Connected \\ October 11, 2019
Reading between the lines
People tend to look at ships' logs and see indecipherable columns of numbers, unaware that they are actually glimpses into the daily lives of those on a voyage. As he planned our new maritime gallery, opening on the first floor of the new wing this September, Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, dove into our library holdings, which are crucial for maritime research. “I wanted to find a way to get people to pause for a minute, look at these more closely, and appreciate how much useful information is packed into these ships' logs,” says Finamore. “By combining the various bits of data, we can flesh out a voyage as more than just a task that was executed, but as an emotional human experience.”
William Story. 1774–1864, United States. Log of the first voyage of the Friendship, 1797–99. Ink and pen on paper. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert
That’s where Joanie Ingraham, a longtime PEM Overseer and volunteer, comes in. Thanks to her maritime background and keen eyes, this fall you can take a voyage to Batavia on the Friendship of Salem, like it’s 1797. Ingraham has spent months pouring over the official log book of that journey, deciphering and decoding 1st mate William Story’s gorgeous handwriting, determining whether it was “fresh breezes” and “flying clouds” or if the crew got caught in weather.
Joanie Ingraham, a longtime PEM Overseer and volunteer stands next to a Friendship log book, in the new Maritime Art Gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
“I’m Dan’s go-to person for handwriting reading — logs, old letters, sketchbooks,” says Ingraham, speaking of her long term volunteer position with Finamore. Her work at PEM began when she helped her son Sam, then an intern in the maritime department, with a project.
Now, her attention to meticulous detail, ability to keep a spreadsheet and her years as a licensed boat captain have made possible a multimedia interactive in the gallery that will illuminate long sea voyages and global trade for the average person. This will allow visitors to experience highlights of the 10-month maiden voyage of the Friendship’s many journeys, checking in on what Captain Israel Williams and his crew were up to.
Joanie has been enormous help with the project, says Finamore, because she has the patience to decipher 200+-year-old script, and she has the nautical knowledge “and curiosity to doggedly track down the meanings of all sorts of arcane references to shipboard activities which someone reading in a hurry might skim over and miss.”
Thomas Russell. 1780–1817, United States and Mr. Odell. Active late 1700s–early 1800s, United States Model of the 1797 ship Friendship, about 1804. Wood, cordage, and bronze. Gift of William Story, about 1804. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.
For instance, as it left the mouth of Salem Harbor on August 29, 1797, the 342-ton vessel passed Bakers Island at 9 am and at 3 pm, those on the ship gave three rowdy cheers before the ship’s investors, owners and other fancy passengers got off on another boat and let the real sailors endure the hard journey.
You can’t make this stuff up,” says Ingraham. “It’s Salem’s history. It’s so cool. I love it...anything that Dan hands me, it’s incredible.
For a previous project, Ingraham was charting the voyage of an 18-year-old captain who pined for his girlfriend back in Salem right onto the pages of the ship log before falling overboard and dying. Ingraham became so transfixed with the Friendship’s first voyage that she finished the 1st mate’s log and then started reading the captain’s log, comparing the two of them and making discoveries. For one, the Friendship did no sea trials, no trial run sails. So the ship’s rigging strained in “squally” weather. They were still painting the ship, says Ingraham, shortly before they left for the long voyage. “These guys just left. They just went out. They’re on their way to the East Indies. It’s, to me, amazing.”
Guan Zuolin (Spoilum). Active 1785–1810, Guangzhou, China. William Story, 1804. Oil on canvas. Gift of the estate of Eliza Story, 1885. © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by the University of Tokyo.