Sunday, July 20, 2014

Whaling in the Straits of Timor

Whaling in the Straits of Timor, a first-hand narrative of adventure on a London whaler, was published in the April 1859 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine.

A British newspaper erroneously credited Herman Melville with the authorship of "Whaling in the Straits of Timor," introducing excerpts from the story under the heading "A Massacre of Whales":
A recent number of the “Knickerbocker, or New York Merchant’s Magazine,” contains the following interesting description of a whale hunt, which we may undoubtedly attribute to the versatile and graphic pen of Mr. Herman Melville, whose talents in describing such scenes are unequalled:—  (Luton Times and Advertiser, May 7, 1859)
The transparently and uniformly cheerful style of the piece is nothing like Moby-Dick, but five times the captain of the whale-ship "Diana" addresses the narrator as "Melville."
It was eight bells, (noon,) and I was about descending into the half-deck to dinner, when Captain Hunter called me to him, and said: ‘Melville, I want you to go aloft, and take a long look and strong look for whales; the chaps at the mast-heads I think are all asleep, they are so quiet. I would almost swear there are whales in sight, for I can smell them. Look sharp to windward.’
The reason he selected me, was my luck. I had seen three-fourths of the whales during the voyage; and the ship now only required a couple of hundred barrels to fill up. It was therefore conceded fore and aft that I had the best eyes in the ship. Five bottles of rum had been won by me in succession for having seen whales. . . . (351-352)
In the Index to volume 53 of The Knickerbocker (January-June 1859), the author of "Whaling in the Straits of Timor" is identified as Duncan McLean.

WorldCat likewise names Duncan McLean as the author.

On May 23, 1859 The Boston Traveler reprinted McLean's story as a "spirited description of sperm-whaling incidents" from "the time when whales were more plentiful than at present, and before the invention of bomb-lances and whaling-guns." 

The month before Whaling in the Straits appeared, The Knickerbocker published an article by McLean titled "Seamanship of the Atlantic Monthly.”
Its author, Duncan McLean, asserts that an article called “Men of the Sea,” from the January 1859 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which describes sailors as degraded, was written out of inexperience, ignorance, and stupidity. His own assertion that “the seamen of our day have not degenerated” seems more in keeping with publications such as Harper’s and Leslie’s, where the activities of ships and sailors are extolled rather than bemoaned. -- Jill B. Gidmark, Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea
Not much is known about Duncan McLean. Or rather, not much is remembered. McLean the author of "Seamanship" was from Boston, according to the Springfield Republican (March 5, 1859). Presumably then he is the same Duncan McLean who wrote letters to the Boston Traveler on behalf of a "Sewing Teacher of the Adams School" from his residence at No. 96 Princeton street, East Boston" (Boston Traveler, September 27, 1865).

Published in the month before Herman Melville's death, the Boston Herald article "Father Neptune's Visit" records the reminiscences of a "Capt. Duncan McLean" on the nautical traditions connected with Crossing the Line:
In old times, when most ships crossed the equator, Neptune and his suite came on board and shaved the greenhorns—those who had not crossed it before,. But this ancient ceremony, like the “shells” who invented it, has passed away, never, perhaps to be revived. As late as 60 years ago, it was quite common, and has been frequently described by nautical writers.
“The last time I crossed the line, outward bound,” said Capt. Duncan McLean the other day, “I belonged to a sperm whaler, when sperm whaling was in the zenith of its glory, and sperm oil brought $1 a gallon. . ." --Boston Herald, August 9, 1891; found in the Newspaper Archives at Genealogy Bank.
On Sunday, October 18, 1896 McLean's obituary appeared in the Worcester Daily Spy:


Boston, Oct. 17.—Duncan McLean, the well known journalist, died today, aged 85 years. Capt. McLean’s death occurred at his residence, 119 Princeton street, East Boston.

Duncan McLean was born in Kirkwall, Orkney, one of the scenes of Sir Walter Scott’s “Pirate,” on Oct. 14, 1811, and was a sailor in early life. He used to swim with Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was particularly well known as a writer of sea stories and as a ship editor. He had an interest in several newspaper enterprises. 
So now we can supply dates for the life of Melville's contemporary Duncan McLean (1811-1896).

The Boston Herald obituary confirms that Duncan “was well known in newspaper circles" and adds:
... he was actually the oldest newspaper man in this city. He was born in Kirkwell, Orkney, Scot., Oct. 14, 1811.
Deceased went to sea at an early age. He acquired a fund of nautical information. He had charge of the shipping department of the Boston Post when it was under Col. Greene’s management. He subsequently purchased an interest in the Boston Atlas. When the Atlas and various other papers were joined to the Traveler, McLean took charge of the shipping and commercial departments of that paper, and remained with it 30 years. 
He leaves two daughters and a son. (Boston Herald, October 18, 1896)
In a speech on “Old Time Editors,” Benjamin F. Stevens remembered McLean and his contributions to Boston journalism:
The Atlas was, besides its strong political views, a thoroughly excellent newspaper, as were the others of that day. It was especially noted for its ship news—a portion of the paper conducted in the forties by the late Duncan McLean, a thorough-going Scotchman of genuine worth as a writer as well as a gatherer of news. --Boston Herald, Sunday, January 31, 1897
The Boston Journal on Saturday, October 17, 1896 provides a long detailed tribute in the Mortuary Notice for Duncan McLean. Among other fascinating facts, the Journal obituary reveals that McLean wrote nautical tales "over the nom de plum of Capt Oakum."

After a break, we will give the whole tribute from the Journal in another post.

Related post:


  1. This is a brilliant piece of work, Scott!
    Bob M.

  2. Hi Bob, Hi Karen, and thank you. I just cleaned up the HTML on this one. Will give it a run now as featured post, with added link to related post on Duncan McLean: