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Anna Hale Colby's "Tales of the Sea"

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Anna Hale Colby (1877-1977), daughter of Charles Henry Colby (1845-1931) and Sarisa Currier, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Anna graduated Newburyport High School, Class of 1895. She was active in the community and a noted historian. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution Josiah Bartlett Chapter meetings were held at at the Macy Colby house in Amesbury. She lived in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Anna never married.

From Newburyport Daily News, July 21, 1945:


One of the addresses listened to with the keenest attention at the observance of the golden anniversary of the Newburyport High school class of 1895 recently, which was attended by the members’ former teacher, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, was that by Miss Anna H. Colby, entitled “Tales of the Sea.”

Miss Colby now residing in Greenwood, a section of Wakefield, is a former resident of Marlboro street, the daughter of the late Capt. Charles Colby, probably the last active craft commander of the deep sea skippers, who sailed from Newburyport. He was also one of the last of the members of the Newburyport Marine society to pass away.

Two outstanding Newburyport High school athletes, particularly in football, Charles Colby and Newton Colby, are brothers of Miss Colby. Ann uncle, Isaac Colby was captain of the bark H.G. Johnson, which made an international voyage. 


During the two centuries previous to the present one, Newburyport was a flourishing seaport. Ships brought cargoes from all over the world; schooners plied up the Merrimac river carrying freight to Amesbury and Haverhill, and fishing boats made regular trips in and out of the harbor. I can remember my mother’s telling how she used to buy a good sized lobster at the wharf for 10 cents. (Wouldn’t I like to do that now!)

There were several ship yards along the banks of the river, and during those years they built and outfitted many vessels from small craft to over 1800 ton ships. Also sloops of war and privateers which took part in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The first privateer fitted out within the limits of the 13 original colonies sailed from Newburyport in 1775.

Marine Society Formed

In 1772, there was formed the marine Society of Newburyport, which grew to be one of the finest in existence. For many years the society had no meeting place of its own, but in 1851 it purchased a building on State street and occupied some of the room as long as any meetings were held. One or two of these rooms were used for a museum. Here were collected and marked with the donor’s name many curious brought by the members from foreign lands. There was also numerous gifts from friends. This collection was finally given to ‘Ye Old Newbury Society,’ and can now be seen at its room on High street.

One of the oldest members of the society was Captain Moses Brown, who had a most unusual experience. On one of his early voyages while a seaman he was taken violently ill with small-pox, and supposedly died. His body was sewed in canvas and was about to be launched into the sea when the captain thought he detected a slight movement. The lashings were cut, the body taken below and he afterward recovered.

My father was one of the youngest members of the Marine Society, and one of the four surviving members when the society was disbanded in the early 1900’s. Unlike many old sea captains, he was never much of a hand to spin yarns. I can remember only a few.

He was never shipwrecked but had one narrow escape. While sailing through the island of the South Seas he encountered dense fogs. Having to sail entirely on dead reckoning for some days, the ship was off her course.  Then the sound of the breakers was heard. Due to atmospheric conditions no one was able to tell from what direction the sound was coming. The noise grew louder until it seemed impossible to escape being dashed on the rocks. Fortunately for those on board, the fog lifted just long enough for the shore to be seen, and disaster avoided.

Another time his ship was becalmed in the straits near Malaya. Several boats filled the Malay pirates put out from shore and started to surround the vessel.  Kettles of water were heated and nets strung to repel the invaders. All the arms and ammunition on board were distributed among the crew, and they waited for the attack. When we excitedly asked. “What happened then, Dad?" He just smiled and quietly said, “Oh, a breeze sprung up.” What a let down!

Determined to Go Home

One winter’s day, my father and two other sea captains were trying to make port in the teeth of a northeast gale. With signal flags flying for pilots the ships cruised back and forth across the outer harbor. However, the storm was too severe for the little pilot boats to venture forth. Finally it began to snow until a regular blizzard was raging. The other two captains decided to anchor, and ride out the storm, but not my father.  He was nearly home, and pilot or not, home he was going. When he had beaten his way into the upper harbor, a pilot boat came down to meet him. As he climbed aboard the pilot disgustedly said, ‘I knew it must be you, for nobody but Daredevil Colby would pull a stunt like this.’  Father took the last train home that was able to get through that night. The blizzard raged for three days, and he had many a chuckle because he was at home with his family, and his friends were still waiting down in the harbor.

As a child I made two voyages with my father, going to Australia, the Philippines and the East Indies. Three months is a long time to be out of sight of land, but that was when I learned to enjoy a sunrise and the ever-changing colors of the sunset; to appreciate the loveliness of the unbroken arc of a rainbow as it stretches from one horizon to another; to watch the moon slowly rise from the sea, and cast a path of silver on the water as far as the eye can see; to love the beauty and peacefulness of the stars which seem so much closer than they ever do on land.

Often in the early evening, there would be many clouds along the horizon. One of our favorite pastimes was to trace the outline of faces, or animals, and even of building. It’s really surprising what anybody with a vivid imagination can see.

On a day when the water was smooth, looking down over the stern, one could see two long slender shapes following close to the ship, one on each side of the rudder. Two sharks, which followed us all the way across the ocean and back again. In some places, not too far from land, jelly-fish of odd shapes and iridescent in color could be seen floating on the water. We used to call them “Dutch Men of War.” Why, I don’t know.

Meals Monotonous

Years ago there wasn’t the varied assortment of canned foods s there is today. Although there was always a flock of hens on board to furnish eggs and an occasional fowl, the meals were often monotonous. It was a welcome change to pass through a school of flying fish, and have some land on board, or be over a fishing ground where we could catch some.

The day we reached Manilla was a Chinese holiday. In the evening we sat on deck and watched one of the finest displays of fireworks I have ever seen. There were no docking facilities in Manila so long ago, so we anchored some distance off shore and used a small boat to go back and forth.  The cargo was transferred to lighter by Chinese coolies. They used to cook rice at noon, and sit squat-legged on the deck to eat it. It seemed a marvel to us children that they could lift so much on two slender chopsticks and never drop any of it.

The American Counsel had a daughter about my age, so I was invited to spend a week ashore. It was a welcome change after being abroad ship so long. It was very hot during the middle of the day, so most people took a siesta, and the streets were deserted. About 4 o’clock my new friend and I used to watch for the Spanish ladies to take their daily rides. The Islands were then owned by Spain, these were the wives of the Spanish officials, and very grand ladies indeed! They were dressed very elaborately in silks and satins, and used dainty little parasols to keep off the sun. They sat very erect on the back seat of the carriages, and looked neither to right or left as they passed by.

Describes Natives’ Houses

The houses of the natives, outside of the city, were square boxlike structures with thatched roofs. They rested on four posts with a ladder leading up to a curtained doorway. I was much interested in watching the women doing their washing along the banks of the river. They placed the garments on one rock and pounded them with another. Their little brown babies played in the shallow water beside them, as naked as the day they were born. We used to send our washing shore, and the clothes would come back beautifully white, but starched, oh, so stiff! Some of them had to be rubbed between the hands before they could be worn.

We lay at anchor for some weeks in the harbor of Panang in the East Indies. Every afternoon around 4 o’clock there would be a heavy thunder storm with the wind blowing a gale. Even through riding to two anchors they wouldn’t always hold, and a ship would be blown half across the bay, and occasionally a collision would take place. The lightning was magnificent, and we used to stand at the head of the main companionway to watch it. Once a bolt struck the main topmast and a bit ball of fire flashed past and fell into the sea. It frightened my mother so, that she pushed us down the stairs. Fortunately, no bones wee broken. One side of the topmast was spit off as smooth and even as if it had been done with a saw.           

While loading in one East Indian port I cannot recall which one, a ship flying the American flag sailed into the harbor and anchored quite close to use. To our surprise and pleasure it was the bark H.G. Johnson, commanded by my father’s brother, Capt. Isaac Colby. It was the first time the brothers had met for several years. My uncle’s family was with him so we had some enjoyable reunion while we were together.

Saw Erupting Volcano

One evening we passed a volcano in eruption. It was an awesome sight to see smoke and flames rising high toward the sky. The water was covered with pieces of pumice stone. The sailors scooped up some of it with buckets, and used it to holystone the decks.

On one homeward voyage it took 21 days to beat around Cape Horn. Head gales all the while; seas running masthead high until it seemed as if only by a miracle could the ship escape being engulfed. The days dragged slowly past as we weren’t allowed on deck. We read and played games until we were tired of them; then we removed our shoes and as the ship rolled from side to side, we amused ourselves by sliding back and forth across the polished floor of the cabin. Then came sunny days and calmer seas—days during which we watched a school of porpoises at play, leaping high into the air, or an albatross as it darted down from the sky after the scraps our cook threw overboard; or tried to be the first to see the distant smoke of a steamer or the white sails of a vessel, shining in the sun.

At last came the Day of Days, when with signals flying, we waited for a pilot. Our voyage was over, and we were home again.

Miss Colby was the salutatorian of the class of 1895 at the graduation held more than 50 years ago.

Typed from Newburyport Daily News, September 22, 2007, by historian and author Marge Motes. All photos are from private scrapbook collection of Patti Clasen, California.

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