For the last two years I have been one of the people transcribing whaling voyage log books from the 19th Century at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Our job is to type up the log books to make them more accessible to the general public that may want to research a particular voyage without having to deal with deciphering the idiosyncratic handwriting of the log keepers.
The logs were kept by the First Mates who had varying levels of education, so even though they may have included the important information in each log entry, their handwriting was not in any one particular style, and often they relied on phonetically spelling words according to their regional accents and dialects.
Unlike Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise who begins each Captain’s Lo entry with a star date followed by a summary of recent activity and mention of an upcoming event followed by ruminations and philosophical assessments of both with assessments of crew behavior, the whaling logs, being a record related strictly to business, were rather cut and dry listing the date, weather, temperature, wind direction, the ship’s course, and, in the barest descriptions, ship’s business.
There is little narrative detail.
Whereas in Moby Dick Melville often describes getting a whale in romantic and flowery details heavy with philosophical and theological interpretations, the logs simply state sighting whales, lowering the boats, harpooning the whale, getting it back to the ship, cutting it, rendering the oil out of the blubber, storing the oil, bones, and baleen below decks, and the day ending.
There is no poetry to it.
Occasionally an event may happen on board that is not strictly the basic business of the ship, and that will be noted as simply as possible. Putting someone in chains because of a fight may be noted without any details about the fight or the reason for it.
When the Whaling Ship Manhattan entered Tokyo Harbor, the first American ship ever to do so, in order to return some fishermen it had rescued from an island they had swum to when their junk had run aground, as historic as the event was, there are no details about the actual encounter with the emissaries of the Emperor who boarded the ship for inspection. Beyond mentioning that it happened, the log lists the various food items, like sacks of rice and barrels of beans, the Japanese gave to the ship as an act of gratitude. This most historic of events is reduced to an inventory list.
Any details we have would have come from personal journals and descriptions of events upon the ship’s return to port.
The Milo of New Bedford was one of the last ships captured by the confederate Navy at the end of the Civil War. The log of a ship that met up with it soon after referred to the capture as merely “the recent event” with no description of it.
The log of the Milo itself merely states it had to go to the nearest port. For the confederacy it was a major coup as four other ships had been captured with it, but, being a whaling ship, for the Milo it was a “meh”.
While deciphering the spelling, handwriting, and sentence structure of the various First Mates, you get to know something about them as you have to come to understand who they are, and their writing style and approach to their job reveals a little of their personalities.
Although they may have died over 200 years ago, the transcribers speak of the First Mates by name and as if they are people we have met. In one sense they are.
There is no time or deadline pressure, so transcribers can take the time to find out anything they can about the log keeper and investigate some hint as to whom the First Mate is, and this has sometime helped in deciphering them.
The thrill of the transcribing duty is that the log books have sat on shelves either in libraries, business offices, museum archives, or the attics of the log keepers’ descendants, and the person transcribing may be the first person to have read the log page by page, entry by entry, since the book was handed to the ship’s owner at the end of a voyage.
A long dead and little known individual becomes known by someone in the 21st century, and can now be known to people in the future how ever long that is.
They get a second life, and a person unknown in the wider historic record becomes a known part of history.
Recently the duties of log book transcription have given way to transcribing ship crew lists so that the Whaling Museum can contribute to the crew list database project involving all harbors world-wide from which whaling ships set out on voyages.
The original lists, once compiled, had been submitted to the local customs house before a voyage began, and were amended or recertified at the completion of a voyage as the original crew may not have returned intact or with the same members due to desertions, discharges, deaths, or necessary replacements due to these, and these changes had to be noted.
Besides the names of each crew member their place of origin, place of residence at the time of the voyage, the crew member’s age, height, skin color, hair color and type, and occasionally eye color were also included. The physical traits were important for identifying any bodies found by one ship that might have been lost at sea from another.
Once giving the found body a decent burial at sea, upon returning to port, the Master of the finding vessel would present the identifying physical traits that were observed on the body to a clerk at the customs house who would attempt to match them to any crew members listed as “lost at sea” by another ship.
The Quakers of New Bedford saw the value of education, and believing in equality saw that both girls and boys received a basic one at least.
Girls and boys were instructed in Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic, but, whereas boys would need further education to be able to play their gender assigned roles as the ones who would run the family business, girls’ formal education would be replaced with reading, attending lectures, having gatherings of other women who would teach each other or be taught something by some expert because their roles as wife and mother did not require further education beyond the basics.
If, however, a woman wanted to get more formal education or, ending up in a position with the family business needed it, it was not prevented.
Some women were happy with the wife and mother level of education while some wanted more.
Other places had varying attitudes toward education with some limiting it just to boys with others, even at that, making education available in varying levels from none to little to basic to more advanced.
Because of the city’s place in national and international business, merchants and owners of businesses, such as those involved in whaling, had to have a good knowledge of the world and be familiar with the names of places around the globe. So simply telling the clerk you were from Philadelphia, Hillsborough, New York and the like would cause no trouble
If a place of origin or present place of residence had a name that was obscure, it might have had to be spelled out, but considering the number of illiterate and near illiterate men who would sign up who couldn’t spell the name of where they came from, the list maker would have to do his best.
Eventually over time, as whaling vessels sailed further afield and places with obscure names became common, the correct spellings would be as automatic as the previously well known ones had been.
One of my recent crew lists was from an 1823 voyage, and among the places of origin there was one crew member from Ireland and two listed merely as foreign, although at the time of the voyage their place of residence was New Bedford.
But also among those listed were four from places obviously not known by the person making the list, and who themselves may not have known how to spell their home towns forcing the scribe to do his best phonetically.
Two were from “mowe”, one from “Whoahoo”, and one from “Owhyhee”.
We are supposed to keep our transcriptions faithful by preserving words as written while making notations in the comment column of the transcription template, and it was there I typed what I thought might be the actual place names.
I surmised they are in order, Maui, Ohau, and Hawai’i.
Considering the exactness sought by the Quakers in their business records, this inexactitude must have annoyed the clerk who, as voyages to the Pacific became more common, may have seen how mistaken, and even comical, his 1823 list would look to future generations who might see this list, comforting himself that that would most likely never happen after the list had served its purpose and joined others in the bowels of the office archives where no one would ever have reason to look it up.
And there I sat 195 years later being the first person to look closely at it after it was squirreled away, and making it conveniently readable for people from now into the future.
And, although it does not appear on the digital spread sheet, the clerk’s signature is there at the bottom of the original.
I have noted his name and will look for it on future lists hoping he had the chance to redeem himself.