Robin Camille Davis
  1. Home /
  2. Blog /
  3. Whalers, sailors, and libraries at sea [part 2]

Whalers, sailors, and libraries at sea [part 2]

January 11, 2012

Yesterday, I wrote about sailors who were also readers in the 19th century, and their economy of book exchanges at sea. Today, let's look at what a few mariners were actually reading! Both lists were written by the masters of their ships, so presumably they would have been more educated and more privileged than the men they captained. (This is a long post. For the deliverables only, see the lists I made on OpenLibrary.)

Our first book list comes from the barks Fortune and James Andrews, both of New Bedford. Two whaling voyages shared a logbook under shipmaster Henry W. Beetle, Master from June 1851–Dec. 1855. The ships whaled around the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and North and South Pacific. In the back of the logbook, which is owned and has been digitized by the Providence Public Library (PPL) Special Collections, Master Beetle wrote a list of books he wanted to add to his personal collection. So it's not a complete catalog of his own books, just a wish list. Transcription follows.

List of Bookes that I want if I can
afford to Buy them
Washington's writings 11 volumes
Hart's Female Prose writers of America
The Leaflets of Memory 1852 by Reynell Coates
Human Prudence
Commentaries on the Bible
Modern Philosophy Philosophy by Tupper
Histories Ancient & Modern
The Crock of Gold
Harry Muir by Mrs. Margaret Maitland
Sunny Side & Shady Side

From which I derived this list of published works:

  • The Writings of George Washington
  • Female Prose Writers of America, by John S. Hart, mid-1800s
  • Leaflets of Memory, Reynell Coates
  • Human Prudence, or the art by which a man may raise himself and his fortune to grandeur, by William De Britaine
  • Commentaries on the Bible
  • Proverbial Philosophy, by Martin Farquhar Tupper, 1837 [best guess for "Modern Philosophy by Tupper"]
  • Histories Ancient & Modern
  • The Crock of Gold, by Martin Farquhar Tupper, 1844
  • Harry Muir: A Scottish Life, Margaret Maitland, 1853
  • The Shady Side, or Life in a Country Parsonage, by a Pastor's Wife (Martha Stone Hubbell), mid-1800s
  • The Sunny Side, or the Country Minister's Wife, by the Author of Little Kitty and Her Bible Verses (Elizabeth Stuart Phelps), 1853

I've made a list of books that are digitized at OpenLibrary. They're all available to read online!

First of all, how adorable is the title of his list? He may as well have prefaced it with "Dear Diary!" More seriously now, what does this list of titles tell us about Master Beetle? He's a thinking man, clearly, concerned with living a moral life. There's a comedy novel about a war of the sexes on the list (The Crock of Gold), two novels with themes of Christian life in New England (The Shady Side and The Sunny Side), and a short story collection (Leaflets of Memory). What's most interesting to me is that he has so many female writers in his collection... starting with Female Prose Writers of America, edited by John Seely Hart, an educator. The book is an anthology of short stories by dozens of American woman writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Hale. While the preface does explain that women "write from the heart" (because "their likes and dislikes, their feelings, opinions, feelings, tastes, and sympathies are so mixed up with those of their subject" — sigh), the women are presented as a legitimate up-and-coming literary force in the footsteps of Hannah Adams (1755–1831), the first American woman to make writing her profession.

Fun fact: the Fortune was later filled with stone and sunk as part of the Stone Fleet during the Civil War.


The second list comes from the Hopewell, a ship out of Warren, Rhode Island. Under Master George Littlefield, the Hopewell sailed on a Gold Rush voyage from Rhode Island, around Cape Horn, to San Francisco from Jan. 29–Aug. 9, 1849. On this voyage, Master Littlefield fell ill, and there was talk of leaving him in Talcahuano, Chile, as written in another account of the same voyage by seaman John E. Eddy (according to an item description from the Library of Mystic Seaport). Littlefield ended the short logbook (digitized by the PPL) with a 120-passenger manifest, lat-long coordinates of major harbors, and a list of the books he read while on the journey. Transcription follows:

Books that I read on Board of Ship
2 years before the Mast on a Voyage round the
Horn by Dana of Boston
Fremont Travels to the Rockey Mountain and California
in 1841 and 2 . 3
Travels of the Rev. George Fisk of London to Egypt,
Read [sic] Sea, Jerusalem, and the Holy Land
A Voyage of and [sic] East Indiaman by Jack A____ [an Indiaman was a ship on an East Indies route]
The American Ship Master Guide, and Commercial Assistant
The Practical Navigation by Nathaniel Bowditch
Laws of the Sea, on the Rights of Seamen and [Passengers?]
The Carrier Assistant and Insurers Guide
The [?] and [?] Assistant The Landlord's and Tenant's Assistant [thanks, Jennifer!]
The American Coast Pilot by Blunt
What I Saw in California by Edward Bryant
Seaman Friend by Dana
Lardner's Lectures on Astronomy

From which I derived this partial list of published works:

  • Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1840
  • The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843–'44, John C. Frémont [Littlefield probably read a report by Frémont]
  • A Pastor's Memorial of Egypt, the Red Sea, the Wildernesses of Sin and Paran, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, and other principal localities of the Holy Land, George Fisk, 1845
  • The American Ship-Master's Guide and Commercial Assistant, Francis Gedney Clarke, 1838
  • The American Practical Navigator, Nathaniel Bowditch, 1802
  • Laws Of The Sea: The Rights Of Seamen, Coaster's & Fisherman's Guide, And Master's And Mate's Manual, Isaac Ridler Butts
  • Shippers' & carriers' assistant & insurers' guide: The legal liabilities of shippers & carriers, edition in 1868, unsure of precedents
  • The Landlord and Tenant's Assistant, Isaac Ridler Butts, 1847
  • The American Coast Pilot, Edmund M. Blunt, first ed. 1817
  • What I Saw in California, Edwin Bryant, 1849
  • The Seaman's Friend: A Treatise on Practical Seamanship, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1841
  • A discourse on the advantages of natural philosophy and astronomy, Dionysius Lardner, lecture, 1828 (among other lectures and handbooks)

You can find most of these books at this list on OpenLibrary, available to read online.

What do these books tell us about Master Littlefield? He's much less romantic than Master Beetle; he has the travel bug; he is keeping abreast of his field by reading reference books and lectures. He also sought some legal advice in books, something sensible to do when transporting a bunch of gold-crazy 49ers on a seven-month journey while ill. Bryant's What I Saw in California is a long description of the author's journeys in the brand-new state, ending with details on the gold mines like extent of the gold region and costs of provisions. Certainly a must-read in 1849.

When I was trying to decipher the list, I read the short account at the very end of the logbook to try to match letter shapes. It was an interesting read, much unlike earlier entries solely describing wind direction changes. He related his experiences in Honolulu vividly:

The climate is mild and warm, and the appearance of the place beautiful. And while the snow is blowing, and the sleigh bells jingling in the New England States, I am in the mist [sic] of perfect summer, enjoying all the [food] that can be imagined. … Lettuce, [?], cucumber, beans, green corn, watermelons, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, lemons, bananas, coconuts, milk, eggs, poultry, fish, etc. etc. etc. [p. 35]

Perhaps he saw himself following the tradition of Dana, Frémont, Fisk, and Bryant in describing his travel adventures. And isn't that a major part of the attraction of a life at sea? Sailing between continents, going ashore in some of the world's most exciting cities? Oddly, Littlefield's logbook doesn't seem to mention any desire to follow the 49ers toward the gold mines, even though he read Bryant's account. Maybe he was too ill, or maybe he sensed the gold region couldn't contain so many thousands of people, or maybe it was too far inland for his liking. In any case, Hawaii was probably a better place to stay than dusty, mined-out Coloma, CA.

Another interesting gobbet: On the very last page of the log, once back in San Francisco in 1850, he recounts staying on Washington St. and then being awakened by cries of "Fire, fire!" This was the fire of May 4, 1850, which destroyed the whole block he was staying on before it was stopped. The city deduced that it was arson and offered a $5,000 reward for the arsonist.


What do you think of these mariners' book lists? I know it's not fair to judge someone by their book titles... but if we're going to do it anyway, what would you think of these men? Of the female writers Beetle wanted for his collection? Of the adventure travelogues in Littlefield's?

See another book list from 1841-45 at part three »


Special thanks again to Jordan Goffin, Special Collections Librarian at the Providence Public Library (PPL), who sent me hi-res images of the logbooks and helped me with my research. The PPL has a large maritime collection. They've put online great hi-res color scans of some of their whaling logbooks, and black & white scans of all of them. The logbooks record life aboard a vessel, everything from wind changes to sailors' quarrels and deaths to whales sighted and caught (often marked with a cool hand-carved stamp).