An artful account of nineteenth-century whaling, with fascinating chapters on the overall industry, crime and punishment, relations and legal complications with US consular officials, desertion, religion, women (prostitutes and wives), ceremonial occasions, and an Honolulu riot.
p. 121-22, on the dubious iniquity of Sabbath whaling: Custom, inasfar as it applied at all, dictated that whalers whaled when they found whales, whatever the day. Melville’s Captain Bildad, speaking for the Pequod’s owners in Moby Dick [ch. 22], put it squarely: “Don’t whale it too much a’ Lord’s days, men; but don’t miss a fair chance either, that’s rejecting Heaven’s good gifts.” The actual owner’s instructions for the Condor’s 1844 sailing were very similar. “I put on board a number of books & a large quantity of papers and tracts which you will loan to them [the crew] at all proper times & tho I do not wish whaling to be neglected on Sunday, I wish the men sh’d on that day, clean and dress themselves & perform no more than is necessary.”
p. 122, following those mixed messages: Others began with pure intentions but succumbed to temptation. On the bark Brunette of Falmouth, the captain, who had handed out religious tracts at the start of the voyage, “concluded not to stand mast heads on Sunday,” and without lookouts at the mastheads, the chance of seeing whales to chase was much diminished. The crew passed the time singing hymns.
p. 125: Though occasionally a captain’s wife might distribute tracts and the like (Mary Chapman Lawrence let her daughter go forward with tracts in a baby carriage to hand out), they very seldom did more than encourage their husbands in their own piety or study the Bible with their children.
p. 127-28, on John Diell, a missionary chaplain who was sent to the Sandwich Islands in 1833 to minister to whalemen in Honolulu. William Davis described Diell in a memoir published in 1874: The chaplain boarded every ship as soon as possible, often ahead of the land sharks and crimps’ runners “and extended the welcome of a brother to the humblest and worst. Sitting on a chest in the forecastle, he would inquire about the voyage and the men’s needs, informing that a good library and a quiet comfortable reading room, with facilities for writing home, were provided ashore. He not only invited the men to these privileges, but also to his home, where he said he would be glad to see them, and he generally left a Bible for each man desiring one.” [Davis, William. Nimrod of the Sea. New York: Harper, 1874, p. 93-94]
p. 135-47, Chapter 8. “Whalemen’s Women, Whalemen’s Wives,” There are two sections in Busch’s chapter on women in the South Seas. The first, on prostitution and general availability of women in the islands contains nothing on the reading of either client or provider. The second is on the wives of whalemen and their boredom and monotony.
p. 149: Some whaling wives adjusted well to their very limited world, finding ways to fill their days—especially if they had children to raise. Reading, sewing, and various domestic tasks were possible, but really only within the confines of the captain’s cabin and sitting room, and the quarterdeck in reasonable weather. …
p. 150: It would be an error, however, to generalize on the basis of these examples, however forceful. Even the best adapted of whaling wives suffered from loneliness and boredom; these feelings, coupled with the sheer incapacity to govern their own lives (except perhaps in the education of their children), are in fact the dominant themes of most of the many logs and journals that survive. Sarah Smith, aboard the bark John P. West of New Bedford, may perhaps stand as an example of the demoralizing tedium. 21 February 1883: “Blowing a Gale trying to boil [i.e., boil oil in the tryworks] but hard work. nothing for me as usual.” 13 May: “Moderate nothing to be seen & nothing to be done.” 1 June: “I do not much knit lace and read it is getting tedious.” 13 August: “It has been some time since I have written any in this book but there is nothing to write about we have seen nothing nor no body hopeing to some time. Have not done my Patchwork yet getting Lazy.” Even the same Mrs. Fisher whose veteran gloating is quoted admitted much the same: “I spend a great many hours in this little cabin alone during the whaling season, and if I were not fond of reading and sewing, I would be very lonely.”
Elizabeth Stetson, aboard the bark E. Corning with her husband, left a similarly revealing record. An experienced sailor, she was determined to make the most of her voyage, taking over one hundred books for leisure reading and noting each by title in her journal as it was completed, usually without remark—though she found Fielding “decidedly vulgar, & coarse. P. p. 153: She gave much effort to the education of her six-year-old son; she sewed; she cooked; she read, or at least taught, the Bible to small Charley….
Aside from the seasickness, such trials were found at home, but the boredom was something else. 1 May 1861, a year and a half at sea: What unsatisfactory life this is; day after day the same monotonous existence I think some times that we ‘never’ shall see whales again.