Whalers' wives tell their tale

Museum drama plays on Long Island

September 29, 2002|By Barbara Delatiner | Barbara Delatiner,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Housed in a captain's mansion built in 1843, the Southampton Historical Museum is the perfect setting for a drama about the history of whaling.

But rather than re-create the often-told tale of brave men going out to sea, Richard Barons, the museum's director, decided to tell a tale from a woman's point of view.

"The so-called romance of whaling has been captured often enough, but primarily about men," he said. "Their wives were also involved, whether they sailed with them - and of the 43 voyage logs we have, 10 recounted trips with women aboard - or stayed at home."

So he started looking into the past, with help from Sal St. George, who owns a Medford-based company that stages interactive historical dramas at Deepwells Farm in St. James and the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport.

The more they looked, the more they found themselves attracted to another little-known aspect of local history: the impact that whaling had on race relations on eastern Long Island in the mid-19th century. "In whaling, when you live for two years in close quarters you learn to accept and respect all kinds of people," Barons said.

There were white captains, ship owners and officers on board, he said, but also blacks, Indians and men from the West Indies and the Pacific.

Because the sailors tended to be unusually tolerant, "that might have carried over to their wives," he said.

`Whales and Tales'

Armed with a two-page memo of facts and possible fancies from Barons, St. George and his staff set about re-creating and creating history, researching the people as well as the period. The result is a drama called Whales and Tales at the museum, a mansion built by Albert Rogers, a prominent whaling captain who sailed out of Sag Harbor.

The drama takes place in the parlor of the house, which is actually a music room added to the original building after Samuel Parrish bought it in 1899.

In the story, Cordelia Rogers, the captain's wife and a well-known hostess, invites a friend - a "woman of color" (and the members of the audience) - in for tea.

"From a theatrical point of view, Cordelia, with the help of her maid, a local woman who serves as a kind of comic relief and lower-class foil, should be entertaining another whaler's wife," Barons said.

They briefly considered creating a character based on the wife of of Mercator Cooper, another local captain, who in 1845 sailed to Japan, arriving eight years before Commodore Matthew Perry opened trade with the West. "But then I recalled that Cooper's boat steerer was a legendary black man around these parts, Pyrrhus Concer, the first man of color the Japanese had ever seen, and it all fell into place," he said. "Cordelia would entertain Rachel Concer, Pyrrhus' wife."

Whether such a tea ever took place, or even if the two women actually knew one another, is of little consequence, Barons and St. George said. Such a relationship was possible.

Drama set in 1850

The maid may have initially questioned the presence of Rachel Concer at her mistress' tea table, but others in the community were more welcoming.

"For example, in 1883 when the Southampton Improvement Society was founded, they made Pyrrhus an honorary member. And in 1889, Rachel won a village award for the best garden in town. So blacks - at least these blacks - were accepted," Barons and St. George said.

In the drama, set in 1850, the three women chat away about contemporary events like the first stove taking the place of hearth cooking in the White House, the publication of The Scarlet Letter, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and the invention of the sewing machine.

The 40-minute script doesn't preach; it just tells it as it might have been, detailing Concer's life and exploits and, in the process, describing the basics of whaling.

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