Connected \\ April 6, 2021

Seabirds, shanties and squalls: Newly digitized logbooks reveal a trove of stories

A vast collection of handwritten, unique and unpublished logbooks, recorded between 1729 and 1961, forms the foundation of PEM’s collections. The Phillips Library is currently embarking on a long-awaited project to digitize its collection of over 3000 ships’ logbooks and make them available through the Internet Archive for greater public access. This project opens up the wealth of stories and data contained in the logs to a wider audience of researchers, both scientific and historical.

The East India Marine Society, PEM’s grandfather institution, required its members to keep records of their voyages and deposit them with the society, a collection which has been continuously added to over the centuries. The logbooks provide a surprisingly wide-ranging scope of information. While they primarily document the daily latitude and longitude, weather, and sailing conditions for their voyages, log keepers also included descriptions of foreign ports, trade, crew insubordination and other interpersonal drama, sightings of wildlife and astronomical events, and sometimes references to now-famous historical events as news. Some logs contain sketches, paintings, poetry, and sea songs, among other saved items pressed between the pages.

A page from America (Ship) logbook, 1795-1796.

A page from America (Ship) logbook, 1795-1796. (Log 3003) showing the format of a logbook entry. The logbook keeper of this journey was Nathaniel Hathorne, father of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. A scrap of poetry in the ship Perseverance's log from the same volume, seen here, has been attributed to Hawthorne.

Logbooks were typically laid out as daily reports entered into a standardized table, hand-drawn in early books and pre-printed in some later logs, although some books read more narratively like daily journals or diaries. The table versions include columns titled “H,” “K,” “HK,” “F,” “Courses,” “Winds,” and “Remarks.”

George Schwartz, Associate Curator, explains, “These letters were the sailors' encoded way of recording vital information about the nature of their voyage. The time (H for hour), ship speed (K for knots), depth of water (F for fathoms) could all be read down the page to give a summary of each day's passage.”

This daily record of water and weather, including remarks on the sighting of sea life such as birds, sharks, and whales, provides scientists with an invaluable historical data set for climate and environmental studies. An example of such a study which includes some of PEM’s logbooks is an ongoing project at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in collaboration with the National Archives and a citizen-scientist organization called Old Weather, to digitize and transcribe Arctic whaling vessel logbooks for climate study.

An entry from William & Henry (Brigantine) logbook, 1788-1790 (Log 23) which reads, “At 10 AM a Water spout made halfe mile from us which might have ben an agreeable sight to a Curious & unconcerned Spectator, but Confess it was not to me.”

An entry from William & Henry (Brigantine) logbook, 1788-1790 (Log 23) which reads, “At 10 AM a Water spout made halfe mile from us which might have ben an agreeable sight to a Curious & unconcerned Spectator, but Confess it was not to me.”

Logbook remarks also frequently include references to illness and descriptions of medical treatment, such as comments about scurvy in the 1784-1786 logbook of the Hind (Log 9) or the description of a smallpox outbreak and the inoculation of the crew, including the captain, found in the 1777 logbook of the brigantine Oliver Cromwell (Log 891).

From Oliver Cromwell (Brigantine) Logbook, 1777

From Oliver Cromwell (Brigantine) Logbook, 1777., “24 Sabbath. Fair & hot -The Small-Pox Rife - Several buried in a Day & all the Ships Crews which had not had it were inoculated - 25 Monday - Fair & hot - This Day I was obliged to be inoculated which was performed by Doct of the Brig Civil Usage At Night took a Mercurial Pill.”

Readers can also find descriptions of bad behavior and criminal punishments onboard ships at sea or in ports. The log keeper of the ship Hercules wrote about the punishment of sailors for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, a phrase which turns up regularly in logbook accounts of the lives of sailors, as well as about the dismissal of men for being absent from the ship in port for too many days. He also recounts the “confinement” of a sailor named Peter Jones for “disturbances, threats, and thefts,” adding that Jones threatened to commit murder on board after being released from his imprisonment, yet was then returned to his job six days later after promises of good behavior in the future. (Log 1632, pages 78-79, February 5th & 11th, 1794.)

The Hercules’ 1792-1794 logbook also includes beautiful sketches of islands and bays and the Boston Lighthouse.

In addition to the short records of more traditional logbooks, sea journals such as the Eagleston, Benson, and Hendee diaries provide engaging narratives about life at sea and in port, such as John H. Eagleston’s reports of footbinding and of crew members smoking opium and gambling in Shanghai (Log 1029). Charles A. Benson, an African American steward, whose diaries are rare depictions of Black sailors, created books full of collages and clippings which are also beautiful love notes to his wife Jennie Pearl, to whom he addresses his entries full of homesickness and longing (MSS 15, vol. 1). Augusta Hendee, wife of the captain of the ship Sabine, went to sea for the first time with her husband while expecting their first child, and both she and her husband left surprisingly candid recollections of childbirth and caring for a newborn at sea in the ship’s log (Log 2161). The Hendee diary also includes two flying fish fins pasted into the front flyleaf!

Wings from a flying fish which came on board on the passage from Boston to Bombay - 1860 -,” from the Sea Journal of Augusta Hendee, 1859-1874

“Wings from a flying fish which came on board on the passage from Boston to Bombay - 1860 -,” from the Sea Journal of Augusta Hendee, 1859-1874.

Once the reader overcomes the sometimes difficult task of deciphering Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century penmanship, logbooks can open up worlds of information and intrigue about life on the sea during America’s Age of Sail, as well as a historical scientific record of the sea and the sky themselves. From cannon fire to shantys and squalls to sightings of porpoises, our logbook digitization project promises to bring these fascinating records right to our patrons with improved accessibility. We would like to thank the Salem Marine Society, whose generous donation is helping us to launch this exciting online collection.

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