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A Practical Joke: 24th June, 1811

June 24, 2011

In most respects the whale fishery was a serious place, but there was frequent interaction between ships’ crews, especially those sharing the same home port. In 1811, the crews of the Resolution and the Aimwell seem to have been particularly close, the two ships spending much of the season in company with one another.

In his entry for 24th June, Scoresby recounts the story of the Resolution‘s surgeon, who had lent a book to his counterpart on board the Aimwell. The surgeon found that he needed it for some reason, and, Scoresby says “pressed me repeatedly to allow him to take a Boat and a Man or two to fetch it.” Finally, the surgeon took matters into his own hands, and persuaded the crew of a boat to take him to the Aimwell, where he collected the book, and brought it back:

Mr Johnstone [of the Aimwell]understanding that he had got possession of it and wishing to teaze him sought for and found the Book in his absence on the Deck which he gave to the care of Captn K[earsley of the Henrietta] who concealed it. The Doctor presently afterwards went to see if his charge was safe and found it astonishing to behold it removed he knew not whither; he burst out in exclamation of surprize and partly taxed Captn J. with having got which of course he flatly denied persuading the Surgeon he had laid it somewhere else. Mr. J again took it on board the Aimwell whilst the Doctor repeatedly expressed his wonder that the book should be missing and his grief lest it should be lost.

This is quite a cruel ‘joke,’ and one that emphasises the social and hierarchical gap between the captains of whale ships, and everyone else. Ships’ surgeons on whalers, though no doubt necessary at times, were often thought of as little more than passengers, whose primary role was as companion to the captain, in much the same way as wealthy women might employ a servant as a ‘ladies’ companion’. They were sometimes medical students, or older medical men hoping for a season or two of adventure on the high seas, before returning to their profession onshore. For the crews of whaleships, this alone would have made them figures of fun. It is not known whether the surgeon of the Resolution fell into this category, but it seems to be the case that he took himself rather more seriously than others did.

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