Hope and the Anchor

Sailor's Magazine vol. 20 page 187

Sailor's Magazine vol. 20 page 187

Hope and the Anchor

by Michael P. Dyer, Maritime Curator (reprinted from the Summer issue of the Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill). A small exhibit based on this topic is currently on display in the museum’s Portraits of a Port exhibit.

“Hope as an anchor of the soul” is a theme frequently encountered in the annals of seafaring. First appearing in the biblical text of Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 6, Verse 19, hope as an anchor “with the power to keep the soul from wavering in times of stress just as an anchor keeps the ship from drifting” became an iconic symbol and in time one emblematic of the perils of a sailor’s life.[1] Under the umbrella of the economic necessity fostered by commercial navigation in a maritime culture, sailors constantly lived with uncertainty traversing the wild oceans in bad weather, uncharted waters and often stiff discipline.

Sailors came to adopt (indeed may well have originated) the ancient Christian anchor symbol as representative of “Hope,” which by the 18th century came to be accompanied by a female figure leaning on the anchor. These symbol elements manifest themselves pictorially in whalemen’s journals, scrimshaw, decorative ceramics and an array of other objects and artworks. Originally tied to spiritual salvation, the anchor also became a powerful symbol in maritime communities of the hope families sustained that their loved ones could, in fact, return safely home ashore from a seafaring voyage.

The antithesis of hope is, of course, despair, and one mariner, “Long John” Francis Akin of Dartmouth, Massachusetts penned a verse in his journal kept aboard the ship Virginia of New Bedford in 1844 that epitomized his condition.[2] Entitled “My Life Is Like the Scattered Wreck” it puts into perspective the potential for hopelessness that long whaling voyages could engender.

My life is like the scattered wreck
Cast by the waves upon the shore
The broken mast, the rifted deck
Tell of the shipwreck that is o’er
Yet from these relics of the storm
The mariner his raft will for
Again to tempt the faithless sea
But hope rebuilds no bark for me

By the late 1820s, sailors had come to be recognized as important if degraded members of society and the establishment of Seamen’s Friend Societies sprang up in port cities around the world. The New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen was established in 1830 and thus New Bedford, which as a whaling port shipped many thousands of individuals annually, joined the ranks acknowledging that sailors needed safe, sober havens and humane treatment when ashore between voyages. The Constitution of the Port Society stipulated that in addition to “protecting the rights and interests of seamen” the Society would “furnish them with… moral, intellectual and religious instruction.”[3] Sailors were coming to be understood as “agents of all our commercial operations” and were increasingly viewed as a group particularly in need of the strengthening power of Christian values and sobriety. Seamen’s Bethels, also called Mariner’s Chapels, increased around the world. Indeed, many ports converted hulks and other vessels into “floating bethels” and both the floating bethels and the buildings constructed on terra firma were often associated with “Boarding Houses of good character, Savings Banks, Register Offices, Libraries, Reading Rooms and Schools,” as stipulated in the Constitution of the American Seamen’s Friend Society. The Society worked to heighten public awareness of the importance of sailors to the good of society, and the anchor of hope was one of their emblems.[4] Hope, thus, remained an icon of seafaring throughout the 19th century, for even though strong efforts were underway to improve conditions when sailors were ashore, the ocean still remained an unpredictable and dangerous place to earn one’s living.

[1] John Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (Edinburgh, 1915).
[2] Virginia (ship) of New Bedford, Joseph T. Chase, master, John Francis Akin, keeper, 1843-1847. KWM #407.
[3] First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the New-Bedford Port Society (New Bedford, 1831), p. 22.
[4]Sailor’s Magazine and Naval Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (September 1828).

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