Saturday, June 20, 2015

Shipboard Source Materials: Logbooks and Journals

I described in my last entry how I used shipboard logbooks and journals in writing the biography of Captain Samuel Hill, Devil on the Deep Blue Sea.  It is essential in looking at the maritime career of an individual to look at every document that describes his or her life.  Today, however, I’m pondering what sort of shipboard sources I might use to add realistic detail to my current fictional project, a novel tentatively called The Descent into Piracy of a Lady of Quality.

Over the last thirty years I have probably looked at around 500 manuscript logbooks or journals in support of various projects, from understanding trade in ports on the Pacific coast and in Polynesian Islands, to looking at weather patterns to understand climate change. 

There are several reasons why a mariner keeps a chronological account of a voyage. It can serve as a legal record in case of incident or accident, document a claim of new territory, provide data that can be incorporated into nautical charts and tables of winds and currents, and record information to guide subsequent voyages in exploration, commerce, war, and the harvesting of marine resources.  A shipboard diary can also be a place where physical and emotional hardships, and exultations of rapture are scribbled secretly, intended to be shared with no one else.

The terms “logbook” and “journal” are often used interchangeably, but a ship’s logbook is technically a legal document, recording daily details of weather, wind direction, position, soundings, and course traveled, and surrendered to the vessel’s owner at the conclusion of the voyage.  A journal is a personal account, kept by any member of a ship’s company for his or her own private motives.  Both kinds of documents can include descriptions of ports-of-call and of people encountered on a voyage, incidents of trade, and accounts of disciplinary actions and other aspects of shipboard life, as well as the standard nautical entries.  A journal might also include private thoughts and observations, poems, song texts, and scientific data.  (My husband, Stuart Frank, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the songs sung aboard American whaling vessels by examining song texts written by sailors into their journals. There is a book that resulted from that work: Jolly Sailors Bold: Ballads & Songs of the American Sailor.)

I don’t recommend that anyone starting to research a novel with scenes set on shipboard go to a manuscript collection and begin poring through logs.  They are often hard to read, mostly tedious, and can be difficult to understand without a pretty solid context.  Fortunately, many of the most useful and literate examples have been published, some of which are the actual shipboard chronicle; others are narratives put together later using the shipboard sources.

Because my new novel is set at the end of the eighteenth century, I have the great advantage of being able to use the narratives of James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, which have detailed accounts of how the ships work, how islands are approached, relationships with local people in dozens of ports, and observations of how people live, what the landscape looks like, and what birds and animals are encountered there.  One must, of course, always read accounts that are 250 years old with a critical eye toward the implicit racial and cultural biases of the time, but such good sources are not to be rejected on that count.  We learn a lot about the time we are exploring by understanding how relationships worked. 

The dramatic potential of a sea voyage has been explored since ancient times, with Odysseus and Sinbad being only two among many fictional captains whose exploits have been celebrated in folk literature from the shores of several continents. It provides the author with a perfect opportunity to test her hero (or increasingly her heroine) not only against the known dangers of enemies and the elements, but against the unknown world beyond, where fantastic and exotic adventures wait.

If you want to know more about shipboard sources, I have written two encyclopedia articles on this topic, and took some of this description from them: “Autobiographies, Journals and Diaries,” in the Encyclopedia of Maritime History (Oxford University Press, 2007), and “Logs and Journals” in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes (Greenwood Press, 2000).

Image caption:  These are two pages from the logbook of Captain Joseph Ingraham, aboard the ship Hope of Boston, 1790-92.  This manuscript is in the collection of the Library of Congress and you can view the whole thing online at  This is a particularly nice example!  Don't expect that every log is this lovely to read or holds such delights.

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