It's a funny business. There is no accounting for why or when things come to you. Every time I buy an American whaling log, for example, I think I may never see another one again. And then...
Over the past month I've gathered, from various sources, a mind boggling stack of 18th and 19th century logbooks and sailor's journals. Not much to look at, I'll admit.
But the gravitational force of this remarkable accumulation has dragged me, like a wayward comet, from my comfortable orbit in the 21st century to the dicey seafaring days of the 1800s. The phone rings. I pick it up reflexively and then need a few seconds to remember who, and where, I am.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I've been blessed to be the temporary caretaker (that's all we ever really are) of this wonderful material, and time traveling with these sailors has been a rare adventure.
I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. From a commercial point of view manuscripts have two great advantages over the millions and millions of books competing with one another on the Internet.
In the first place they are, by nature, unique. Each one was written by a particular person at a particular time for a particular purpose. When I put my manuscript online, baby, it's gonna be the only one out there! Secondly, manuscript items are often difficult to place in a historical context (book geek code for “figure out what they mean”) and, almost always, the handwriting requires a little effort to decipher.
People who are time stressed, or lazy, or OCD, or legally blind, or simply less interested in manuscripts than books, tend to price such material whimsically, according to how they feel rather than what the fair market value of the material might actually be. Often this results in foolishly inflated prices. Just as often it results in a situation where someone with a little experience can buy to advantage.
Which, aside from the fact that I am smitten with them, is why I spend all this money and time on these damned things in the first place.
As with many other things, a little experience makes the job easier. It helps to know maritime history so that we can place these items in their “historical context,” if you know what I mean. It also helps to be familiar with the conventions observed in creating these manuscripts. For example, before a journal-keeping sailor got to the narrative part of his entry, if he ever did, he would typically break the day down to “First part,” “Middle part,” and “Latter part,” using these divisions to describe the weather and its changes throughout the day. He would then say what he had to say, if anything, about where they were, or what they saw or did. Then he would close his entry with “So ends.”
This sounds simple enough, and it is. But if you are not familiar with these conventions, and if your journal keeper has, as he so often does, execrable penmanship and worse spelling, you can waste a lot of time trying to figure out whether the hen scratch representing “so ends” is an island, another ship, or a prayer. Similarly, latitude goes 90 degrees each way from the equator, and longitude goes 180 east and west from Greenwich. These sailors had a lot on their minds, or not much mind to contain that lot, and they often neglected to omit the N,S,E or W after recording their position in degrees and minutes.
I learned early on to keep a map of the globe, with latitude and longitude delineated, beside me at all times.
Not only did it help me figure out where the ship was (Lat 15 Long 30 would put you either near Cape Verde in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, or off the coast of Brazil in the Southern Atlantic, or in the middle of Sudan or in Zambia – neither of which proud African nations would be the best environment for a ship), the atlas also enabled me to trace the progress of the ship around the globe. And a surprising number of these guys, in the most unassuming way, did circumnavigate – in leaky, pestilential ships with barbaric mates and tyrannical skippers. I used to use a giant atlas, and I still do for the image of the globe, but Google has proved to be a godsend when I need to find out if Soends” is an island.
Then there are the hundreds of specialized nautical terms written, again, in bad hand and worse orthography. Verbs like “speak” and “gam,” and all the names of “whalecraft,” not to mention parts of the ship, and slang. You get the idea. Here's where reference books earn their money.
Consider all the places a tyro might get lost. In the navy, for example (and there are a couple of lovely naval journals in this lot), it turns out that a day, for log keeping purposes, starts at noon and goes through to noon of the next day. Of course, they don't tell you this; you have to figure it out for yourself. Many years ago, after discovering for the nth time that some key battle had taken place, according to the eyewitness account I was reading, a day before or after it was supposed to have taken place, I tumbled to the fact that maybe something else was going on, and that I would not be re-writing any history books.
I could ramble on about such matters for an indecent length of time. And don't even get me started about things like whale stamps (in one of the whaling logs I've been reading the keeper used six different whale stamps; in another a keeper used the biggest whale stamp I've ever seen – fully seven inches long).
But I no longer have indecent amounts of time to fritter away, and you may not, either. So here's a very brief description of one the the journals that was not written by a whaleman. It was written by a purser (the CFO aboard ship) in a US Navy ship called the Dolphin, in the 1830s, on slave patrol and then along the coast of South America. There, he and his shipmates stumbled into a rebellion that was taking place in Bahia, Brazil. Wikipedia characterizes it as, “one of the most important urban slave rebellions in the Americas, of particular note because it was the only predominantly Muslim slave revolt in the history of the New World.” This sailor, A.C. Watson, was there. And for a while last Wednesday, I was there with him.
Oh, did I mention you have to read these things?
Manuscript. Naval Purser's Journal. Kept by A.C. Watson Aboard the Brig Dolphin, 1836-1838. Sm folio. 74 pp. manuscript."The... Dolphin... was launched 17 June 1836... She sailed 6 October under the command of Lt. W.E. McKenney to join the Brazil Squadron after a short cruise on the coast of Africa. She... was employed in the waters along the Atlantic coast of South America to protect the rights and property of American citizens. She set sail from Bahia, Brazil, 17 April 1839..." - "American Naval Fighting Ships", II, p. 284. Watson's narrative vividly fills the gaps in the official account. He writes of the slave traffic in Africa, and of the English and American settlements there, as well as the native Africans, their customs, devil worship, the activities of the "krooman" boatmen in the surf, etc. In South America smallpox strikes the "Dolphin's" crew. At Bahia a rebellion is underway just as the "Dolphin" arrives, and Watson graphically describes a number of encounters as well as a terrifying night engagement in the city. He also supplies marginal glosses that serve as finding aids to his text. A riveting narrative, unpublished. About 28,000 words. Clean and legible in lined logbook, bound in calf over marbled boards. Hinges cracked but holding.$4500