Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2011 Issue

A Whale of a Book, A Whale of A Sale

19th century whaling journal

Personal journal of whaling 1833-6

Submitted by John Renjillian on behalf of the C.H. Booth Friends of the Library

Beginning on July 9th and continuing through July 13th the C. H. Booth Friends of the Library are holding their annual book sale to raise money for the library.  This year the marquee item is a hand-written whaling journal that dates to the early 19th century.  This and other books in the rare book room will be sold at fixed prices on a first in basis.  Admission is in number ticket order and tickets go on sale at 7:00 am on the first day of the sale.  In prior years it has been necessary to line up the previous night to get an early number.  The show/sale opens at 9:00 am.

About the book, about the sale.

You never know what will come in the door when a library friends group collects items for a book sale.  Most items are mundane, an occasional rarity crosses the threshold, and once in a great while a mind-blower arrives.  Such was the case at the C. H .Booth Library in Newtown, CT, where the Friends collect for the annual summer book sale throughout the year.  A month or so ago, an item arrived with seemingly no connection to any other books in the donation, a hand written journal of a whaling voyage.  It arrived in an otherwise unremarkable box, so unremarkable, in fact, that no one can even remember which donation it came in with.  It was passed along to the “specials” department, where it was quickly determined to be a journal of a Pacific Ocean voyage in the whale ship Samuel Wright, of Salem, MA, from 1833-1836.

The journal was kept by the second mate, William E Percival.  Percival was a native of Sandwich, MA, 30 years old, five feet, ten inches tall, with light complexion and hair.  He did not make an entry for every day, but he did cover the entire voyage of 39 months.

John Pitman, a whaler of longstanding who commanded several ships over his career, was the captain of the Samuel Wright.  Directly under Pitman was the first mate, Thomas Nickerson.  Nickerson, born on Nantucket, also had a long career as a whaler and merchant mariner, beginning at the age of 14 when he shipped out on board the ill-fated whaler Essex.  In 1820, the Essex was rammed by a giant white whale and sunk, providing the inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic story of Moby Dick.  Young Nickerson had the good fortune to be placed in the boat of first mate Owen Chase, which was rescued after an open-boat ocean voyage of 90 days.  The Samuel Wright was later wrecked on another voyage off Bunbury, Australia, and its timbers were salvaged for a building that eventually became St. Mark’s Church, the second oldest church in Western Australia, which still stands. 

As mentioned, the voyage recorded by Percival was a successful one, but it was not all an easy voyage.  Rounding Cape Horn was always difficult, and the ship lost considerable rigging and a whale boat in the transition.  Other storms while patrolling the Pacific for its prey also caused frequent damage to the ship, and all sails often had to be reefed, a dangerous process requiring sailors to climb the masts, crawl out on the yardarms, and roll up and tie the sails down to prevent complete destruction, usually while the storm was raging.

Rare Book Monthly

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