While most people today visit the Whaling Museum while on vacation or during the weekend, there was no vacation or days off for a whaler.
Work was paramount for whaling crews. However, a whaler might look forward to the three holidays for which there was a chance of observance while at sea: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (with Thanksgiving bring considered the most important of holiday at the time).
Captains dictated if and how a holiday was observed. If there were instruments on board, nationalistic music was played and sung. Some crews engaged in whaleboat races for sport. If the Captain was feeling generous, a special meal might be extended to even the lowest-ranking crew members.
Culinary celebrations gave welcome respite from a monotonous and dreary diet of food which was often infested or spoiled. On a holiday, whalers might enjoy sea pies, a kind of pot pie which sometimes contained dolphin meat, or lobscouse, a stew of salted meat, onions, and sea biscuits. Dessert might be mincemeat pie, which consisted of chopped meat, suet, raisins, apples, and spices, dandyfunk, a baked mass of hard tack crackers and molasses, or duff, a boiled pudding.
Robert Weir aboard the Clara Bell journaled about a distinct feast on July 4th. He wrote how the crew fired salutes and enjoyed “coconuts, roast pig, minced pie, soft tack, ginger cake, pepper sauce, Molasses, pepper, rice, and pickles – quite extensive for a sailor.”
Aside from the chance of a special treat, July 4th - as with other holidays at sea - was likely to be a disappointment for those hoping for a break from work. Whaler William B. Whitecar Jr. recalled that when a crew member protested spinning yarn on the fourth of July, the commanding mate’s answer was “Yes – it is fourth of July at home, but not here.”
Many logbooks, official records of daily activity on whaleships, do not document any festivities on this date, instead solely focusing on catching whales. The logbook of the Lafayette off the coast of Peru recorded July 4, 1843 only as an unfruitful day: “So ended this Fourth of July pursuing whales.”
Women who joined their captain-husbands at sea often noted the marked lack of observance of July 4th. Eliza Williams, who sailed with Captain Thomas Williams on the Florida from Massachusetts to the North Pacific and birthed two children during the voyage, wrote in her journal in 1859 in the Shantar Sea: "July 4th… some of the boats, it seems see aplenty of Whales, and once in a while are lucky enough to take one, but not often. Our boats lost two of their Men and that was not all … It doesn't seem much like the Fourth of July, up here."
A few years later, she recorded in 1861: "July 4th. Today is Independence. Oh how I would like to be at home and enjoy this day with family and friends. We cannot celebrate it here with any degree of pleasure. Just after dinner, we spoke the bark Monmouth [Cold Spring Harbor ship], Capt. Ormsby...He reported the loss of the clipper ship Polar Star, Capt. Wood, Master. Capt. Ormsby also told us that the Alice Frazier is lost..."
Mary C. Lawrence also described July 4th as being subdued while aboard the Addison with her husband Captain Samuel Lawrence, having sailed from Massachusetts to the Pacific and Arctic during 1856-1860: "The Fourth of July today and the Sabbath. How different our situation from our friends at home! A gale of wind with ice and land to avoid. The ice probably would be a refreshing sight to them. Probably the celebration, if there is any to come off, will take place tomorrow. We had a turkey stuffed and roasted with wild ducks, which are very plenty here. Perhaps tomorrow we may get a whale..."
In 1861, her journal followed the same theme: “July 4. Minnie [daughter] arose early this morning and hoisted our flag, which was all the celebration we could boast of, as we did not get that whale that we hoped to. A beautiful day, which I improved by washing, after waiting ten days for a clear day."
Martha Brown of Orient, Long Island, who had been dropped in Hawaii to give birth while her husband and crew continued onward to hunt whales, described her feelings of isolation. She addressed her husband in her journal on July 4th: “Yes the 4 of July has agane passed, and how think you, love, I have spent the day? Not as I did the last in your society, with our Dear little Ella [daughter left at home], but alone. Yes, truly alone. … My thoughts have been far from here today.”
There is great irony in considering how the very workers who powered America’s signature industry could not in reality celebrate its iconic national holiday. On the day when citizens on land joined feasts illuminated by whale candles and enjoyed parades wearing clothing stiffened by whalebone and fabric produced on machinery lubricated by whale oil, the very workers who produced these products were kept working, their eyes focused on catching the next whale.
Brown, Martha Smith Brewer. She Went A-Whaling: The Journal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown from Orient, Long Island, New York, Around the World on the Whaling Ship Lucy Ann, 1847- 1849. Transcribed and edited by Anne MacKay; with a foreword by Joan Druett. Orient, NY: Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993.
The Captain's Best Mate, The Journal of Mary Chipman Lawrence on the Whaler Addison, 1856-1860. Stanton Garner, editor; 1966 by Brown University.
Robert Weir Papers. Manuscripts Collection 245. G. W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport
Whitecar, William B. Four years aboard the whaleship: Embracing cruises in the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and Antarctic oceans, in the years 1855, '6, '7, '8, '9. J.B. Lippincott & Company: 1864
Williams, Harold. Whaling Wife: Being Eliza Williams’ Own Journal of Her Thirty-Eight Month Voyage with Her Husband, Master of the Ship Florida, from New Bedford to Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk in Pursuit of the Great Whales in American Heritage, Vol. 15, No. 4, June 1964, p. 64-79. http://www.americanheritage.com/content/whaling-wife
Patriotic-themed scrimshaw from the collection of The Whaling Museum.
Maritime History in the Kitchen:
Plum Duff Recipe for July 4th
On July 4th, 1857, Mary Lawrence enjoyed dinner at sea followed by “a boiled pudding, or duff as we call it.”
The word “duff” originates from the northern English/Scottish form of “dough.” Boiled or steamed puddings were popular in the 1800’s and a treat on American vessels. Plain duff was sometimes served on Sundays, but plum duff was reserved for holidays.
John Perkins, who sailed on the Tiger in 1845, relished duff: “At noon we had duff for the first time which I believe all sailors think to be the greatest feast possible.” The dish may have been an acquired taste for others; Charles Abbey, a seaman on the Intrepid in 1859, wrote, “It is simply flour and water with dried apples mixed in and the whole boiled down hard and heavy as lead in a canvas bag… Two months ago I would have turned from it in disgust but now I am glad enough to eat it.”
This recipe is based on the writings of Clifford Ashley, who sailed from New Bedford on the whaling bark Sunbeam in 1904, and adapted by Sandra Oliver in Saltwater Foodways. Note that cooks likely did not include sugar in duff intended for low-ranking crew.
2 c flour ½ tsp baking soda 1 tsp cream of tartar inch of salt ¼ c melted shortening ¼ c sugar 2/3 c raisins (dried apples were also historically used) 2/3 c water 1 pudding bag or cloth
Optional: Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and ground cloves. (Frederick Harlow Harlow stated aboard the Akbar in 1875: “Too much spice and wine is not good for sailors. It is liable to ruin one’s appetite.”)
Directions Set a large pot of water on and heat to boiling. Sift together dry ingredients. Stir in melted shortening, sugar, and raisins. Wet the pudding bag or cloth in the boiling water, and dust it liberally with flour. Add the water to the dough and mix well; the dough should be fairly thick, but not stiff. Turn into the pudding bag, tie the bag leaving room for the duff to expand. Or put in a greased pudding mold. Put the duff in the boiling water, suspending it by tying it to a spoon if necessary to keep it from touching the bottom of the pot. If in a bag, boil for four hours; steam for five hours if in a mold. When done, turn it out of the cloth onto a serving dish. Let it stand a moment to set up. Duff has a gummy exterior and cake-like interior. Slice it and serve drizzled with molasses.