The Maiden of the Sea

Brenda RoseteBrenda Rosete is a Mexican visual artist based in Edinburgh, UK. She studied a BA in Social Communication in Mexico and a MA in Photography at the Glasgow School of Art. Her work is mostly focused in themes of identity and understanding of place through cultural heritage. A search for depicting the self can be identified in most of her projects, and how identity and immigration issues are perceived today. Photography is the way she uses to represent how people is touched by the changing world in which we live and to draw a line from which to analyze the evolution of society, more of her work can be found at

To be a dangerous woman is to be one that inspires more women to stand out and be fearless.

I want to tell the story of a woman who inspired me to fight for equality, and to never be afraid of showing my strength and my capacities. With this project I aim to explore and reinterpret the role of women during the 18th century. Through a series of self-portraits I developed the narrative of a character inspired by the story of Elizabeth Miller, the first female ship captain, born in Saltcoats, Scotland (1792-1864).

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During the reign of Queen Victoria in the United Kingdom , women were seen in the middle classes at least, as belonging to the domestic sphere. Women’s rights were extremely limited at this time. If women had a job outside of household activities, their wages and all the money generated during their marriage belonged to the husband, as well their physical properties excluding land property.

Victorian society was not the most suitable for women’s rights: as mentioned before, they had disadvantages both financial and sexual, enduring inequalities within their marriages and social statuses. As education for girls spread literacy to the working classes during the mid- and late Victorian era, some ambitious young women were able to find salaried jobs in new fields, such as salesgirls, cashiers, typists and secretaries. [1]

Although during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Elizabeth Miller achieved the distinction of being the only woman before or since entered as Captain of a merchant vessel in the Lloyd’s British Registry of Tonnage. [2]

Her ship was the “Clytus”, a coaling brig made from the wreck of a French warship. “Betsy”, as she was known, began her career of Captain after her father died, mastering the ship for 22 years. She accomplished something almost unreachable for those times as life at sea was also not as easy for women; they were not allowed to enter a ship according to The British Admiralty officially in the 18th century. Also among sailors there was a long tradition of superstition, some say this is because women were considered bad luck and that having a woman on board a ship when it was sailing could anger the sea gods, bringing on horrible weather and rough water. Working on a ship was allowed just for men and boys, the only way women could work on a vessel was if they were disguised as men, or if they were the daughter of the Captain. [3]

Despite on the limited insights about her life I created a story of my own combining existing facts with imaginary elements, incorporating my personal experiences within the place and some historical fragments; creating an alternative character to represent a fictional femininity encircled by a tough environment such as life at the sea, portraying the strength and courage as well as the delicacy and fragility of a woman.

According to written records of historians and local stories, Betsy was the eldest daughter of the Captain William Miller and his wife Mary. As a young child, Betsy accompanied her father on his journeys, that is how she gained a lot of knowledge about ships. When Betsy reached adulthood she worked for her father in charge of the finances of the company, while her brother Hugh was groomed to take over the company and run the ship trading cargoes of salt and coal. When her father passed away and her brother Hugh accidentally drowned at nearby Ardrossan, and “When she first got her capable hands on the wheel of “The Clytus”, the Miller family had a big debt;” this is the reason why Betsy decided to take charge of the ship and run the family business herself at the age of 46 years old and for over 20 years she mastered the brig, sometimes with the help of her sister Hannah, sailing to different ports in Ireland, Australia and America, and by the day of her retirement she was the wealthiest woman in Saltcoats. [4]

Betsy was one woman of a kind.

Comparing her life to the usual role of women in society, it was incredible to discover how far along she was from it. Referring to the history of Women’s rights along the way, in 1792 when Elizabeth Miller was born, the book “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects”, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, written by the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, was first published. Then by 1838, just one year after the start of the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Miller took command of “The Clytus,” carrying out a job that was only destined for men. In 1870, just six years after her death, the Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, that allowed women to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property, was passed and further campaigning resulted in an extension of this law in 1882 to allow married women to have complete personal control over all of their property. [5]

Her achievement must not be forgotten as she marked a point in history, while this event has not been sufficiently known among historians, it is quite important to highlight in order to inspire a better future for women in any social sphere.


1 Wollstonecraft, M. (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of the Woman. 7th ed.England: Penguin Books.

2 Lloyds Register of British and Foreign Shipping online

3 —Article XIV from Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 18085, Mariners Museum. [accessed 05/20/2014]

4 Saltcoats – Home of Saltpans and Sea Queens. North Ayrshire Heritage Trails. [accessed 03/24/2014]

5 Marriage: property and children, Parliament – Living Heritage. [accessed 03/24/2014]