The Beauty of Logbooks and Whalers’ Diaries
A combined archive, diary and travel novel, whalers’ logbooks offer an unequaled enchantment.
There is probably no whaling ship more famous than the Pequod, described inside and out by the pen of one of the most brilliant narrators ever to come from the United States, Herman Melville. Though not all whaling ships to sail from Nantucket carried with them writers as capable as the author of Moby Dick, it was still necessary that someone assume the obligatory accounting of work and days in the onboard logbooks.
The logs were a documentary record of the performance of the whaling ship as a factory at sea. In it were records of all the whales killed, of shipwrecks, of general weather conditions and other information of legal and commercial importance. But in the five logs preserved and exhibited at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, each dating from between 1840 and 1860, are also shown details of an artistic and literary nature and to do primarily with the appreciation of life aboard a fishing boat.
Thanks to these logs we can glimpse for a moment the crews of the Iris, the Erie, the Rose Pool, the Independence and the Adeline Gibbs through their expeditions around the world. The museum’s efforts have focused on the conservation and restoration of the documentary materials as harsh weather conditions often affect them more than they would plain paper.
What worse, in their own time, the logs were appreciated no more than would be the records of an accountant today. The logs bear all sorts of inscriptions and markings, calculations and cutoff figures, but also expressive illustrations that reflect the nature of the whaling trade: long hours at sea in search of monsters.
There’s also a potential for scientific study in the review of these notes. For example, an understanding of the climatic and environmental conditions of the mid nineteenth century is usually the benchmark for statistical measurements of global warming today.
On a slightly less romantic note, in logbooks we can also see the impressions of human beings before the outbreak of the global era. As with Marco Polo or Christopher Columbus in their own times, adventurers aboard whaling ships were among the first to face radical otherness in distant peoples and cultures across the seven seas. Their logbooks provide a testimony to a time when the world was still immeasurably big, and their wonder was recorded in memories more so than images reproduced electronically.
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