BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The Custom House Maritime Museum is turning its focus to women this month with a new exhibit that looks at a 19th century wife and mother following her dream: going to sea.
Opening today, “One Woman’s World” re-creates the story of Newburyport native Elizabeth Bray, who in 1853 boarded a ship commanded by her husband, Capt. Stephen Bray, and embarked on a journey that took her halfway around the world.
The presentation is based on 140 pages of Bray’s handwritten journal recounting her first-hand experiences.
“Elizabeth is a gifted writer, and provides wonderful sketches of life at sea,” museum curator Michelle Hastings said.
Bray’s early words indicate her sense of hope and optimism: “Everything seems favorable to my taking this journey, which I have desired all my life, and now for the first time I have the opportunity.”
While it was not unheard of for a captain to take his wife to sea, museum curators say, it does appear unusual that Bray left her two juvenile sons on the dock as she sailed off for several years.
According to Hastings, Bray took her daughter, Fanny, who was about 5, but not her boys.
“Women on board, when it happened, were seen as a means of improving behavior of the crews,” Hastings said. “Little Fanny probably got a lot of attention from the sailors.”
The museum’s presentation is part of a strategy by the directors of the Custom House to offer story lines that make the past come alive.
“Newburyport has a remarkable maritime history and we want to bring attention to individual stories so those in the area can become involved in that history,” Michael Mroz, executive director of the Water Street museum, said.
“Having Elizabeth’s journal in her handwriting is a great resource, and tells us much about this remarkable woman — and the journeys that local ships embarked upon.”
Bray’s account references two voyages aboard the Volant over a period from 1854 to 1862.
This exhibition features her actual journal and also showcases artifacts that still exist today.
One fragile reminder of the past is a leaf taken from a banyan tree at Calcutta’s botanic garden. Curators found the memento in a closed book that had been stored and forgotten for decades.
“The leaf is in perfect condition, and we are very fortunate to have it after all these years,” said Cynthia Muir, who leads the museum’s collections and exhibitions committee.
A dagger from the ship is also included as well as a telescope given to Capt. Bray and his officers by the English government.
The story goes that the captain and crew were able to rescue a sinking English ship in the Atlantic, saving many lives.
The telescope was a token of recognition. Now, that small gesture by a government a century and a half ago has become a major treasure for those at the maritime museum today.
The exhibition runs through April 30. The museum is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.
“We’re fortunate to have authentic items,” Mroz said, “and it’s appropriate to be showing them during the month where we are telling the stories of women.”