Ships’ diaries – The blogs of yesteryear

‘Ships’ diaries’, by former technical services librarian Jan Harbison. From Signals 104 (Sept-Nov  2013).

This narrative is dedicated to my dear wife and children for their amusement and my employment and as it is most agreeable to me to sometimes hold converse with them, it is only intended for their eyes or those akin to them.

So begins the diary of Captain John Buttrey of the brig Dart in 1865. He could not know that nearly 150 years later, his diary might be accessed by a worldwide audience through the Internet, as are the blogs of today.

Pages of the Terror Diary, by Captain Henry Downes.

Pages of the Terror Diary, by Captain Henry Downes.

The museum’s public research facility, the Vaughan Evans Library, has many diaries written by travellers, immigrants, crew members, sea captains, naval men, ships’ surgeons, whaling captains, a captain’s wife, a matron and a convict. Some are very brief and factual, while others are beautifully descriptive and often very personal accounts revealing emotions and humour. Some have been donated by family members who might have found the diary in an attic; others have been purchased by or donated to the museum.

The diary quoted at the beginning of this article is a wonderful one. Captain Buttrey commanded a brig that travelled to the South Sea Islands in 1865 to collect bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and tortoiseshell. As well as writing letters home to his family, he kept the diary, which gives an insight into life at sea, interactions with the islanders, and his life at home, with frequent references to what his wife and four boys would be doing at that time of day. It is a diary full of affection for his family. He looks at their ‘likenesses’ every day:

I have [been] looking at your likenesses again today and have been pictureing [sic] you all at home. Our time is about 10 minutes in advance of Sydney so I say now they are at breakfast. Baby looks as if he was trying to imitate Lister with his mouth – Bateson looks as if he were brim full of mischief … Marshall appears as a staid gentleman & one of deep thought. The principal one Mama looks indescribably loveable.

india diary

Apart from these personal observations, he provides the historian with a wealth of information about the South Sea Islands, writing about employing islanders and the difficulties in doing so, paying them in goods and tobacco, their appearance and canoes. The original diary includes some sketches and watercolours of people, canoes and landscapes.

The journey covered by Buttrey’s diary took more than three months. Such a separation from one’s family was nothing to whaling men, however, who might be away from their families for years on end – the author of the Terror diary, Captain Henry Downes, noted in 1846 that one whaling captain had been away for seven years, and another was home only one out of every nine years.

Downes worked for Ben Boyd, a famous and flamboyant Sydney businessman. His diary is another entertaining one, in which he speaks not only of his frustrating search for whales, but also of his bad moods, anxiety, and some reminiscences of his life on land. Downes is also a talented artist, and many beautiful paintings are interspersed through the diary, yet he says:

Such a view as I have sketched … if this log was intended for anything but private use I would be ashamed of such a daub.

Front cover and inside pages of the Terror Diary, by Captain Henry Downes.

Front cover and inside pages of the Terror Diary, by Captain Henry Downes.

He describes his feelings of dejection at seeing no whales for weeks on end:

…there are lots more moons to come. Whales, dogs & madmen are said to feel her influence & should we continue without oil [ie whales] for many months more I fear becoming one of the latter.

Then the excitement of spotting one – lowering the boats, the frantic activity of the kill, then cutting up the whale and collecting the oil. He sarcastically compares it with what he calls the ‘more fashionable sport of fox hunting’:

I can only say there may be some slight shadow of a resemblance provided one could hunt a whale in a smooth water bay & when he was killed, row quietly home and sit down to a rump [steak] and Dozen [clarets or oysters], hearing no more of the matter save that after his servants had boiled the flesh and sold the oil his portion of the prize came to a considerable sum …

When looking back from 2013 it appears that human nature has not changed much since the 1800s and 1900s, with the same social issues faced, the same humour, the same gossip and nastiness. On the Renown in 1876 there is one entry that in today’s language would almost equate to a Twitter or Facebook post, with ‘likes’, ‘re-tweets’ or ‘flames’:

… there is a young lady on board who has taken a great fancy to one of our Mess Mates who turns out to be a married man … all her companions have cautioned her but all to no effect, the sailors are there fore writing placards & sticking them up in several places about this man concerning his affairs … so this is causing a great bit of fun with all concerned.

Another entry, from a young female passenger in 1847 on the Tasmania, could be likened to today’s schoolgirl bullying:

… Miss Palmer. For description, comely face, excessively good-natured, and says the most extraordinary things, she is extremely fat, short and thick, not the slightest degree of grace, wears no bustle so of course can have no style about her.

The only difference is that in 2013, we know our blogs and tweets can be read by anyone at all. These diarists could never have imagined our world of social media, yet it’s a world in which their very private scribblings can be read by an audience interested in the small similarities – and vast differences – between life then and now.

This story first appeared in full in the museum’s quarterly magazine Signals.

One thought on “Ships’ diaries – The blogs of yesteryear

  1. The Terror Diary is beautiful! Good to see they have been preserved for future ages. It does make a person wonder, though, of any forgotten others that might be floating around waiting for discovery. 🙂

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