Robin Camille Davis
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Whalers, sailors, and libraries at sea [part 1]

January 09, 2012

In the whaling days of Moby-Dick, splashy scenes like the above could be infrequent. Many long days could pass between whales, and indeed any long sea journey was marked by tedium. While ship-masters always had an unending list of chores for the sailors to complete aboard the ship, some of the men passed their free time reading. Voraciously! From the few 19th-century book lists I've seen, from both whaling and non-whaling ships, the sailors' general tastes trended toward travel accounts, adventure novels, holy scriptures, and nautical reference books.

The rare ship had its own large library, up to the 326 volumes in the U.S. steam sloop Narragansett's ship-wide lending library for instance. (See the Narragansett's 1860 printed catalog at the Internet Archive via Boston Public Library, and see p.33 of The View from the Masthead by Hester Blum for more info). Some ships were the recipients of books donated by citizens wishing to encourage erudition among tradesmen, in the spirit of Ben Franklin. More often, though, sailors had only their personal book collection, if any. Aboard the ship, seamen could trade books with each other, but when many days pass between whales, a few dozen books looks quite scant. For bookish mariners, then, a gam was heaven-sent. I'll let Melville step in here:

At these gams (sometimes spelled gamms), the captains would meet and the crews would mingle and (often) everyone would get quite drunk. Goods would be traded between ships, including tobacco, food, and — books!

In an 1852 account, Henry DeForrest, an erudite officer aboard the William Rotch of Fairhaven, MA, describes how "the reading part of the crew" has exchanged books with other sailors. This scan (used with permission, highlighting by me) comes from the Providence Public Library Special Collections. Transcription follows.

Transcription: "August 18th... Some of the men have been exchanging books, and the ship at present is overrun with a sweet lot of the stuff, emanating from the pens of Paul De Rock, Greenhorn, Proffessor [sic] Ingraham, and  few others of the best writers. It is curious to see, with what avidity, these books are sought after by the reading part of the crew."

Elsewhere in the log, DeForrest mentions that the captain is reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in the middle of their voyage. The PPL surmises in the item's description that it too was obtained during a gam.

There may have been a whole economy of book trading at sea, but precious little survives to tell us more about it. Most of our knowledge of maritime reading habits in the 1800s comes from ship logbooks and sailors' personal accounts, and only a few wrote down their catalog. If you're like me, seeing someone's personal library is like seeing a part of their mind. Texts are a common and communicative thread between generations, even centuries. So in Part Two tomorrow, I'll present actual reading lists from a whaler and a Gold Rush ship.

See part two and part three for book lists »


Special thanks to Jordan Goffin, Special Collections Librarian at the Providence Public Library (PPL), who provided me with valuable research leads via prompt email reply. Thanks also to Richard (Rick) Ring, former Special Collections Librarian at the PPL, who first mentioned the interesting reading histories of whalers to me in 2009. Check out the fantastic Nicholson Whaling Collection at the PPL, the only library I know of that has a harpoon and scrimshaw collection in its catalog.