The Nicholson Whaling Collection was bequeathed to the PPL in 1956 by Providence industrialist Paul Coe Nicholson (1888-1956), who had begun in 1920 to “get material for a small nautical library.” After more than three decades of careful collecting he had amassed 611 logbooks, 66 account books, thousands of miscellaneous letters, diaries, and economic papers involving the outfitting of vessels and the settlement of voyages, 6,000 marine insurance policies, 200 photographs of whaling vessels and processes, four harpoons, a harpoon gun, 77 pieces of scrimshaw, 3 boat models in whalebone, 25 rare wooden stamps carved by whalemen (used in the logs to denote ships sighted and whales taken), and a 200-volume reference library containing both rare and scholarly works.
“What was there about these logs,” mused PPL Librarian Stuart Sherman in 1958, “that provided the fascination of the chase to the collector? Musty, space-consuming, often phonetically spelled and illegible, they offered none of the factors that book collectors cherish in gilt-edge areas of collecting. Even to the dry-land whaleman in the security of a steady armchair, reading logbooks can be a tedious experience often comparable to that of reading a dictionary. There are plenty of characters, but they are not developed. There is little if any plot, and the only rising and falling action is in the constant motion of the vessel . . . But the determined reader will find in these pages all the ills that sailors fall heir to—enough to stir the imagination of novelists with sources fathoms deep. There are castaways, mutinies, desertions, floggings, women stowaways, drunkenness, illicit shore-leave experiences, scurvy, fever, collisions, fire at sea, stove boats, drownings, hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, shipwrecks, ships struck by lightning, men falling from the masthead, hostile natives, barratry, brutal skippers, escape from or destruction by Confederate raiders, hard luck voyages, and ships crushed by ice.”
The recently acquired journal of Henry De Forrest, who had rounded Cape Horn five times before this voyage and passed eleven birthdays “in the whaling service” is a clear exception. The journal covers 15 months aboard the ship in over 300 closely written, entirely legible pages. It deserves to be fully transcribed and published, and to prove the point I offer my readers the barest taste, excerpting some of the entries from the first month alone, which vividly evoke life on a whaler in mid-century. Multiply what you see here by about twenty, and you get a sense of how much material is here and how excited we are to own it.
Writing during a series of storms which dog the voyage for its first few weeks out poses problems. “I am standing braced up in a corner of my state room, my lamp nailed down, my ink in the side of my berth, and holding my book in my hands – every now and then fetching away – first to leeward, then to windward.”
What a great change in a person’s feelings a little change in the weather will make. This morning when I went on deck the wind had moderated half. I kept the ship off SE and she made fine weather of it – and when the watch was called at seven o’clock the sick ones began to come forth with smiling faces. I saw one man that had not been on deck since we sailed – but he is quite well now. We have been able today to repair some of the damages and to secure some of our own personal property – mine has been drifting around my state room ever since we left – and it was useless to attempt to do anything with them. The weather this evening is quite fine, although there is a heavy swell running, and the old ship is quite uneasy. The Old Man sent a fiddle forward tonight amongst the men – two of whom are first-rate players, and we had some music and no mistake – one of the boys beats a tambourine equal to one of Christy’s Minstrels and another one the triangle. We also have one who possesses the greatest powers of imitations of sounds I ever heard – he can imitate anything from an elephant to a hummingbird. Take them as a set of men, I think they will do very well, provided they do not get the devil or the California fever in them.
The following are excerpts from the daily entries of the first month:
[January 10] The boys forward seem to be a pretty fair set. The old man (who is fond of fun) sent for the fiddlers and the tambourine player to come upon the quarterdeck this evening and we had some times. This is much better than it was in the ship I was in last, where if a man whistled or sang, there was someone to find fault. Our Captain goes in for good living, and good sport, and likes to see others enjoy themselves.
[January 13] Last night in my watch I thought I would try my boys on the subject of temperance. I carried up a bottle of brandy, called the watch aft and they all drank, seamen, greenhands, and boys. I did not offer the pledge, for I thought it would be useless after such a demonstration.
[January 14] The only comfortable place that I can find is in my berth. I can turn in and chock [i.e., wedge-in] myself – light my pipe and forget for a while that I am a sailor, but four hours is the longest period I can enjoy myself at a time. I wish some of my old Utica boys that were so fast for coming with me were here now – for only about 24 hours, I think, they would be content to let old NY’s dominions alone after such a trial – but to me it has become almost a second nature. In fact I am more at home on shipboard than I am on shore. The old man plays his fiddle below, cracks his jokes on deck, and so we propel.
[January 16] I have in my watch, the Cooper, who is a red raw Irishman, and one of the wittiest I ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with. He is entirely worthless as a sailor, being timid, and cannot go aloft, but he makes some rare old speeches – in fact he is a whole-souled hibernian. We have also, in the forecastle, a young man whom the men call by name of Shaking Quaker – whether he has ever been among the Shakers, I know not, but he has, he is green enough to have come from Conn[ecticut].
[January 18] This morning we were startled by the cry “There she blows.” The Captain and the rest of us went instantly aloft but the whales proved to be humpbacks . . . I hope we shall see some sperm whales.
[January 19] We have just had considerable amusement. The Shaking Quaker, as he is called, is one of the best ventriloquists I ever heard. The poor fellow has not been on duty yet – he has very sore feet – but the way he imitates animals is singular enough. I thought the old man would die with laughter.
[January 21] This sailing in the winter time is not exactly the thing – everything is thrown into the ship in heaps, and it would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer to find anything . . . Since we have been from home I have had no time to do anything for myself. I have not even opened a large box of books that my kind friends at home supplied me with. They are in the rum, and I have not seen them since we sailed.
[January 23] Another man off duty, he cut his foot with a cutting spade – he came in to the cabin to have it bound up, and the old man blackguarded him so that if he had any shame in him he never would have gone off duty. All whale ships are floating hospitals but this ship beats all for sick men I have seen yet. The men seem to be chicken-hearted – a small bruise and off duty they go . . . One of the men, who has been boasting that he has been in a man-of-war for 3 ½ years, refused to lay out on the yard. I told my gentleman that the next time he shew the white feather I would rope end him. This way of treating men may seem cruel to those who know nothing of a sea life, but some men must be treated like dogs, or they are worthless.