Rites and Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830-1870.

A delightful sociological study of American whaling and whalemen in the mid-nineteenth century, based largely on hundreds of sailors’ journals, diaries, and logs.

p. 12-14: Seamen also kept journals for themselves. Men who sought a raise in rank or who wanted to be seamanlike made careful notes of the wind, whale sightings, and sail changes. George Dyre, a first-time sailor, was handed a new book as he departed from home, along with directions for its use. “George,” wrote his uncle, “you are now about to embark on a whaling voyage and about to enter upon a new career of life—perhaps a few words advice from an experienced person may be of benefit to you.” George was reminded to write down everything he could, including the force of the wind, the passing of “large flocks of birds, Gulfweed, kelp,” and the latitude and longitude.

Journals served not only the interests of the upwardly mobile mariner but also the young man eager to improve his position in life more generally. Journal keeping was a means, said nineteen-year-old James Allen, “to improve my writing.” Samuel Chase, aboard the Arab in 1842, similarly claimed that making daily entries “gives a person practice in composition [and] penmanship and I am shure it is time well (at least not ill) employed.”

Greenhands, who were wide-eyed at the newness of life at sea, were among the most enthusiastic and prolific keepers of journals. They took to their pens to record everything from the first bout of seasickness to the first smashed whaleboat, and they describe shipboard life and work, landfalls, and liberty days with observant detail. Veteran seamen authored diaries, too, in their case not to record novelty but to relieve dull familiarity. Third mate Edwin Pulver was among many experienced whalemen who turned to his journals when boredom got the better of him. At the end of his voyage aboard the Columbus in 1852, he penned the following poem in honor of diary keeping:

Farewell old journal I love you well
Because of by gone days you tell
And I love you for other reasons too
One is because you allways give me something to do.

p. 103: Sailors themselves were occasionally eager and willing participants in programs for self-improvement and salvation. There were some men before the mast who experienced joyful conversion to the cause of Christ and who spent their dogwatch time earnestly contemplating their sins. But there were many men for whom the Bible and prayer books were not reading matter of choice. Ezra Greenough, aboard the Ann Parry in 1847, joined his shipmates in reading the Bible because “we have read everything else there is in the ship so much that we have it all by heart and we have talked over everything that has happened for the last ten years so we are read out and talked out.” Resorting to the Bible, Goodnough said, that it is time to go home.”

p. 124-25, in a chapter on the social structure of the forecastle: William Abbe, the Harvard alumnus who had joined a whaler to improve his health in 1858, endured a lengthy come uppance at the hands of his fellow sailors. Abbe arrived on board the bark Atkins Adams with a dangerous social agenda: he was eager to cement the social bond that he felt tied him to the aftercabin. He made it a point, for example, always to bow to the shipmaster’s wife, and he sought to impress the mate with his knowledge of oceanic physics. During his watch below he tried to distance himself from his shipmates by submerging himself in works by Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters, reading behind his bunk’s private curtain.

While he was laughed at for his literary proclivities and chided for his penchant for privacy, it was Abbe’s allegiance to the shipmaster’s wife that opened him to special rebuke. Because he “wanted to be smart before the ‘old woman,’ ” he refused to join some fellow sailors in a prank. Several members of the crew then chastised him by refusing to relieve him of duty at the ship’s wheel.

p. 126: As Abbe came to know and identify with his shipmates, even those trappings of his Harvard education, used initially to isolate himself from fellow sailors, became communal property. He read his journal to members of the watch, and he shared Shakespeare with them. They in turn let them know what they thought of his “fancy” literary interests and informed him of their biases against the Bard. One sailor in particular, said Abbe, was strongly prejudiced against the playwright:

John Come Lately – who is the comedy of my forecastle life – keeps me awake for near an hour every night by his ludicrous fears – that I will turn out in my sleep and throttle him or do him some murderous damage in a dream. He swears that I spout Shakespeare every night –…. He says I won’t live long if I read Shakespeare much more – for it’s a bad book & and will make me commit suicide.

p. 137 cites an incident of an auction of a dead sailors goods following his burial at sea. One sailor bought a used copy of Dana’s Sailor’s Friend for “one-fifty,” more than it would have cost new ashore.

p. 165: Women who sailed… sometimes made broad efforts to better to habits of seamen. Mary Chapman Lawrence of the Addison was among several captain’s wives who brought boxes full of Bibles and New Testaments aboard ship the distributed them generally to the men before the mast. [On Sundays] they might use the time to find a quiet place to pursue “some vile novel.” The contemplation of sin and salvation may have played a small part in the activities of this Holy Day.

p. 189-94 is a fascinating section male sexual interactions aboard ship, in the forecastle and beyond. Handles the question more than most books, though it doesn’t talk of any related reading on the subject.