Thursday, October 8, 2020

Giving Birth on the Atlantic Ocean

I have two documented cases in my tree of ancestors giving birth on board the ship taking them from Europe to America, one during colonial times, and the other from the late 19th century. It always makes me wonder why a woman would ever travel like this while pregnant, especially during the last trimester. It's not as though travel by ship, even in history, took nine months and she couldn't have known, but in both cases in my tree, it was a matter of the journey taking longer than expected. Not nine months long, but long enough that she could have reasonably expected to have arrived at the destination long before the birth, and maybe even before the last trimester. Maybe it was even a combination of a longer than expected journey and a premature birth. In the second case, I think that may have been likely, because the baby sadly did not survive.

The first case is of a well documented ancestor, Rachel de Forest, the daughter of noteworthy Jesse de Forest, and wife of equally well known Jean/Johannes de la Montagne. While perhaps not exactly famous in mainstream history, Montagne actually has a Society of Descendants, and was a notable figure in colonial New Amsterdam, serving on the New Netherland Council and as First Councillor to both Director Willem Kieft and Director-General Peter Stuyvesant. Jean and his wife Rachel left Holland (Netherlands) for New Amsterdam on 25 Sep 1636 on board the Rensselaerswyck, obviously while Rachel was pregnant. Exactly how far along she was, we can't say for sure, but she was born 25 Jan 1637 while at sea, and the reason is probably because the journey wound up taking a surprising 23 weeks, not arriving until 5 March 1637. Normally, at this time in history, the journey across the Atlantic took about 6-12 weeks. It was common for the ship to make several stops in Europe before making the crossing, but this usually only tacked on a few weeks, not the 14 weeks it wound up adding to the trip. If they left in September and the journey was only supposed to take 3 months at most, Rachel might have reasonably assumed they would be in New Amsterdam by or around Christmas, and if she wasn't due until late January, she would have no reason to think she might give birth on board the ship. What went wrong? Why did the journey take so long? 

First, immediately after leaving Holland, the ship hit heavy storms in the English Channel that left them at the mercy of the battering winds and sea swells for a brutal six weeks. During this time, another woman on board actually gave birth as well, though I am not related to her. Anna Van Rotmers had a son she appropriately named "Storm". Though the boy's father's surname was Bradt, Storm later adopted the surname "Vanderzee" which literally means "from the sea". Seems he was quite proud of being born at sea during a brutal storm.

The ship made attempts to dock at either Falmouth or Plymouth in England, and although they got close, the storm ultimately made it impossible to dock. The ship's sails were all badly damaged and it wasn't until November 16th that it finally limped into the harbor of Ilfracombe, in Devonshire, England. 

This wasn't the end of their troubles. Not only did the bad weather continue, making it difficult for the ship to set off again once repaired, but while they waited out the storms in Ilfracombe, the blacksmith (who was being sent to the colony by the Dutch West India Company) argued with his assistant, which resulted in the assistant killing the blacksmith! The ship's officers immediately turned the murderer into the authorities at Ilfracombe, but to be sure they wouldn't leave during the investigation, the authorities moored their ship and removed the rudder. Between this and the weather, they were delayed another eight weeks. 

They finally left England (presumably with no blacksmith or assistant) on 9 Jan 1637 and the crossing of the Atlantic took a mere two months, as expected, but by now, Rachel was much further along than she had originally planned and wound up having her 5th child, Maria, on 25 Jan 1637 while still on board the Rensselaerswyck. Fortunately, both Rachel and Maria survived the ordeal, and Maria went on to marry my 9th great grandfather, Jacob Kip (a clerk for the council Jean served on). By the time they left England though, Rachel must have known that she was nearing her due date, and I wondered why she didn't choose to stay in England for the birth, and catch another ship to New Amsterdam afterwards. Maybe they didn't have the money - they had, after all, already paid for their trip on the Rensselaerswyck and staying in England would mean paying for room and board somewhere, plus the cost of another ship later on, all presumably without income while they waited. Additionally, waiting for the next ship may have meant waiting for months after the birth, not just a few weeks. However terrifying the thought of giving birth on board a ship must have been, it's likely that Rachel didn't have a choice at that point. Fortunately though, her own husband was a physician, so at least he was there by her side to help her through it.

The second case in my tree took place much later in history, in 1880. My 3rd great grandfather, Giovantomaso Scioli, was a poor Italian farmer, who was apparently intent on making sure his first child was born in America, because he and his wife would leave for the US just weeks before she was due to give birth. A risky choice, if you ask me.

After marrying my 3rd great grandmother Lorenza Palladino on 27 Feb 1879 in Monteroduni, Italy, they left a year later for the US on board the SS Australia (shown above, from from London, England on 14 Feb 1880, while Lorenza was, of course, heavily pregnant. I do not know when or how they got from Italy to England, but the journey from England to the US should have taken about 1-2 weeks, yet the steamer did not arrive in New York City until 10 Mar 1880, about 3 and a half weeks from when it departed. We know why the ship was delayed, because it was documented in the newspaper as having had engine problems while at sea. Described only as a "disabled engine", it must have been running at only about half the speed it was normally capable of.

In addition, I believe Lorenza may have also given birth prematurely. On 28 Feb 1880, she gave birth to a little girl named after the steamship she was born on, Australia Domenica Scioli, who sadly died a mere 2 days later. In history, infant deaths were not uncommon, even if they weren't premature, but it could help explain how Lorenza wound up giving birth at sea. Let's say she wasn't due for another 5-6 weeks when they left, so a journey that should have only take a week or two, or maybe even three at the most like it did, should have still meant she would safely be in NYC weeks before her due date. Only if the baby was a week or two early would it have been a problem, and unfortunately that's exactly what may have happened. Of course, it's also important to remember that due dates in history weren't as exact as they are today and Lorenza could have thought her due date was later than it actually was.

The idea of giving birth in history seems daunting enough to begin with. Before modern medicine, the leading cause of death among women of child bearing age was child birth. Add to that having to do it on board a ship (pre-stabilizers, which help reduce the motion of the ship), in some cases probably without a doctor or even a midwife present, sounds terrifying. Unless you were lucky enough to marry a doctor like Rachel, the most you could hope for was another woman on board who had experience either giving birth and/or assisting in a delivery to help you through such an uncertain event. When you consider all this, it's a miracle both Rachel and Maria survived in the first case, even with her doctor husband, and that Lorenza survived in the second case, even if Australia Domenica didn't.


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