From Edinburgh to the Antarctic: An Artist’s Notes and Sketches during the Dundee Antarctic Expedition 1892-93, with a Chapter by W. S. Bruce.

One of the most delightful, witty, sardonic, and intelligent of early Antarctic accounts. Burn Murdoch shipped aboard the Balæna with his friend William Speirs Bruce in 1892. This is an account of that journey. Bruce, later well-known for the Scotia expedition, was the ship’s surgeon and naturalist and Murdoch assistant surgeon and ship’s artist. This expedition recorded the first photographs of Antarctica. Murdoch has a good deal of respect for the intelligence of the foc’sle men.

p. 33, during a spell of good weather: We have turned out all our wet books on deck, and got our bunks dry, …

p. 50-1: We brought forth Kipling’s Ballads to-day for the general diversion. The writer is wrong to suggest, in one of his poems, that a thirst can only be raised somewhere ‘East of Suez.’ We are considerably west of that, and the thirst raised by this warm weather and salt sea air is remarkable! …

The men did not rise to Kipling’s Tommy Atkins rhymes at all; but it was a treat to see how ‘The Bolivar’ went down. How they cussed when they read it! Not one of our old hands but had sailed on just such a coffin-ship,—old, over-insured, undermanned, meant to founder.

p. 55-6: It is a pity we have so few books on board. Our men are fond of reading, but unfortunately all the literature supplied for them consists of a very juvenile style of literature, mostly pamphlets and tracts. Philanthropic persons might lend a few good books to such a large ship’s company when going on so long a cruise; Scott, Shakespeare, or the like, how they would be appreciated! The men have the utmost reverence for books. The few I was able to lend forward, came back, after being read by the crew, carefully covered, and as unthumbed as if they had come from the printer’s.

I had a look at some of the above-mentioned literature, which is served out to the crew in weekly instalments. The bound volumes are sent on board for cabin use, and the pamphlets for the crew. The first piece was called Discontented Fanny, a simple tale with a moral, about a little girl who coveted another little girl’s frock, or whose own frock did not fit—I forget which; but it seemed to me hardly the sort of thing to give a man to read on a nine months’ cruise. Sermons in Candles was a book with a binding, sent for the cabin. It dealt, in extremely subtle allegories, of candles and ethics. One hundred and sixty-nine pages of similes there were, between candles (wax and tallow) and religious principle: e.g., ‘If you have no candle-stick, a ginger-beer bottle does mightily well. How often our Lord has used men of scanty education!’ This may be true, but is it not a pity that such similes should have to rough it on a whaler! All thanks, though, to those who gave the books: their intentions were kindly.

p. 85—picture of man reading.

p. 100, while sailing through tropics: Hammocks—cigars—Nature—lent Sir James Ross’s Antarctic Voyage to Allan, Spectioneer. The boys are devouring it. The night is hot and breathless—so hot my candle is soft and droops on one side, and I try to support it with matches; but it will not stand up, so drawing must be stopped. Of all weakly things a melting candle looks the weakest.

p. 110: Bruce has taken to Scott, which is a sign that the times are leisurely, not necessarily slow; and I listen to the songs of Ossian, and the past and the present and the future seem all to be one.

p. 116: Philosophy, science, and art you may discuss in a crofter’s cottage, but they are too fragile beauties for the life on a Dundee whaler; and it is difficult to dilate on the relation of protoplasm to cellulæ, or expatiate on the subtleties of Monticelli, when every moment you expect the soup kettle to take charge of the cabin….

I would here take this opportunity of giving to the world my still unpatented cure for all nervous diseases; it is simplicity itself, and as assistant surgeon to the Balæna, at one shilling per month, I will guarantee its efficacy:—

Advertisement. —After meals retire to your hammock. The hammock must be hung on board a sailing ship somewhere near the line (no use on a steamer), and must be in some quiet, shady place on deck, under the boats or an awning, with a view of passing clouds and dancing sunlit waves. Take with you a pipe and a book—it is immaterial whether there is anything in either of them, I merely suggest them for those unrestful mortals who can’t do nothing without pretending to do something. Spend twelve hours out of the twenty-four in this retirement, two hours after meals, and eight after bedtime, neither reading, thinking, nor smoking too hard. If after you have attended to these instructions for the space of two calendar months you still feel no better, I would advise you to give up your case.

p. 118-19: After tea, Bruce and I go up into a high place (one of the quarter-boats) and there read Darwin’s Voyage, or H. R. Mill’s Realm of Nature, and ‘the seas that mourn in flowing purple for their lord forlorn’ seem to rise and fall in tune with one grand purpose, and we read Arthur Thomson’s Animal Life, that poetry book with the dry name, and we feel as we read that we need no other than these two books, for they put our hands in the palm of Nature, and the long voyage loses its monotony, the ocean veil lifts, and we grope for beautiful shells in its silent depths; above and below new worlds open to our eyes, and each wave, as it bursts against our bow a shower of gold in the evening light, or surges past, darkly, in the shadow of the bulwarks, seems to pulsate with infinite, lovely life.

As the darkness falls we get down on deck and perhaps chat with the watch. What an interesting library these warm-hearted sailors make! Old-fashioned books—with ragged bindings, perhaps, but full of the most interesting wide-world stories. Then I light my pipe and turn into my bunk, whilst Bruce by candle-light adds the little store that he has gathered in the day from the Infinite, to the Finite of science.

p. 121—still in tropics, illustrating Ossian.

p. 124, Murdoch drawing Bruce while reading, only to find he was actually asleep.

p. 127-9: I nearly lost my Ossian to-day—my much-thumbed, traveled, weather-worn, dog-eared Ossian. I was making pencil notes for illustrations…, when a lump of green sea came aboard and turned my notes into water colours….

Ossian to my mind is the only poet you can listen to in the open air. In this fine wild weather, when the wind rises and sings, you cannot hear other poets at all. He is the poet for sailors and soldiers and hunters, for all men who have lived under open skies and slept on the earth’s bare breast….

p. 130—nice passage on sailor’s yarns.

p. 132-3, while approaching the Falklands: To-day the cook’s galley was taken down and stowed below, and now Peter cooks in the focsle. This has the advantage of keeping the focsle warm and dry, but it makes the place very crowded; there are some thirty-seven living there, lying on shelves, two on each shelf; what with their chests and wet clothes, want of light and air, and the vermin and smells from the bilge, it’s a wonder to me the men can live. One can scarcely stand upright in it, yet they make merry over the miserable housing. They had the option of staying at home, of course, and starving. I would be ashamed to keep a dog in the place myself.

p. 144-5, during heavy weather east of Falklands: At night we turned our thoughts to serious things, as who would not in such heavy weather? We read some ‘Sunday books,’ which had been supplied by the same wholesale firm in Liverpool that supplied our ship’s biscuits. The biscuits are good, but the literature is not. The tract I read to-day wound up with this exhortation: ‘I hope this story will make my young readers kinder to cats. It is sinful and cruel to throw stones at them. It is far better to do as the little rhyme says:—

‘I love little pussy, its coat is so warm,
And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm.’

There is a good deal of common sense and pictorial suggestiveness in ‘the little rhyme,’ but it does not come up to the quality of the biscuits. People who send these papers on board should bear in mind that there are not always cats on board ship, and seldom stones to throw at them. We had a cat—I have referred to it already [thrown overboard with rock around its neck]; it was treated with the greatest consideration to the last, and we have got nothing but gales for our kindness.

p.145, doesn’t know names of birds: unfortunately, owing to my hurried exodus from Edinburgh, I was unable to bring books on bird life in the South Seas; we have in consequence to give our bird companions names that would scarcely be recognized by scientists at home.

p. 200, after leaving Falklands 14 Dec. enroute South: We have spent many good hours in these last days reading newspapers that are dated up to the end of last October, and feel no way the better for it. The Lord be praised we are free of social interests for a time at least, and a newspaper is only valuable as paper.

[There is very little about reading after arrival in the Antarctic, apart from the following passages:]

p. 219: I learn here, as any one may learn by reading Kipling’s ‘Bolivar,’ that there is as much of the Romance of the Sea, to use a rather pretty term, in the stoke-hole of a Whaler or an ocean tramp as in any of the old South Spainers.

p. 243-44, Bruce and Murdoch joining Dr. Donald of the Active: We had many notes about bird-life to compare, and knotty questions in medicine to discuss, to the solving of which, as assistant surgeon, I lent my most attentive hearing, and all three bewailed the utter commercialism of the expedition. Is it not a hideous marvel that Dundonians should show such splendid enterprise as to send four ships our here for whales, and at the same time show total disregard for the scientific possibilities of such a cruise? [This is of course a point of view which Bruce brought to the Scotia expedition.]

p. 249-50: …Called on my friend ‘The Chief’ to-night. ‘The Chief’ is the title of Mr. Broch, our first engineer, who lives below with the second engineer in the dark engine-room—a life apart from the sailors. We play dominoes down there by the light of a smoking miner’s lamp. The temperature is pleasant and warm, and we discuss matters of high import. To-night we went right through Scotch history, dating and discussing the Stuarts from the sons of Banquo to Queen Victoria. Broch must have left school a half century ago, yet he knew far more about the subject than I did, and I have been grinding at it for months. So much for the education of our old country schools.

p. 278, on sealing: “It is tedious, back-breaking, profitless work all this, and it astonishes me to see men take it all so easily. Is it not a fortunate thing for society that so much contentment comes with hard work?

p. 289-90: Would that I owned this ship and this good crew even for three summer months in the Antarctic. Just such a vessel as this could be chartered and fitted out with men, scientists, provisions, and all necessaries for a year’s exploration for about £5000…. One vessel, or two in consort, could chart the whole of the unknown Southern Continent. Think of this, ye rich who dream of knighthood and more riches! For £10,000 this chance is going, cheap, I call it—a chance to write your names in Big Type on the maps of the world…; and if you don’t bid for the South Pole, some bold Yankee and his fair lady will be down there before you get under way, and then—there will be no new place under the sun!

p. 300-01, while visiting aboard the Norwegian whaler Jason: Some of these Norwegian sailors were superior sort of men, and I was surprised to find myself discussing books and music with one of the focsle hands. He took me down to the men’s quarters, and handed me quite a number of books that he had read on the voyage out, for which I agreed to send him others in exchange. … “Fancy talking of art, music, and literature in a focsle! And these men knew what they were talking about…. They said their only really happy time was when they pulled-to the sliding-doors of their bunks and read by the light of a small lamp. Imagine shutting yourself up in a frosty box six feet by three, with a book and an oil lamp, and calling it happiness.!

p. 348, on return to Stanley in Falklands: Then we saw newspapers and heard of the affairs of States and Empires, but what interested us most, was eating gooseberries and red currants in February.

[A delightful book, droll, unsentimental, sardonic, but full of the convictions of a scientist and environmentalist (see p. 278-79). Last chapter of naturalist description of the trip is by Bruce, and it is fair to say that the collaboration of Bruce and Murdoch on this trip led to the Scotia expedition.]