Member Blogs > ten pound island book companySaturday Afternoon in Vaitahu Bay

  • Sun, 03 Nov 2013 10:14:55    Permalink
    Saturday afternoon, November 2, 2013, my back yardSpent most of Saturday morning looking out my back window and thinking it was Friday. Talk about falling back - I saved an entire day! After the jolt of realizing my mistake, or maybe because of it, my afternoon settled into a sleepy routine. I checked my email, ate a couple of leftover Halloween candy bars, and pulled down the next book in the pile waiting to be cataloged.
    It wasnt much to look at. The binding was broken, the boards were detached, and the sewing had come loose. On top of that, it recorded three partial voyages rather than one complete one, and there were no whale stamps. As whaling logs go, it wasnt particularly promising. On the other hand, it was a whaling log. And it did have one very nice watercolor painting, done by a whaleman, of a tryworks, whaling tools, and whales. So I started reading.

    On the first day of August 1844 I accidentally made a slight acquaintance in Castle Garden New York, with what is called a Runner, or a Drummer, whose avocation is to ensnare the unwary into one of the many nooks which may be noticed along Water Street in New York after listening to his glowing description of the scenes and pleasures of the Whalemans life, pointed out to me in true New England style, with genuine Yankee colors, all of which being duly corroborated by his friends I was regularly shipped to sail in the good ship Armata of New London, Conn. And after being assured I should find a kind Captain, gentlemanly officers, and agreeable crew myself and eleven other young men was by him transferred to the guardian care of My Newly Made Acquaintance
    Well, the guy could certainly write! And he had a sort of jaunty style. Maybe, I thought, this could be fun. And so it was, but not for any reason I could possibly have imagined.
    It turned out that the captain of the Armata was a despot. When the ship landed in Vaitahu Bay on Tahuata in the Marquesas*, the journal keeper, Francis Gibbons, and a friend decided to desert. They ran into the jungle and hid in the hills, their mates calling after them. Then, when the ship was gone, they descended and were befriended by the natives. The chief gave them wives and a wedding, all carefully recorded in this journal. Gibbons gives a close account of the country, its people and their customs, and he tells how the tribe was perpetually at war with people from the other side of the bay. After three months, although he was becoming increasingly fond of his Doxie, Gibbons signed aboard the American whaleship Abigail of New Bedford for a 1/150th lay and a $2 advance.
    Right from the start, this account bore a striking resemblance to Herman Melvilles first book, Typee. The parallels were uncanny. Gibbonss wife is called Minari - of beautiful symmetry of features and nearly as light complected as myself, my being very much burnt with the sun at the time. I was especially pleased with Minaris hair it hung without exaggeration from 36 to 40 inches in length, of a beautiful black and glossy lustre. Heres Melville talking about his girl, Fayaway: Her complexion was a rich and mantling olive... The face of this girl was a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire Her hair of the deepest brown parted irregularly in the middle, flowed in natural ringlets over her shoulders. As another example, Tommo is horrified to discover the cannibalism of the Typees and their enemies the Happars. Gibbons blandly states of his Marquesan tribe,  Their enemies slain in battle they always roast and are eaten by the victors Melville and his friend had made their escape from a whaleship in 1842, three years before Gibbons jumped ship. But there is no way Gibbons could have been influenced by Melvilles tale. Typee wasnt published until 1846.
    Still a hit. This is the Penguin edition
    The tropical paradise, the noble savages, the beautiful native women, and the scary cannibals eventually made Melvilles book a big hit at home. This journal suggests that there was a real life precedent for the adventures of Tommo and Toby in Typee.
    The rest of the journal was very good, too. Such are the pleasures of cataloging on a sleepy Saturday afternoon.

    WHALING JOURNAL, SHIPS ABIGAIL, ARMATA AND STATIRA. 1843 - 1847. Folio, about 120 pp. manuscript entries. In August 1844, Francis Gibbons, of Delaware, signed aboard the whaleship Armata, out of New London. In this journal he relates his early days as a Greenie and gives a close description of his surroundings and life aboard ship. When they reached the Marquesas, he and another man deserted the Armata and her despotic captain. Eventually, he signed aboard the American whaleship Abigail. The entire Marquesan interlude - about 3500 words in length - is fascinating, both on its own merits and because of its remarkable similarity to Herman Melvilles first book, Typee, based on Melvilles experiences here just two years before Gibbonss account, but not published until 1846.
    Once onboard the Abigail, Gibbons gives a complete crew list and begins his account of that voyage. Almost immediately they encountered whales and Gibbons  provides full and well written accounts of life on board and whaling action. They spent August in the Galapagos, and Gibbons again provides superlative descriptions of the islands, the wildlife and such romantic scenes as the lonely grave of a young sailor who has died there years before. Then on to Paita, where Gibbons and his mates went ashore, each with $1 Liberty money. The usual desertions ensued, and the Abigail, hard pressed to recruit new men, sailed to Tombez for men and water. Back through the Galapagos and into the Pacific where, in November, Gibbons writes, I shall now attempt a feeble description of the manner of taking the Sperm Whale. This feeble description goes on for four folio pages of tight, precise penmanship, and covers all phases of whaling operations and natural history. They cruised in the Pacific all winter, and Gibbons writes of his depression, which I endeavour to conceal as much as possible. No whales and long days in the mid-Pacific, the Mate and boatsteerers tinkering with the Carpenters tools, files etc, upon their several different Bone Curiosities scrimshanding! They reached Maui in April. Gibbons, restless and depressed, left the ship.
    The Gibbons portion of the journal ends here, after 63 pages. The entries are then taken up in another hand in March 1847 by a sailor aboard the Statira of New Bedford. His entries are shorter, and his handwriting worse, but he still conveys all the action as the ship departs Maui and heads to the Pacific Northwest, where they engaged in the right whale fishery - with some success. His account contains good descriptions of whaling and shipboard activities. It is 40 pages in length and ends May 1848, off Block Island.
    This is a remarkable and historically valuable account of sperm whaling, scrimshanding, and life on the Marquesas, bound with a second journal of right whaling in the Pacific Northwest. With a full page watercolor made by a whaleman. $8500
    Oh, and by the way. While Gibbons and his shipmate were enjoying themselves in the islands, Melville was trying, and failing, to get Typee published in America.
    *Thanks to Ron Wright and Anthony Weller for identifying the location, which Gibbonss orthography had mangled beyond recognition by any but experts such as these.

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