Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog


 

A few weeks ago Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands Society posted on Facebook about a bent bronze sheathing nail that is being offered for sale on eBay for $US5,250. The seller included a 1971 letter of provenance from a staff member of the National Geographic Society who says he recovered the nail at a depth of some 30 feet in 1957 from the bottom of Bounty Bay at Pitcairn Island. The letter states that the “excessively rare” nail “is from the remains of the Bounty” and was used to fasten copper sheathing to the hull below the waterline. To further authenticate the origin of the nail, the writer also states that other larger items on the site were marked with the “Broad Arrow, symbol of British Government ownership”.

When Parkins Christian gave my great grandmother the marlin spike, also marked with the broad arrow, he was trying to save what was left of the Bounty-Pitcairn heritage from just such speculative collecting. He would have been amazed, if not horrified, to think a bent bronze nail was worth more than $5000 because of its possible connection with the famous ship his great-grandfather sailed to Pitcairn Island in 1790. Certainly today it is hoped that the site is protected from ‘Bounty hunters’ although it may not have been in 1957.

For the descendants of the mutineers, the legacy of the events on the Bounty seemed to be difficult to escape. In his 1967 history of the Charles W Morgan, the 1841 whaling ship that I sailed on in 2014 and that Parkins served on for 20 years as First and Second Mate, Edouard  A. Stackpole speculated that the reason Parkins never became a whaling ship’s captain was because of the actions of both his great-grandfathers. Everywhere he went, his connection with Fletcher was always part of his story as told by others. The fact that he never told the Bell children might indicate that this wasn’t the way he wanted to define himself. So who was this man who links Pitcairn, Norfolk Islands, the Bounty mutiny, the American, NZ and Australian whaling industry and maritime history, the Charles W Morgan and my ancestors’ life on Sunday (Raoul) Island? Who was this man whose legacies are beautifully crafted wooden and whalebone artefacts, a marlin spike and photograph and the memories and stories others told of him?

The Pitcairners 1857 Norfolk Island (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

The Pitcairners 1857 Norfolk Island. George Parkyn is the small boy on the left (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

He was born George Henry Parkin Christian on Pitcairn Island on 16 October, 1853. He was the fifth child and fourth son of Isaac Christian (Fletcher’s grandson) and Miriam Young, the granddaughter of Edward Young. Parkins was the fifth of sixteen children, and the last one to be born on Pitcairn. His next younger brother Reuben Denison Christian was born on the voyage to Norfolk Island on the Morayshire which had left Pitcairn Island on 2 May 1856 carrying 194 people for resettlement on Norfolk Island. A photograph of some of the women settlers taken in 1857 identifies “George Parkyn Christian”, dressed in what appears to be a smock or dress, half-hiding behind Rebecca Evans, his mother Miriam standing at the back among women with the familiar surnames of Nobbs, Young, Quintal and Evans.

No.10 Quality Row. Built in 1844, it became the family home of Isaac and Miriam Christian, George Parkin's parents, after the Pitcairn Islanders arrived in 1856. It is now the Norfolk Island Museum (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

No.10 Quality Row. Built in 1844, it became the family home of Isaac and Miriam Christian, George Parkin’s parents, after the Pitcairn Islanders arrived in 1856. It is now the Norfolk Island Museum (courtesy Norfolk Island Museum)

In 1874 he married Augusta Ross Adams who had also been born on Pitcairn, daughter of Jonathan Adams and Phoebe Quintal. Mutineers John Adams, Edward Young, William McCoy, Matthew Quintal and their Tahitian wives were her great grandparents. They had eight children born between 1875 and 1889. His wife died of cancer aged 46 in August 1899. Interestingly, two of the children’s names reflect Parkins’ link with the New Bedford whaling industry and the ships’ captains; this may be a coincidence of course. Howland was born in 1883 (a Howland company had been a past manager of the Charles W Morgan and a James Howland 4th Mate, on the Charles W Morgan, drowned in 1882). His youngest son James Sherman Christian was born in 1889 (Capt. Sherman was captain of the Canton). Parkins served on board the Charles W Morgan for at least 12 of the 14 voyages between 1893 and 1913, mostly as boat steerer or second mate.

From Charles W. Morgan by J.F. Leavitt (Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut)

From Charles W. Morgan by J.F. Leavitt (Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut)A photograph of him taken on board either 30th (1904) or 31st (1906) voyage shows a tall, strong, well-built man with an intense gaze.

A photograph of him taken on board either 30th (1904) or 31st (1906) voyage shows a tall, strong, well-built man with an intense gaze.

Bessie and the Bell children were not the only children who hero-worshipped Parkins. Captain Earle’s three year old son Jamie accompanied his parents on the 1902 voyage of the Charles W Morgan and in later life Jamie remembered that he idolized “big George Christian”, second mate, who made toys for him including a small sailing boat on the deck, and spent much of his off-watch time with the boy. How much time he spent with his own 8 children, given his voyaging, is uncertain. While he was away whaling on the Costa Rica Packet in 1890, his 4 year old daughter Mary died of an abdominal tumour.

A first day cover from Norfolk Island 1983

A first day cover from Norfolk Island 1983

My research into Parkins Christian continues. Establishing an accurate timeline for his peripatetic life has proved challenging and earlier books on the whaling industry are vague and often contradictory. I have him as a seaman on the schooner Ariel (NZ) in 1872 when he saved a young girl from drowning when she fell overboard, the Robert Towns and the Costa Rica Packet (Sydney), the Othello (Hobart and NZ), American whaling barks Cape Horn Pigeon, CantonCalifornia, Charles W Morgan and the schooner A.M. Nicholson and finally the Resolution (Norfolk island). The Royal Humane Society (London) awarded him a silver medallion for bravery following the Ariel rescue when he was just 19. He captained the Resolution at 72. He sailed and whaled throughout the Pacific, the South Indian Ocean, the Japan Seas, the Atlantic, the Ochotsk Sea and the Arctic. There are conflicting sources and stories which add to the confusion. But his will be a story worth the telling.

The Elders - George Parkins is on the right. (Courtesy Norfolk Island Museum).

The Elders – George Parkins is on the right. (Courtesy Norfolk Island Museum).

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From the Bounty to New Bedford – a remarkable whaler man Part 1

In the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, there is a gallery of intricately-carved objects made by whaling men. Among the scrimshawed and carved teeth and bone, needle cases, babies’ rattles, serated pie-cutters, umbrella handles and walking sticks, there is a wooden inlaid jewellery box with a mother-of-pearl heart-shaped key hole, topped with a small reclining dog carved from whale “ivory”.

Detail of the reclining dog carved in "whale ivory" and the inlaid wood.

Detail of the reclining dog carved in “whale ivory” and the inlaid wood. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford.


Jewellery Box made by Christian on the ship California c1870s-1880s for Captain G.F. Brightman's wife Lizzie

Jewellery Box made by Christian on the ship California c1870s-1880s for Captain G.F. Brightman’s wife Lizzie. New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford.


Carved whale tooth attributed to George Parkin Christian. Australian national Maritime Museum

Carved whale tooth attributed to George Parkin Christian. Australian national Maritime Museum

Across the Pacific Ocean in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, there is a scrimshawed whale tooth signed “Christian” showing a harpooner standing in a whaleboat about to fling his lance at a surfacing sperm whale. Behind these two artefacts is the story of a remarkable man, George Henry Parkin Christian.

The scrimshawed whale tooth signed "Christian" with other whaling artefacts displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

The scrimshawed whale tooth signed “Christian” with other whaling artefacts displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

Much has been written about whaling shipowners, captains and even captain’s wives (who often accompanied them to sea) but much less about whaling ship crew. Master mariner and whaler man, Christian’s life spans three Pacific islands – Pitcairn, Norfolk and Raoul/Sunday, New Zealand, the east and west coasts of America and Greenland and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Three generations of my family knew Parkins, as we called him, and my research aims to reconstruct his challenging and adventurous life, from his birth on Pitcairn Island in 1853 to his death on Norfolk Island in 1940 at the age of 86. So far I have discovered a wealth of new stories and connections and a lot of contradictions and puzzles.

As a child I was intrigued by the long wooden handled metal spike in the mahogany and glass cabinet in my grandparents’ dining room in Sydney, Australia, sitting curiously among pieces of carved ivory, Royal Copenhagen china plates, transparent Belleek cups and saucers, intricate enameled birds, Argentinian silver, miniature Chinese vases and other souvenirs of their travels. The spike looked out of place – rough against their delicacy, practical against their decorativeness, a tool to be held and used rather than displayed. This marlin spike was no souvenir however, but a gift to my great grandmother Bessie Bell and her family from the whalerman my family knew as Parkins Christian. The spike was a tangible link to my island ancestors, whose story ranked alongside Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and all the adventurous Enid Blyton books I read voraciously as a child.

Whaling bark California

New Bedford Whaling bark California

Parkins had first met my great grandparents in the late 1870s when he came ashore on Sunday (Raoul) Island in a whaleboat from the New Bedford whaler California. Seventy years later, Bessie recalled the tall, darkly handsome man with the “luminous eyes and rich colouring” of his “Tahitian forebears”. He became the children’s hero and best friend for years to come. The night after the California sailed, Bessie’s father Thomas told them the story of Fletcher Christian, the mutiny on the Bounty and the settlement on Pitcairn Island. Not uncommonly, he muddled the generations, with Fletcher as Parkins’ grandfather rather than great-grandfather. Parkins told the young Bells nothing of this dark chapter in his family history, holding them spellbound instead with stories of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick “that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws”.

Parkins visited the island several times in the 1880s, moving from the California to other ships and kept in touch with the family for many years. Bessie remembered his visit on the Costa Rica Packet in the late 1880s “the most famous of the veterans of the early South Pacific whaling fleet still under sail”. With a group of sailors, he loaded the whaleboat with kumaras, yams and other produce to carry to Sydney, their destination port, promising to return the next day for more. But unbeknownst to the Bells ashore, some of the crew mutinied while the ship was still anchored off Sunday Island and Christian was viciously attacked. The ship sailed directly for Sydney and according to Bessie’s memoirs Christian never visited again. He joined the Charles W Morgan when she called at Norfolk Island in 1894 and served as first and second mate almost continuously on the ship until 1913 both out of New Bedford and San Francisco. His last recorded whaling voyage was as First Mate on the New Bedford schooner A.M. Nicolson from 1914-16.

George Henry Parkin Christian or Parkins Christian as he was known to my family. He gave this photograph to my family. grandfather

George Henry Parkin Christian or Parkins Christian as my family called him. He gave this photograph to my grandfather.


My grandfather Leslie Dyke, Bessie Bell's second son, born in New Zealand. He is holding the marlin spike, a gift from Parkins Christian.

My grandfather Leslie Dyke, Bessie Bell’s second son. He left New Zealand, where he was born, for Australia in 1928. He is holding the marlin spike, a gift from Parkins Christian.

After that he returned to Norfolk Island where he helped build, then captained the Resolution, a schooner built by the islanders in a bid to trade directly with New Zealand. He was then 72 years old and still described as “of massive build” by a local newspaper. My grandfather Leslie, Bessie’s second son, recalled meeting Parkins in New Zealand. His mother had asked him to return the marlin spike as she believed Parkins had only left it for safe-keeping. Parkins  told him to keep it on condition he didn’t sell it to any Bounty treasure hunters! After my grandfather’s death, my mother passed the spike onto me. It is one of my most treasured possessions!

More on Parkins Christian in my next blog.


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Bessie and the Whales

Detail of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend's world map complied in 1931

Detail of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend’s world map compiled in 1931. New Bedford Whaling Museum.

It is now exactly twelve months since I joined the Charles W Morgan at Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in June 2014 to sail to New Bedford, the ship’s home port. Since then through research and writing, I have been pursuing the story of my great-great grandparents on Sunday/Raoul Island and of whalerman, master mariner and Charles W Morgan crew member Parkins Christian. I have also discovered a fascination with the extraordinary (if abhorrent) history of whaling and whales themselves. My research has included visiting museums with whaling-related collections in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Sydney and Eden, NSW, Australia and Lajes da Pico, Pico and Horta, Faial in the Azores. I decided it was time to return to my blog!

Zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend’s world map compiled in 1931 used American whaling records to plot every single recorded whale taken by American ships in the 19th century. Red dots are sperm whales, blue dots baleen whales such as humpbacks and right whales. Sunday or Raoul Island is almost completely obscured by red dots. The Kermadecs lie between the Vasquez and French Rock Whaling Grounds, the red dots stretching from New Zealand in the south to converge and overlap with blue dots to Tonga and almost to Samoa. Another thick line of red dots connects the Kermadecs with Norfolk Island in the west. As a 38th Voyager on the Charles W Morgan in 2014 I had the extraordinary opportunity to actually sail on the only remaining whaling ship of the many that whaled off and visited Sunday-Raoul Island.

Despite the decline of whaling in the Pacific by the time my great great grandparents, the Bells, were living on Sunday Island, American and colonial whaling ships were still hunting whales and provided much needed supplies, equipment and new faces when they anchored off the island. The ships also took on firewood, fresh meat (goats had been left on the islands from the early years of whaling, a fact which undoubtedly saved the Bells from starvation in the first year after they landed) and water although the weather and heavy surf in Denham Bay meant more often than not they couldn’t anchor and go ashore. These visits are recorded in the ships’ logs from the early 19th century.

Raoul or Sunday Island

Raoul or Sunday Island – aerial view. The Bells lived first on Denham Bay (the long beach in the south of the island) then moved to North Beach across the ridge. Later they moved back to Denham Bay. http://www.doc.govt.nz/raoulisland.

In December 1878 the California’s log reported that the ship was laying off Sunday Island for three days, sending boats ashore for firewood. In March 1880 the log of the Canton records that “during the day we have very light winds and some times calm. Ship under all sail drifting towards Sunday Island which we saw at 9am”. The California was off Sunday Island again in April 1888 and February 1889. In March 1889 its log reports sighting the Sydney whaler the Costa Rica Packet, whaling off Curtis Rocks.

George Parkins Christian served on several whaling ships including the Sydney-based Costa Rica Packet, the California and the Canton before he joined the Charles W Morgan when she called at Norfolk Island in 1894. Many years later my great-grandmother Bessie remembered his visits and that “it was always the American whalers who were our best friends”. Her father Tom told them the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, of how Christian’s great grandfather Fletcher had fallen out with Captain Bligh. Parkins told them nothing of this but regaled them with stories of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick, “that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws”.

From the island the children watched the whales’ annual migration from the Antarctic waters past the Kermadecs to the warmer waters of the tropics and back again with calves in the autumn. Bessie remembered the humpbacks off Denham Bay and the northern shores of the island, and the children watched their antics in delight, fascinated by the fountain-like spouts. Sometimes a whale would leap out of the water, “its huge body vertical between sea and sky and visible for one enthralling second from snout to tail flukes”. She recalled a special moment when, with sisters Hettie and Mary, she witnessed a cow whale feeding her calf. The girls climbed down the cliff to get a better view, looking directly down on the cow rolled on her side ejecting milk directly into the mouth of her twenty-foot long calf.

Sunday or Raoul Island, the Kermadecs. Bessie and her father and brothers were between Sunday Island and Meyer Is. when they were nearly overturned by a whale.

Sunday or Raoul Island, the Kermadecs. Bessie and her father and brothers were fishing near Meyer Is. to the north-west of Sunday Island when they were nearly overturned by a humpback whale.

Another encounter with a school of humpbacks during a fishing trip with her father and brothers to nearby Meyer Island was more frightening. The whales appeared from behind the island, broaching and sounding, leaping high and swimming in wide circles around the rowboat, disturbing the hitherto calm waters. When one leapt out of the water and then crashed back down very close to the boat, their father Tom yelled for them to row for their lives. Bessie suddenly realized one was diving under the boat, and felt the bow of the boat heaved up out of the water, then rolled on its side until the gunwale was under the water. The huge shape slid out from underneath and with a violent swirl, turned and flung itself out of the water a few yards away. The flukes towered over the boys’ heads and they threw themselves into the bottom of the boat. Parkins Christian told them later that they were lucky, that when whales swim round and round a boat like that, they mean mischief. The boat could well have been smashed and the occupants “sent down to Davy Jones’ locker – and the sharks”.

Humpback whale off Massachusetts 2014

Humpback whale off Massachusetts 2014

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Fluke of a humpback off the coast of Massachusetts, 2014

One particular whale visitor was definitely not welcome. One morning, outside their hut on Low Flat in the north side of the island, they noticed a terrible smell. The children ran off to the beach to investigate the source and found a decomposing eighty-foot long blue whale “bigger’ the one that swallered Joners … bigger’ the house!” according to little Jack. Tom Bell said it was the largest whale he had ever seen. Faced with living with the stench for months, he commented ruefully that with thousands of miles of ocean all around, the sea had chosen this exact spot to cast up the dead blue whale. The noisome smell wafted on the breeze across the island until at last, thanks to the hot sun, heavy seas and keen winds, the beach was clean and the air pure once again.

Over the past year I have watched humpback and minke whales off the coast of Massachusetts and fin and sperm whales more recently in the Azores, off the island of Pico. It is easy to imagine the Bell children’s awe and delight as they watched these huge and wonderful creatures in the sea all around them.

Fin whale off Pico May 2015

Fin whale off Pico, The Azores May 2015

Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts

Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts

Minke whale breaching off Plymouth, Massachusetts

Minke whale breaching off Plymouth, Massachusetts

More on Parkins Christian in my next blog.


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Voyaging – The city that lit the world

The time has finally come! As Air Canada Flight AC869 cruises towards North America I think of how the survival of the Charles W Morgan links me directly to both the geographical and the historical world of my great great grandparents and great grandmother. Over the past few months, since I was offered a place as one of the 38th Voyagers, I have started a journey of which I have dreamed for many years – to explore and write about their extraordinary story linked to the changing world in which they lived. When my great aunt Hester gave me a copy of Crusoes of Sunday Island in the late 1950s I discovered that my ordinary-seeming family had a past that was out of the ordinary.  My great grandmother had, at my age, sailed to, lived, worked and played on an isolated volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I remember standing in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm gazing in awe at the ghostly ship towering above me. The Vasa sank in 1628 and I was struck by the realisation that this was a sight I was never supposed to see. So too the 19th century whaling ships which Bessie and her brothers and sisters watched whaling, sailing and anchoring off Sunday Island, bringing the world to their remote part of the Pacific and linking communities in Massachusetts, Pacific and Atlantic Islands, New Zealand and Australia. And over 130 years later I was not only seeing, but sleeping and sailing on one!

New Bedford, Massachusetts is where Parkins Christian called home in between whaling voyages and before and after the Charles W Morgan’s move to San Francisco as her home port from 1886 until 1906. Once known as the whaling capital of the world, and the richest town in America, 329 whaling vessels employing roughly 10,000 men sailed from here in 1857. Like so many American towns, New Bedford was designed on a grid, with a modern highway obliterating the original connection of town, harbour and the Acushnet River.

Samuel Rodman's Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford's first major restoration project.

Samuel Rodman’s Candleworks, North Water St, built in 1810 for the manufacture of very expensive spermaceti candles. This was New Bedford’s first major restoration project.

 

New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, looking up William St towards the 1834 Customs House, the oldest continuously operating customs house in the US.

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

New Bedford Historic District, Water St

At first impressions New Bedford has seen better days. Like New London, Connecticut, another whaling port which I visited in April this year, there are many empty shops and closed up buildings, remains of warehouses and grand public buildings.

Large elegant wooden and shingled houses topped with turrets and towers, surrounded by leafy gardens line County St, the former homes of the whaling merchants and ship owners. Streets called Rodman and Rotch, Morgan and Hillman remind residents of the families who built, funded and owned the whaling fleet in 19th century.

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford's whaling industry

Rotch Jones Duff House and Garden, County St, built 1834 and associated with three families who were closely tied to New Bedford’s whaling industry

House, County St, New Bedford

House, County St, New Bedford

The city’s loss of the Charles W Morgan the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, to Mystic Seaport in 1941 symbolized the loss of prosperity wrought by the end of whaling and later the textile industry followed by the Great Depression.

It is Sunday. In the harbour a large fishing fleet of trawlers and scallopers, most with Portuguese names, lies idle.

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

Fishing trawlers, New Bedford

I wander the streets finding most shops, the second hand book shop, the galleries and most of the cafés closed. Even the cobbled streets of the historic district are quiet. The Visitor Centre with interesting interpretation is open but empty. I go on a free walking tour about the Underground Railroad (I had missed the Whaling tour in the morning) and discover another aspect of New Bedford’s rich history, the Quaker link with abolition and the anti-slavery movement, Frederick Douglass’ residence in the town and the escape route the whaling ships provided for those who could obtain the right papers. The presence of Cape Verdean, Azorean and Portuguese restaurants (all closed too!) is a visible link to the whaling voyages and crews of the whaling years.

I wondered where Parkins Christian had stayed between voyages – the Mariners’ Home?

Mariners' Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Mariners’ Home, built c1790, New Bedford

Or in one of the many boarding houses on what is now Johnny Cake Hill?

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Interpretation panel showing the boarding houses on what is now called Johnny Cake Hill

Did he attend services in the Seamen’s Bethel before joining yet another voyage on the Charles W Morgan? As the Whalemen’s Chapel, this was immortalized in both Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and the eponymous film where Ishmael attended a service before he joined the Pequod under Captain Ahab. A sign on the wall indicates the pew in which Melville sat listening to Rev. Enoch Mudge’s sermon before embarking on the whaling ship Acushnet on 3 January 1841, just months before the Charles W Morgan was launched. In a ironic reversal of truth and fiction and due to public demand, a copy of the fictional bow-shaped boat pulpit in the John Houston film (made in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland) has replaced the Bethel’s original plain box pulpit. The pulpit may not be original or authentic but it satisfies visitor expectation.

Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford

 

Pulpit, Seamen's Bethel, New Bedford

Pulpit, Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford

But the cenotaphs or memorial tablets lining the walls are real. Testament to the dangers of whaling, these record that there would be no last resting place on earth for William Kirkwood, 25, who fell from aloft and drowned near Cape Horn in 1850, for Gilbert Jay, 19, who was lost from a boat in pursuit of a whale in 1822, and Franklin Jay who suffered the same fate in 1832, for Captain William Swain 49 who, having fastened onto a whale, was carried overboard by the line and drowned in 1844 and boat steerer Nathaniel Cole 24, and two of his crew Edward Laffray 25 and Frank Kanacka 19, who lost their lives by the upsetting of their whale boat in the Ochotsk Sea in 1854. Modern tablets to contemporary fishing tragedies show that going down to the sea in ships can still be a dangerous occupation.

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Later in the week I explored the wonderful collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and, in the limited hours it opened, the Museum’s Library and Archive. Despite the very helpful staff in the reading room, the restricted days and opening hours were a huge source of frustration for international visitors like me who just managed a glimpse of the treasures within. The whaling fleet logbooks survive in great numbers and just as in Mystic Seaport library and archive, the ones in New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard libraries are truly magnificent. More on these later!
Next – the 38th Voyage!