The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Attached above as a downloadable Word document is my own transcription (laboriously completed by me, by hand) of a journal kept by my great-grandfather Henry Thomas Handy (1845-1916) on a whaling voyage in 1868-1869. Also included are notes and commentary about Mr. Handy’s voyages, prepared by me. Henry T. Handy was my mother’s maternal grandfather.
My great-grandfather’s first voyage, in July 1866, sailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was as an ordinary seaman.
On his second voyage, in July 1868 on the bark Morning Star (also out of New Bedford), he was appointed boatsteerer. The boatsteerer sits in the bow of the whaleboat and functions both as the steerer of the boat and the harpooner. Mr. Handy kept a journal of this voyage, which is posted here.
The photo below is of the bark Morning Star. My great-grandfather rose to the position of First Mate on that ship, on a later voyage.
— Roger W. Smith
My great-great grandfather’s whaling journal was copied by me by hand at the home of a distant relative in Pocasset on Cape Cod around fifteen to twenty years ago. She was in possession of it. It had been in the possession of one of my mother’s cousins. He had cleaned out my mother’s aunt’s belongings from her Boston apartment when my mother’s aunt passed way in the early 1970’s. My mother’s aunt (daughter of my great-grandfather, the whaler) had inherited and preserved the whaling journal.
Under the terms of my mother’s aunt’s will, it appears that the journal should have been bequeathed to my mother. However, my mother was ill at the time, and had no knowledge of this. My mother’s aunt was the main preserver of family lore.
The distant relative living in Pocasset, the widow of my mother’s cousin, who (the widow, that is) was not a blood relative, jealously guarded access to the journal. She did not appear to have much interest in it, other than as something of potential monetary value, for sale.
I was treated inhospitably by the widow of my mother’s cousin. Sensing that I was not welcome in her home (which she made clear was the case by her demeanor and various indications of being unhospitable), I was pretty certain that I would not be allowed to return. So, I copied the entire journal by hand in one sitting. My wrist ached and I felt as if my hand was going to fall off.
I asked her if I could take it to a nearby motel and copy it there, bringing it back the next day. She said absolutely not. She did not trust me. I was determined to stay until I finished copying the entire journal because I felt that it was unlikely that I would get access to her house again.
I subsequently typed and edited the diary and did considerable work on it. I looked up many of the places my great-grandfather visited in the South Pacific (using his place names and longitudes and latitudes). I looked up contemporary reports of shipping activity and crew lists in the New Bedford Public Library to verify info on some of his voyages.
The library research was extensive, time consuming, and rewarding. The New Bedford Public Library is an indispensable repository of information accessible nowhere else about the nineteenth century whaling industry as well as the genealogy of settlers in Southeastern Massachusetts. My maternal grandmother grew up in New Bedford, and she had New Bedford ancestors going back several generations.
The Whalemen’s Shipping List is an index card file at the New Bedford Public Library. The cards were compiled and entries typed by Works Progress Administration (WPA) employees during the 1930’s. A card reads:
Handy, Henry, bark Stella, N.B. [New Bedford]
lost Foggy Is., Cal., Aug. 11, 1867
1/150 [lay, the seaman’s share of the voyage’s profits]
The first entry in Mr. Handy’s journal reads:
Wednesday, July 1, 1868 – “Went on board this morning at Clarks Point and got underway and beat down the Bay in company with the Oliver Crocker Capt. Fish[er]. 5 P.M. the Pilot and land sharks left and went ashore. Afterwards the Mate called all hands and the Officers chose their boats crews. … it fell to my lot to steer the Mate Mr. Lewis.”
Beat is a nautical term meaning to tack back and forth across the desired direction of advance to gain distance against an unfavorable wind. Land sharks were shore agents who procured greenhorn whalemen and outfitted them. Their methods were unscrupulous.