[C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].
[C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].
[C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].
[C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].

[C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].

Narrative South Seas whaling manuscript, a fair copy, by young, novice sailor James McDonald, recounting an 1852 voyage out of New Bedford, Massachusetts to obtain sperm whale oil. Highlights of McDonald’s manuscript—which features several anthropological descriptions and observations—include being pursued by Malay pirates, McDonald’s harpooning a whale, and his eyewitness account of cannibalism.

McDonald’s manuscript was prepared ca.1859–1860 and delivered as a lecture on “...the Inhabitants, climate, and productions of the parts of the world I visited.” (p1) It includes anthropological observations of various Pacific islanders. Mc Donald’s vessel is not named, but he notes that “[t]he vessel I shipped on was one of the largest class of Whale Ships capable of carrying 3800 barrels of [sperm whale] oil.” (p2)

They sailed to the South Pacific by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Islands of Flores, “Buro Scia Celebes,” and “Amboyna” (Ambon) in Indonesia, catching up to that time only three whales. Only one account of killing a whale is made:

Shortly after leaving this group of islands [the Marquesas] the Harpooner of the boat to which i belonged was takien sick and according to custom it was my right to take his place in the Boat. I had not been in that office long before School whales was raised. We lowered away our boats after them and the chase began, the boat to which I belonged was the first to come up with then as it was the first time for me to strike a whale the mate said Jim for the honor of the boat and yourself Don’t miss him Which somewhat nettled me ... Suffice it to say he carried me to where I wanted to be I fastened to him with both harpoons the whale was killed and I saved as a trophy of my first attempt at Killing whales a pair of teeth which I brought home and gave to my sister as a present. (p15)

Excerpts below give a sense of the observations made during the voyage by McDonald:

[Pirates:] We had no sooner Tacked Ship than she began to give chase to us, And we soon saw that she sailed so much faster than us that it would be in vain to try to get away from her. ... The Captain then ordered all hands on deck and told us we were chased by a pirateI and if attacked by them we need expect no mercy at their hands for they were Malays. Our boarding pikes and some old muskets was then got on deck so that if attacked we would have something to defend ourselves with. We had also a small six pound cannon on board…although we had no balls to load it with we put it in pieces old iron lead nails and almost every thing we thought would destroy life. ... By this time the pirate had come close up to us so we could distinctly see the men on her decks by the aid of our glasses, and a more villainous looking set of men I never beheld. ... As for myself I can say I intended to sell my life as dear as possible and I believe this was the determination of every man on board the ship. (pp5–6)

[Malays:] A few days afterwards we ran into and anchored in the harbor of Salaboobo this is one of the Sooloo Islands [Sulu Archipelago] we were all delighted with the prospect a run on Shore, for it was then eight months since I had my feet on terra firma. ... After we got off our wood and water the crew then got liberty to go on shore and we had a good chance of seeing the characters of the Malays. They are of an Olive Brown complection [sic] they have Large mouths and deep set black ey[e]s their features are quite regular with straight black hair. Their character is treacherous to the Last degree. They are very fond of ornaments of all kinds they manufacture a kind of cloth from the fibers of Manila such as our rope is made of… The Religion of the malays if it can be said they have any is mohometan [Mohammedan]. ... The women are the most perfect Slaves not excepting the Indians of North America. They are literally hewers of wood and drawers of water. But unlike their treacherous lords their hearts are ever open to the unfortunate Sailor who from Shipwreck or other causes may be thrown among them. Many have been witness to this Fact. ... One practice that struck me partickularly [sic] is the use of the Betle nut [Betel or Areca nut] they chew from the oldest to the youngest it has a spicy taste but it blackens the teeth causes them to decay and rot. It operates as a stimulant on the nervous System pretty much the same effect as tobacco. (pp7–8)

[The Kanakas of the Friendly Islands:] The dress they wear is called Tappa [tapa cloth] and is made from the bark of a tree sometimes they buy calico from Ships that come in there to trade and make tappa out of this. The manner of making tappa is they strip the Bark off the tree and after taking the outside bark off they then steep the other in water for some time it is then taken and while damp is put on a square Block and with a mallet is pounded out to whatever thickness they want it. The strips before pounding are generally from eight to twelve inches in width and when pounded out they are about two feet wide they make a kind of paste or glue with which they fasten those pieces together and sometimes they paint them in various colors. ... There is a printing press on the Island where they print tracts and the new testament in the Kanaka language. (p11)

[Cannibalism:] We went from there [New Zealand] through Bougainville straits to the Island of Papau or new Guinea the natives of this Island are most savage looking race I ever Beheld. They are more like the negro than any of the South Sea Islanders they go entirely naked. A short time before we got there they attacked and murdered a vessel’s crew. ... While busy trading the swell carried us in so close that the savages could stand up and as soon as they had footing they seized hold of the boat and was carrying us in shore and in order to save ourselves we were obliged to take our Boat hatchets and chop of[f] their [hands?] to make them let go. A day or two afterword some of their canoes came off to the ship to trade and in one was the Limbs of a human body roasted on which they were feasting. Whether it was one of the ship’s crew they had murdered or some prisoner they had taken we could not tell, but the sight was truly sickening. (p16)

James McDonald was the father of Henry T. McDonald,  president of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia from 1899 to 1944. Henry passed the manuscript down to his own son, Frank McDonald, upon the latter embarking upon his naval service in 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. Accompanying the original manuscript is a photostatic copy of it, possibly made by one Elizabeth McDonald in 1959–1960.

Description: [C.1859–1860 South Seas Whaling and Anthropological Manuscript of Sailor James McDonald, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts].

[America. c.1859–1860]. 18 hand-numbered pages on nine folio-sized, ruled leaves; housed in a later, silk-covered portfolio. Accompanied by an ALS (1941) and two ANsS (1943 and c.1960) concerning the manuscript’s provenance plus a c.1960 photostatic copy of original manuscript, a c.1890s letterhead with annotation on verso—“Father’s Lecture,” and a four-page 1897 college newspaper, The Collegian-Herald from Hillsdale, Michigan. Manuscript with scattered foxing; a few leaves with closed tears or old tape mends in margins; very good.



See all items by