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Horton Journal of Canadian History ~ Papers

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Captain Joshua Slocum

by Andrea Cosman

Joshua Slocum was a very prominent man for the Canadian sailing industry. Although he became an American citizen in his adulthood, he never forgot his roots as a true Nova Scotian.

Slocum was the first man to sail around the world alone with no navigation system, and thus deserves our highest commendations. Slocum proves that one man can sail alone across the seven seas with only the sun, moon and stars to guide him.

Joshua Slocum was born into a poor family, whereas his father was only a shoemaker. He was born on February 20, 1844 in a small community called Mount Hanley, Nova Scotia, on the North Mountain over looking the Annapolis Valley. When Joshua was eight, his father realized he was failing as a farmer and moved his thirteen member family to Westport, N.S. (a small community on Briar Island) to try his hand at making boot for local fishermen. (Spicer, 447)

Slocum’s family had a long history of sailors and fishermen and Joshua definitely followed with a strong passion for the sea. (Joshua Slocum (1844-1909))

When Joshua was ten, he was forced to quit school and help his father make boots to support their large family. He bore the work as long as he could but ran away for a brief period at fourteen. His mother died when he was sixteen and it was then that he cast off for good. (Jones, )

Slocum was the second mate of a fishing schooner by the age of eighteen and became first mate in 1869 at twenty-five. He also became an American citizen that year. (Spicer, 447) The following year he became the captain of a sloop called Washington and sailed from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. (Leeman, It was in Sydney that Joshua met the love of his life, Virginia Walker, whom he married in 1871. Virginia sailed with her husband for the rest of her life. Their sons, Victor and Garfield, both born at sea also sailed with them. (Angus, 86)

The highlight of Joshua’s career thus far was in 1881 when he became master and part owner of a windjammer called Northern Lights. He made a lot of money with this vessel but after sailing it around the world, he sold it in New York. (Leeman)

Slocum’s next vessel, the Aquidneck took him from Baltimore to Pernambuco, Brazil and then on to Buenos Aires. Joshua’s beloved wife became ill and died on the boat on July 25, 1884. He buried her in an English cemetery in Buenos Aires. (Angus, 86)

Garfield, their son, said, "when Virginia died father was like a ship with a broken rudder." (Angus, 86)

Joshua never fully recovered from her death, but two years later he became extremely lonely and married his first cousin, Henrietta Miller Elliott who was 24 and pretty. (Spicer, 447) Henrietta did sail with Joshua but she didn’t have the instinct nor the interest in it that Virginia had. She was basically there to raise the children and to do domestic chores. (Spicer, 447)

In 1887, the Aquidneck went aground and broke down off the coast of Brazil. He sold the boat and he and his family built a small vessel to sail home in. They built the Liberdade, a small canoe-shaped vessel that was only 10.7 m long and 2.3 m wide. They sailed in it for 53 days until they landed in South Carolina. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The years between 1888 and 1892 represented the low point in Joshua's life. He missed Virginia and his fortune was gone. He took odd jobs and wrote his first book Voyage Of The Liberdade (published in 1894). His wife and children lived with Henrietta's sister in Boston because he didn't want to take responsibility for them during that time. (Spicer, 449)

1892 was a turning point in Joshua's life. He was offered an old sloop called Spray and decided to rebuild it. In the process of his endeavor, an idea began to take form; he would sail it around the world, alone. The Spray was a beautiful rig when she was finished and with many years of seafaring under his belt, Joshua decided there was only one thing for him to do. (Spicer, 449) Joshua was 51 at the beginning of his great voyage and his fame would last for generations to come.

On April 24, 1895, Slocum set sail from Boston and headed to Westport, Nova Scotia to make some final provisions and visit his original home.

On July 1, the Spray set sail from Nova Scotia and headed to Gibraltar, back across the Atlantic, to the coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan, across the Pacific to Australia, onto the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic of the Caribbean and then back home to Boston. (Slocum, Don,

Joshua sailed for 46000 miles and a little over three years to prove that it could be done. A man could sail alone around the world. (Angus, 87) Joshua had many hardships on his epic voyage. He had run ins with pirates, bad health, his pet goat ate his maps and there were many extreme storms, among other unfortunate mishaps. (Slocum, Don)

The most amazing thing to come out the expedition would have to be the book Sailing Alone Around The World by Captain Joshua Slocum. This book has filled the hearts of many and has shown thousands that anyone can do anything as long as they want it bad enough. For years after everywhere he went, Joshua was a celebrity and people took great interest in him. He got to meet many important people such as President Paul Kruger, (an African president) who believed the Earth was flat, and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, who presented him with many sailing directories which had belonged to her late husband. (Spicer, 451)

In March of 1900, Joshua had enough money from the voyage and the book sales to buy a farm for him and his family on Martha's Vineyard. His interest in farming soon ceased so he decided to go on another sailing adventure.

On November 14, 1909, Slocum set sail from Vineyard Haven in the Spray to see if she could sail him around the world alone again. This was the last time Joshua Slocum and his Spray were ever seen again. (Spicer, 451)

Shortly after completing his first trip around the world in the Spray someone told him that many men could sail alone around the world. Joshua replied smugly "Right my friend, but with one slight difference. Not one of these men can be the first one to do it." (Jones)

Since the book Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum was a first hand description of what happened during his voyage on the Spray, it would make an excellent primary resource.

When the Spray was initially launched, Slocum said, "As she rode her ancient, rust eaten anchor, she sat on the water like a swan" (Slocum,10) This is what he had to say at the beginning of the voyage, "I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored Snugly all winter. The twelve-o'clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail." (Slocum, 26) This book is full of exciting commentaries of actual events so it has obvious validity and is very well written.

Captain Joshua Slocum is an interesting part of our history and deserves great recognition for the roads that he has paved for future generations of sailors.


Angus, Grant. Canadians All: 6 Portraits of Our People. Toronto: 1986

Jones, Tim. "Sailing Alone around The World By Joshua Slocum"

Leeman, K. "Islands Cap- Joshua Slocum"

Slocum, Don C. "The Captain Joshua Slocum Web Page"

"Slocum, Joshua" Encyclopaedia Britannica,

Slocum, Joshua. Sailing Alone Around The World. New York: 1956

"Joshua Slocum- (1844-1909)"


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