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Cetacean Assessment & Ecology Program

Mary Ann Sherman: The Life and Death of a Whaling Wife

see caption
Figure 2. The grave of Mary Ann Sherman on Rarotonga, September 2010. Photo by Phil Clapham.

The bulk of scientific research at NMML concerns marine mammals in the present; but occasionally our investigations find us delving into the past. Logbooks of 19th-century American whaling ships can tell us a great deal about the historical distribution of whales in many parts of the world, and this information can be used to assess how abundant whales once were and the habitats that were important to them in past centuries. Logbooks can also serve to guide us in planning current surveys of regions of which we know little. However, in the course of reading these fascinating historical accounts for science, we often discover equally compelling stories about the individuals who sailed aboard these ships. One such tale is told briefly below.

Logbooks and journals from old whaling days are available in various places, but nowhere is there a collection that rivals that found in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The New Bedford Whaling Museum curates a huge collection of such documents, an archive that was greatly supplemented some years ago by the closure of the Kendall Whaling Museum, which transferred all of its logbooks to New Bedford to form an unparalleled joint resource.

The logs make fascinating reading. Daily entries vary from brief and barely legible to extensive and beautifully illustrated. Some reflect the unsung artistic talents of long-dead captains or mates, who set down on now-yellowing pages in ink or watercolor their visions of lush tropical islands, harsh Arctic seas, ships met with along the way, and of course whales. Voyages were often long: 4 or 5 years away from a New England port (most commonly New Bedford or Nantucket) was not an unusual duration for a whaling expedition, with ships cruising far from home into the Pacific or Indian Ocean in their relentless pursuit of valuable whale oil and whalebone (baleen).

Some logs present rather dry, mundane records of no more than vessel positions and whales caught. Others, however, exhibit a more human element—although not always a positive one. Whaling ships were usually not pleasant abodes: men were crowded into small spaces, fed with frequently poor food, and forced to work in conditions that were often rough, cold, or filthy. Mutinies were not uncommon, and poorly paid, disgruntled seamen would sometimes attempt to jump ship in port. Long stretches of boredom were interrupted by bouts of frenetic and often dangerous activity when the crews found and chased whales.

Needless to say, the great majority of ships were crewed by men alone. But, very occasionally, a captain would bring his wife along for the voyage. Such was the case with Captain Abner Sherman, who commanded the whaler Harrison. A full-rigged ship of 371 tons, the Harrison sailed from New Bedford on 21 May 1845 on a voyage that would last more than 5 years. Aboard her were 31 men—the youngest 19 years old, the oldest 32—and one woman. This was Mary Ann Sherman, aged 19, the illegitimate daughter of a New Bedford preacher named Zoeth and, allegedly, an Irish maid. Abner, 32 years old, was Mary Ann’s first cousin; they had married in January of the same year.

We can only imagine what it was like for a young girl to live within the confined space and distinctly ungenteel atmosphere of a whaler. Furthermore, the Harrison was not a happy ship, as is attested by the log (KWM log # 964, which my wife and I recently read in New Bedford). Whether because Sherman was poor at picking crew, or a bad captain generally, the logbook records many instances of discontent and fomenting mutiny: we read of crew being whipped or put in irons or running away in port. In March of 1846, the Harrison was in Tahiti, and the entry for March 7 reads, in part, “Put the steward in the rigging and flog him, gave him a dozen lashes for being sassy.”

Twelve days later, three men refused to go to their duty stations when leaving Tahiti; Sherman responded by giving them 12 lashes each and putting them in irons. Later, we read of more floggings and even the threat of shooting; and when the ship landed in Sydney in January the following year, 10 men ran away and the captain is recorded as “chasing them on shore.”

It cannot have been pleasant for Mary Ann to have been a part of this querulous masculine society, but she certainly saw a lot of the world. The Harrison went from New Bedford to the Azores (known then as the “Western Isles,” where they captured their first sperm whale), thence to the Cape Verdes, Tristan da Cunha, the Chatham Islands, Tahiti, Maui, the Gulf of Alaska (where they made a number of catches, probably of right whales), Sydney, and New Zealand. From Sydney, they traveled north to Kamchatka and the foggy, cold waters of the Okhotsk Sea; this was in August 1847 and, sadly, that is where the logbook ends.

The log for the second half of the voyage has never been found. This is regrettable, because we know from other sources that the vessel returned to Sydney for repairs after running aground and sustaining damage on a reef in Samoa. In 1849, returning to Sydney after largely unsuccessful whaling off New Zealand, Sherman decided to refit the Harrison to carry paying passengers to California for the Gold Rush.

On 5 January 1850, on the ensuing voyage to San Francisco, Mary Ann died—of what illness we do not know. She was just 24 years old. The vessel put into Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and Sherman buried his wife there in a grave that remains to this day. My collaborator and close friend Nan Hauser has lived on Rarotonga for 15 years and directs Cook Islands Whale Research, with whom NMML has conducted satellite tagging of humpback whales. Nan searched for Mary Ann’s grave for a year and finally found it in a patch of wildly overgrown and uncleared land. On a recent visit to the island, Nan and I went to the grave and, with the help of a couple of friends, a chainsaw, and a machete, cleared the vegetation and let sunlight stream onto Mary Ann’s headstone for the first time in what was likely more than a century (Fig. 2). Next to her grave is that of a 16-year-old boy named William Dunnett, whose headstone records the bare fact that he died on a British schooner in the 1840s; unlike Mary Ann’s, his story is entirely unknown.

Unusual for a whaling captain, Sherman left the Harrison in San Francisco, eventually making his way back to New Bedford. He died there in 1893 at the age of 79 after being thrown from a horse-drawn carriage (in an accident caused, according to the local newspaper, by “excessive speed”). A man named Savage (who was not part of the original crew) brought the Harrison home, and she finally docked at a New Bedford wharf on 13 October 1850. The voyage had not been very successful and was cursed by ill fortune. Among other incidents, a vessel which Sherman met en route and paid to ship home his accumulated store of oil and whalebone sank shortly afterwards, with the loss of all cargo (and, therefore, profit).

Mary Ann Sherman’s was not the only death aboard the Harrison. The incomplete log in the New Bedford Whaling Museum records three other deaths, all in 1847, and all with no hint as to cause. Given the life of a whaler, it could have been anything from disease to an accident aboard or mortal injury resulting from a clash with an angry harpooned whale. As for Mary Ann, she herself took ship, presumably, for love of her husband. In so doing, she abandoned forever the home life she knew well, saw a good portion of the world, and—directly or indirectly—became a victim of the vast ocean on which she spent her last years. Standing by her lonely grave in Rarotonga, I recalled a quotation from the Spanish writer Madariaga: “Beware of love, for it is a wide, wide sea. Beware of the sea, for it is a wide, wide love.”

By Phil Clapham





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