The Vault

Beautiful, Terrible Watercolors of a 19th-Century Whale Hunt, Found in a Ship’s Logbook 

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After exhausting the fisheries around New England, 19th-century whaling ships needed to go farther afield, taking years-long journeys to distant oceans to find their prey. “These extended trips offered more leisure time,” the curators of a new exhibition of whaling artwork at the Providence Public Library write, “and many whalemen chose to fill that time in artistic pursuits.”

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These watercolors—painted into the pages of the logbook of the ship Hector during a voyage it took between 1842 and 1845—were made by a seaman named James Moore Ritchie. Jordan Goffin, Providence Public Library’s special collections librarian, adds that Ritchie (we suppose) “included some passages of poetry and glued flying fish fins onto the [logbook] page.”

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As the library’s blog post featuring images from the exhibition shows, other sailors decorated their logbooks and sketchbooks with pencil and pen drawings of shipboard scenes and fish; character studies of their fellow sailors; patriotic emblems; and (poignantly) images of houses, perhaps those they had left behind on shore.

As the inscription on the drawing below indicates, Ritchie sketched the killing of the so-called “right” whale (named because this cetacean was easy to catch—the “right” whale to hunt). This species of whale was once the favored target of the New England fishermen, but by the time the Hector sailed on this voyage, they had been extirpated from the northern oceans. 

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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Courtesy of Providence Public Library Special Collections.

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