(This is a guest post by Mark Kelley, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego, who has been working with our Nicholson Whaling Collection in the past weeks. Follow him on Twitter @MarkBKelley. Thanks, Mark!)
“My stamps are poor and they look more like straddlebugs than porpoises.”
So notes Henry DeForrest, second mate during an 1852-1853 voyage from Massachusetts to the Atlantic and Pacific whaling grounds. During this fourteen-month journey aboard the William Rotch, DeForrest faithfully recounts his home on the water in daily journal entries. “It is written from the impulse of the moment,” he affirms eight months into his voyage, “just as I feel at the time of writing, so goes down.” Like many whalers and sailors, DeForrest augments this power of description with stamped pictures of the creatures whose lives (and deaths) ordered his daily life. Sailors created these stamps by cutting bone, ivory, or wood into the shape of whales or other marine animals. These stamps aided bookkeeping and also added interest to logbooks or journals that recount thousands of whaling and merchant voyages throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much like scrimshaw (the carved and colored whalebone, ivory or shells that may also be found in the library’s collection) stamps are the product of maritime artistry as well as a deep engagement with marine materials.
Though DeForrest laments the quality of his porpoise stamps by comparing them to long-legged insects, he apparently had access to more materials than most. His journal’s back page reveals a wealth of figures that included sperm whales, dolphins, porpoises, and even ships. One sees evidence of this variety throughout his journal. DeForrest’s personal stamps may be lost to history (though maybe not!), but the library’s Nicholson Whaling Collection contains dozens of authentic stamps that match his description, in addition to hundreds of authentic logs and journals.
For example, this ivory stamp is in the form of a whale’s tail, or fluke. DeForrest used a similar stamp when the crew attacked but failed to catch a whale. The grooved and detailed handle shows that whoever crafted this artifact had some skill. The ink-soaked head also shows that the stamp got some good use. Artic bowhead whales may live to be over 200 years old, so some of the lucky escaped animals represented by this stamp could still be alive today!
In an equally poetic and dark twist, the bones of a captured whale could be refashioned as a stamp used to represent the death of another whale! The whales that DeForrest captured could also have been be noted using a wooden stamp much like the one above. This artifact lacks the detailed handle of the ivory example, but the careful carving of the whale’s features is impressive nonetheless. The portrayal of a smiling whale is certainly the result of artistic liberty, as sailors like DeForrest knew them to be ferocious creatures who could just as easily kill as be killed. As Herman Melville affirms in Moby Dick (1851), “A dead whale or a stove boat!” Or, one could say, “a stamped whale or a stove boat!”
A whaling ship’s thirty or so sailors relied on one another to stay afloat, but also welcomed the opportunity to see new faces. Ships that met at sea exchanged letters, news, or books. According to DeForrest, “The usual practice among whale ships is when they speak each other, to have a Gamm as it is called__I.E. visit each other.” DeForrest always mentioned the ships he had a “gamm” with, and often marked the event with a stamp much the one above. If whale stamps represented a time of hard labor, a ship’s stamp could mark a time of relative leisure. “Many of these Gamms end in a drunken spree,” DeForrest quips, “_ and many do not.”
If you have the chance, stop by the Special Collections Department for a “gamm” and hold whaling history in your hands!