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.