Inspiring Herman Melville

Document Box for the Ship Acushnet

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

The whaler Acushnet, launched in November 1840 at the Gideon Barstow & Son shipyard in Mattapoisett, MA, was carvel built with two decks, three masts and a square stern. She is notable for her most famous crewman, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, Typee and Omoo. Melville sailed on the Acushnet’s maiden voyage from Fairhaven, MA, rounded Cape Horn and sailed across the Pacific to the whaling grounds. After 18 months on board, both he and another crewman deserted the ship in the Marquesas Islands. Indeed, the Acushnet lost 11 of her original crewmen and officers through desertion during that voyage. Desertion was a common occurrence on ships that were at sea for years at a time and the reasons are many: some crew were attracted by the allure of the South Sea islands; poor or inadequate food and living conditions prompted others to leave; some were, from time to time, dissatisfied with the number of whales caught; and some jumped ship because of a harsh captain or officers. When the Acushnet returned to her home port in 1845 she had a crew of 27 men, 16 of whom had joined during the voyage. In all, 55 men served on board during the four-year voyage: 20 deserted and 8 (including a first and third mate) were discharged.

The Acushnet’s captain, Valentine Pease, Jr. did not so much resemble Captain Ahab of the Pequod in Moby Dick, as he did Captain Vangs in Typee, who was a harsh disciplinarian and somewhat tyrannical. However, strict discipline was necessary in whalers which were at sea for years at a time. The Acushnet experienced hard luck on her first voyage and had to return with a cargo of black oil, sperm oil from other vessels (trans-shipping) and whalebone rather the prized full load of sperm oil. This might have partially accounted for the high desertion rate of the crew.

The Acushnet made three voyages over ten years and was wrecked on St. Lawrence Island in the Arctic in 1851.

The pine box pictured above, painted to simulate mahogany, was never on board the Acushnet, but was kept in the agent’s office and was used to hold documents related to the ship. These might have included insurance policies, crew lists, records of expenditures for fitting out or repairs, correspondence and other ship-related papers. 

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Do you think it's understandable that crew members would desert? Or should they have tried to stay with the ship for the duration of the voyage?
  2. What other items might have been kept in the box? How many boxes might an agent have kept in his office? Was this an efficient way to store documents?
  3. How can we use a work of fiction, such as Moby Dick, or Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, to help us understand the business of whaling or the nature of life at sea?