nothwell: Portrait of a blond Victorian man with a classy moustache, painted by John Singer Sargent. (Default)
[personal profile] nothwell
There's a small problem with the research for my work-in-progress whaling romance Take Me Like a Sailor. As mentioned on tumblr, my primary sources and my secondary sources are contracting each other in a big way.

From A History of World Whaling by Daniel Francis (1990) [emphasis mine]:

During the decade of the 1860s, whaling entered the modern age and changed forever. The new machinery of the Industrial Revolution was applied to the chase with devastating results. Steam and explosives increased the speed and ferocity of the hunt. Species of whales that formerly had been ignored as unproductive or beyond the reach of the hand-held harpoon were now targeted for virtual extermination. ... A boat steerer from a wooden whaler of the early nineteenth century would not have recognized what his vocation had become by the beginning of the twentieth.

tl;dr - “By 1870 whaling was an entirely post-industrial Arctic bowhead enterprise, done on steam ships with metal hulls and using explosive harpoons fired from guns.”

BUT! From A Year With a Whaler by Walter Noble Burns (1913) [emphasis mine]:
Let me take occasion just here to correct a false impression quite generally held regarding whaling. Many persons — I think, most persons — have an idea that in modem whaling, harpoons are fired at whales from the decks of ships. This is true only of 'long-shore whaling. ... But whaling on the sperm grounds of the tropics and on the right whale and bowhead grounds of the polar seas is much the same as it has always been. Boats still go on the backs of whales. Harpoons are thrown by hand into the great animals as of yore. Whales still run away with the boats, pulling them with amazing speed through walls of split water. Whales still crush boats with blows of their mighty flukes and spill their crews into the sea.

There is just as much danger and just as much thrill and excitement in the whaling of to-day as there was in that of a century ago. Neither steamers nor sailing vessels that cruise for sperm and bowhead and right whales nowadays have deck guns of any sort, but depend entirely upon the bomb-guns attached to harpoons and upon shoulder bomb-guns wielded from the whale boats.

In the old days, after whales had been harpooned, they were stabbed to death with long, razor-sharp lances. The lance is a thing of the past. The tonite bomb has taken its place as an instrument of destruction. In the use of the tonite bomb lies the chief difference between modern whaling and the whaling of the old school.

The modern harpoon is the same as it has been since the palmy days of the old South Sea sperm fisheries. But fastened on its iron shaft between the wooden handle and the spear point is a brass cylinder an inch in diameter, perhaps, and about a foot long. This cylinder is a tonite bomb-gun. A short piece of metal projects from the flat lower end. This is the trigger. When the harpoon is thrown into the buttery, blubber-wrapped body of the whale, it sinks in until the whale's skin presses the trigger up into the gun and fires it with a tiny sound like the explosion of an old-fashioned shotgun cap. An instant later a tonite bomb explodes with a mufiied roar in the whale's vitals.

tl;dr - “Yeah so it’s like 1902 and we’re hunting sperm whales in the South Pacific from wooden ships under sail power and using hand-thrown harpoons like we have for about a century now. Plus explosives.”

Who should I believe? Which source should I base my story on? The historian in me says the primary source is the best, but the secondary source is probably the one my audience will be most familiar with, if they're familiar with any source at all.

P.S. - You can read A Year With a Whaler online free and legal thanks to archive.org! Warning: it's super racist.

Walter Noble Burns

Date: 2016-12-04 06:46 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] whsander
You would do well to be leery of Walter Noble Burns as a source. He was a newspaper reporter and writer who was active as a journalist from the 1880's until his death in 1932.

His best known works on Billy the Kid, Tombstone and Joaquin Murieta have been the subject of criticism in recent years as more novelistic and loose with facts and less pure reportage. It was said that he was an inveterate interviewer who took down stories from thousands of people during his adult lifetime, many of which formed the basis for his stories both in the newspapers and in his books.

Knowing the above, it is less likely that when you read Whaler as we have, and seeing that it is devoid of dates and many specifics that could pin down a date range for the narrative as he presented it and any persons who could have corroborated Burns' voyage as a whaling crewman, that the story of the young man in Whaler was an historical novel-like production on a par with his other works, not necessarily constructed from whole cloth but from scraps of real cloth that were not his own but taken from interviews with real men who had served on whalers, interspersed with some facts he may have gleaned from books such as those used to compile the data used as the basis for your other source.

If the above is the case, he may have gotten some of his technical facts incorrect depending on who he interviewed, the freshness of the information they conveyed may have been lacking. It's a too up how much of the interview was sincere and how much was a sea story that some old salt sold to a tenderfoot reporter from Kentucky.

BTW- Burns' biographer, the late Mark Dworkin puts the whaling voyage, if it did indeed happen, before 1890.
Edited Date: 2016-12-04 10:46 pm (UTC)

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Sebastian Nothwell

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