 4, he spotted Spain. “That one should like Gibraltar would go without saying. How could one help loving so hospitable a place?” wrote Slocum. The hospitality stemmed from the British admiralty who took a great interest in his adventure. On Aug. 25, Slocum began sailing the strait toward the Suez Canal, but soon the threat of pirates forced him to reconsider. The old captain turned around and headed toward Cape Horn in South America.

An Unthinkable Accomplishment

Slocum spent more than three years on his navigation around the globe, covering approximately 46,000 miles. He endured storms, sickness, hallucinations (one being the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s Pinta), and weariness. He visited Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, sailed through the Strait of Magellan and across the Pacific Ocean to reach Samoa. He made his way to Australia, where he visited Virginia’s family. He sailed through the Torres Strait to the Cocos Islands to Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope, stopping for a while in Cape Town. Noticing “a speck in the sea,” he stopped at Saint Helena where Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile. From Saint Helena he sailed to the volcanic Ascension Island and then to Grenada before silently coasting into the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island “at 1 a.m. on June 27, 1898.”
Chart of the Spray's course around the world. Taken from "Sailing Alone Around the World" by Joshua Slocum. (Public Domain)
Chart of the Spray's course around the world. Taken from "Sailing Alone Around the World" by Joshua Slocum. (Public Domain)

Slocum had accomplished what seemed unthinkable. The following year, he serialized his adventure, which was then turned into his bestselling book “Sailing Alone Around the World,” published in 1900. Money from book sales and lectures enabled him to purchase a farm in Martha’s Vineyard where Henrietta would reside, mostly alone, as Slocum preferred the sea to land.

The merchant-captain-turned-maritime-adventurer was now a household name. His fame acquainted him with some of the most famous people in the world, including Theodore Roosevelt. A decade after his circumnavigation of the globe, Slocum prepared for another long and lone voyage. On Nov. 14, 1909, he launched from the shores of Massachusetts. He would never be seen again.

Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected]
Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.