Sunday, March 25, 2012
JOURNAL OF A CRUISE MADE TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN... IN THE UNITED STATES FRIGATE ESSEX, IN THE YEARS 1812, 1813, AND 1814...
Five weeks on the road since February 1 makes for chaos around the office.
Trying to put things in order while working on the next catalog and preparing for the New York book fair is like digging out of a hole in the sand, sides collapsing as fast as I can shovel.
In my spare time, not that there is any, I’ve been working on our new gallery building across the street, which is coming along nicely.
And, in sorting through the books I bought on my travels, I found one that comes with one of my favorite stories in maritime history.
During the War of 1812, the island of Nantucket was pinched cruelly between Britain and America. Commerce shut down and the islanders found themselves dependent on the British for permission to allow the passage of ships carrying their basic necessities. Adding to their woes, a tender belonging to the British frigate Nymph set herself up in the waters between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Her officers and crew acted more like pirates than sailors, plundering every vessel they could catch.
Matters were equally bad for Nantucket’s sperm whalers in the Pacific. Armed English vessels made a practice of plundering American whalers. Although the “onshore grounds” west of the South American coast were a rich resource, their exploitation was proving costly for Americans. Something had to be done.
The remedy appeared in the person of a salty little rooster named David Porter.
The son of a Revolutionary privateersman, Porter went to sea in 1796 at the age of sixteen, and he received his baptism of fire in an encounter with a British man-of-war. Two years later he entered the navy, and by 1811 had attained command of the frigate Essex.
In 1813, on his own initiative, he undertook to sail the Essex around Cape Horn.
Based on intelligence he received while provisioning at the Chilean port of Valparaiso, he began an epic sweep of the Pacific in which he virtually destroyed British shipping. Over the next year he captured a dozen British vessels valued at $2,500,000 and cleared the way in the Pacific for American whalers.
Reports of his exploits circulated widely in the newspapers of the day, and the ingenious and energetic little captain became one of the great heroes of American naval history. Certainly, he was a hero to the whalemen of Nantucket. In 1815 he published a two volume account of his exploits, Journal of a Cruise... illustrated with handsome aquatint plates, and a map of the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, which he renamed Madison Island and claimed as a territory of the United States. (Neither the name nor the claim stuck.) As well as exciting battle scenes, Porter’s book contained detailed descriptions of life in the Marquesas, exotic customs and rites, and beautiful native women.
It was quite popular in its day, and was published in a second, slightly different, edition in 1822.
In 1823 the British published their own edition version of Porter’s narrative – except that they deleted all the anti-British passages. This version was only 126 pages long.
American edition on the left, British on the right
Porter, David. JOURNAL OF A CRUISE MADE TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN... IN THE UNITED STATES FRIGATE ESSEX, IN THE YEARS 1812, 1813, AND 1814... Phila. 1815. b/w plates, fldg. chart. Two vols. in one. vi, (1) 263; 169 pp. One of the heroic episodes of the War of 1812. Porter captured British ships in the Atlantic, then sailed into the Pacific on his own authority and wreaked havoc with British shipping and whalers. In the course of his adventures he visited and describes various Pacific islands and South American ports. He was finally captured off Valparaiso in 1814. This is the first edition of Porter’s narrative. A second edition with additional material was published in 1822, but this first edition is hard to find - described variously by Hill as “suppressed and... a very rare book” and “scarce.” Hill 1371. Forbes 447. Smith II, 1632. Howes P-484 (an “aa” item). For some reason, this 1815 first edition is almost always found in poor condition, missing the map, and/or plates. This copy is complete, but the map is torn and there is a three inch hole at a fold, resulting in some loss to the image of Madison Island. Pages and plates foxed. Bound in original calf with red spine label. Sewing tight. In all, a decent copy of a rare book. $1500