Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Matthew and Rachel Howland

UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed another project in the Research Library. This time Emily worked on Manuscript Collection #135 (Mss 135) and produced a full finding aid in addition to her reflections below:

Matthew and Rachel Howland were the power couple of 19th century New Bedford: Matthew, co-owner of George Howland & Sons, worked diligently to make the family whaling business a success. While his brother, George, was the face of the business, Matthew monitored the fitting and repair of all the vessels, the sale of oil in foreign ports, the running of the candle-making factory and the hiring of captains and crews. His wife, Rachel, stood as “queen of New Bedford society,” serving as a minister in the Society of Friends for over 50 years and donating to the city of New Bedford through multiple acts of philanthropy. As an activist, Rachel founded multiple institutions for the betterment of society – the Ladies City Mission Society (1868), Association for the Relief of Aged Women (1866), Children’s Aid Society (1891) were just some of the contributions. She was an important individual in the abolitionist movement on a local, regional, and national scale.

Though the collection gives no information on how they met, it does contain the beginning of their relationship. From 1840 to 1842, Matthew sent multiple letters to Rachel, who lived in Burlington, New Jersey. The first letter, written November 20, 1840, appears to be in response to one of Rachel’s. Though not explicitly stated, one can infer that Matthew had proposed a courtship correspondence with her, which she turns down in favor of “at least another year must pass away without further communication.” Matthew, obviously hurt by this, professes his love and his promise to wait for her.

His regular correspondence, however, begins in 1841, waiting the appropriate amount of time before apologizing for the previous letter and asking Rachel to burn it. His letters then go onto detail his life as he takes on responsibility within George Howland and Sons, and the Society of Friends’ meetings he attends.

Several visits are made by Matthew to Rachel’s home of West Hill. It appears they refer to the manor house as “the asylum,” though no explanation is given as to why. Though the collection lacks Rachel’s side of the correspondence, we can infer that her feelings do change for Matthew, as he changes his salutation from “Esteemed Friend” to “My Dearest Chelly” in a letter dated October 1841. We also learn some of Rachel’s fears in marrying Matthew – primarily, the fear of leaving her entire life behind in New Jersey for the “strange land” of New Bedford. Matthew reassures her that he will do as much as possible to make her feel at home here once they are to be married.

Their engagement begins in January of 1842, though it is not official until Matthew’s uncle Isaac sends his approval for the marriage a month later. Very little is stated about the marriage itself, but primarily focuses on events near the chosen date – specifically, Matthew’s excitement of a trip to Niagara with friends Samuel and Sarah.

For an unknown reason, Rachel requested to delay their marriage until September. (One can assume that Michael’s responsibilities in New Bedford, which had significantly increased, were taking a significant amount of time.) Matthew agrees to this request somewhat reluctantly, as it means they cannot attend an event in Niagara. The date September 8th is mentioned as the future date for marriage. Though the letters end in August, records elsewhere indicate that the couple did indeed get married on that date. The final letter of correspondence from October 1847 refers to Rachel as his wife, mentions their daughter Susy [Susanna], and is signed “thy sincerely attached + loving husband.”

The Howlands were major players in New Bedford’s economic and social scene, and their story starts right here – in Mss 135. Matthew’s letters to his future wife preserve a story of friendship, of love, and most importantly, of ambition.

If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this manuscript collection, please call Mark Procknik at the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.

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.