Journal Kept Onboard the Whaleship Manhattan

Donated to the Research Library in 1983 by Mercator Cooper Kendrick, the journal kept on board the ship Manhattan’s 1843-1846 whaling voyage offers valuable first-hand documentation into an important and little-known chapter on American-Japanese relations. Captained by Mercator Cooper, the ship Manhattan shipped on only one whaling voyage out of Sag Harbor, New York, before joining the merchant service. At first glance, this journal contains the standard entries one expects from a typical whaling account, including weather descriptions, vessels spoken, and descriptions of whales seen and taken. However, the events of this voyage bear significance for not only scholars of American whaling and maritime history, but for a host of other researchers engaged in a wide variety of disciplines.

Beginning in 1633 under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a series of edicts and policies resulted in Japan adopting a firm isolationist stance in foreign affairs and strictly prohibited any foreigner entrance into the country. This Sakoku, or “chained-country” period, lasted until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japan to western trade. The events of the Manhattan’s travels occurred within this historical context, beginning with a seemingly uneventful encounter in the Pacific Ocean sixteen months into her voyage.

On March 15, 1845, the Manhattan encountered eleven Japanese men marooned on a small island surviving only on rice and small amounts of water pilfered from the crevasses of several rocks along the shoreline. Captain Cooper decided to rescue these men before resuming his whaling voyage, an action that served as a harbinger to one of Sakoku Japan’s most significant American interactions.

One month after rescuing the stranded men, the Manhattan sailed into Edo, the modern-day city of Tokyo and Japan’s political center in 1845. The entry for April 18, 1845, describes 300 Japanese boats towing the Manhattan to a small bay south of Edo before encircling the whaleship. With the American vessel closely guarded, several Japanese boarded the ship and removed all firearms before members of the nobility performed personal inspections of the interior. The Manhattan left Japan four days later, but prior to her departure, the Japanese presented Captain Cooper and his crew with an array of gifts in the form of rice, wheat, flour, wood, sweet potatoes, radishes, chickens, and tea. The Emperor, via his Imperial delegates, conveyed his compliments to the captain for rescuing the stranded Japanese. However, after extending their sincere gratitude, Japanese isolationism prevailed, and the Emperor’s representatives instructed Captain Cooper to leave and never return.

One cannot overstate the importance of the Japanese-American interaction documented within the pages of this journal, but similar to other whaling accounts, observations of natural phenomena also litter the pages and offer valuable contributions to several different scholarly fields. While cruising through the Pacific, the Manhattan passed many instances of volcanic activity. Not only does this journal properly document each observation with the correct date and appropriate geographic coordinates, but the keeper even includes hand-drawn sketches of the eruptions, providing a valuable resource to the study of volcanology. This journal, complete with its rich multidisciplinary content, best exemplifies how each piece in the Library can appeal to a wide range of audiences.

The Research Library proudly boasts the largest collection of whaling logbooks and journals in the world, and the Manhattan journal represents only one example of the thousands of unique and interesting stories stored in the Library’s vaults. If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this whaling journal, Mercator Cooper’s manuscripts, or any other piece of the Library’s collection, please contact Mark Procknik in the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.

2 responses to “Journal Kept Onboard the Whaleship Manhattan

  1. Peggi Medeiros

    This is fabulous Mark. Congrats. Peggi

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