The Coastal History Blog 27: “The Sailor’s Yarn”

Visitors to Salem, Massachusetts are likely tTrueYankeeso make a beeline for anything related to the celebrated witch trials.  A few older tourists will notice the sites connected to Nathaniel Hawthorne (my generation was probably the last to read The Scarlet Letter in school as an obligatory part of the American canon).  Both the witch trials and The Scarlet Letter evoke a particular, and still very popular, notion about New England’s past: It was an austere, introspective, theocratic society that had turned its back on a sinful world.

This expectation is what makes the Peabody Essex Museum, for my money at least, one of the most disconcerting tourist experiences in the United States.  Its vast and colorful collections are a testament to a very different New England, the one that Dane Morrison writes about in his new book, True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity. [1] Morrison lets the language of the streets tell its own eloquent story:

In seaports like Salem, it was said, one heard shopkeepers telling boys to hurry to the bazaar for a chow of dungaree, madras, and bandana, and if they ran chop chop, they would be rewarded with a cum shaw of ginger or mocha.  That boy might ask for a chop, or permission, to sail the family’s dinghy, or hawpoo, and if refused, complain that the parent was being a mandarin. [2]

True Yankees focuses on just five writers who described their voyage to the East, but as Morrison explains, this was a selection out of hundreds of similar narratives. [3] Indeed, the sheer number of American forays into eastern markets is striking: “Within a year of Washington’s inauguration as president of a new people,” he notes, “twenty-eight Yankee vessels had voyaged to Canton…” [4] Much of the drama in these voyages involved the American encounter with European traders and sea captains.  Would the upstart nation be taken seriously, and could the newcomers handle themselves professionally in the international arena?  Morrison’s memoirists constructed an identity as “republican patriots… [but also] genteel, polite, educated, cosmopolitan, and refined, and not at all the coarse bumpkins that Europeans often portrayed.” [5]

Over at the Junto Blog, Jessica Parr has interviewed Morrison. There is also a forty-minute interview with Liz Covart at the Ben Franklin’s World podcast. Both of these discussions focus on an anticipated U.S. readership and reference points in U.S. historiography (including an in-depth analysis of the changing meanings of the term “Yankee”).  Morrison himself presents the book as a study of an important formative episode in American national identity.

As someone who has worked with sailors’ autobiographies, while I read True Yankees, I found myself often reminded of a keynote address by Marcus Rediker, just recently published in essay form as “The Sailor’s Yarn.” [6] Rediker has repeatedly called for an intellectual history from below, inquiring closely into the sentiments and reflections of seafarers, but also tracking the uses, circulation, and influence of these first-person narratives.

These were never artless or unselfconscious voices, however, and we run up against issues of genre rather quickly.  Simply put, sailors who wrote were usually readers themselves.  Hester Blum has written about the influence of scientific writing on the shipboard narrative. [7] In my own work, I have drawn attention to the way that some sailors’ autobiographies modelled themselves on petitions for relief, of the sort that one would address to a charity or to a philanthropic arm of the state, while others drew inspiration from evangelical conversion narratives. [8]

True Yankees offers a wealth of observations on the ways that these sea narratives were in dialogue with what had gone before.  Some Yankee voyagers to China envisioned themselves in the tradition of Herodotus, recording the eccentric customs of a distant land, while others had in mind more recent literary models, such as Hawkesworth’s highly profitable stint as the chronicler of Cook’s Pacific voyages. [9]

Not unlike Rediker’s seagoing proletarians, the Yankee memoirists viewed the sailor’s yarn primarily as a means of disseminating “useful knowledge”; in one of the more amusing episodes of True Yankees, a crew on a sealing expedition has a narrow escape when the fur seals they are hunting turn out to be aggressive sea lions. [10] One could read such a story, note the details, and learn to avoid the same fate.  Discussions of trading practices served a similar purpose.  Some of the accounts resembled intelligence reports; Edmund Fanning recorded “fourteen handsome brass nine pound cannon” in a Chinese fortress, “but all very uncouthly mounted; it was besides difficult to depress or elevate these pieces many degrees.” [11] These sharp-eyed merchants saw themselves as part of “America’s vernacular Enlightenment.” [12]



[1]Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.  I am indebted to the press for sending a reviewer’s copy to the Coastal History Blog.

[2] True Yankees, 98.  Also of interest here is the richly illustrated volume by Susan S. Bean, Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail, 1784-1860 (Salem: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001), a marvelous browse, but also a detailed factual account with lengthy extracts from primary sources.

[3] True Yankees, xiv.

[4] True Yankees, 53.

[5] True Yankees, 231-2.

[6] Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (Boston: Beacon, 2014), 9-29.

[7] Hester Blum, The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[8] Isaac Land, “Patriotic Complaints: Sailors Performing Petition in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” in Writing the Empire: Interventions from Below, Fiona Paisley and Kirsty Reid, eds. (London: Routledge, 2013), 102-120; Isaac Land, War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 119.

[9] True Yankees, 89-90.

[10] True Yankees, 68; 104-5.

[11] True Yankees, 126.

[12] True Yankees, 77.

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