The Voice of the Whaleman

The Voice of the Whaleman

A selection from The Voice of the Whaleman (1965)

by Stuart C. Sherman

Some years ago an antiquarian book dealer visited the Providence Public Library while on a tour of libraries and bookshops. After examining the special collections on Architecture, Children’s Books, Civil War and Slavery, Irish Culture, Printing and Whaling, he said, ‘You have some of the finest collections, but they are among the least known in this country!’ This book, then, reflects the library’s policy to begin telling the scholarly world about its resources.

The purpose of this book, at least initially, was to provide a printed list of manuscript logbooks in the Nicholson Whaling Collection so as to stimulate their use by scholars. As work on the manuscript progressed it became evident that its usefulness might be extended if its purpose was similarly expanded. The supplementary lists of ‘Masters’, ‘Clearance Dates’, ‘Ports’, ‘Keepers of Logbooks and Journals’ and ‘Non-whaling Logbooks and Journals’ were, therefore, added.

Manuscript whaling logbooks and journals have never been described bibliographically, nor has there been any attempt to classify or describe the commercial, consulate and customs records relating to the whaling industry. This is, therefore, the first attempt to bring a semblance of order to a field heretofore uncharted. I make no pretense of having described all the records relating to the industry, but only those, which are present in the Nicholson Collection and may be found in other collections. With the exception of United States Consular Correspondence in the National Archives, these records, which have survived, is known to all who work in this field. Clifford W. Ashley estimated in 1926 that perhaps one logbook in ten had escaped the rubbish heap. He later revised his estimate to one in fifty, which we now know to be a gross exaggeration.

From the information gathered by Alexander Starbuck and Reginald B. Hegarty 13,927 voyages are known to exist, or about one-fourth of the known voyages. If limited to official logbooks, the proportion would more nearly approximate Ashley’s first estimate.

The Nicholson Collection contains one-fourth of the logbooks and journals known to exist, but only six per cent of the voyages known to have been made. With concerted effort other records will come to light but it is doubtful if thirty per cent of the logbooks and private journals relating to this great industry have survived.

It is a tragedy that the descendants of whalemen have insisted on retaining these records within their families for this has accounted for untold losses by fire, paper salvage drives, attic cleaning projects and their use as scrapbooks. Individuals possessing such records are strongly urged to give or deposit them in libraries or museums which are fireproof, air conditioned and accessible to scholars at all times. There is a tax advantage to such a step and photo copies may be secured for retention by donors.

This book has another purpose, which is to serve as the beginning of a world census of logbooks and journals of American whaling vessels. Work on this inventory will be amplified so as to include the holdings of other institutions and private collections.

It is hoped that the ‘voice of the whaleman’ recorded here can be offered some day as a collection of original narratives. An account of the Nicholson Whaling Collection

In 1920 Paul C. Nicholson, Providence industrialist, wrote to Colonel George Shepley, a noted collector of Rhode Islandiana. In thanking him for a copy of The Loss of the Lexington, he added: ‘Howard [Chapin] has probably told you that I am starting to get material for a small nautical library’. Two weeks later he sent orders to three booksellers for books which may have constituted the beginnings of the collection. It is probably more than coincidental that among them there was an order for History of the American Whale Fishery by Alexander Starbuck. This purchase revealed his awareness that Starbuck was the ‘No. 1 book for anyone interested in this subject’. It was later carefully bound in brown pigskin with the words MY TEXT BOOK stamped in gold on the spine. When Starbuck was purchased it is doubtful that Mr. Nicholson could visualize the scope of the collection which he was to build and, in 1956, bequeath to the Providence Public Library.

In a very few months he established himself among booksellers and auction houses as a collector with a wide range of nautical interests. His early orders were for books on privateering, bucaneering, pirates, whaling, shipwrecks, naval subjects, voyages and travel, South Seas, seamanship, Rhode Island history, Melville and ship models. Any one of these might have furnished a suitable subject for a collection.

It is not known precisely when he conceived the idea of building his great whaling collection. Such decisions usually evolve slowly. It is possible, however, to speculate that certain events over a period of several years had a catalytic effect on its eventual design.

In 1921 Raymond M. Weaver published the first biography of Herman Melville and thereby stimulated recognition of Melville and a revival of interest in Moby Dick. A year later the Whaling Film Corporation released the motion picture ‘Down To The Sea In Ships’ which captured the interest of New Englanders who were observers of the dying whaling industry. Other events which could not have escaped Mr. Nicholson’s notice were the wreck of the last square-rigged whaling vessel Wanderer on Cuttyhunk Island during an August ‘blow’ in 1924, the return of the schooner Margarett from a short whaling voyage in the Atlantic on the previous day, the conversion of the Charles W. Morgan into a ‘monument to a dead industry’ and the publication of Clifford W. Ashley’s famous book The Yankee Whaler in 1926.

He may have been influenced to narrow his collecting by the mere availability of manuscript logbooks, which came to his attention in increasing numbers. He had virtually no competition to gather the records of a vanished industry.

In 1932 he stated in a letter to a dealer that he was interested only in manuscript logbooks of whaling voyages. Three years later he was ‘getting to the point where he must specialize’. Such statements continued in his letters to dealers. ‘I have no place for whaling paintings’, or ‘I am afraid I have to concentrate entirely on whaling, and even then will have to do something to get more room for my logs.’

In the process of collecting, Mr. Nicholson adopted principles that guided his selection of logbooks and account books. He never bought logbooks without seeing them and had ‘absolutely no room for anything except complete logs’. He rarely visited bookstores or antique shops, but requested that material be sent to him on approval, priced by the dealer.

He adhered strictly to what he considered a fair price formula; as a result of which he set, to a certain degree, the going price on logbooks. This he could virtually do as the leading collector. In a letter to a dealer on July 16, 1942, he stated: ‘An ordinary log of a four year trip is worth approximately $25 to which one might add $5 if there are a quantity of whale stamps, and perhaps $5 for color. Two year logs are worth from $15 to $20 depending on their interest and condition.’ He seldom, if ever, wavered from these guides.

Frequently he would be advised by auction houses that his bids were low but he never revised them. The bids were submitted on the basis of his experience in buying. If the prices exceeded his figures the logbooks were declined. On more than one occasion he was known to have refused those which seemed overpriced, though desirable. But the dealers, aware of other channels, often sold the logbooks to his mother, who presented them to him on special occasions.

By 1946 his collection had grown to a figure in excess of 400 logbooks and he had to take further steps to make room. By writing to several dealers he began to prune non-whaling material in order to provide additional space, despite the fact that the huge library in his home had deep shelves from floor to ceiling on parts of four walls.

Mr. Nicholson was not a collector just for the sake of acquisition. His intimate knowledge of the contents of his manuscripts is revealed in the catalog which he maintained. Every logbook, journal, account book and outfitting book was carefully recorded on cards and filed by vessel. That he read his manuscripts is revealed in the detailed notations on the cards, with the date of unusual incidents, for example: ‘2 men a fiting [sic]. Called them aft and tied them together’; ‘Capt’s wife gave birth to a 10 lb. Son –Capt. Quite sick’; ‘Cooper employed killing bedbugs’; or ‘Body of captain brought back in brine’.

Mr. Nicholson was fully aware of the significance of his collection to the world of scholarship and in his quiet, reserved manner was most generous to those who sought his aid. Librarians, whaling and naval historians, students of Melville, an Arctic explorer (Vilhjalmur Stefansson), American governmental agencies, archival departments of foreign governments and many institutions found him receptive to their queries. The name of Paul C. Nicholson appears in the acknowledgments of numerous marine books published during the last twenty years and they are better books because of his generosity in permitting writers to use his collection.

Many logbooks acquired by Mr. Nicholson had been used as scrapbooks by wives and children of whaling masters. In them he found letters, poems, recipes and the latest styles clipped from the newspaper or a ladies’ magazine. He developed a method of spraying steam generated by a portable boiler onto the pages of the logbook. The pasted items could then be peeled off without harming either paper or ink, thus salvaging the records of another voyage.

Mr. Nicholson’s own contribution to the literature of whaling was the publication of Abstracts from a Journal Kept Aboard the Ship Sharon of Fairhaven on a Whaling Voyage in the South Pacific, 1841-1845. It was privately printed by Rosalind and Paul Nicholson in 1953 in an edition of 250 copies. The book is an edited version of the cooper’s journal which related the account of the bloody mutiny during which the third mate, Benjamin Clough, a young man of twenty-one, re-took the ship. A microfilm copy of Clough’s own journal is available in the collection through the courtesy of his grandson, Professor Benjamin C. Clough.
Spanning the period from 1762 to 1922, the collection, including recent additions, now consists of 836 manuscript logbooks, journals and account books. The earliest item is a journal of the sloop Sandwich (698) of Nantucket, and the most recent is the logbook of the schooner Gaspe (302) of Gloucester. The latter voyage was made to the West Indies for the purpose of filming parts of the motion picture ‘Down To The Sea In Ships’. There are numerous groups of correspondence including 104 letters from Samuel Rodman of New Bedford to William Logan Fisher of Philadelphia concerning the whale oil business between 1809 and 1829. Thousands of business records involved in the outfitting of vessels, the sale of oil and the settlement of voyages are stored in thirteen sea chests. Together with the logbooks or journals, a complete economic and narrative record for certain voyages could, thus, be written.

Also available are nearly 3,000 marine insurance policies containing measurements and construction details of whaling vessels; photographic prints and negatives of whaling vessels and scrimshaw; three boat models in whalebone, including an excellent scale model of a whaleboat with all the fittings; and scarce wooden stamps carved by whalemen in the form of whales and ships which were used to record ships sighted and whales sighted or captured. There is a small collection of printed books and pamphlets which include such rarities as the Owen Chase narrative of the sinking of the Essex by a whale; the account of the Globe mutiny; sea letters, shipping lists, crew lists, outfitting books, New Bedford directories, signal books, almanacs and Ship Registers. Files of newspapers valuable for marine intelligence include The Whalemen’s Shipping List, The Friend, The Polynesian and The Sandwich Island Gazette. In all, nearly 15,000 items make up this rich collection. Its size and scope is noteworthy in that it resulted chiefly from the collection efforts of one man.
What was there about these logbooks that provided the fascination of the chase to the collector? Musty, space consuming, often phonetically spelled and illegible, they offered none of the factors that book collectors cherish in gilt-edge areas of collecting. Even to the dry-land whaleman in the security of a steady armchair, reading logbooks can be a tedious experience often comparable to that of reading a dictionary. There are plenty of characters but they are not developed. There is little, if any, plot and the only rising and falling action is in the constant motion of the vessel. No words were wasted in eh tedious recording of wind, weather and whales nor in citing other less routine events of the voyage, for example: ‘Sighted whales. Loard [sic] boats. Took 1’; or ‘Cook sick, goes over side. Nothing seen but his cap.’

Hardship and disaster, monotony and homesickness were only occasionally relieved by a gam with another vessel or liberty on a Pacific Island. But the determined reader will find in these pages all the ills that sailors fall heir to – enough material to stir the imagination of writers for years to come. There are accounts of castaways, mutinies, desertions, floggings, women stowaways, drunkenness, illicit shore leave experiences, scurvy, fever, collisions, fire at sea, stove boats, drownings, hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, shipwrecks, ships struck by lightinning, men falling from the masthead, hostile natives, barratry, brutal skippers, escape from Confederate raiders, hard luck voyages and ships crushed by ice.

A fuller indexing of the information stored in the Nicholson Whaling Collection would reveal a geographic list of places visited by whalemen; a list of unusual occurrences, such as descriptions of storms, atmospheric and astronomical phenomena; accounts of winds and temperature of air and water; tide, current, reef and ice conditions; times of the year when the Arctic Ocean can be entered via Bering Strait; wintering-in conditions at Herschel Island and other locations; records of the locations of whales at different times of the year; observations on the fauna and flora; soundings and discoveries of unchartered rocks, reefs and islands; illustrations of ships, whales, landfalls and house flags; names of wives and children who accompanied captains; the effect of the Civil War on whaling; lists of vessels gammed or sighted; lists of deserters; and original poetry and whaling ballads. These manuscripts will also yield information of historical, scientific, geographical, genealogical and anthropological value.

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