“May kind Neptune protect us with pleasant Gales, and may we be successful in catching Sperm Whales”. So begins the first log book of the Charles W Morgan. From 1841 onwards, weather and whales are the two preoccupations of the keepers of the logs, usually the First Mate.
I have been exploring the logbooks in the collections of Mystic Seaport and New Bedford Whaling Museum in the hope that they might record visits to Sunday (Raoul) Island during my ancestors’ residence from the late 1870s onwards. Eighty years later my great-grandmother still said that “it was always the American whalers who were our best friends.” In the first lean, hungry and difficult year on the island her mother Frederica climbed daily to a lookout hoping to see a sail, and “often feared that a ship might pass in the night, or slip down over the horizon while she was busy with her pots and pans.” On Tuesday 19 August 1884 the Charles W Morgan Log notes tantalizingly “Sunday and Goat Islands in sight” and the following day Sunday Island is mentioned again “bearing NE”. But nothing more.
When researching his 1930’s book Whalemen Adventurers on the history of Australian whaling, W.J. Dakin searched through 1500 whaling logbooks in New Bedford and Nantucket collections in the hopes of “finding notes of interest covering Australian history. What might have been told of the unexplored Australia …?” He concluded “Alas, the harpoon was mightier than the pen”. Like Dakin I had hoped to find some account of landings on Sunday Island, the mention of meetings and socializing with the Bell family that Bessie recalled in her memoirs. But so far there is frustratingly little.
As “windows into the world of whaling” they are products of the close and self-contained world of the whale ship. Occasionally a sail in the distance is noted, a gam with other whale ships takes place, whaleboats are jointly lowered in pursuit of a whale, mail and news are exchanged, the distant sight of an island or shoreline is mentioned. But what of the world outside? Ports such as Fayal (Faial) in the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands or Natal are places of commerce where the casks of whale oil are unloaded and water and stores taken on or places of temptation where crew regularly desert and stowaways creep on board. Rarely the outside world intrudes. In port in Natal in 1912 the log records “all Ships today with their flags half mast in respect of the lost steamer Titanic” – it was Wednesday April 17 less than two days after the sinking of the Titanic on the night of 14 April 1912.
The whaling ships were away from home ports for years at a time, following a daily rhythm of whale watching from the mast heads, boat lowering and whale-killing, cutting in and boiling down or in the absence of whales, maintenance of the ship – deck washing, painting, sailmaking, carpentry, cooperage, blacksmithing, rope work interspersed with coffee and meals. The rhythmic routines are captured in the repetitive chorus-like language – whales and spouts are raised, struck, turned over, the ship is steering by the wind, sailing on starboard and port tacks, under all sail, plain sail, easy sail, whaleboats are lowered, pulled to windward, watches are set. Each entry in the log book of the Charles W Morgan on its 1911-13 whaling voyage starts with the phrase “This day comes in …” followed by wind direction, weather, course, set of the sails, latitude and longitude. Each day’s entry closes with “So ends this day”. In an earlier log from 1881-86 the day is structured into “First part … Middle Part … Latter Part”. There is a gentle song-like rhythm to the entries, with whaling and sailing terms used repeatedly, making the brutal business of killing and processing the earth’s largest mammals almost lyrical. The stencils or stamps of the sperm whale, and of whaleboats and oarsmen, inked onto the page between entries or in the margins, give more of an impression of a picture book than symbols of death.