‘For many years past the whale-ship has been the pioneer in ferreting out the remotest and least known parts of the earth. She has explored seas and archipelagoes [sic] which had no chart, where no Cook or Vancouver has ever sailed’.1 Thus spoke Ishmael in Chapter 24 of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, published in 1851. Melville's narrator invokes a figure that one could call the ‘intelligent whaler’, borrowing a notion used by Benjamin Franklin in 1753 to refer to Timothy Folger, his cousin and a whaling captain who had helped him sketch the first map of the Gulf Stream, almost a century before Melville sent Ishmael a-whaling.2
‘Intelligence’ was defined in The New and Complete American Encyclopaedia in 1808 as the ‘commerce of information; notice; mutual communication; account of things distant or secret’ and as ‘understanding; skill’.3 It is along these lines that whalers have been described as intelligent not only in the age of the American Revolution and in Melville's whaling epic but also in more recent scholarly work. More than 150 years after the publication of Moby-Dick, maritime histories and histories of ocean science tell a similar story, according to which US-American whalers assumed the role of pioneers of American exploration in the Pacific. In a classic study from 1953, historian Edouard Stackpole listed more than a dozen cases in which Nantucket whaling captains, who began hunting for whales in the Pacific in the early 1800s, discovered or rediscovered Pacific islands.4 Until today historians of science attribute discovery and exploration, especially in the Pacific, to ‘whalers searching for offshore species’. American whalers, writes historian of oceanography Helen Rozwadowski, ‘followed their prey far from land and watched in amazement as harpooned whales pulled hundreds of fathoms of rope down as they sounded’, and supplied US institutions with information about ocean currents and uncharted islands.5
Whalers as part of the ‘vanguard of a vigorous oceanic empire’, as Jason W. Smith recently put it, or as explorers and masters of nautical knowledge are a common trope in classic as well as more recent literature on the history of US-American whaling.6 It is not unusual in maritime history to consider the ‘first thing worth mentioning’ about American whalers in the Pacific to be ‘the contribution they made to knowledge’.7 This contribution, one might add, is also worth investigating.8
In this paper, I want to suggest that one way to do so is by taking a step back from individual whalers and discoveries associated with them. Instead, this paper investigates the history of the discursive figure that is the ‘intelligent whaler’. As part of invented traditions, such as founding myths, it has always been closely intertwined with the history of the United States, and it continues to be so, as historical scholarship's deployment of the narrative demonstrates. One could therefore classify the ‘intelligent whaler’ as a historiographical figure. Located conceptually between the ‘scientific self’ or ‘persona’ – not an individual, but a type of scientist or a cultural identity – and the literary motif, the intelligent whaler was principally available as an identity to individuals, but whalers embraced or strived for this identity much less than it was, strategically, attributed to them in the accounts of scientists, politicians and historians.9 It is this historiographical figure's role that a critical history of the whalers’ contribution to knowledge needs to take into account: what rhetoric was employed by whom, where, and to what ends, when whalers were – or are – portrayed as explorers in the Pacific?
Intelligent whalers came about as paper figures. This is the central claim of this paper and simultaneously an attempt to answer a second question: how are scientific selves or personae and historiographical figures made? A possible answer considered here is: by paper technologies. Paper technologies are understood as sets of procedures on and with paper, such as tables and lists, sorting or formatting; material operations underlying the classification, communication and control of knowledge as well as its production. They are, in Boris Jardine's concise definition, ‘a material grid laid over the world, visible in itself’.10
In what follows, I will argue that the success of the intelligent whaler was made possible by the construal and public distribution of whaling intelligence in an important currency of science: facts. Printed in New England newspapers, reports about whalers’ discoveries of islands in the Pacific turned the intelligent whaler into a public figure, which lobbyists for Pacific exploration could invoke when they presented whaling intelligence in administrative documents with factual brevity. As a historiographical paper figure, the intelligent whaler emerged from the page, when paper technologies such as tables or lists produced discursive figures. This is, then, a history of bureaucratic practices as much as it is one of bureaucratic subjectivities.11
To make this claim, I will briefly discuss the birth of the intelligent whaler in the hydrographical writings of Benjamin Franklin. I will then focus on the intelligent whaler's role in the advocacy for an American exploring expedition into the Pacific and examine how, by the use of lists and tables, whaling intelligence was turned from news into facts. Proponents of US-American exploration in the Pacific employed whaling intelligence, regularly published in newspapers, to construct the intelligent whaler as a frontier figure, on the one hand whose knowledge could lead to discovery, and on the other who would profit from accurate charts and military protection.12 Specific writing procedures established credibility of information that was hard to verify on dry land, and they were crucial in making whalers not only ‘intelligent’ but also reliable informants. In the paper's final section, I will address the economic and social implications of whaling intelligence and its representation as facts. With the foundation of New Bedford trade paper Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchant's Transcript in 1843, whalers became not only providers but also objects of knowledge. Ultimately, I hope to show that paper serves not only as the data transport and storage device on which information is printed or science published, but also as a medium that creates the types who gather information, do science and become literary agents of the frontier narrative.
The invention of the ‘intelligent whaler’
In 1768, when Benjamin Franklin was deputy postmaster general of British North America, Boston customs commissioners complained about time British ships wasted on the ocean. They had noticed that it took packets from Falmouth, Cornwall to New York an average of two weeks longer than it took vessels from London to get to Rhode Island, although both routes were roughly the same distance. Franklin consulted his whaling cousin who features in his hydrographical writings repeatedly as ‘intelligent Whaleman of Nantucket’, ‘very intelligent Mariner’ or ‘Nantucket sea-captain of my acquaintance’; he was by no means surprised by the difference.13 British merchant captains, he told Franklin, were simply unaware of the Gulf Stream. Franklin in turn reported to the Postmaster General that ‘Captain Folger[,] a very intelligent Mariner of the Island of Nantuckett in New England’, had informed him
that the Whales are found generally near the Edges of the Gulph Stream, a strong Current so called which comes out of the Gulph of Florida, passing Northeasterly along the Coast of America, and then turning off most Easterly running at the at the rate of 4, 3½, 3 and 2½ Miles an Hour.14
To avoid shoals off Nantucket and Cape Cod, English captains bound for Rhode Island sailed north of the forty-second parallel while ships on their way to New York stayed south of 40° north, steering straight into the Gulf Stream.
The whalers, Franklin continued, cruised along the edges of the stream ‘in quest of whales’ and thus ‘bec[a]me better acquainted with the Course, Breadth, Strength and extent of the same, than those Navigators can well be who only cross it in their Voyages to and from America’. Even before Franklin had asked Folger ‘to mark for me on a Chart, the Dimentions Course and Swiftness of the Stream’, the whalers had informed the British captains that they were stemming a current. But, as Folger had told Franklin, ‘they were too wise, to be counselled by simple American fishermen’.15
Folger's sarcasm reveals what was at stake: Franklin's informant, the ‘intelligent whaler’, was American; a white American whaling captain, to be precise, for the figure takes no account of the demographics of the crews that, throughout the nineteenth century, included Native Americans, former slaves and Pacific islanders.16 The intelligent whaler made a more public appearance only a few years later in Edmund Burke's famous speech on conciliation with the American colonies, delivered in the House of Commons on 22 March 1775 and paying tribute to the ‘spirit of Liberty’. Burke presented whalers as the prime example of American entrepreneurship.17 From his portrait of this group, one can extract three central characteristics of the ‘intelligent whaler’ as part of what could be called a historiographical doctrine of figures.
The first characteristic of the intelligent whaler is his American citizenship, or, before a legal status of this kind existed, identification with the colonies rather than with the mother country. Burke speaks explicitly about New England whalers who ‘owe little or nothing’ to English support. A second characteristic is his ubiquity. According to Burke, one comes across American whalers on every ocean and in every climate:
whilst some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others … pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils.18
While Burke was thinking of the whalers’ ubiquity mostly in relation to the Atlantic, by the beginning of the nineteenth century it had extended to the Pacific. This indicates the third feature of this figure that has always-already travelled onward and forever continues to push further, merely pausing where others have reached their final destination:
whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the Antipodes, and engaged under the frozen serpent of the south. Falkland Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry …19
With reference to Franklin's account of the discussion with his cousin Timothy Folger, one can add a fourth characteristic to the figure that is not mentioned in Burke's speech, but an important aspect in narratives about American exploration in the Pacific and in whaling historiography, and of special interest for the historian of science: it is the navigational and oceanographic knowledge that the intelligent whaler possesses and that far exceeds that of other mariners, affixed to their usual courses. Moreover, and most importantly, it is a knowledge the intelligent whaler is willing to share. The adjective ‘intelligent’ is aptly defined in the American Encyclopaedia: ‘1. Knowing; instructed; skillful. 2. It has of before the thing. 3. Giving information’.20
The whalers’ advocate
The first New England whaler rounded Cape Horn in 1789. After the Pacific ‘offshore grounds’ had been discovered in 1818, half of Nantucket's whalers sailed towards the Pacific, which at the time had not been properly charted on the maps of European and American mariners.21 Although James Cook had proven on three voyages into the Pacific between 1768 and 1780 that no undiscovered continent existed, thereby refuting ideas of a Terra Australis, the Pacific Ocean remained cartographically unstable: islands were discovered, forgotten and rediscovered, and just as many ‘island groups whose names shift around with every whim of cartographical fashion’ could be found on mariners’ maps in the first half of the nineteenth century as in the mid-eighteenth.22 Exploration of those seas, according to whaling historiography, happened on whaleships. Edouard Stackpole portrayed the nineteenth-century whaler as a ‘pioneer voyager’ who conquered for the United States a ‘kingdom in the sea’.23 When historians describe whalers as ‘unofficial and nationally unrecognized explorers of their country’ who were turning the Pacific into an ‘American ocean’, they relocate the frontier from the Western prairies to the sea.24 Frederick Jackson Turner had famously declared in 1893 that the ‘existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development’.25 He argued that the shifting frontier, separating ‘civilisation’ from ‘savagery’, was the source of American individualism, egalitarianism and democracy. Heroic tales of American whalers as agents of colonization in the Pacific find a useful emblem for Turner's frontier thesis in the intelligent whaler.
A kind of Frederick J. Turner of whaling and perhaps the greatest proponent of whaling intelligence was Jeremiah N. Reynolds. He was known as a notorious advocate for a Pacific exploring expedition in Washington and his strongest case was the New England whalers. Reynolds entered the public stage as a sidekick to John Cleeves Symmes, who toured the United States to give lectures on the hollow-Earth theory. According to Symmes's theory, based on a hypothesis Edmond Halley had made in 1692, the Earth was hollow and its interior accessible through great holes at the poles. Most scientists refuted this claim, but the two men spoke to large audiences in sold-out venues.26 Reynolds remained sceptical towards the more extravagant parts of the theory and later fell out with Symmes, concentrating instead on the more widely accepted but no less fantastic theory of an open polar sea.27 Common to his advocacy for both theories was his insistence on the necessity of a polar expedition to get to the bottom of the speculations. He petitioned Congress and the navy, and was eventually appointed special agent to the Navy Department and sent to the whaling captains of New England to acquire ‘information’ about the Pacific. What Reynolds presented to the House of Representatives in his report as special agent to the navy and in his Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas was a survey of American economic activity in the Pacific that grounded a demand for a federally funded exploring expedition.28
To make his case, Reynolds painted an image of the history of the United States as a nation of maritime explorers that owed its economic success entirely to the whaling industry, which he portrayed as the cradle of the American fleet. By listing the whalers’ provisions down to the individual item, Reynolds pointed toward the national significance he assigned to their enterprise:
every time our immense whale fleet puts to sea, there is required for victualling and outfit: flour, eighty thousand and forty barrels; pork and beef, seventy-nine thousand one hundred and twenty barrels; molasses, six hundred and twenty-one thousand gallons; coffee, five hundred and fifty-two thousand six hundred pounds; sugar, two hundred and fifty-six thousand eight hundred pounds; tea, one hundred and seventy-two thousand five hundred pounds; rice, one thousand three hundred tierces; duck, forty-six thousand four hundred and sixty pieces; cordage, eight thousand nine hundred and sixty tons; iron hoops, four thousand six hundred tons; copper, five hundred and fifty-two thousand sheets; (vessels coppered every voyage;) staves, ten million; whaling gear, consisting of harpoons, spades, cabooses, &c., one thousand dollars to each vessel, four hundred and sixty thousand dollars …29
Not only whalers and whaling towns were to profit from the whaling industry, but also the country as a whole: Reynolds argued that whaling reached ‘the interest of every class of citizens in our country; their prosperity or adversity becomes that of our whole people’. He claimed that owners of woodland as well as shipbuilders and coppersmiths, rope makers and sailmakers, the cotton industry as well as the agricultural sector, ‘all have an interest in this branch of national enterprise’.30
The industries on which the whalers’ expeditions depended, and which profited from their discoveries, thus grounded the argument of the chief lobbyist for an enterprise of this kind. Reynolds's glorification of the whaler was inspired not so much by Benjamin Franklin's report on the whaler's discovery of the Gulf Stream, but by the daily newspapers in which the intelligent whaler had been present since the turn of the century. This is a first, and quite literal, sense in which the intelligent whaler was a paper figure.
On 28 March 1825, the Nantucket Inquirer printed a letter by whaling captain Richard Macy, who reported a discovery near the ‘Friendly Islands’ (Tonga) in the South Pacific:
On the 3d of February, 1824, I discovered three islands and as they are not laid down on my chart, or in any book I have on board, I believe them to be a new discovery: in consequence of which I have given them the following names: Viz. Elizabeth's Island, lat. 21 06 S. lon. 178 36 W. Eunice's Island, lat. 21 52 S. lon. 178 47 W. Macy's Island, lat. 20 52 S. lon. 178 47 W. The land is very low and navigation dangerous, as they are surrounded with coral reefs which extend some distance from them. The islands are inhabited and are covered with coconut and other trees.31
As in Franklin's report of the mapping of the Gulf Stream, the whalers’ interest in exploration and the mapping of islands in the Pacific emerged from the exigencies of their work. Much like James Cook's observations of nature, such enterprises were shaped by the imperative to maintain the livelihood of the ship that made them possible in the first place: determining the geographic position, navigability and anchorage of bays, as well as the flora, fauna and native population of islands along their routes, were necessary to keep the ship in shape and the crew fed, before they became questions of geography, hydrography, natural history or ethnography.32 When Cook embarked on his first voyage in 1768, he received additional and secret instructions by the Admiralty:
You are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an Extent of the Coast as you can; carefully observing … Latitude and Longitude … Bays, Harbours and Parts of the Coast as may be useful to Navigation. You are also carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it … [and] the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives.33
The orders whaling captains received were shorter and limited to the purpose of the voyage. New Bedford whaling agents Thomas Knowles & Company, for example, instructed the Captain of the Isabella
to write us every opportunity and inform us of any and Every thing of consequence pertaining to the voyage such as the quantity of oil you have on board the names of all the Crew that may have deserted or discharged or lost in any way … & when you expect to be at home also where and when you wish to have letters sent to you.34
Exploration was explicitly not a part of whalers’ instructions. Whaleships lost or damaged in the process of examining an island forfeited their insurance.35 But Macy, like other whaling captains who anchored close to islands not recorded in their charts in order to take wood and food aboard or to set out hogs to breed, included information in his reports similar to that demanded by the Admiralty.36 This was no coincidence, and nor was the printing of Macy's letter in a newspaper.
Going by the name of Gardner, Coffin, Starbuck or Macy, Franklin's intelligent whaler appeared regularly in the pages of local newspapers in New England whaling towns. The Nantucket Inquirer, keeping the islanders up to date with world politics since 23 June 1821, reserved its third page for ‘shipping intelligence’.37 In New Bedford, the New-Bedford Mercury had been ‘published once a week, printed on good paper and in fair type’, since 1807, and informed its readers in its ‘Marine diary’ about incoming ships in the local port.38 It printed reports brought into town by incoming ships as well as news about deaths, desertions and encounters with other vessels: ‘Jan. 28, lat. 26, lon. 22 ship Industry, [Captain] Coffin, 27 days from Nantucket, whaling; had caught nothing’.39 Like Macy, many whalers regularly reported their geographic discoveries by sending letters or extracts from their logbooks to New Bedford or Nantucket newspapers.
Whalers were not only (re)discoverers of islands but, like other seamen, transmitters of news from overseas. The emerging American mass media knew how to make use of the increasingly global reach of seafaring activities.40 Before networks of correspondents were established abroad, newspapers that wanted to print news from overseas depended on seamen. Some of them allied in 1848 to found the Harbor News Association that telegraphed news brought over on European ships from the harbour of Halifax to New York. Before Newfoundland and Ireland were connected via the transatlantic telegraph cable, journalists prowled the harbours of Boston, New York or Philadelphia to pick up news from all over the world. The Harbor News Association, which gave birth to the Associated Press, the United States’ first news agency, even had two boats of its own to collect ‘ship news or other news’ before the crews came ashore.41
In this respect, too, whalers’ reports are part of the history of travel accounts written by the likes of James Cook. With Cook's second voyage around the world, the Admiralty abandoned the politics of secrecy that had surrounded exploring expeditions in the Enlightenment in favour of a publishing strategy that was concerned with the immediacy of research results. Cook came to be the first ‘author–explorer’ to publish his barely edited journals.42 To ‘publish’ was to address the public in a literal sense: it was essential to the credibility of his report when Cook wrote in the introduction to his Voyage towards the South Pole and round the World that his account was ‘submitted to the Public’ with the very purpose of giving ‘the Reader a clear idea of what has been done in it and to enable him to judge more accurately, how far the great object that was proposed, has been obtained’.43
Nineteenth-century newspapers not only publicized knowledge of geographic explorations but also turned the intelligent whaler into a public figure. In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin, who rarely mentioned his cousin Timothy Folger by name, told his story in two letters, only one of which was meant for publication. In the Nantucket Inquirer, the New-Bedford Mercury and other newspapers, the story was now told to the reading public on a daily basis. The mariner as explorer became such a common topos that some newspapers seemed to grow tired of their own stories: once again, a ‘bold Yankee navigator’ had – as ‘they have often done before’ – discovered land.44 By the beginning of the 1840s, newspapers thought the Pacific was mostly explored: ‘As far as mere discovery goes there is little left to be done in the Pacific. Our whalers have cruised over, or crossed, nearly all the ground that had hitherto been untraversed’.45
Factual islands and insular facts
Jeremiah Reynolds, from Wilmington, Ohio, remained unconvinced that there was nothing left to explore in the Pacific. This former newspaperman, of all people, seemed not to believe that newspaper coverage of what whalers had found and put down in their logs was particularly helpful: ‘On their return to the United States, these discoveries generally formed a paragraph, which went the rounds of the press, and then sunk into oblivion’.46 To permanently store the whalers’ knowledge, Reynolds believed, a more systematic form of notation was necessary. It was for the sake of creating one that Reynolds travelled to the coast of New England for an on-site visit as a special agent to the Navy Department in 1828, ‘where information might be found of the Pacific Ocean and South Seas’.47 He called on ‘every individual navigator of those seas who could be found at home’ and asked the whaling captains for an interview.48
The information I obtained was drawn from purely original sources. Nothing was taken at second hand. Log-books which had been thrown aside for years, were overhauled and examined anew. Many facts were received from several sources, each independent of the other; and by this coincidence, the truth of the statements was corroborated and confirmed. The whole were concisely and systematically arranged under appropriate heads …49
Like Franklin, Reynolds was of the opinion that his conversation with the whalers had yielded a hoard of priceless information. They were ‘certainly better acquainted with those seas than any other people in this or any other country can be’.50 Reynolds consulted numerous captains, observed their logbooks and sea charts, and sent a long list of results to the navy. Among them were many, he claimed, ‘that are not laid down in any chart’.51 In his report for the navy, Reynolds not only stressed that whalers opened up whole new seas but also praised the whaling ship as a nautical training centre:
The whalemen are much advanced in mathematics and practical navigation beyond other navigators: for, on their long voyages out and home, the most intelligent officers assist the younger in their mathematical and nautical studies; and thus schooled, all come home improved in their branches, distinction in them being the direct road to preferment.52
The result of Reynolds's research was a table, titled ‘Islands and Reefs’. In ‘as tabular a form as may be consistent with a clear view of the extent and importance of these discoveries’53 – that is, in four columns – the document listed the islands discovered by whalers and their geographical position, as to latitude and longitude. Reynolds's table resembled a preprinted form filled in over the course of his visit to New England's whaling towns. It registered and organized empirical evidence; its slot-and-filler structure only captured certain recurring parameters: islands’ names, latitude and longitude, sorting them by ascending latitude.
Tables not only visualize order; they also establish it. Providing a defined location for each new entry, the tabular logic is indifferent to the question whether an entry's content is already known or yet to be found out. A table's blanks are not so much vacancies (they are most certainly there, or, as Lisa Gitelman puts it, ‘Any space within the printed page is – effectively – printed’) as they are pointers to what is, as yet, unknown.54 Inscribed into the empty space of such blanks is the imperative to fill it with information. The recursive structure of the table's epistemology allows it to simultaneously store what is, and refer to what will be, known.
Tables are intermediaries not only between the old and the new but also between two stages of recording, processing and presenting information. Once tabulated, information comes in standardized format, thus facilitating all subsequent operations such as computing or correlating and comparing particular records with each other. By placing individual information in the same category – that is, in the same location on the page – tables generate relationships of similarity. They tend to reduce the connection to the original context out of which the information was gathered to a minimal reference, or to conceal it altogether. Instead, the table itself, and its content, become each entry's new context.55
This becomes most evident in the last column of Reynolds's table, where he marked whether the islands had been mapped on charts or whether they were identical with islands that had already been recorded in the table: ‘See Cloud's island, 2 lines below’; ‘A Repetition of Cooper's island’; ‘See third line above’.56 The whaling intelligence is, on the one hand, fixed in the spatial organization of Reynolds's table. On the other hand, it is so only to remain available for further use, and thereby be transformed into different forms of presentation.
In several ways, this table that Reynolds sent to the Navy Department and referred to repeatedly in the following years formed the core of his lobbying for a Pacific exploring expedition. From this paper technology, a figure of the whaler emerged that had better geographical knowledge than other seamen, just like the one Benjamin Franklin had employed. However, whereas Franklin's intelligent whaler remained anecdotal and singular, Reynolds projected him – tabular, synoptic – as the outcome of a systematic survey.
In other words, in Reynolds's Report islands became facts. They were presented in the mode of an epistemic unit that was critical to the career of the intelligent whaler and that refers to a specific form of scientific description of the world that generates its own objects and comes along with distinct practices and methods. Historians have repeatedly pointed out that the fact has a history, not only as a word or a concept but also as a form of experience.57 Facts need to be produced by epistemic practices such as observation or experiment, and written down in forms of representation such as tables or lists.58 With Lorraine Daston, one can speak of ‘practices of the fact’ that have served to constitute facts since their establishment as a category of experience in the seventeenth century. Precisely such practices were at work when Reynolds reported to the Navy about the knowledge of whaling captains: tabulation, authentication, formal disciplining.59
One of the most important properties of facts is their format: they are brief. Typical facts, according to Daston, are units with a ‘rounded self-sufficiency’ that can be combined with each other and in this way add up to narratives (of, for example, a voyage), but that do not lose their atomic character. ‘For that reason, factual narrations have a strong tendency to dissolve into tables and, above all, lists’.60 With respect to the necessity of noting down facts in short form, Anke te Heesen writes, ‘One has to be able to return to facts’.61 Reynolds's tabular itemization of the islands with northern latitude and eastern longitude – ‘Reef seen by Captain Task | 2 40 | 178 50 | Not on charts’ – was, against this backdrop, paradigmatically factual.62 The indication of latitude and longitude in whalers’ logbooks, demanded by the Royal Society in travel directions ever since 1666, printed in the daily newspapers of whaling towns since the early 1800s, and now noted in Reynolds's table, provided the discovered islands with an address.63 By giving their position relative to the prime meridian and to the North or South Pole, coordinates guaranteed the retrievability of islands – at least in theory and depending on the accuracy of the calculations. As with facts, one had to be able to return to islands. Only upon their discovery do they begin, not unlike the fact, to exist as real objects in space; the geographic date makes their notation possible in a grid, and thereby transport into the two-dimensionality of the chart.64 When, as Daston argues, lists and tables serve as literary forms to keep facts short and isolated from one another, facts are no less islands than the islands, discovered by whalers and recorded by Reynolds, are themselves facts.65
With the island-fact, the intelligent whaler emerged as a public figure once more. Reynolds's portrait of the intelligent whaler was reprinted in a book, to make his proposition ‘as extensively known to the public as possible … through the medium of the public press’.66 What is more, though, in Reynolds's table as well as in the newspapers, the whaler was given a name. Not unlike the authors of natural-history texts who maintained and conferred authority by naming their artisanal informants – and who reserved anonymous phrases like ‘an intelligent operative’ for those of low social standing – Reynolds mentioned by name the captains who had come upon uncharted islands.67 His table listed not only islands but also people.68 Island discoveries are hence assigned to discoverers who, in combination with calendric and geographical date as well as the name of the ship with which the printed note originated, lent them the aura of scientific facticity. No less than it linked facts to credible eyewitnesses that could report on them, the table made eyewitnesses credible because what they reported could be tabulated. The Royal Society, Britain's biggest manufacturer of facts, has always depended on mariners, most notably when it wanted to print accounts from foreign countries in the Philosophical Transactions, and it preferred reports from captains to those from ordinary sailors. It made a difference, in the eighteenth century, what kind of ship embarked on an exploring expedition, with what kind of instruments and on whose behalf.69 Trust in the observer was indeed a fundamental condition for factual knowledge to be valid, but one did not have to be a member of the gentry to provide information that could be processed into facts.70 As early as 1665, the Royal Society was ready to believe an ‘understanding and hardy Sea-man’ and could print his account of the Bermuda whale fishery in one of the first issues of the Philosophical Transactions, thereby making him a prototype for Franklin's and Reynolds's intelligent whaler.71
In Reynolds's table, the existence of islands was accredited through operations on paper, such as writing a logbook, filling in forms, and writing up acquired information in tables. Perhaps one can conclude that the facticity of islands in the nineteenth century was a question of legitimation by procedures of writing. At the same time, the discursive figure that emerged from that table owed its existence precisely to this factual format. The intelligent whaler was a paper figure, because writing down whaling intelligence in factual format, in papers and on paper, was what brought him to life. It is due to the paper technology at work in Jeremiah Reynolds's Report, i.e. the table, that the suppliers of this information entered scientific, expansionist and ultimately historiographical discourse not as yarn-spinning mariners, but as reliable informants.
The politics of whaling intelligence
Reynolds painted the intelligent whaler as a tacit producer of knowledge whose geographic discoveries were not sufficiently acknowledged:
These are discoveries which make little or no noise in the world; there is no long story … no romance, attached to them; there is but a rock, a coral reef, or an island more in the midst of an ocean … and yet he who points out a rock, a reef, or an island, unknown before, is a benefactor to the human race.72
He contrasted this lack of romance with a romanticization of the whaler who explores the Pacific with very basic means and more or less as a secondary concern. For this reason, it can be forgiven, according to Reynolds, that geographical positions are not always determined, given that the actual purpose of the voyage is ‘to take whale, and not to make discoveries’. Moreover, mistakes in positioning are made less frequently than could reasonably be assumed:
When, however, we reflect on the disadvantages under which they labour; unprovided with instruments of improved construction; often computing their progress by the run of the log alone … it must be conceded that the information they have imparted is more correct and explicit than we would reasonably anticipate.73
Rather than formally discipline his heroes by handing out apodemical forms and abstract logs, as the Royal Society had done and the US Navy would do only a few years later, Reynolds and his supporters demanded that a federally funded exploring expedition be sent to the Pacific.74 The whaler's geographical knowledge, on the one hand, and on the other his US citizenship in a part of the world theoretically up for grabs to the European powers, necessitated in their view a federal undertaking that consolidated whaling intelligence and manifested the geographical and economic claims of the United States. Whalers served a twofold function in the argument. First, because of their experience and discoveries, they were to advise on the arrangements for the expedition. To an officer of the navy, the whaler's notes were valuable preparatory work for the expedition:
It is probable that not less than five hundred of these islands and reefs have been marked with sufficient accuracy by our whalers, sealers, and traffickers, of one kind or another, to enable an expedition to examine the most important of them, without much loss of time in seeking their positions. This will enable the discovery vessels to do more, in less time, than has probably ever been effected by a similar enterprise from any other country.75
Second, whalers functioned as US citizens in need of protection and thus came to be beneficiaries of an expedition that they as such legitimized in the first place. Whalers as informants were not disinterested, and neither was Reynolds. His was not a gentlemanly science, but a practical one that made no distinction between knowledge and profit. Whalers’ knowledge was fact-worthy not despite, but because of, their self-interest. They were expected to profit from accurate charts as well as from military protection.76 In a letter that Benjamin Rodman, a whaling agent from New Bedford, had sent to Reynolds, the geopolitical interests that stood behind the project are overtly expressed. Rodman demanded law enforcement in the Pacific:
Why should we have governors, judges, and all the paraphernalia of courts, in territories where there is a bare possibility that an Indian may be murdered, or become a murderer; steal a horse, or have his horse stolen; and not have a superintending influence abroad, where our ships are daily traversing from island to island and from sea to sea … that the savage may be awed into respect, and the mutineer's hand be bound down in submission?77
For this businessman and shipowner, military presence in the Pacific meant, if nothing else, a protection of venture capital: ‘Would not this … make the merchant lie down more comfortably, when he knew there was a diminution of the chance of misfortune by sea … by the acknowledged influence of moral power which is felt everywhere?’78
Besides the geopolitical benefit, Reynolds worked out a biogeographical advantage for the whalers that could hardly be separated from the economic one. Here, early in the golden age of whaling, he already formulated the problem of over-fishing:
The scarcity of the whale on the common whaling ground may be easily accounted for, when it is understood that it takes about ninety whales, as they average, to make a full cargo, and that from this calculation our own whalemen take about eight thousand a year … I have stated these particulars to show how necessary it will be to explore new grounds in higher southern latitudes for the right whale, when the sperm whale become[s] scarce in equatorial regions.79
The exploring expedition that Reynolds had in mind would set sail to find and map new whaling grounds in the Pacific. If nothing else, it would correct the English charts, which, as manifested by the many uncharted islands recorded by whalers, were unreliable in Reynolds's eyes. And yet US whalers still relied on those charts for their navigation: ‘we have as yet no maps or charts of our own to compare with them’.80 Years later, the dependence of US mariners on charts of other nations was still an issue to Matthew Fontaine Maury at the Naval Observatory. He complained that an American warship could not enter the capes of Virginia or call at Washington, DC ‘without applying to the hydrographical office of England for the chart on which to shape her course’.81
Reynolds's lobby for an expedition was not the only way that whalers’ facts found their way into tables. In 1843, Henry Lindsey from New Bedford founded a newspaper which, with an eye toward the most important industry in town, presented whaling intelligence comprehensively, gathered together in due order as opposed to scattered amidst other news. Ever since the first issue, the New Bedford weekly Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript led with a table that, arranged by home port, listed all US whale ships at sea and recorded their ‘Place of last Report’ as well as the obtained amount of oil. As in Reynolds's table, whalers provided the information for the Whalemen's Shipping List. But here, they also were the information. The editor wrote in the first issue,
From the federal and fragmentary form in which our shipping news appears in general newspapers; from the vast amount of property invested in the whaling business, and the many thousand seaman [sic] engaged therein, coming as they do from all parts of the country, we have been led to believe that a paper of this kind would be interesting to ship owners and merchants, and not less to the parents and wives, the sisters, sweethearts and friends of that vast multitude of men, whose business is upon the mighty deep, and who are for years seperated [sic] from those to whom they are dear.82
Less concerned with geographical discoveries, this list was about the business interests of whaling agents and the social fabric in the towns that sent the bulk of their young men a-whaling. The Whalemen's Shipping List derived from a ‘sense for danger’ that presented hazards and risk as a regularly occurring aspect of political or economic affairs.83 A shipowner in the whaling industry was ‘preeminently a dealer in risks’ who sent capital to sea without knowing what exact returns it would yield or even whether, in case of shipwreck, there would be any return at all.84 From the Whalemen's Shipping List such an owner could infer the status of his investment, while families of whalers could keep track of the route that their brothers, husbands or fathers were taking.85
However, this information was gathered from captains and crews when they returned to their port and it was almost never up to date. The captains themselves obtained it from ‘gams’, social meetings of whaling ships at sea, where nautical as well as terrestrial news was exchanged. These ‘gams’ were accidental, even unlikely, gatherings, but they were crucial for communication between land and sea. Herman Melville described this communication network, which brought together all kinds of intelligent paper, in Chapter 53 of Moby-Dick:
For the long absent ship, the outward-bounder, perhaps, has letters on board; at any rate, she will be sure to let her have some papers of a date a year or two later than the last one on her blurred and thumb-worn files. And in return for that courtesy, the outward-bound ship would receive the latest whaling intelligence from the cruising-ground to which she may be destined, a thing of the utmost importance to her. And in degree, all this will hold true concerning whaling vessels crossing each other's track on the cruising-ground itself, even though they are equally long absent from home. For one of them may have received a transfer of letters from some third, and now far remote vessel; and some of those letters may be for the people of the ship she now meets. Besides, they would exchange the whaling news, and have an agreeable chat.86
Ships took the role of floating post offices, forwarding mail, providing ‘old newspaper reading for a month’, and exchanging whaling intelligence in highly contingent ways and on uncertain routes.87 These vagaries of maritime communication caused long latencies between sending and receiving letters or other news. Accordingly, it could take months for an entry in the Whalemen's Shipping List to be updated.
When it was printed in the newspaper, at last, the information provided by whalers came to be information about whalers. The weekly newspaper referred to the whalers’ double role, also contemplated by Edmund Burke, and found in Reynolds's rhetoric, in which whalers figured as profiteers of an expedition. They had, on the one hand, nautical knowledge that made them ‘discoverers’ of oceanographic and geographic phenomena; on the other, they worked at the behest of an industry on which the prosperity of entire towns depended.
Ten years after Reynolds interviewed the whaling captains, and on the heels of several administrative reshuffles and personal fallouts, the United States Exploring Expedition (known as the US Ex. Ex.) put to sea. Reynolds had collected endorsements from shipowners and had citizens petition Congress. His nationalist rhetoric had struck a nerve. It convinced a wider public and, most importantly, the president. His expedition now had proponents in Congress, Senate and government who took up the cause which for years had run the risk of remaining a pious hope.88 Reynolds was not aboard when the squadron, led by Charles Wilkes, sailed from the shore of Virginia. But the directions for the expedition still echoed his appeals:
The Congress of the United States, having in view of the imported interests of our commerce embarked in the whale-fishery and other adventures in the great Southern Ocean … authorized an expedition to be fitted out for the purpose of exploring and surveying that sea, as well to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals …89
The expedition so often promoted in the name of the whaling captains’ knowledge would now work for its further development. The exploration of Pacific islands, the verification of their existence, their recording in charts, and the writing of sailing directions were all, according to the aims of the expedition, to be ‘serviceable in future to vessels engaged in the whale-fisheries’.90 The aims of the US Ex. Ex. are characterized by the same apparatus of risk assessment from which the Whalemen's Shipping List derived: ‘to extend the empire of commerce and science; to diminish the hazards of the ocean, and point out to future navigators a course by which they may avoid dangers and find safety’.91
The historiographical paper figure of the intelligent whaler – who cruised every ocean, shared his nautical and geographic discoveries, and contributed significantly to one of the United States’ largest industries – was also an American ‘frontier figure’.92 He was thus well suited to become a powerful fixture in nationalist debates on US-American expansionism in the Pacific. Publicized by the emerging mass media and by former newspaperman Jeremiah Reynolds, who with the help of his table turned news into facts and islands into epistemic objects, the intelligent whaler's expertise was poised to become the principle leitmotif in advocacy for a national exploring expedition. As ambassadors to the commercial and scientific empire, whalers were easily justified motivators for an enterprise located at the interface of science and commerce, in which geopolitics was all but absent. On the one hand, whalers provided the US Ex. Ex. with the location of islands to be recorded on charts, while on the other, they were to benefit from the United States’ military presence in the Pacific and the discoveries that the expeditioners – and with them the navy, whaling merchants and the American public – hoped to make on the expedition. Much as the Whalemen's Shipping List turned news from whalers into news about whalers, the US Ex. Ex. sailed to draw maps from facts provided by whalers and subsequently equipped the latter with the very charts for which they had provided the intelligence.
Investigating the history of the intelligent whaler as historiographical, paper and frontier figure not only demonstrates that the whalers’ role in knowledge production was an important discursive factor in the making of federal science policies in the United States. The debates in which the intelligent whaler was called into action show that whalers also functioned as agents of empire. The aim here has been to historicize frontier practices and narratives, rather than to retell the story of whalers as heroic explorers or less-than-heroic colonizers in the Pacific. This helps to shed light on the media and actors that carry the story of the frontier instead of reproducing tropes as old as the frontier itself.