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Tag: herman melville

Herman Melville: A Voyage into History

The Acushnet's crew list, December 1840. Herman Melville's name appears sixth from the bottom. (Records of the U.S. Customs Service, RG 36, National Archives at Boston)

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Prologue magazine.

Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick, was first published in the United States on November 14, 1851. In Moby-Dick and his earlier books, Melville called upon his own experience aboard whaling ships, most notably his 18 months spent aboard the Acushnet, sailing out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The 21-year-old Melville signed on in December 1840 but never completed the journey with the ship. After rounding Cape Horn and sailing across the Pacific, Melville and another crew member deserted in July 1842 while the ship was stopped at Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Their departure was not an isolated incident; 11 of the original complement of 26 officers and men deserted at various times during the voyage.

The crew list was signed by Capt. Valentine Pease on December 31, 1840. Two days later, Pease had to amend the list to note the first two deserters from the crew and the late signing of a replacement. The collector of customs for New Bedford, Massachusetts, retained a copy of the crew list as required by an 1803 act of Congress governing merchant ships … [ Read all ]

Mutiny on the high seas

The USS Somers (Records of the Bureau of Ships)

The USS Somers with men hanging at the aft. (19-N-11508)

In the history of the United States Navy, no formal mutiny on the high seas has ever occurred, though one was narrowly averted on the storied decks of the USS Somers in 1842.

Without a Naval academy to train future Naval officers, the USS Somers set out in 1842 with a crew of seaman in training, on orders from Commodore Perry to deliver dispatches to another ship off the coast of Africa.  After delivering the letters, whispers of mutiny reached the ears of Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort the only two commissioned line officers aboard.

It was thought that Midshipmen Philip Spencer was plotting to seize the helm and turn the Somers into a pirate ship, a rumor that was validated when a list of crew members who would support an insurrection was found in Spencer’s room, along with a drawing of the ship flying a pirate’s flag.

Spencer and two others were tried on the ship’s decks, found guilty, and hanged.

The story of mutiny may have faded into the annals of Naval history, but Spencer was the son of the Secretary of War and, though exonerated by the courts, Mackenzie was criticized for carrying out the hanging when he was only … [ Read all ]