Thursday, July 30, 2015

Heroic Indians in Fact and Fiction


I'm reading the Kindle version of Native American Whalemen and the World by UConn historian Nancy Shoemaker. It's good to learn about the real and important presence of Indians in the whaling industry. The book introduces and analyzes a staggering number of primary sources like whaling journals and logbooks. Also published narratives of whaling. Most of these sources are new to me, so I'm delighted to know more about them and grateful to the author for her work of investigating them.

Regarding the book I did know something about: Moby-Dick receives what might be called obligatory mentions, delivered with a sigh. As historian, more interested in facts than fiction, Professor Shoemaker has little professional use for Moby-Dick, notwithstanding Melville's heroic Indian harpooneer, Tashtego, and the illustrious name Melville gave to the fated whaleship, Pequod:
"Moby-Dick is full of this sort of typical New England romanticism about Indians...."
--Nancy Shoemaker, interview with Andrew Epstein at 11:08; also at UConn Today
Native American Whalemen incorporates much of Shoemaker's earlier article in Journal of the American Republic, the point of which was that unlike Melville's stereotypical noble savage, real-life Tashtegos on American whaleships were frequently mates and boatseerers (official job title of Melville's "harpooneers"). Their professional status entitled real-life Tashtegos to be addressed respectfully as "Mr."

And so we're busted. No denying it, Moby-Dick is full of romanticism--about pretty much everything, and strongly influenced by European (not only American) models in Goethe and Byron and Mary Shelley. Fair enough, but it's depressing to encounter romantic as a kind of code word for "bad" (if not "despicably evil") and "worthless." Reminds me in that regard of Cynthia Wachtell's reading of dreadful glory in Melville's Civil War poem, "Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburgh."

From the start, Professor Shoemaker's enterprise involves a problem of methodology which she acknowledges with admirable candor:
"The absence of a racial category on crew lists has confounded historians investigating race in maritime history."
Yes! Especially when the subjects of their study do not fit neatly into one "racial category" or box. Sure, Melville's "token New England Indian" (as Professor Shoemaker calls Tashtego, p. 37) is a romantic fiction. Back in the real world of nineteenth-century whaling, your Indian whaleman might well be a respected officer, "Mr. Tashtego." And he might also be African-American. Joel G. Jared, the first named of Professor Shoemaker's exemplary Gay Head Indians, was identified as Negro (offensively, using the common slur) in documentary evidence that she defers to chapter 3 on "The Primacy of Rank." Looking online, I see Jared is described as "malatto" in one 1856 Crew List of the Anaconda.

The discussion in chapter 2 on "Race, Nationality, and Gender" works surprisingly hard to define people by race. Varying contemporary identifications of Haskins men as "mulatto," "black," and "Indian" are cited as signs of uncertainty if not incompetence rather than eyewitness evidence:
"Samuel Haskins's own identity was probably not this quixotic." --Native American Whalemen and the World, chapter 2
Really? I wonder what "identity" here even means. Racial identity, it sounds like, but then why not say so. Whatever "identity" means, maybe it is that quixotic, after all. Quixotic to scholars examining racial categories, for a start, since Martha S. Putney names the brothers Amos and Samuel Haskins in her groundbreaking roll of Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War.

As if he wanted to make matters more quixotic, Amos Haskins went and married Elizabeth P. Farmer (1824-90)
"the African American daughter of the widow Dianna Farmer, who had lived in New Bedford at least as early as 1826"  --New Bedford Historical Society, Inc.
Let me see if there's anything about Amos Haskins's wife in Native American Whalemen and the World. Yes, though no mention of her being African American which is fine by me but odd in a book fixated on "the Contingency of Race" (as the subtitle has it). One Samuel Haskins of Gay Head we can glimpse for ourselves, thanks to the miracles of Google and Facebook. This Samuel Haskins is reportedly the son of Amos Haskins, according to information provided by Edith Andrews as summarized in the January 2000 Faces of Whaling Oral History Project by the National Parks Service.

Samuel J. Haskins was publicly honored with other Gay Head whalemen for heroic actions during a notable maritime disaster, the 1884 wreck of the City of Columbus at Devil's Bridge.
At about nine o'clock a life-boat was successfully launched by a crew of Gay Head Indians, consisting of Joseph Peters captain, Samuel Haskins, Samuel Anthony, James Cooper, Moses Cooper, and John Vanderhoop. After battling an hour they were able to bring seven men ashore rescued from the rigging. A second crew manned it, all Indians, except the captain, James T. Mosher. They were Leonard L. Vanderhoop, Thomas C. Jeffers, Patrick Divine, Charles Grimes, and Peter Johnson. They had rescued thirteen men when the U. S. Revenue Cutter Dexter arrived to render assistance, having been called to the scene by telegraphic messages.  --Charles Edward Banks, History of Martha's Vineyard
More recently, local historian Thomas Dresser also has published a vivid chronicle of the 1884 shipwreck in his eleventh book, Disaster Off Martha's Vineyard. Pictures of both rescue crews and boats may be found on Facebook. Here's the one showing a "Samuel Haskins" in the first life-boat, second man from the left (according to the caption at Facebook which may be wrong):
Left to Right [or the reverse, Right to Left?]:
 Joseph Peters, Samuel Haskins, Samuel Anthony,
James Cooper, Moses Cooper, John Vanderhoop — 
Photo Credit: Martha's Vineyard Antique Photos via Facebook

Later (8/01/2015): Thomas Dresser reproduces a wonderful group photo showing "Sam Haskins" (bearded?) with other Gay Head heroes--check it out, page 116 of Dresser's Disaster Off Martha's Vineyard. The "Samuel Haskins" in the Facebook photo above looks more like the man "Tom Cooper" in Dresser's group photograph. Same hat! And the man shown standing in the photo above is the same man identified in Dresser's photo as "Joe Peters." Yes it looks like the intended order of the given names must be Right to Left, making Samuel Haskins the second man from the right--bearded like "Sam Haskins" in Dresser's photograph.

The men of both crews were identified by name and commended as "Gallant Rescuers... all native Indians of Gay Head" in the New York Herald (Monday, January 21, 1884). The Massachusetts Humane Society honored each man with a silver medal and $25.00 award. A similar notice in the rival New York Tribune employed more condescending language (and puzzling, as in the unexplained term "Narves."). It's complicated all right. Spite of the woeful stereotypes, the newspaper's praise for "the heroic islanders" of Gay Head feels real and heartfelt:

New York Tribune (January 21, 1884)

In The Story of Martha's Vineyard, Charles Gilbert Hine reproduces a photo of the medal received by courageous lifesavers:



As related at website of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, these medals of honor awarded by the Massachusetts Humane Society
"are proudly passed down through the generations from one family member to another."
I don't yet know what happened to Joel G. Jared, but his Gay Head wife Rosanna also figures in the story of the Columbus shipwreck.  Rosanna later married "seaman and farmer" Abram Rodman, identified as "Black" (not "Mulatto" and not "Indian") in the 1880 census. Rosanna Gershom Rodman (the former Rosanna Gershom Jared, born Rosanna Gershom David on April 25, 1839) won public notice during the disaster as one of the island heroes. With other women of Gay Head, Mrs. Rodman (by then a widow, evidently) received $5.00 and a certificate from the Massachusetts Humane Society
"for noble and humane exertions on the occasion of the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus, Gay Head, Jan. 18, 1884."   --Worcester Daily Spy, February 5, 1884
With her husband Abram and others, Rosanna Gershom Rodman is also distinguished in New England history as a petitioner for property and voting rights.

Ironically, the determination to critique supposed exhibits of racism by unenlightened observers gets in the way of appreciating great acts of heroism by people of color. Case in point, Professor Shoemaker's mishandling of a chapter in A Year with a Whaler by Walter Noble Burns, Burns has been called "America’s premier romantic outlaw-lawman mythmaker" but Shoemaker does not even footnote his influential career as historian and romancer of the wild American West. Rather, Burns shows up as a racist stooge for his prose portrait of the third mate, a Cape Verdean named Tomas Mendez, which Professor Shoemaker blasts as
"virulent racism mixed with xenophobia." --Nancy Shoemaker, Native American Whalemen and the World
My take: Burns unaffectedly relates his inexperienced, racially prejudiced view of Mendez as a monster of evil. All that's transparent. What Professor Shoemaker fails to mention is the context--which of course is everything, the whole point. Possibly she did not read far enough. Mendez turns out to be the hero of the chapter which is devoted to him, poetically and evocatively titled, "The Night King." The narrator exaggerates his hatred of Mendez at the beginning to set up the dramatic twist at the end. In a stove whaleboat Mendez heroically cuts the harpoon lines to save his crew:
When the whale crushed the boat—at the very moment, it must have been—the Night King had snatched the knife kept fastened in a sheath on the bow thwart and with one stroke of the razor blade, severed the harpoon lines. He thus released the whale and prevented it from dragging the boat away in its mad race. The Night King's last act had saved the lives of his companions.... 
The qualities that had made him hated when he was indeed the Night King flooded back upon me, but I did not forget the courage of my enemy that had redeemed them all and made him a hero in the hour of death.  --A year with a whaler, The Night King
In a later, emotionally powerful scene (also overlooked by Professor Shoemaker) the brother of Mendez unexpectedly learns of his death:
A pathetic incident grew out of the visit of the captain from the other ship. Tomas Mendez's brother, a boat-steerer, came aboard with the boat's crew. He was a young negro whom all the boat-steerers and officers knew. He came swinging lightly over our rail, laughing and happy over the prospect of seeing his brother. 
"Hello, fellers," he called to the Portuguese officers and boat-steerers who welcomed him. 
"Where's my brudder?" 
"Dead, my boy," said one of the boat-steerers gently. 
"Dead?" echoed Mendez. 
He staggered back. When he had heard the details of his brother's death, he burst into tears. All the time his skipper remained aboard, the poor fellow stood by the cooper's bench and sobbed.
The final chapter of Native American Whalemen and the World counterbalances old negative stereotypes of degradation with the positive theme of respect. If she had not already dismissed Tashtego as Melville's "token New England Indian" Professor Shoemaker might have fittingly cited the last chapter of Moby-Dick as an enduring fictional tribute to the prominence and heroism of Native Americans in the whaling industry. However romanticized, Melville's Tashtego still belongs in the category of respectful treatments of Indians. I almost wrote "the famous last chapter of Moby-Dick" but that could be wishful thinking.

Here's the tableaux with Tashtego from chapter 135, THE CHASE — THIRD DAY:
For an instant, the tranced boat's crew stood still; then turned. "The ship? Great God, where is the ship?" Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight. 
But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving a few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coincidings, over the destroying billows they almost touched;—at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. --Herman Melville, Moby-Dick 

1 comment:

  1. There unfortunately don't seem to be many Indians listed in the published vital records of the Martha's Vineyard towns. If you look in the Nantucket death records under the heading "Negroes," however, you can find brief descriptions from which a modern Melville could spin a hundred "romances":

    http://ma-vitalrecords.org/MA/Nantucket/Nantucket/aDeathsOt.shtml#Negroes

    Here's Queequeg: "'A Sandwich Island Indian,' of Canacker, 'came here in one of our Whaling Ships from Round Cape Horn,' found dead Feb. 27, 1837, a. 35 y. 6 m."

    One is tempted to read, "with a harpoon in his side."

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