“Digitizing, Curating and Visualizing” Ship logbooks

Last year, a group of historians from a number of dfferent greek and spanish Institutions and Universities published a paper, in which they introduce the long process of digitalization, curatization and visualization on a number of selected 16 preserved logbooks as a case study.1

In the paper abstract, the authors want to “present a set of innovative tools that have been implemented for supporting historians in transcribing the original sources and curating the transcribed data as well as a web application that visualizes the curated data on an interactive map.”2) For this, they were using 16 original ship logbooks from the 19th and 20 century, which were preserved in seveen different archives in Greece and Spain.

Initially the article begins by introducing the practice of research in historical science, which is “is often concerned with the study and analysis of archival sources in order to de-scribe, examine, question and analyze a sequence of past events and also investigate the patterns of causes and effects that are related to them.” While this practice might be useful for quantitative analysis, it also comes along with issues, as they claim:

The need for faithful, fast and collaborative data entry by historians working on the same project but from different countries.

The difficulty of representing nested tabular structures, which is quite common when transcribing archival sources.

The need to curate the transcribed data without having to change the information as it appears in the original transcripts (and thus spoil the data).

The difficulty in revisiting the original sources of transcribed facts for verification, corrections or improvements.

The difficulty in combining and integrating data from multiple and diverse data sources and thus perform quantitative analysis of facts coming from different information sources.

Petrakis, K. et. al. (2021)

For their case study, they took ship logbooks and realized that they are an “invaluable type of source, yet largely unexplored by historians who have only used them in a secondary and supplementary way”. As such, natural scientiests were busy to draw back on various apects out of logbooks since the 1970s already. Climatologists for example, found in logbooks helpful wheather and wind observations. Logbooks of different kind of ship types (whaling, naval, trade, etc.) provide different information to a certain degrees including “navigation, trade routes, naval warfare, medical history, environmental history and the social history of work and life on board.”3

You can read the full article under the link in the footnotes.

  1. Petrakis, K., Samaritakis, G., Kalesios, T., García Domingo, E., Delis, A., Tzitzikas, Y., Doerr, M., & Fafalios, P. (2021): Digitizing, Curating and Visualizing Archival Sources of Maritime History: the case of ship logbooks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Drassana, (28), 60–87. https://doi.org/10.51829/Drassana.28.649 [Last Access: 16.08.2022]. []
  2. Petrakis, K. et. al. (2021 []
  3. Petrakis, K. et. al. (2021), p. 63. []

Logbook analysis: “William Hamilton” (1834-1837)

Some years ago, the Providence Public Library in Rhode Island has digitized its entire whaling logbook collection, which includes over 750 logbooks of American whaling voyages and covers an amazing time period between 1762 and 1931. The whole collection is now available through archive.org1 In order to receive a certain overview, this collection offers a detailed finding aid to the public.2

During the year of 2020, when most of the world was overwhelmed with the Pandemic, I had the opportunity to analyse a part of those available logbooks of the Swain and Starbuck family, which cruised into the Pacific Ocean. In this context, I would like to introduce you the logbook of the whaling voyage of the WILLIAM HAMILTON whaling ship, which was at sea between 1834 and 1837.3

The whaling ship was owned by Isaac Howland at New Bedford, and William Swain captained the voyage. In this blog article, I want to show you how I have reconstructed the voyage and analysed the digitized logbook, which you can find here.4

For this, I used a simple Excel document, and defined already beforehand, what kind of developments and encounters I am interested in. On the Y axis, I decided to categorize my observations in “Sojourn in”, “Communication with”, “Land in sight”, trading with”, “Recruitment”, “whale in sight”, “Hunting process” as well as “etc.” The X axis marked the timeline. In doing so, I moved from page to page, and “screened” each whaling logbook page for relevant observations, which I noted down immediately. This allows me, to go through the Logbook just by scrolling the document to the right and I have immediately access to the most interesting information for myself.

Private Excel document. Click on the picture in order to view the picture in more detail.

As you can see on this small glimpse of the Excel document, I can immediately reconstruct the sailing route of the whaling ship only by following the ports, which the logbook mentions. In this case, the whaling ship departed from New Bedford and most likely rounded the Cape Horn because he stopped for the first time in Chile, then went further northwards for a stopover at Payta, continued its voyage in the direction of the Society Islands and headed to Aotearoa/ New Zealand, before he sailed to Otaheite and then sailed back to New Bedford. On the whaling voyage, the ship meet many other ships, as you can see.

Stopovers were crucial for whaling voyages. They needed them for refreshment and in order to trade goods, supplies, and also to recruit Indigenous sailors for their voyages. While the logbooks keepers did routinely trace developments during the voyages at sea, they remained disappointingly silent on land, and only continued with entries when they began to sail again. Having these gaps in mind, helps me to realize for how long the ships did stay at harbour.

Now let me go in further detail on one of the stopovers and skip to January 1836, when the whaling ship arrived the Bay of Islands. At the 8th of January 1836, the logbook mentions: “5 PM spoke the LADY AMHERST5 of London 28 month out with 2500 bbl Oil” and then: “Land in sight”. You can read the entry at the end of the left page here.6

Whaling ships saw it essential in coming in touch together and to exchange crucial information, and their current state of their voyage; thus, one often read of whaling ships, which also give their amount of whale cargo which they have hunted and boiled already. As you can see from the page, William Swain did meet at the Bay of Islands also the whaling ship SARAH AND ELIZABETH7. Since the ship was on the end of his voyage, the Logbook just briefly records “spoke the Sarah and Elizabeth, full bound home”. The captain of this London-based whaling ship was also another William Swain, one of his relatives, who lived in London and was regularly with whaling voyages in the Pacific Ocean too. Together with the LADY AMHERST, the SARAH ELIZABETH sailed back to London.

Both William Swain do have the same family background in the Quaker community of Nantucket, and the name of the Ship William Hamilton shows already, that the whaling ship of owners of Howland in New Bedford seem to have been aware of the history of the Quaker whalers, who migrated to Europe roughly between 1790 and 1815 for William Hamilton is considered as the pivotal contributor of the establishment of the Milford Haven. He is known to have invited and supported those Quaker whalers to come to Wales in order to establish and to continue their whaling activities.

The whaling ship William Hamilton arrived at 10th January 1836 the Bay of Islands and seems to have remained until 27th January 1836 at the harbour, because there are no logbook entries for the days in between, which you can see on the right page.6

In the days after they sailed they prepared the stores and the logbook regularly mentions entries such as “all hands employed storing chicken” or “the watch employed in ships duty”. Just two days after they left the Bay of Islands, they saw a whale and lowered the boats, and such whale sightings were even drawn in the daily entries.

On the last pages of the logbook, the keeper shows unusually the crew of the different parts of the ship and shows, how the constitution of the boat-crews changed and differed during the voyages. This proves to be a valuable insight into the multi-ethnicity of the crew, because it also mentions the places and islands from where some crew-members were taken off. Some crew members were taken from Pacific Islands such as the Galapagos, Navigator Islands, Society Islands Tongataboo or New Zealand as you can see on this logbook page here.8

Thank you very much for reading this. This was a very brief overview of a logbook, and in case you have a question to any part or aspect, you are welcome to leave a comment.

  1. Nicholson whaling collection, in Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/providencepublicnicholson, [Last Access: 12.03.2022]. []
  2. Wells, Kate (2019): Finding Aid, Nicholson whaling logbook collection 1762-1931, https://www.provlib.org/wp-content/uploads/finding-aids/003-02-01-FA.pdf, [last Access: 12.03.2022]. []
  3. William Hamilton, 1834-1837, in: whaling history database, https://whalinghistory.org/?s=AV15649, [Last Access: 12.03.2022] []
  4. William Hamilton Logbook 1834-1837, in: Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/journalofwilliam00will/mode/2up, [Last Access: 12.03.2022] []
  5. LADY AMHERST, in: whaling history database, https://whalinghistory.org/?s=BV078010, [Last Access: 12.03.2022] []
  6. William Hamilton Logbook, in: Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/journalofwilliam00will/page/n61/mode/2up?view=theater [Last Access:12.03.2022] [] []
  7. Sarah and Elizabeth, in: whaling history database, https://whalinghistory.org/?s=BV078010, [Last Access: 12.03.2022] []
  8. William Hamilton Logbook, in: Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/journalofwilliam00will/page/n127/mode/2up?view=theater [Last Access:12.03.2022] []
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