Nocturne

Entry written on deck, Wednesday, June 25, 2:10 am

Illuminated bench on which I wrote my on-deck, nighttime vigil
Illuminated bench on which I wrote my on-deck, nighttime vigil

Got up to go to the head and took a turn up on deck. Cool breeze. Slight creaking of the ship and flapping of the flag. Ship otherwise entirely silent. 30 souls sleeping in their berths. Got back into the bunk but a bit too excited to sleep. Thinking of this ship, the log I was reading in the Museum of its maiden voyage, the enormous effort involved in putting a ship like this together in about six months in 1840-1841, the knowledge it then took to know where and how to sail it, the patience it took to sail it day after day and even month after month without seeing a whale to hunt (at least not of the right kind, for on November 11 they did see a huge pod of right whales that would have made a fine harvest had they been authorized to go after them, which this ship was not, because it was commanded to go after “what is considered a higher game”: the more profitable sperm whale). How grateful I am to second mate Osborn for keeping the log I was reading today, in handwriting clear enough (mostly) for me and Lesley to read those entries in which a typical day “comes in with a fresh breeze from SSW” and, after whatever happens, “So ends.”

 

Looking up from the deck in the night

Looking up from the deck in the night

Think of being a whaler on the maiden voyage of this ship, being out to sea from September 6 into the New Year, and seeing only one sperm whale, the “Cow Whale” they successfully chased and captured on December 13 and then finished “boiling” on December 15. Then, after battling the “strong Gailes” and “Hail” during the treacherous passage around Cape Horn, to come upon that “large Sperm Whale” on the morning of January 12th for which they “lower 4 boats” and chase without success all day, through dinner and “untill Night,” with no success. Then on the next day to see more “Whales” for which they “Lowered and chaised” without success “untill it was dark.” And then on the next day to “see a Sail in sight and everything else but Whales.” These three entries in the Morgan’s maiden log book help me feel the full force of Ishmael’s declaration in the “Wheelbarrow” chapter that “one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. So is endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”

Looking up a little higher

Looking up a little higher

It’s a little chilly and I’m wearing only socks on my feet, but it’s so magical here I will write here a little longer. How the composer John Cage would have loved the ambient sounds here—the occasional creak of the ship, the random but fairly regular sound of whatever it is that is “chiming” in the breeze. This is my 4’ 33” of silence, and I may as well make a whole movement of it and not just a prelude. (In the spirit of John Cage I am uploading the photos in this entry in the order I took them, not trying to match them to specific passages.)

 

 

new bedford photos 009Thinking back on those sailors, imagine rounding the horn after the tedium of those early months of the voyage with only 76 barrels of oil in the hold from the only whale they have managed to kill. And then meeting up with other whale ships from New Bedford, Nantucket, and Edgartown that have been more successful. One of the ships had 800 barrels after being out only five months. Another had 1200 barrels. One of the ships they met up with was the Charles and Henry, on which Herman Melville would be sailing from Tahiti in November of this same year, after having having deserted the the Acushnet to live among the natives of Nukuheva in June 1842, and then deserting the Lucy Ann in Tahiti after this ship had picked him up at Nukuheva–all of this before boarding the Charles and Henry from which he disembarked in May 1843 in Lahaina on the island of Maui, where Captain Valentine Pease of the Acushnet still had a warrant out for his arrest as a deserter.

new bedford photos 010Again, imagine the Morgan and its whalers on its first voyage reaching the island of Massafuero, off the coast of Chile on December 24, after having weathered Cape Horn, but finding it “too rugged to land,” leaving Osborn to write plaintively of having “looked hard at the goats on shore.” But then, in early February, finally coming up on Callao, the ship dropped anchor and the captain allowed the “the Starboard Watch” to go ashore “on liberty,” with the “Larboard Watch” following the next day. This was not a quick stop for picking up water and provisions. It was a regular New England gamming bonanza, seeing ship after ship they had already “spoke” and others they were now meeting up with for the first time.

new bedford photos 011As the sea gods would have it, this was some kind of “feast day” in the Peruvian cities and Captain Newton allowed his sailors several more days of “having sport with the Spanyards” before they set sail toward the Galapagos Islands on the way to the “off Shore Grounds” to do some serious hunting. It’s neat to see how Francis Osborn renders the names of some of the Galapagos Islands Melville was to write about in the series of sketches he called The Encantadas in 1854. In his hand Albemarle becomes “Albamard” or “Albermarle,” and Narborough becomes “Narbler.” This is not surprising. Writing twelve years after the Morgan’s visit, Melville acknowledges the elusivesness of some of the most basic information about these “enchanted isles,” including even their exact location, not always found in the charts.

new bedford photos 012In Sketch Eighth of The Encantadas, “Norfolk Isle and the Chola widow,” Melville relates the tragic fate of Hunilla, the Chola from the Peruvian coast who soon afer her marriage is taken with her husband and her brother by a French whaler to Norfolk Island to hunt tortoises, the French having set a definite time at which to come back to take them home. Hunilla is soon stranded on the island when, watching through an oval space in the foliage from a promontory, she sees her husband and brother perish together as they try to launch a catamaran into the sea. For a long time she records day after day with mark after mark that she cuts into a piece of cane that washed up on shore. After a time she ceases what has become a meaningless routine during this existential isolation. Early on she had prayed to the heavens with a pure and full heart, but her only answer was the “blight” that fell from the sky. The original French whaler never did return for her, but another whale ship did, whose sailors, rather than deliver her, abused her in such a savage way that Melville refuses to describe what he represents with only the punctuation mark of a dash. Finally, deliverance does come in the form of an American whale boat who takes her aboard and out to the ship, having to leave several of her dogs, her only companions, clawing desperately to get in the boat with her. The whalers take up a collection for her, and once on shore she heads for home on a donkey, the workings of its shoulder bones making the form of a cross—and of Hunilla a true heroine.

new bedford photos 013French whalers were much more scarce than American and even English during early 1842, when Melville’s Acushnet and the Morgan each hunted for whales in the islands of the Galapagos (but without meeting). If Hunilla’s story was recent, and real, at the time of Melville’s own passage through these waters (roughtly from October 1841 into January 1842), one wonders if the unnamed “French Barque” which the Morgan “spoke”on the way to “Gallapagos” on February 19 was in any way implicated in her fate. Hunilla, during her short time as a woman in a whale boat in Melville’s story shows a natural dignity that impresses the even the most hardened of sailors. She has for so long been an inspiration to me that her name was password I used when activating my first online account.

new bedford photos 014Yesterday, we had to leave the library at Martha’s Vineyard Museum to take the bus to Gay Head / Aquinnah before I could read any further in Osborn’s log (leaving the crew of the Morgan in the Galapagos Islands in early March with only the oil from that one sperm whale in the hold). I’ll now climb back down into the blubber room where that sole sperm whale cow had been cut up, duck back into the forecastle, and sleep until we are called at 6:45 am.  [In assembling this nocturnal entry, I am newly grateful to my wife Joan for giving me an iPhone for Christmas—and to whoever it was who told me it gets good pictures in the dark.]

A selfie before returning to my bunk in the forecastle

A selfie before returning to my bunk in the forecastle

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