‘Let Me See the Stuff of History!’

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Having enjoyed James McGuane’s book Heart of Oak, a superb collection of photographs that conveys a truly moving visual sense of what life was like in Nelson’s navy, I was intrigued to learn that he’s brought out another book – this time the subject matter is the material culture of American whaling in the age of sail. I now have both titles in my library, and I recommend them to you. Let’s hope we see more from this talented photographer/chronicler! Without further ado, I’m delighted to welcome Jim as my latest Guest Blogger

Wooden whale-trade sign which hung above a merchant’s doorway in New Bedford

Wooden whale-trade sign which hung above a merchant’s doorway in New Bedford

I’ve always had a sense of wonder about ‘the way things were’. History texts would whet my appetite, but for a deeper understanding I looked elsewhere. A juvenile biography of American naval hero John Paul Jones (I know, he was born in Scotland) was the first book I remember reading after checking it out from the library. I developed a refined olfactory sense that guided me in my quest to sniff out the ‘truth’ in schoolbooks, contemporaneous accounts and, yes, historical fiction. I wouldn’t learn the term ‘material culture’ until decades later – but this is what would quicken my pulse. Let me see the stuff of history! What did they wear? How did they work (or play)? Let me see some things that were important to them – or things that they wrote. Then I could imagine what it would have been like to live back then. People with a heightened visual sense may know how I feel.

Inuit carved whalebone figure

Inuit carved whalebone figure

I loved visiting museums. I’d scrutinize the items that had been saved (or dug up) from an earlier era – now protected in a locked, glass case. My father understood my interests and would paint word pictures of how it was ‘in the olden days’ – perhaps 50 years in the past – even 5000.

In 1998 with no credentials as an author or a historian (but quite comfortable as a documentarian) I managed to convince a good New York publisher to allow me to put together a book, illustrated with photographs I would take, that would show and tell of the life (mainly on the lower decks) in the Georgian Navy. It became Heart of Oak; A Sailor’s Life in Nelson’s Navy. The book was inspired by my reading of the Patrick O’Brian books. That publisher’s advance allowed me to acquire the appropriate camera and lighting equipment and set off on what would eventually become two thirty day trips to the UK.

It’s a ‘go with the flow’ documentary or photo essay

Somehow, I found my voice with both camera and with words. The camera was frequently my passport. It allowed me passage into the exclusive domain of curators, collectors, experts, authors, scholars, historians, auctioneers and antique dealers. Not everyone has the time or inclination to assist in such documentary adventures – but those who do have my eternal gratitude.

The Hunted Whale, Jim’s latest book

The Hunted Whale, Jim’s latest book

My newly published book, The Hunted Whale, follows, basically, the same format. It’s a ‘go with the flow’ documentary or photo essay – with a starting theme: what was American whaling like in the early days? I began by reading everything I could find on the subject. More than one museum curator offered me their suggested reading list before allowing me (with my camera) into their collections. I’ve tried to provide the reader (viewer) with ample opportunities to continue the primary research that I have begun.

Most of the whaling centers and museums where I did a great deal of my research would have been about one day’s sail from each other: Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and New Bedford, all of Massachusetts, Mystic, Connecticut – then Sag Harbor and Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island in New York. To a great extent New England whalers conceded the Arctic ‘Greenland fishery’ to European whalers. These Yankees set out to the south with a particular eye towards the valuable sperm whale. The pursuit would take them across the equator and down into the icy Southern Ocean, around Cape Horn and into the vast Pacific. The seasonal grounds that they discovered took them to waters around Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Japan, Russia, Alaska, California, Mexico, The Galapagos Islands, Peru and Chile. A voyage could be as long as four years.

James McGuane

James McGuane

After collecting nearly 4,000 photographs of whaling artifacts I paused to take inventory. I lived with the hope that the mosaic that I was assembling would yield a focused portrait of the era. I let similar clusters of images form into chapters as my project revealed itself to me. It was pretty much as expected in pre-production: The Hunt, The Crew, The Whaleboat, The Whaleship, Processing the Catch and Discovering Life in Foreign Lands. I was surprised at the prominence of Nantucket Quakers – they were top dogs around the world. They originated the sperm whale fishery and pioneered in the practice of actually firing up great boilers on the upper deck and rendering or ‘trying out’ the blubber that they had just harvested and ‘stowing down’ the oil in great barrels below.

I tried to strike a non-judgmental tone about what we now see as the horror of taking whales. I was attentive to anything that would indicate what brought the men to this violent and dangerous profession. I took a bit of comfort from the knowledge that the hunted whale broke free six times out of seven. Alas, the weapons became more deadly. My interest waned as innovations such as steam vessels and bomb lances facilitated the holocaust that we know the whales suffered.

[ Jim’s website ]

1 Comments on “‘Let Me See the Stuff of History!’”

  1. We have visited the New Bedford museum and found it very well done and fascinating. On the other hand one can cheerfully skip the Mystic, CT version which is pure tourist trap.

    Just up the road is the Battleship Massachusetts floating museum with many ship types available to tour. That also was well worth the admission price…and us old salts get a discount at both venues.


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