Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sweaty Attention

China Trade Journal, 1845. (See below)

Another week spent in the 19th century.

This time accompanying a young man named P. R. Jarvis aboard a ship named the Akbar – one of the China Trade fleet built for Forbes and Cabot – on a journey from New Orleans, around the Cape of Good Hope, to China, then on to Calcutta and Mauritius. Although he stands watches and performs work aboard ship, Jarvis seems somehow removed from the rest of the men – he refers to them as “the crew” (he seems to get on with them perfectly well) – and is soon taken from the forecastle and given a berth with the carpenter. Perhaps this is due to his social standing, or perhaps to wealth.

As well as being a meticulous account of shipboard life and ports, people, and cities in China, India and Mauritius, this is also a coming-of-age story of sorts. Jarvis records all that he sees and learns, both about the ship and the men who sail it. He reaches his 21st birthday on the voyage, and his observations on the back end of his trip are markedly different in tenor than those of his first days aboard ship. Departure

Though inferior in language and literary style to Two Years Before the Mast there is a striking similarity between this record and that of Jarvis’ contemporary, Richard Henry Dana, both in the level of detail recorded and in the stance from which the recording is done. How many young men of some education and social standing sailed before the mast in the 19th century? Perhaps this accounted in some measure for its immediate success.

Whampoa!

Last week’s blog entry – the one about the 49er’s journal – elicited a message from a kindly reader who wanted to know “What would be entailed to make a digital copy of these documents and make them available for poor schlubs like me that can't afford thousands of dollars for the original documents but nevertheless have a genuine interest in the life and observations of folks long dead?”

A good question. I told him I’d answer in this week’s blog, so here goes…

Aside from the labor of scanning 150 pages, there is also potential damage to be considered. The bits I scan or photograph for this blog are on pages that open easily, or that present themselves for photographing without putting undue stress on the binding. Scanning every page could ruin the binding of a precious journal. So, let’s see… I scan a page every two minutes and hope the book doesn’t break. That’s five hours of my time. Then, of course the digital images need to be adjusted and arranged… more time. And what if I inadvertently ruin the book? I guess you know who will pay for the damage! Finally, at the question’s most basic level, does it make sense to give away something one is trying to sell? Ask the music industry about that one.

But suppose that, in an uncharacteristic fit of goodwill, I make a digital copy available on my website. I get hundreds of hits from people who, like my correspondent above, have a genuine interest in the life and observations of folks long dead. They thank me profusely, we talk at length about the 49er’s adventures and, all in all, have a wonderful time. More time, to add to the time spent copying and massaging digital text, but wonderful time nonetheless. I can actually see that happening.

Then suppose I offer the journal to the appropriate institution, only to get a letter from their acquisitions person informing me that they already own the Kessinger reprint of the text and thus do not need the original. In a panic I go online and discover that some verminous reprint company has discovered my manuscript and reproduced it, as a POD book, for $29.95. I can see that happening, too.

Another correspondent wrote, “I have a kind of ancillary question: How much of an item like this diary are you permitted to read prior to buying? And if it's different each time, are there logical reasons behind the differences?”

Well, I had all afternoon to read the 49er journal, and to satisfy myself that there was enough material about San Francisco, the gold fields, and Hawaii to justify its price. Jarvis’s China journal was a different matter. I’d just finished lunch in the final hours of a show and was dealing with last minute tire-kickers, paying bills, sending out invoices and figuring how to get my books out of there in some orderly manner, when the journal presented itself. I gave it five minutes of my sweaty, anxious attention, then went with my gut. The thing just felt right.

And boy, was it ever!

(Manuscript) P.R. Jarvis Log Book Feby 13 1845 Left New Orleans in Ship Akbar for China. (Cover title) 8vo, unpaginated (approximately 145 pp.) About 80,000 words. Bound in limp leather. Written in pencil, somewhat rubbed and faded in places but legible throughout. (First entry recorded upside down on last page of journal.)

Feb. 13 “New Orleans… laying alongside the levee made fast to the tow boat Mississippi I am in the ship Akbar the sailors are coming on board and gathering in clusters talking of the voyage the ship and the probable time it will take to get to our journeys end… there are two young men one like myself has never been to sea as a hand before the other has made one trip to China.”

Thus begins a garrulous and highly detailed journal of a young man’s first sea voyage, aboard a merchant ship carrying cotton to China and returning via Calcutta, and then on a different ship, the Grotius, from Calcutta to Mauritius, where the journal ends.

Although he stands watches and performs work aboard ship, Jarvis seems somehow removed from the rest of the men – he refers to them as “the crew” (though he seems to get on with them perfectly well) – and is soon taken from the forecastle and given a berth with the carpenter. Perhaps this is due to his social standing, or perhaps to wealth. He has some sort of prior relationship with Mr. Forbes, the American consul in Canton, and he purchases trunks and casks of souvenirs, shells, and coral, as well as clothing and supplies (these are listed in the final two pages of the journal), but only once is advanced a small sum by the captain. The mate tells Jarvis he’ll make a 2nd mate of him, and the Captain offers to have “young Cabot” teach him navigation. Jarvis mentions Mr. Delano, probably the Russell & Co. partner, and his companion aboard the ship, “young Cabot.” The Cabots and the Forbses were co-owners of the Akbar and it is possible Jarvis was known or related to them in some manner. Mr. Gilman, also from Russell & Co. visits Delano aboard the ship and interviews Jarvis at Russell & Co. $5000


Next Week - The Washington Book Fair.

2 comments:

  1. so, unless some collector decides to publish a reproduction of his collection, I am out of luck :)
    Thanks for taking the time to respond,
    kind regards,
    DaveL

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dave:

      That's what institutions are for. And in the ecology of the trade, they are the end consumers of such material.

      Greg

      Delete