A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2019 Jan 12, 11:24 -0800
I wrote yesterday:
"Literacy in New England c.1850 was above 95%, possibly even above 98%, and that covers marginalized groups, too, including women."
It occurs to me that I should emphasize how radically different things were in the soon-to-be Confederate States of America. In 1840 in the southern USA, literacy for black slaves was legally discouraged, and in many states education of slaves was explicity outlawed. That was the sort of mutiny that terrified the white population in the South -- a slave rebellion. Keep them uneducated and illiterate, and they cannot organize, cannot learn about successful slave rebellions, like in Haiti, cannot read about abolitionism, and above all, cannot be re-assured of the profound immorality of their enslavement.
The "lascar" (South Asian/Indian) crews that Don Seltzer mentioned, were effectively slave labor on some British ships in the late 18th and into the 19th centuries. They were not merely illiterate, they were also separated by a language barrier from the English-speaking officers and crew. Like the black slaves in the American South, the threat of mutiny was a deadly danger because the lascars were considered sub-human and treated with contempt.
Contrast the fear of the lascars with the case of "John" Manjiro, whom I've written about and spoken about many times. He was the young Japanese castaway who was brought to New England in 1841 and went to sea for some years as part of a whaling crew. He learned English and math (and other American skills like "jumping rope"), and he learned navigation. He so recognized the importance of books and navigation that, upon his return to Japan nearly a decade after being shipwrecked, he encouraged and directed a Japanese translation of Bowditch's "New American Practical Navigator". The project seems to have been obsolete (superseded by newer books and by education in English) by the time it was completed, but it demonstrates the key principle: knowledge is portable. If you can buy a book and read it, no one can prevent you from learning anything --certainly not a subject as straight-forward as nautical navigation.
Brad, you asked if there might be some misrepresentation of American shipping by the focus on whaling. Yes, but in a direction that does no harm in this discussion. Crews of whaling vessels were more diverse than other crews. They were more likely to include some illiterates. They were more likely to include potential mutineers and possibly criminals running from the law. But as Don Seltzer has already indicated, whaling had its own "relief valve", and that was "desertion". While desertion was a crime, it seems that it was only lightly "policed" in the whaling industry. Malcontents were encouraged to "swim for it" (swim for it, while at anchor in a tropical port, by the way). There were almost always other crew members available in the next port willing to sign aboard. It was up to the captain, of course. Not every deserter got away.
It is hard to imagine, but whaling was a Colossus in America in this era. The vast American whaling fleet ruled the eastern Pacific in the 1840s. Hawaii is a US state today largely thanks to the New England whaling industry. Other countries had whaling fleets, and British whalers dominated the sub-Arctic of the North Atlantic, but the American fleet was unique in its power and influence.
The whaling industry was the dominant element of the American maritime world in the mid-19th century. Whaling was the goldrush before the goldrush. In some ways it was an economic bubble that could have collapsed in disaster. And in part, it did. Whaling post-Civil War was decimated by multiple forces: the destruction of many whalers by CSS Shenandoah, the loss of crews to the war (both as casualties and simply by moving into other trades), the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania just before the war, and also the economic cost of the over-built, over-extended industry itself. Whaling post-war was much less profitable, and it was less egalitarian. Hard work for poor pay. The first recorded mutiny (more of a labor strike by this late era) occurred aboard the Charles W. Morgan in 1897 in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan. There was no question of navigation knowledge in this mutiny since the mutineers were not trying to sail the ship --rather, they refused to sail under the First Mate while the Captain was sick and in hospital. In the logbook, it's noted that the mutineers, who had been in chains below deck, either jumped over the side and deserted or agreed to go back to work. Desertion was encouraged.
Whaling was bizarre. And that's part of the reason it makes such a fine "stage" for Melville's biblical "play". Whaling was like something out of the Neolithic: frail men in boats scarcely better than canoes throwing pointed sticks at mega-fauna... Switch whales for wooly mammoths, and it could have been 10,000 years ago (completely outside the depth of history as understood by Melville --his sea that "rolled on as it rolled 5000 years ago" was supposed to imply the "dawn of history", the era of Genesis). Whaling was murderous and bloody and disgusting, and this was all that most people knew about it --hunting giant beasts so that their flesh could be melted down to light the lamps in "civilized" cities like Manhattan --the "insular city of the Manhattoes". Melville in Moby-Dick both elaborates on the gore of the hunt and the hellish fires of the tryworks in exquisite detail, and also invents a fantasy of the royalty and grandeur of whaling as a bit of a joke or a counter-point to the horror of it all. Civilization itself, illuminated by the burning flesh of the greatest animals that ever lived... Humanity itself, illuminated by the words in a simple book. Too bad it sold so poorly while Melville was alive!
Mystic Seaport Museum, where I teach many of my celestial navigation classes, owes its existence to Melville's "Moby-Dick". The novel was re-discovered in the 1920s, just as traditional American whaling closed out its own epilogue, and the Charles W. Morgan "alone escaped" to tell the tale, like Ishmael at the end of the novel. The Morgan was the last whaleship, and a month before the shock of Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was brought to Mystic, to the Marine Historical Association, which would later become "Mystic Seaport". It became the centerpiece of the museum -- the premier historical vessel in the collection. The Charles W. Morgan is the last of the great whaling vessels, and it is the oldest commercial vessel afloat today. As Moby-Dick became a classic of American literature (interesting how an unpopular book can "become" a classic), Mystic Seaport provided a tangible, tactile, historical setting for the discovery of the novel. Literature classes would make routine pilgrimages to the museum to see Moby-Dick come alive. The only thing missing was the blood and gore... Probably a good thing! As whales became "sacred cows" in the late 20th century, the message of Moby-Dick and the apparent glorification of the history of American whaling became a "harder sell". The legacy of whaling still confuses and confounds the message and purpose of Mystic Seaport Museum.