In Maritime Logbooks, a Trove of ‘Extraordinary’ Imagery
During the 19th century, travelers on whaling ships used art to record dramatic and sometimes gory events. In official logbooks and personal journals, sailors and passengers listed sea routes, weather conditions, whale-oil harvests, ship repairs and stops for provisions. In pen, pencil and watercolor, they added drawings of heaving whales in their death throes dragging boats, bleeding whale carcasses being torn apart and seamen’s coffins lowered into the ocean.
Michael P. Dyer, the senior maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, is tracking down these illustrations for a book, “The Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt: Manuscript Illustration in the Age of Sail.” Some journals contain just one meticulously detailed image because, Mr. Dyer said, “in the middle of the voyage, something extraordinary happened.”
The last major study of the subject appeared in the 1980s. Illustrated whaling journals are now on display in the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibition “Mapping Ahab’s ‘Storied Waves’ — Whaling and the Geography of ‘Moby-Dick,’” about cartographic resources that Herman Melville’s vengeful main character would have used to find the white behemoth that bit off his lower leg.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum owns 2,300 logbooks. About 100 are digitized and online, and more digitizing is in progress. The museum has been acquiring them, as gifts and purchases, for more than a century. (Heavily illustrated volumes can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each.) One-third of the collection’s logbooks contain some kind of drawing, including simple outlines of whales in the margins or tableaus detailed with ship rigging; portraits of particular American Indian and African-American crewmen; marine creatures’ fin and fluke silhouettes; and the animals’ wounds from gunshots, lances and harpoons.
The drawings at times reveal mishaps: broken tools and ropes, escaped whales and the untethered bodies of whales that sank. Each logbook could cover several trips around the world and contain writings and images from numerous shipmates. Sailors would share drawings onboard, they critiqued one another’s art, and they sometimes worked on commission for officers. A number of the identifiable artists, including Joseph Bogart Hersey and Joseph Washington Tuck, were based in Provincetown, Mass., where a culture of maritime sketching seems to have arisen. “To this day, Provincetown is an artists’ colony,” Mr. Dyer observed.
He can sometimes pinpoint not only the dates of the incidents but also the ships’ geographic coordinates at the relevant moment. “You can, in many, many cases, identify the event,” he said.
In 1864, a young Massachusetts man, Amos C. Baker Jr., sketched his own accident off the Patagonian coast; a whale smashed his boat, and his leg was broken in two places. “Getting cracked” was Mr. Baker’s caption for the logbook picture. After healing for a few months in his cabin, he returned to work as a third mate, hobbling on crutches and leaning on oars.
“He was in misery for the rest of the voyage, and he was lame for the rest of his life,” Mr. Dyer said. Mr. Baker, who later worked as a lighthouse keeper, probably took some comfort in knowing that in an act of vengeance that Captain Ahab would have admired, his shipmates slaughtered the whale that had slammed into him.
A handful of women, traveling with husbands who were ship officers, contributed drawings to sea journals. The New Bedford Whaling Museum owns Lydia Tuck’s watercolors of hunts off the West African coast, which she produced in the 1850s while accompanying her husband, Francis Tuck, the ship’s master and a brother of the artist Joseph Tuck. She was pleased at their large oil harvest from “a noble whale,” she wrote, although “it seems cruel to kill them.”
Other institutions, including the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, have begun digitizing illustrated logbooks. Yale University has posted pages from a journal that the Yale-educated writer Francis Allyn Olmsted produced around 1840, during a sailing voyage from the Northeastern United States to the Pacific Islands and back. Mr. Olmsted recorded whale carcasses amid choppy waves; weapons used in hunting expeditions; costumes worn by islanders; and encounters with icebergs, snow, hail and gales. He apologized for the quality of his workmanship on the page: “My friends must remember the great disadvantages I labor under in drawing, as for instance the constant motion of the ship.”
Unsigned sketches, untraceable so far to any identifiable voyage, have turned up tucked inside logbooks, and some illustrations have apparently been removed from logbooks and turned into framed art, disconnected from their original narratives. Mr. Dyer has also found journals that illustrate seamen’s hunting triumphs on specific whaleboats, although other archival records of the voyages show the slaughters never actually happened.
“It’s wishful thinking, a whaleman imagining that he’d captured whales on that particular day,” Mr. Dyer said.
Logbook artists worked in other media as well. The New Bedford museum owns whalebone and whale ivory carvings by Mr. Hersey and Mr. Baker. Mr. Hersey, in his 1843 journal, described himself as “slightly skilled in the art of flowering; that is drawing and painting upon bone; steam boats, flower pots, monuments, balloons, landscapes &c.” He considered himself something of a naturalist too, documenting “much diversity in the form and habits of the inhabitants of the ocean.”
One combination, however, remains elusive. Mr. Dyer said that he had “not yet been able to connect a whaling scene drawn in a journal with a whaling scene engraved on a whale’s tooth.”