The whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, launched in 1841 out of Fairhaven (near the whaling town of New Bedford, MA), was built by the same shipmakers, who less than a year before, had crafted the Acushnet, Melville’s first whaling ship. The Morgan and Acushnet are essentially sister ships; that is, they have the same shape, size, displacement, and provenance.
In January, 1841, Melville sailed on the Acushnet, and after eighteen months, he had had enough of whaling, or whaling under his despotic captain Valentine Pease. He jumped ship on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, lived on that Pacific island for a month among the islanders, and wrote up his adventures “among cannibals” in his first book, and only best seller, Typee (1846). Soon after Melville’s initial, meteoric success as a published author, the Acushnet sank. But sister Morgan has survived and is one of the few among all the many nineteenth-century whaling craft to be preserved. After having sailed 37 voyages, into the 20th century, it was out of commission for decades but remained seaworthy and has been a docked exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum since the 1970s. Like thousands of visitors to Mystic, I and my family have climbed aboard the docked Morgan, wandered above and below deck, and imagined Melville’s life at sea, on a whaling craft like this one.
Recently, enterprising curators, interpreters, and administrators at Mystic Seaport Museum received plentiful and enthusiastic funding to refit the Morgan for the sailing of its “38th Voyage.” They have assembled a professional crew and developed an itinerary of visits between Mystic and Boston. At each port during the three-month period of sailing, the Morgan has also been the showcase for various public exhibits and activities related to nineteenth-century whaling. In addition, eighty “38th Voyagers” were chosen to sail the Morgan, in groups of ten or so, on twenty-four-hour “legs” of the journey: a night in port and a day under sail. A call went out for applicants to send proposals for projects they would perform if given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a day working a whaling craft. Hundreds of educators, scholars, scientists, historians, journalists, artists, poets, musicians, navigators, seamen and seawomen—experienced and not (i.e. me)—responded with ideas. I proposed to write this blog, about a landlubber biographer seeking physical contact, for a night and a day, with an environment similar to what Melville experienced on his whaling ship for eighteen months.
Morgan‘s sister-ship Acushnet was not Melville’s first ship. Up until his nineteenth year, he, like me, and perhaps most of us, had had a merely transportational not professional relation to ships and sailing. He had ferried, by steam, up and down and across the Hudson and over to Rhode Island. He had rowed or canoed, I suspect, the occasional sibling, cousin, playmate, and/or girl friend on the occasional pond. But he had not voyaged into the Atlantic, under sail, until the economic depression of the late 1830s put him aboard the St. Lawrence, a wind-driven “packet” carrying mail, passengers, and cotton to Liverpool and back in the summer of 1839. Heading out, Herman was labelled a greenhorn, or “boy,” as all greenhorns were called, regardless of age. (Melville made this episode in his adolescence the basis for his fourth novel Redburn, a great read.)
So Melville had had significant sailing experience by the age of 21 when he signed aboard the Acushnet and experienced adventures and thoughts that would culminate in a life of writing, in particular Moby-Dick. Of course, nothing he had experienced on the St. Lawrence could prepare him for the peculiar hunt of the whale, its dismemberment and boiling down blubber, and the barreling up of oil.
For myself, nothing but my reading and writing has prepared me for sailing on the Morgan. I am 64, and as they say, a boy.