The book I chose to read for this assignment was Dogwatch & Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret S. Creighton. It was published in Salem, Massachusetts in 1982 by the Trustees of the Peabody Museum of Salem who organized an exhibition by the same name in October of 1982 (Creighton 1982). Therefore, this was put together to expand on the exhibits content. It was set up with narrative from the author along with images and passages from real sailor’s journals during the 1800s.
Creighton started out the book giving some background on the sailors whose journals were included. All were deep sea sailors headed towards the Southern Hemisphere and lived or were originally from the New England area (Creighton 1982). This book clearly fits into the discussion of New England maritime history because its laying out the lifestyles of many men who lived and worked for the New England communities. Their jobs and their lives are what made New England so successful and allowed the people living on land to prosper as well.
Without these men who spent years at a time battling horrible conditions and sometimes undesirable coworkers, many people back in New England wouldn’t have jobs, foreign goods, or food and wouldn’t be able to survive there.
The author recognized that there was some degree of cultural and racial bias seeing as all the men had similarities other than that they were deep sea sailors, which I liked because she was not pretending that this book represented the full experiences of every mariner during the 19th century.
I also liked that the group of men whose journals were included held various positions on board the ships. While this book still doesn’t represent the entire picture, I was glad it represented more perspectives other than just officers or just the standard sailor. There were seven chapters that described different aspects of life aboard a merchant or whaling vessel, all relating to New England maritime culture in some way.
Chapter 1 focused on the beginnings of a long voyage at sea. While reading about the terrible food and poor conditions on a ship was no surprise to me, I did find a few things interesting. I imagine mariners to be these tough men who aren’t afraid to do the frightening things that the average land lover would never dare try. However, in this chapter, and in many others, Creighton emphasized that these men were not as brave and tough as one might be led to believe. She shared the worries of many men at sea who feared not just death at sea, but a death that was most likely to be violent or in isolation (Creighton 1982). Sailors could die from fights with fellow sailors, falls from large heights, disease, attempting to kill a whale, or shipwrecks (Creighton 1982). I never gave any thought to how these men felt about their own mortality. I would imagine that they went into the job knowing the dangers involved, but once you’re on the ship and in that situation for a long period of time it probably hit them a lot harder that there was real risk of death without being able to say good bye to loved ones back home. I also found it interesting that when one of the sailors whose journal was included in this piece died, a different sailor illustrated the events that took place after his death. Fellow sailors rowed seven miles to reach land where they laid Isaac Bake to rest with a prayer (Creighton 1982). I liked that Creighton included these drawings because it shows a more sensitive, respectful side to these men that you wouldn’t normally read or hear about. I expected these men to toss a dead body overboard because they’d be used to death on board a vessel, but I was pleasantly surprised that even out at sea where rules and life are different than on land, they still paid respect as if it was their own family.
Chapter 2 discussed the differences between merchant and whale ships and how there was sometimes some animosity between the two types of deep-sea sailors. I didn’t realize that whaling sailors viewed merchant sailors as “true mariners” because day in and day out they were working hard and moving fast (Creighton 1982). Whaling ships did not see a lot of action at all until it was time to kill and break down a whale. It seemed as though the two recognized that they were living very different lives with different pay and different hazards. I never realized just how different the two professions were and it gave me a better appreciation for merchant sailors.
Chapter 3 delved into the times were men were at odds with one another. I found it surprising that even at sea, captains were so concerned with their image back on land. According to journal entries and Creighton’s commentary, captains would sometimes forbid men to send their letters in fear that they were speaking ill of them to their families (Creighton 1982). Again, I felt that these men who are portrayed as so tough are getting worked up over trivial things like their image when there are more pressing matters at hand. It kind of seemed like an action that an immature middle school girl would do, not the captain of a deep sea vessel.
I found chapter 4 very interesting because of the detailed description of the Neptune Ritual. I was surprised that we didn’t discuss this much during our class as Creighton made it seem as though this was a very common practice among men traveling to the Southern Hemisphere from the New England area. It basically seemed like a hazing event that a fraternity would do at a college. This made me wonder if there were hazing practices being done in New England during this time period, whether on college campuses or at other jobs in the area. I also enjoyed this chapter because of all of the reasons that men chose to go to sea. I found it interesting that some men went in order to punish themselves of their wrongdoings in the past (Creighton 1982). Of all of the things these men could have done to atone for past sins, going on a many years long voyage filled with misery surprised me. Most people romanticized the life of a sailor, so you’d think that men trying to punish themselves would go for other options. I was glad that Creighton emphasized the reasons men were drawn to the sea because it’s important to know why someone would choose this type of life over another on land that could be paying more or could be less demanding physically and mentally. Understanding background about these men is just as important a telling their stories at sea.
Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the happier times aboard deep sea vessels: Dogwatch and Liberty. Creighton again showed that these sailors were not as ‘manly’ as people would believe. They sometimes dressed as women to pretend that men had women to dance with during the dogwatch, they created full concerts with different musical acts, and there was even record of a glee club that was taken very seriously (Creighton 1982). Nowadays a glee club would be seen as something that manly men would not be associated with, but it seems this may have been a common practice on board. These men went to such great lengths in order to make it feel a little bit like being home on land. I was glad Creighton included this because it makes these men more relatable. Everyone can understand being in a strange location and trying their best to make it feel a little more like a comfortable place.
Creighton ends with a chapter on why journaling is so important. I liked that she included journal entries from men who were conscious that these entries may be read some day and that some hoped it would give their loved ones peace if they didn’t make it back during a voyage (Creighton 1982). If I were these men, I wouldn’t be thinking about who would eventually read my journals, I would be too absorbed in my own misfortune to care about future readers opinions on my trials. Regardless of how I would react in that situation, I liked that Creighton emphasized that sailors were aware that the future would value their writings because it showed people just how much these men put on the line to make a better life for their families or for themselves. To me, it is very meaningful that these men were introspective and realized that their lives and stories would be of importance to future generations.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The use of drawings and images of tools or clothing used by sailors helped put me in their shoes even more than just reading sections of their journals. I found that for the most part Creighton focused on the bad parts of the life of a mariner and less on the joyful parts, but that is understandable as the nature of a sailor’s work was miserable. I also noted that she emphasized aspects of these men that aren’t usually discussed: how they had fears and anxieties just like us, they longed for human interaction, lived for the times that they could be free and have fun, and most importantly that they became emotional over things. In my mind, and I’m sure in many others as well, sailors are thought of as looking tough and being tough, but in reality they were struggling to keep holding on just as any of us would. I’m glad that she made it a point to show that they were more emotional than we thought.
I think Creighton’s purpose in composing this book was to inform people about the lives of sailors hailing from New England and give readers an inside look into the minds of these men. It can be read by young adults up through the elderly, I think it has a wide audience. I do wish that the author had put more direct journal entry quotes into the book. I think that would have supported her points even more. However, I think she was successful in informing her audience, but she does not do much analyzing of the content. Perhaps she does this so that the reader can form their own opinions as to why these men did what they did while out at sea. References Creighton, Margaret S. (1982). Dogwatch & Liberty Days: Seafaring Life in the Nineteenth Century. Salem, MA: Trustees of the Peabody Museum of Salem.