Whaling History Symposium & Melville Society Cultural Project

Entry begun Tuesday, July 22, at 7:20 am

 LIfe-size sperm-whlae inflatable near the ship on the New Bedford pier

LIfe-size sperm-whale inflatable near the ship on the New Bedford pier

June 28 was an extraordinary day, but it was only the beginning of an exceptional week of celebration. Sunday afternoon featured a Parade of Boats and out into Buzzard’s Bay which included 19 whaleboats and 150 other vessels, according to the Standard-Times. That newspaper had of course been covering the arrival of the ship with a variety of features. On Sunday, in addition to reporting on the Opening Ceremony and Homecoming Gala, the paper released a stand-alone publication entitled Charles W. Morgan Returns to New Bedford, a special issue with 56 pages of text, advertisements, and schedules for the week ahead. Steve Urbon had mentioned before we boarded the ship in Vineyard Haven how much effort had done into preparing this special edition, and the result is truly impressive. Urbon himself contributed essays on the history of the Morgan, on the “rough lives” of its “rugged whalemen,” on the five-year restoration at Mystic Seaport, and on the city of New Bedford in 1841. Peggi Medeiros contributed essays on the lives of “desperate housewives” while their men were away at sea, on the essential role of Cape Verdeans in the life of the Morgan, on early life of Charles W. Morgan when he came to New Bedford and married Sarah Rodman, and on the role of New Bedford in the history of whaling.

Special issue of New Bedford Standard-Times for June 28 - July 4, 2014

Special issue of New Bedford Standard-Times for June 28 – July 4, 2014

This rich array of articles in the special issue of the Standard-Times was an appetizer for the Whaling History Symposium that was held next to the ship beginning on Monday, in the same warehouse that had hosted the Saturday night banquet (Building 2).   Immediately after the Banquet, from 11 until 2 in the morning, staff from the Whaling Museum had joined with others in transforming the banquet hall into an exhibition hall that would ready for the opening of the Symposium at 9 am on Monday. For a lecture room, they curtained off a space with about a hundred chairs and installed a projector and equipment for audio and video recording. The rest of the exhibition hall had booths devoted to the activities of the three primary sponsors of the Symposium, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Nantucket Whaling Museum, and the Mystic Seaport Museum (providing a new context in which to appreciate the huge scenes from the whaling panorama mounted on the walls). An actual Azorean whaleboat anchored an exhibition highlighting that island nation’s whaling tradition. The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society from across the river in Fairhaven set up a booth about the museum they have created out of the home on Cherry Street in which John Manjiro, a shipwrecked Japanese sailor, had lived in the 1840s after being rescued by the American whaling captain William Whitfield. In addition to the indoor attractions, of course, were the outdoor attractions which had opened on Saturday, including the sperm whale inflatable, demonstrations of whaling craftsmanship, and the thirty-minute Moby-Dick, all of which were well-attended throughout the week.

Azorean whale boat under whaling panorama in exhibition hall

Azorean whale boat under whaling panorama in exhibition hall

We in the Melville Society Cultural Project had been asked by James Russell of the Whaling Museum to help coordinate the Whaling History Symposium. Speakers were scheduled from 9 to 12 and from 1 to 4 on Monday through Thursday. The program was put together by Mary K Bercaw Edwards, assisted by Caitlin McCaffery, at the same time that Mary K was preparing for the departure of the Morgan from Mystic, accompanying the ship to New London, Newport, and Vineyard Haven, and conducting daylong whaleboat demonstrations in several ports. I have no idea how she did it all. We had no idea how many people would show up for a series of scholarly presentations scheduled in hopes of attracting visitors who had come primarily to see the ship. Each of our MSCP members presented a paper as well as chairing a session. Each three-hour session featured three or four thirty-minute presentations followed by questions.

Mary K Bercaw Edwards, in her scholarly dress, speaking at Symposium

Mary K Bercaw Edwards, in her scholarly dress, speaking at Symposium

Mary K and I had been in New Bedford since the ship had landed, but we had hardly seen each other, so busy was she with the ship and I with the exhibition. I had intended to attend the Parade of Boats on Sunday afternoon, in which Mary K had commanded the lead whaleboat, but I had to steal some time to work on this blog, whose handwritten entries I had only managed to bring up to the beginning of the voyage itself by the beginning of the Homecoming Ceremonies on Saturday. On Friday evening, after working on the exhibition for much of the day, I had been delighted to meet Jaime Campomar, our Melville Society Archive Fellow from Argentina. He had flown to Logan Airport from Indianapolis, where he had been studying the successive scripts that Ray Bradbury had written for John Huston’s 1956 Moby-Dick film. Bob Rocha, who was coordinating Jaime’s stay for the Whaling Museum, drove him down from Logan Airport and brought him to the Wamsutta apartment in which he would stay during his two weeks of research in our Archive. I had expected to call our new fellow “Jaime,” the name he had used in our correspondence, but he introduced himself as “Jim,” having already, previously, lived for a considerable time in the United States.

“Jim” Campomar outside the Seaman’s Bethel with MSCP members Wallace, Bercaw Edwards, Baker, and Sten

“Jim” Campomar outside the Seaman’s Bethel with MSCP members Wallace, Bercaw Edwards, Baker, and Sten

Usually our group of six MSCP members make our summer visit to New Bedford in late July or early August, near Herman Melville’s August 1 birthday. Usually we stay for three days and tend to our Archive while having planning and review meetings with the Whaling Museum staff. This time we came earlier for the Morgan’s visit and the Symposium. And there was only one time, late on Monday afternoon, when we could schedule our customary group meeting with the Whaling Museum staff. We had much to discuss, as the Museum, in addition to contributing so much to the Morgan’s visit, had just broken ground on a very ambitious new Educational and Research Center that will bring its Research Library (and our Melville Society Archive) down from Purchase Street to be a major part of the Museum itself. The new Research Library will include a designated section in which we can display highlights from the Melville Archive.

Model for the Wattles Jacobs Education Center at New Bedford Whaling Museum

Model for the Wattles Jacobs Education Center at New Bedford Whaling Museum

On Sunday night our MSCP group met for dinner, as it often does upon arriving in town, at Elizabeth’s in Fairhaven. In addition to Mary K from Mystic (and the University of Connecticut) and me from northern Kentucky (NKU), Wyn Kelly is from Cambridge (MIT), Jennifer Baker from New York City (NYU), Chris Sten from Washington DC (George Washington University), and Tim Marr from Chapel Hill (UNC). This summer, in addition to preparing for our meeting with the Museum staff (and getting to know Jim), we had the Symposium to look forward to. In addition working together harmoniously, as we always do, it was great to hear each of our friends present a paper as well as chair a session. Mary K spoke from her unparalleled knowledge of the history of whaling. Tim spoke on the growing pervasiveness of Moby-Dick in popular culture. Chris spoke on the intelligence and consciousness of whales. Jennifer spoke on the way nineteenth-century scientists and artists perceived whales. Wyn spoke on the ever-evolving intersection of pedagogy, electronic media, and Melville studies. And Jim Campomar gave a very sophisticated analysis of the process of converting a script into a film.  My contribution to the Symposium was a gallery talk at the official opening of The Art of Seeing Whales exhibition, which I will address in the blog entry that followws this one.

Jennifer Baker making presenting her her paper about artistic and scientific representations of whales

Jennifer Baker presenting her her paper about artistic and scientific representations of whales

Melanie Correia, who had been installing the exhibition the week before, was this week monitoring all of the presentations at the Symposium, helping presenters upload their Powerpoints and making sure that each presentation was properly recorded. Christina Connett was as present this week at the Symposium as she had been last week at the gallery, and she had helped to oversee the transformation of the banquet hall into an exhibition hall at the end of the Gala on Saturday night.   The attendance at the Symposium was much stronger, and more consistent, than many had expected. The room was nearly full for many of the sessions, and the quality of presentations was high. The speakers were diverse in subject, origin, style, and background—including journalists, librarians, teachers, professors, scientists, film makers, museum professionals, and independent scholars—all united by interest in the whale. A few examples will suggest the flavor of their presentations.

Tim Marr making presentation about Moby-Dick and popular culture

Tim Marr making presentation about Moby-Dick and popular culture

From New Bedford historians Peggi Medeiros, Diane Duprey, and Laurie Robertson Lorant, I heard new information about Charles W. Morgan’s relation to the city’s African American community (not only in the names of specific workers he had hired to build the Morgan, but in his close association with Nathan and Polly Johnson, the African American caterers who had taken Frederick Douglass in to their own home when he arrived as a fugitive from slavery in 1838). Hayato Sakuri, director of the Taiji Historical Archives in Japan, extended his previous analysis of the life and career of John Manjio, both while living here and after returning to Japan. Hayato was also happy to demonstrate that he had convinced a leading Japanese newspaper to cover the 38th Voyage of the Morgan on its front page. Filmmaker Courtney Furguson from Australia provided fascinating new information about the early history of whaling in Australia and New Zealand, and the interaction of Western whalers and Maori warriors, involving rich racial mixing as well as well-documented warfare. Márcia Dutra of the University of the Azores, Western Island, summarized the deep connections between Azorean whalers and those of New Bedford, and Bradley Barr of NOAH brought us up to date about how nineteenth-century whalers contributed to what we know of the oceans today. One of the most memorable presentations for me (six hours of sessions four days in a row was a lot to process) was Mike Dyer’s illustrated lecture about the accuracy and beauty of the depictions of whales in nineteenth-century logbooks—in contrast to what was then available in scientific publications.

Ftont page feature on 38th voyage of the Morgan (and John Manjior) in Asahi Shimbun, Jule 27, 2014

Front page feature on 38th Voyage of the Morgan (and John Manjiro) in Asahi Shimbun, June 27, 2014

Throughout the Symposium, as during the voyage of the Morgan itself, it was striking to think about how mankind has evolved in its knowledge and appreciation of the whale. A fellow mammal that only a century and half ago was seen as only a creature to be hunted is now a worldwide subject of admiration—and even adulation. Isolated nineteenth-century writers such as Thomas Beale, Herman Melville, and Charles Melville Scammon—all of whom worked on whale ships but came to know and love the whale—are more than ever beacons of enlightened consciousness in the twenty-first century. To have the return of the Morgan to New Bedford accompanied by a Symposium setting the history of whaling in the light of our current consciousness was satisfying and inspiring. As Nathaniel Philbrick said in his keynote address, were have come here “not to celebrate the slaughter of cetaceans” but to learn what we can about how the history of whaling can better help us appreciate and understand the imperatives of the present. All of the institutions that helped sponsor the Symposium are wrestling with this exact idea, and the Symposium itself, led by the arrival of the Morgan, has surely helped to chart part of that course.  

Chris Sten presenting his paper on the intelligence and consciousness of whales

Chris Sten presenting his paper on the intelligence and consciousness of whales

I would love to know what Thomas Beale, Herman Melville, and Charles Melville Scammon would have thought if there were here to see the beautiful inflatable of Beale’s beloved sperm whale, the delightful thirty-minute rendition of Moby-Dick, or the back-to-back presentations by Bradley Barr and Michael Dyer on how much we are still learning from the meticulous and often beautiful log books kept by nineteenth-century whalers. Because we were to be so busy once the Symposium began, Mary K had arranged for us to see a special performance of “Moby-Dick in Minutes” on the pier just before we went to dinner at Elizabeth’s on Sunday.  We were impressed with the talent of the young actors in the Mystic Talemakers Troupe who had developed the play specifically to accompany the Charles W. Morgan on its 38th Voyage. It was well attended by people of all ages throughout the week.

Mystic's Talemaker Troup performing 30-minute Moby-Dick on New Bedford pier

Mystic’s Talemaker Troupe performing 30-minute Moby-Dick on New Bedford pier


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