Category Archives: Library

Correspondence of Captain Burr Sistare to his Wife, Abby

Included among several items donated to the Research Library in 2009 by Deborah, Hannah, and Christine Sistare are five letters written by a nineteenth century whaling captain to his wife back home. Captain Burr Sistare of New London, Connecticut, penned these letters from several different ports of call, including Faial, Cape Verde, and Talcahuano from the years 1845 to 1847. His rich correspondence reveals a deeply religious and devoted husband in command of a whaling voyage marred by an unfortunate twist of fate.

Consisting of five letters written to his wife, Abby, while in command of the ship General Scott’s 1845 voyage out of New London, Connecticut, Captain Sistare describes the typical events a captain expects to encounter while on board a whaling voyage, including desertions, illness, and theft. Sistare even describes the difficulties of catching whales during a particularly unprosperous season, describing his voyage as “broken” and states that “I have done all that land in my power to fill the ship.” Continue reading

Hidden Cartography Treasures Uncovered at the Research Library

Imagine walking the streets of New Bedford in 1834 or shipping aboard a whaler bound towards the Pacific Ocean on a five year journey. Whether it is through a diary littered with descriptions of nineteenth century New Bedford or a journal kept onboard a whaling voyage, the Research Library’s abundance of resources grant any researcher the ability to travel backwards in time and relive the past. However, lost among the robust collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century handwritten texts is another more visual component to the Library’s holdings.

In addition to the vast quantities of logbooks, manuscripts, and printed books, the Library proudly boasts a fine collection of cartography ranging from maps of the early Old Dartmouth region to navigational charts complete with multiple voyage tracks of nineteenth century whaling vessels. However, while other Library holdings are searchable through various databases and webpages, all details concerning the cartographic objects are not accessible online. As a result, the general public has never truly known the contents of this collection outside of the following text that appears on the Museum’s website:

“The cartographic collections number around 700 pieces including sea charts used by whaling masters, bound pilot charts and atlases, decorative maps, maps and charts of key geographical regions significant to whaling at different times in history as well as maps and charts of the local Old Dartmouth region.”

Fully aware of these circumstances and driven to remedy this situation, the Library has recently generated a complete finding aid for its entire cartography collection. A finding aid promotes access to Library materials by providing an overview of a specific collection and displaying a comprehensive inventory of its contents. The online nature and keyword searchable element of finding aids allow search engines like Google to catch the text, draw researchers to the Museum’s website, and most importantly, increase awareness of a previously inaccessible portion of the Library’s holdings.

Interestingly enough, the roots for this project date back almost a decade, when a group of select Library volunteers compiled all the necessary documentary information for each piece of cartography. Library staff sought to disseminate this information to the public through the Museum’s website, but waited until technology advanced and developed the appropriate means to accommodate these lofty goals. That day finally arrived this past September when Astrid Drew, an intern from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, arrived at the Library’s door with the skill set needed to bring this project to fruition. Following a semester of diligent work, the finding aid debuted on the Museum’s website on December 3rd, 2013. The finished product serves as an impressive webpage documenting the entire cartography collection.

This project signifies more than the hard work of a single intern, for it serves as a working model demonstrating the Library’s anticipation in building towards the future and actively inserting itself into the ever-changing digital landscape. Although Astrid’s name appears as the author of the finding aid, this was a collective effort made possible through the vision of the Library staff and the time put forth by dedicated volunteers. Thanks to all their determination, researchers, map collectors, and even enthusiasts can finally experience the full magnitude of the Library’s cartographic collection in order to further their understanding on whaling, maritime culture, and Old Dartmouth’s past.

Visit http://www.whalingmuseum.org/explore/library/maps-charts to see the full finding aid for the Library’s cartographic collection.    

BayCoast Bank grants $100K toward new Ed Ctr. & Research Library

BayCoast Bank has awarded $100,000 to the New Bedford Whaling Museum toward the building of its new Educational Center and Research Library planned for the southeast quadrant of the museum campus located along Union and North Water Streets. With groundbreaking planned for 2014, the new center will quadruple the museum’s classroom space and create a state-of-the-art Research Library.

In announcing the grant, co-chairs of the museum’s capital campaign, George B. Mock III and Donald S. Rice said “on behalf of the trustees and all those who have contributed thus far to this landmark project, we heartily thank BayCoast for its generosity and its vision in recognizing the long-term educational opportunities this facility will provide throughout the Whaling Museum’s second century of service.” Mr. Mock is president of Nye Lubricants and serves as first vice chair of the New Bedford Whaling Museum; Mr. Rice is the museum’s assistant treasurer

Nicholas Christ, BayCoast Bank president said “We take our commitment to the communities we serve very seriously and this project represents a strategic investment, one which promises to pay educational dividends to our students for decades to come.”

James Russell, museum president and CEO, noted “This extraordinary award from BayCoast Bank demonstrates its commitment to the community, and in particular, to our youth through its generous support of this unique educational facility. BayCoast leads by example and we hope this commitment motivates other leaders in the business community to join us in helping make educational excellence a primary goal across the region.”

To date donors have contributed 80% ($8.26 million) of the funds needed to meet the $10 million goal for the project, which is designed to increase K-12 through post-graduate educational programs and house the museum archives and collections amounting to 750,000 objects and items. It will create 4 new galleries and an extended observation deck overlooking New Bedford harbor.

Building a Transformative Experience

Trustees select Mount Vernon Group Architects to design the new Educational Center and Research Library

The Board of Trustees enthusiastically selected Mount Vernon Group Architects to design the new Educational Center and Research Library on Johnny Cake Hill. Groundbreaking is slated for spring 2014. Preliminary sketches reveal the character of the Johnny Cake Hill, Water Street and Union Street facades. The building will connect to the existing Museum campus and be constructed in a site left vacant since the devastating gas explosion of 1977. The building will house new classrooms, a digital Reading Room, climate controlled spaces for collections, a laboratory for the flagship Apprenticeship Program and the Casa dos Botes. The 4th floor will encompass a multi-use assembly area with majestic views of the New Bedford Harbor. The $6 million construction project has 80% of funds committed.

View from Johnny Cake Hill

View from Water St

View from Union St.

Established in 1954, Mount Vernon Group is an award-winning designer of educational buildings. MVG’s local ties and proven record of designing customized educational spaces, as well as its understanding of the Museum’s educational goals, make it the ideal choice to design the space that will transform the Museum and prepare it for the next 100 years.

For more information on the Campaign to Build the Educational Center and Research Library, please contact Alison Smart, Senior Director of Development, at (508) 717-6815. View from Johnny Cake Hill View from Water Street View from Union Street

From the Vault: Journal Kept Onboard the Newport’s 1892 Voyage

Every piece in the Library has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to look at a few of the thousands of materials and hear their tales through the Museum’s “From the Vault”, a new digital exhibit featuring different treasures from the Library.

In 1978, Mr. and Mrs. George Bodfish donated to the Research Library a collection of manuscripts and photographs relating to Hartson Hartlett Bodfish (1862 – 1945), a captain of thirteen Western Arctic whaling voyages during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This donation also came with several logbooks and journals penned by Bodfish himself that document his whaling exploits. One of these journals contains a partial account of the Newport’s 1892 – 1898 whaling voyage. The journal begins on August 21, 1893 and represents an important chapter of American whaling history.

The rest of the story.

The Lazarus Project and the Wreck of the “Viking”

Re-imaging the Opening of Japan

 Guest post submitted by Gregory Heyworth Director of the Lazarus Project  and Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi.

“The past,” as Faulkner said, “is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This past May, a team of imaging scientists and students from the Lazarus Project, an initiative to recover damaged manuscripts using multispectral imaging technology housed at the University of Mississippi, arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to prove Faulkner right.

The object of interest was a damaged logbook from 1862 faded into near illegibility. The method involved photographing the manuscript with a cutting edge 50-megapixel camera and LED light arrays in twelve wavelengths between the ultraviolet and the infrared. With careful image processing, multispectral photography can “see” text that has been washed away, faded and charred.

Lazarus Project

 [Image before and after]

While Drs. Gregory Heyworth and Roger Easton from the Lazarus Team regularly deal with ancient manuscripts, modern manuscripts can be equally challenging and historically important. That is certainly the case with much of the New Bedford collection. The significance of this particular logbook begins two centuries before the shipwreck of the Fairhaven merchant vessel off the coast of Japan.

For two hundred years between 1633 and 1853, while Western Europe was moving from Renaissance to Enlightnment to Industrial Revolution, Japan languished frozen in the past, a Hermit Kingdom cut-off from the rest of the world. Under the policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate known as the sakoku, any foreigner attempting to enter Japan did so upon pain of death, while natives were forbidden from leaving Japan. Aside from limited contact with the Dutch, Japan had no trade dealings with the West whatsoever.

As we all learned in high school history, all that changed in 1852-54 when Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan, establishing a trade relationship and mutual amity. The truth, however, is more complicated. Perry’s “opening” of Japan was really an act of coercion, backed up by outright threats of military annihilation by a modern fleet of steam-driven warships. In practice, the Japanese capitulation was widely resisted by the general populace and the sakoku with its death-sentence for foreigners remained unchallenged.

Alongside the political narrative of the opening of Japan, scholars have been turning to the logbooks of whaling and merchant vessels to establish a more accurate social narrative of the period. The 1832 the shipwreck of Japanese fishermen on the coast of Washington, followed in 1841 by the more famous rescue of Manjiro and another crew of Japanese fisherman by a whaler off the coast of Japan, offer firsthand accounts of crucial early contact and the germs of a fragile detente between cultures without which Perry’s  trade treaties could never have succeeded in practice.

Among these early relations, perhaps none is more historically significant, and yet less studied, that the wreck of the Fairhaven merchant ship the Viking in 1863. With a crew of Americans and 400 Chinese immigrants, the Viking ran aground on the small Japanese island of Mikurajima. Faced by the suddeness of this foreign intrusion, the villagers took steps to execute the crew according to the law of sakoku until the village secretary intervened. In the ensuing months, a genuine friendship, aided by their creation of the first Japanese-English dictionary, grew between the sailors and villagers. In many ways, a truly open, modern Japan began on this small island, and its story is preserved in this unique neglected record of the Viking.

The Lazarus Project hopes to continue the process of recovery by collaborating with the New Bedford Whailing Museum in the creation of a digital archive of 19th century Japanese-American maritime relations held by the museum into a digital archive.

The Heritage of Landscape

By Michael P. Dyer
Librarian and Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum
A talk presented to the Congregational Church of South Dartmouth
Upon their bicentennial anniversary
March 17, 2007

My intent this evening is to attempt to convey, less the letter of our local history and more its value to the community, its nature and texture. When I speak of the “Heritage of Landscape” it is to serve as a reminder of the inherent dignity and respect that is owed to this place. As our wars overseas are conceived and enacted with the express purpose of espousing freedom, it will not do to forget the reasons for our settlement in the first place; the sorts of people that are the roots of our local stock and that war once ravaged the very doorsteps of Dartmouth. There is no better way to support our country, no better act of patriotism than to preserve with careful respect the land on which we live, its architecture wherever possible, and at all costs, its history.

We are extremely fortunate that our local history has been a subject of passionate interest, bordering on obsession, by the citizens of this region since the mid-19th century. Great tomes are devoted the subject, many fine paintings interpret it, and several fine institutions and dynamic and aggressive organizations are devoted to its preservation, dissemination and understanding. I beg your indulgence for a few minutes this evening to outline a very few points of this illustrious history and I thank the board of the Dartmouth Heritage Preservation Trust for the opportunity to do so.

The following quotation has absolutely nothing to do with the specificity of tonight’s discussion but everything to do with its inspiration. It is taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s volume two, The Two Towers of his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, “It seems that you have heard in Rohan of the words that troubled Minas Tirith. They spoke of the Halfling. These hobbits are Halflings.” “Halflings!” laughed the Rider that stood beside Eomer. “Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” “A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

Continue reading

Whales seen and taken

Abstracts of whales seen and taken, 1838-1885. KWM# A-128

Abstracts of whales seen and taken, 1838-1885. Open to pages for whales seen by bark John Dawson, A.S. Wicks, master, 1870-1872. KWM# A-128

Yankee whaling was a highly organized affair, not surprising given the high risks involved in such  voyages and the amount of cash invested by the whaling agents and their investors. Agents wanted their ship’s captains to return with a full cargo and employed extensive information gathering as one means to that end. An interesting technique used by whaling agents to give the captains of their vessels as much of an advantage a possible was to collate from voyage logbooks whenever and wherever whales were taken by their best captains. This information was then written down and organized into notebooks by vessel, voyage, date, latitude, longitude, captain’s name and sometimes whale species. These notebooks, often  marked “confidential” or its equivalent, would then be given to the captain of the ship along with his letter of instruction. One such notebook, “Memo of Whaling Grounds for bark Desdemona, Capt. Saml. F. Davis” opened with the following note:

Dear Captain Davis:

This book is given into your charge with the full understanding that all its contents will be kept by you in the strictiest confidence and that you will make it a point of honor not to communicate any of its contents to anyone whatever, directly or indirectly or let anyone get these in any way except the captain’s of our ships – - Aiken & Swift, New Bedford, May 29, 1882.

As one might imagine, the information in the notebook was confined to those oceanic regions to which the master was instructed to cruise. For instance, Samuel F. Davis was instructed to cruise for sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean. Not surprisingly, the abstracts include a great deal of information not only about where whales were taken in the Atlantic, but about the Indian Ocean as well, but nothing about the Pacific Ocean. Atlantic voyages commonly rounded the Cape of Good Hope in pursuit of right and sperm whales, sometimes going as far to the east as Western Australia, while still being called an Atlantic voyage. Atlantic voyages rarely passed Cape Horn into the Pacific. Unfortunately the logbook for Captain Davis’ cruise in the Desdemona remains lost, however, he returned after three years with almost 1500 barrels of sperm oil and over 200 barrels of whale oil. Similar notebooks exist for other Aiken & Swift vessels. In addition to information gleaned from whaling logbooks, these abstracts also contain direct reports from whaling masters:

“Capt. Green says that when he cruised off the Crozettes he found whales from 30 to 90 miles directly north of Pig Island. He has heard that of late years whales have been found west of that Island… 12 or 15 miles.”

“Capt. Grant of the Horatio says a great place for right whales and where he has always found them in his outward passage in the month of December, Lat. 38.15 S   Long. 27.20 W”

“Mr. Thompson, 2nd Mate of the Nautilus told Captain Howland that in coming home they fell in with right whales in Lat. about 48 South, Lat. 44 West – a very lively ground – plenty of feed and of birds. They saw a large school of very large sperm whales the day before.”

These abstract volumes of “whales seen and taken” are condensed sources highly applicable to research into whale populations and migration dynamics as well as offering primary background on voyages not represented in public collections by formal logbooks or journals.

Moby-Dick and Modern America: A Summer Reading Course

One of the best things about a good book is that it can be read at any time of year, at any time of day, and it will draw you in. Sure, a book like White Fang may have even greater impact if you read it on cold winter nights. You may feel the dusty Alabama setting of To Kill A Mockingbird even more if you read it during a hot, dry summer. Yet, these are compelling stories no matter when you read them. The same can be said for Moby-Dick.

Many of you know that we choose to hold our Moby-Dick Marathon in January because it was January of 1841 when Herman Melville sailed out of New Bedford harbor on the whaleship Acushnet. However, there are Moby-Dick reading marathons in other cities that happen throughout the year. It’s a great book, to many, the greatest novel ever. The season in which you read it isn’t particularly important.

In that vein, former NBWM curatorial intern Evander Price, now a doctoral student in Harvard’s American Studies program, is looking to connect high school students to Moby-Dick after their school year is over.  This summer, he is teaching a high school course on Moby-Dick through MIT’s intensive summer program, Junction, which aims to provide intense, college-level academic courses for high school students.  He invites any brave green whalers who might be interested aboard his literary ship.  Applications are due April 10th, though late applications will be accepted up until May (precise date TBD).  See course description below, and on Junction’s website.

MOBYDICK14

Title: Moby-Dick and Modern America

Description:

“I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb.”

–Melville in a Letter to Hawthorne, July 1851

This class is an introduction to Herman Melville’s famous epic, Moby-Dick; we will read the book in its entirety.  This course explores a wide range of subjects, such as: philosophy, metaphysics, ontology, World/American/Scientific/Maritime history, art, mythology (Greek and otherwise), cetology, geography, popular art/ culture, justice, poetry, environmentalism, etymology, civilization, savagery, Shakespeare, heroism, war, nothingness, evil, darkness, hell, the abyss, god, death, race, religion, monstrousness, genius, madness, wisdom, ethics, eschatology and some slice of the complexity of existence within the human condition.

We will embark on this literary ship of the past as it winds its way from the world’s beginning to the present day, beginning at page one with Ishmael, a young man who, contemplating suicide, instead decides to commit himself to sea.  You can expect to finish this class with no answers, but rather, a firm grasp of the magnitude of the questions.  You can expect to improve enormously as a reader, to be mind-blown, blubber-brained, and equipped with a whole new set of philosophical and analytical tools to approach any daunting work of great literature you may read in the future.  Have no fear: we will work together as a crew to harpoon this evil epic.  Join me on a whaling voyage around the world!

Introduction to the Art of the American Whale Hunt

After the swinging blankets of dripping blubber were minced and boiled, and the smashed boats were hoisted back on shipboard, with the jagged tooth of Ball’s Pyramid towering three hundred feet out of the far-off Tasman Sea, or the hump of Massafuero Island sitting on the horizon of the South Pacific like an enormous meatloaf, the American whaleman, an inveterate artist, sat down to draw a picture of what he had experienced on the job that day.

Whaleman George A. Gould drew this sperm whaling scene in the journal that he kept while sailing onboard the ship Columbia of Nantucket between 1841 and 1845. It is an exemplary example of whalemen’s artwork showing that most desirable of events; the successful hunting of these valuable animals as shown by the bloody water and spouts. KWM #213, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Whaleman George A. Gould drew this sperm whaling scene in the journal that he kept while sailing onboard the ship Columbia of Nantucket between 1841 and 1845. It is an exemplary example of whalemen’s artwork showing that most desirable of events; the successful hunting of these valuable animals as shown by the bloody water and spouts. KWM #213, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The Yankee whaleman plied his trade on a richly colored blue-water world of sea foam, often rose-tinted through his own making by the bloody spouts of the mortally injured animals it was his employment to pursue. As the whale’s slate-black beetling flukes flailed briefly and frantically through the air, silhouetted against white clouds, he caught it all permanently in his mind’s eye, and put it all down on paper, or in the case of scrimshaw, ivory, or bone. These same colors,the white of the clouds, the deep blue water and pale blue sky, the red of the blood; these same colors he had conveniently at hand, in his kit of watercolor paints, to color his nation’s flag in the background snapping red, white and blue from the mast of his floating home. The whaleman was often a patriot, proud of carrying his nations’ flag onboard his nations’ shipping to the far-flung beaches, bays and harbors of the world’s insulae. His dramas were far from pacific, albeit so often played out across the whaling grounds of Melville’s “mysterious, divine” Pacific Ocean; “Off Shore,” or “On the Line,” or “On Japan,” with his stabbing iron harpoons and lances on the one hand, and the sperm whale’s snapping, toothy jaw, or the sweeping flukes of the right whale on the other; impressive action, no doubt, and worthy of a picture or two.

“December 16th, 1854. At daylight saw a shoal of sperm whales. Lowered all three boats and struck 4 and killed 3.”The above quotation is from the journal of Perry G. Wing of Westport, Massachusetts. He drew the above picture and recorded the successful whaling event in his journal kept onboard the bark Dunbarton of New Bedford, Mass., in 1854.  ODHS #967, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“December 16th, 1854. At daylight saw a shoal of sperm whales. Lowered all three boats and struck 4 and killed 3.”The above quotation is from the journal of Perry G. Wing of Westport, Massachusetts. He drew the above picture and recorded the successful whaling event in his journal kept onboard the bark Dunbarton of New Bedford, Mass., in 1854. ODHS #967, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Not all whalemen drew pictures of what they had seen but enough did to record, better than words can describe, what it meant to hunt these great marine mammals in the decades between 1820 and 1880 when fleet upon fleet of American ships roamed the oceans of the world killing whales for profit. Whaleman Francis Allyn Olmsted (1819-1844) in the preface to his published whaling narrative Incidents of a Whaling Voyage allowed that: “embellishments of this kind are often as essential in forming a correct idea of a scene, as the printed page itself… for a single glance gives a far more vivid idea… than the most elaborate description.” In their vessel’s logbooks and their own personal journals whalemen drew many pictures and after the hunt, engraved even more on the teeth and skeletal bones won of vanquished sperm whales, and upon the limber baleen plates of the equally hard-fought right and bowhead whales and on the snowy tusks of walruses. He occasionally went so far as to paint in oils or pastels, a more peaceable employment once ashore, and one, Robert Walter Weir, even became a professional magazine illustrator after his time in the whale fishery. Others, including Benjamin Russell of New Bedford went on to continue their careers as painters of whaling scenes for the larger public. Russell became famous as the creator of a traveling whaling panorama, a ship portraitist and a printmaker.

“May Friday 8, ’59. At 8 ½ A.M. Joe Kirby raised a school of sperm whales. Run down to them and hauled aback. 1st and 2nd Mate lowered down. The whales perceived us. The Captain lowered away and struck one. The whale stove him. The Mate got the Captain and killed the whale.” The above descriptive text is taken from Charles P. Dewey’s journal kept onboard the bark John Dawson of New Bedford, 1855-1859. It relates to an event that may also have been witnessed by Robert W. Weir (1836-1905), whaleman and professional magazine illustrator who was sailing in the same waters around Madagascar onboard the bark Clara Bell of Mattapoisett at the time and later drew the picture in Dewey’s journal. ODHS 590, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling

“May Friday 8, ’59. At 8 ½ A.M. Joe Kirby raised a school of sperm whales. Run down to them and hauled aback. 1st and 2nd Mate lowered down. The whales perceived us. The Captain lowered away and struck one. The whale stove him. The Mate got the Captain and killed the whale.” The above descriptive text is taken from Charles P. Dewey’s journal kept onboard the bark John Dawson of New Bedford, 1855-1859. It relates to an event that may also have been witnessed by Robert W. Weir (1836-1905), whaleman and professional magazine illustrator who was sailing in the same waters around Madagascar onboard the bark Clara Bell of Mattapoisett at the time and later drew the picture in Dewey’s journal. ODHS 590, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling

No matter the medium, however, when it comes to his artworks there is more to the picture than meets the eye. There was a real story alive behind every piece of whaleman’s art, but those specific stories have seldom been re-told in words or if they ever were, are lost to time. This is due in part to the nature of the pieces. Scrimshaw whaling scenes, vibrantly alive at the time of their making, found their life through the tales of their creators. They were the relics of his experience, gifts perhaps to his shipmates, family or friends, or worthless things made out of necessity to while away the inevitable tedium endemic to the profession, and kept for their private significance maybe only to their maker. As the creators disappeared, often so did their stories, but these engraved objects, with lost intents remain alluring, mostly disassociated from their makers and whatever it was he was trying to convey, and remarkably evocative.

This detailed whaling scene is engraved on a piece of panbone, that is, the skeletal jawbone of a sperm whale. Like many pieces of scrimshaw it is anonymous and in this particular case is possibly British. It shows successful sperm whaling around Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. NBW #2001.100.1226, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

This detailed whaling scene is engraved on a piece of panbone, that is, the skeletal jawbone of a sperm whale. Like many pieces of scrimshaw it is anonymous and in this particular case is possibly British. It shows successful sperm whaling around Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. NBW #2001.100.1226, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

When the artist drew his pictures in a logbook or journal, however, then those stories have the potential for re-creation. Associated text can sometimes provide clues as to why a particular scene or vessel was permanently recorded. Though the mediums of engraved scrimshaw and paper drawings are radically different, the latter can inform the former, because, for all intents and purposes they are the same – one simply has associated text. Except in rare cases where the stories of the pieces can be glimpsed through sometimes rewarding but almost always extensive and time-consuming research, scrimshaw whaling scenes are mute if powerful testaments to the whaler’s life.

As any hunter will tell you, preparation for the moment of action is vital to the success of the hunt. Hunters get themselves into position and then they wait. Similarly, the whaleman’s business as a hunter upon the high seas of animals that spend much of their time submerged, was of a nature that left him a great deal of excess time. As he cruised the whaling grounds, back and forth, day after day, or while making a passage from hunting ground to hunting ground, he often employed himself in recording in his journal the animals that he encountered, the scenes of the hunt, the picturesque sailing ships in the immediate vicinity and the careful outlining of the silhouettes of the often exotic, faraway islands and landfalls that only a world-faring seaman would encounter. As many of these places had seldom been seen by any Westerners at all his observations served the two-fold purpose of satisfying his own curiosity and creating a reference for future navigation. As a mariner in a culture that took commercial navigation very seriously indeed, he was often trained in and lived with a tradition of manuscript illustration. Manuscript maps and recognition drawings of landfalls, carefully and accurately rendered could literally mean life or death, the success or failure of the voyage, and the enabling of the navigation through the trackless oceans of the world.

John Martin of Wilmington, Delaware drew this recognition drawing showing the silhouette of one of the Samoan Island group in the South Pacific. Such drawings allowed mariners to positively identify landfalls at sea. Martin’s illustrated journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann  of Wilmington, 1841-1844 is one of the great illustrated American whaling journals. KWM #434, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

John Martin of Wilmington, Delaware drew this recognition drawing showing the silhouette of one of the Samoan Island group in the South Pacific. Such drawings allowed mariners to positively identify landfalls at sea. Martin’s illustrated journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, 1841-1844 is one of the great illustrated American whaling journals. KWM #434, Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The combination of these variables came to serve as deep wells of creativity. That creativity in turn served as an outlet for his feelings of patriotism, his eye-witness to tragedy, his obvious sense of wonder, his esprit de corps and frequently, the specificities of navigation questions. These are the roots of some of the stories told by the art of the American whaleman but there is more to the stories even than this. These are stories of his personal world exploration; they are of the ships that were his home on the deep and the violence that was his calling, considerable bloodshed and incredible natural phenomena. They are tales of loneliness, industry and, doubtless, more than a little bit of romance. Killing a sixty-foot animal with a twelve-foot spear from a thirty-foot boat with a team of five other guys in the midst of the fabled Galapagos Islands, admittedly, has a certain romance.

Pictures drawn by whalemen come from within a rich context and it is their similarities as well as their differences that speak most powerfully to their documentary nature as historical sources. Much can be learned from the comparative study of these illustrations and it is because that, so many of the these pictures, do, in fact, look alike, that historians, teachers and museum interpreters can ascribe some veracity to that which is being pictured. Sperm whales, for instance are often drawn seemingly exaggerated in size. Obviously this is because they are generally very large animals but what is even more telling is that the very largest animals are often drawn or noted. In one case the whaleman captioned his picture of a whaleboat going onto an enormous sperm whale “One of the whales you read of.” Such a statement implies that very large sperm whales were noteworthy and can give clues to modern researchers as to certain aspects of sperm whale biology from an earlier period of first-hand observation. It could also serve to underscore the whaleman’s very real desire to make as much oil as possible, fill their ship, go home and get paid, and additionally it can serve as evidence of some of the more social aspects of a whaleman’s life. When it comes to the study of maritime affairs, where so much of the action takes place far away the experience of most people, the art of the mariner becomes an indispensable interpretive tool and a joy to the enthusiast of vernacular art forms.