Author Archives: mpdyer

Maritime Curator presents at 4th Whaling History Symposium

Kendall Whaling Museum alumni Michael Dyer, Joost Schokkenbroek and Hayato Sakurai all presented at Sndefjord whaling history conference this June.

Kendall Whaling Museum alumni Michael Dyer, Joost Schokkenbroek and Hayato Sakurai all presented at Sandefjord whaling history conference this June.

This conference, which took place June 20-21, was organized under the auspices of Vestfold Museums and the Hvalfangstmuseet of Sandefjord. There were about forty attendees from thirteen nations. It took place at the Clarion Atlantic Hotel in Sandefjord, a large facility entirely decorated with installations of modern whaling equipment, art and architectural elements amassed as the personal collection of the hotel’s owner. Sixteen papers were selected for presentation from a pool of over thirty-five submissions in the call for papers – their largest response to date. Part of the reason for the large response is that the proceedings are published in an esteemed and useful hard-bound format.

Several of the papers were in direct response to previous articles published in the proceedings of previous symposia and collectively are building a body of work on certain subjects including the history of science and Soviet whaling. This kind of accrued knowledge effectively creates the sort of intellectual environment attractive to scholars. Additionally the opportunity for like-minded scholars, curators, enthusiasts and students to gather, talk and exchange ideas in a convivial atmosphere was one of greatest benefit and stated by the organizers to be of equal importance to the presentations. Many of the presenters had used the resources of the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library and while all agreed that the resources were wonderful, most were more impressed with the level of service and professional assistance that they received while visiting in person. This is not the case in many research facilities according to several people.
Several of the papers dealt with modern whaling, as one might image. Alex Aguilar’s paper on the shore station of the Iberian Peninsula in the 20th century was particularly insightful with new analysis of the successes and failures of these shore stations.

Hayato Sakurai gave a superb overview of the history of the Taiji Whale Museum that combined town and national politics, public relations, whales, whaling and tourism. Oral history, general regional references and one particularly interesting paper on the history of whaling at Santa Catarina Island in Brazil contributed to a well-rounded look at the subjects.

Throughout the conference, the questions of globalization, global economic interactions, global environmental impacts and whaling as important driver of 19th and 20th century international affairs came to the fore. Both the U.S.A. and Norway had strong influences on other nations through whaling. This was a very academic symposium with few papers addressing collections, museums and their influence, or other such non-paper-based research projects.

Dyer’s was the final paper of the symposium. Entitled “Why black whales are called right whales” it combined art, history, biology and the history of science into one large humanities-based analysis of language, whaling and taxonomy in relationship to the world’s most endangered whale, Eubalaena glacialis.

The proceedings are due to be published next year.

Advertisements

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.

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.