Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Volume 30, Number 1) July 1982, p. 13-17
The Journal of Eliza Brock-
At Sea on the Lexington
by Sherri Federbush
THE JOURNAL OF Mrs. Eliza Spenser Brock is not only the personal writing of a woman who goes to sea with her husband, Captain Peter C. Brock, but it is also a marvelously complete document of a Nantucket whaling voyage.
The journal begins with the departure of the ship Lexington from Brant Point on May 21,1853. Its conclusion is more obscure. Upon first inspection the final entry seems to be recorded on June 24, 1856 with the return to Nantucket. A closer look reveals that Mrs. Brock had read and reread her journal adding to it as late as May 15, 1875. As Mrs. Brock found newspaper clippings and works of poetry that enhanced the picture she wished to create, she glued them into the unlined leaves in the front and the back of the log.
Six months out, on October 1,1853, she wrote:
"And I heard a voice from heaven; saying unto me; write, Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord; they rest from their labours; and their works follow them;"
Mrs. Brock did not write for the sake of posterity alone. She prayed to God to send her hope and give her patience many times during the lengthy voyage and her prayers were answered in the form of her journal. Mrs. Brock defined herself through her writing. Often women diarists have no other outlet for a sense of self or to assert their egos; so it was for Eliza.
Aboard the ship Lexington she was a stranger, a stranger to the men and a stranger to the sea. She was no longer a staunch Nantucket woman, taking care of four children waiting for her husband to return, nor was she a part of the crew. At home she ruled over the kitchen, preparing meals for her family. At sea she was replaced by a cook, only using the galley during off hours. Each man around her had a very important job and his performance could often determine the success or failure of a hunt. Merely an onlooker, she had no control over her own situation. Aboard ship she had lost a sense of purpose and with it her self-esteem.
By creating the heroine "Eliza Brock the writer" and assigning herself the duty of carefully recording the details of day to day life, she creates a place for herself as a vital member of the ship.
The form of the journal is very deliberate. Mrs. Brock consciously employs many literary devices in its construction. She begins with a title page, adding an official tone with her signature:
"A Journal kept on board ship Lexington on her outward bound passage across the N. Atlantic Ocean; Round the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian ocean; on the Coast of New Zealand; In 1853, -- Eliza Brock"
For her preface, she pastes into the book a hand written poem on leaving and a clipping from a publication on forgiveness. She then starts afresh, narrowing the subject with a more specific chapter title. The two are very similar. In the second, however, she is concerned only with the first part of the adventure:
"A Journal kept on board of Ship Lexington of Nantucket on her outward bound passage in the North Atlantic Ocean; Bound on a Whaling Voyage to the Pacific Ocean 1853"
Mrs. Brock continues to use titles throughout the work to divide sea from sea and conquer what would otherwise be an endless stream of time. Aboard the ship, one day rolled into the next. The Sabbath, like any other day, was a work day. If the crew was not chasing and killing a whale, it was boiling down the blubber in the try works or making preparations for the next hunt. If Mrs. Brock was not knitting, she was reading or writing. If the weather was good she sat in the cabin below; in bad weather she sat on the deck above. The titles sectioned off the tune and advanced the days.
One of the extraordinary delights of the journal comes from Mrs. Brock's unconscious use of titles to accelerate the pace of the journal as she nears her long awaited port of Nantucket. She begins the work creating a title for each page. Usually the right hand sheet began with information pertinent to that day or that week. The information found at the top of the left hand sheet was broader, often a repetition of the chapter's title. In the last stretch of the journey, Mrs. Brock breaks her pattern of reserving titles for the beginning of a page. The excitement builds as she divides and subdivides the last few miles, more than once titling in the middle of a page.
She further divides her journal and the time into daily entries which average about seven lines or two inch paragraphs. Writing every day except for the four days they remained in Guam, April 11th through April 15th, she records wind directions and weather conditions at the beginning, middle, and last eight hour period. She notes the set of tn sails, longitude and latitude at noon, and storm damage if there wa any. She records the various illnesses of the men (by name which was unusual) and follows their progress until recovery. She seems to write off the days, chipping away at the time by completing many of the entries with her favorite phrase, "so ends".
Mrs. Brock never speaks directly to an audience, but it is clear she expects one to exist in the future. As an authoress she had through a selection process and decide what to include and what to let her readers discover for themselves. She assumes her readers will not be familiar with whaling. Yet, many times she would write that the men "Double reaft the topsails," or performed some other nautical task without any explanation of the terms.
At other times she felt the need to offer assistance:
"Tuesday October the 4, 1853 Light Wind Steard NE, at 5 PM cleard T S warmer as we go North: the Barometer that most useful instrument to Seamen, has risen to fair weather..."
Mrs. Brock was not the only wife to follow her husband to sea The first was Nantucket's Mary Hayden Russell, who in 1817 boarded the bark Hydra with her husband, Captain Laban Russell. In time many would follow her example. After Captain Charles Grant took his wife Nancy with him in 1849, the practice became common. So when Mrs. Brock sailed in 1853 there were many women who shared her fate, but it did not make it any easier to leave her friends, church, and three of her four children behind.
Her essay on "Forgiveness" is more problematic. She felt it was important to preface the journal and begin her journey with a great deal of forgiveness. But for whom or for what? The essay proclaims it takes a great deal of strength to forgive. "Cowards have done good and kind actions; cowards have even fought, nay, conquered; but a coward never forgave; it is not in his nature;"
The act of forgiveness can occur only if the soul is conscious of "the little temptations of resenting every attempt to interrupt its happiness". Perhaps Mrs. Brock speaks to herself, not her audience in this case. Many times she writes that she is unhappy and lonely away from home, but she never explains why she left. In fact, she never questions her fate. It is her duty to obey her husband and sail on the Lexington, but she does see the voyage as an interruption of her happiness. Here on the first page of the log she has placed a motto she can live by for the next three years. Forgiving Captain Brock for bringing her on the voyage is, in her eyes, the bravest thing she can do. Never again does she mention resentment.
Mrs. Brock is vaguely aware that for every text there is a subtext, but she does not always realize how close to the surface hers can be. Is it the men or herself she is describing in her entry of June 21,1853:
"...one month this day since we sailed; have not seen any sperm Whales yet but am daily in hopes we shall; all well on board and contented, or at least appear to be; middle calm, last part light wind at NW, all hands employed Breaking out lower hold, after Slops, Latitude 34.58"
The journal is filled with with silences. She remains quiet about the relationship she has with her family and their activities aboard ship. Early in the voyage she mentions reading, writing, and "singing a hymn now and then". She notes when her son Joseph Chase Brock receives a monkey as a gift from another Captain. But, in general, as a personal diary, the journal leaves many questions unanswered.
Eliza Spenser married Peter C. Brock, her first cousin once removed in February of 1833. Both were steeped in the whaling tradition. Thomas, the first Brock of Nantucket, was born in Paisley, Scotland. His son, Thomas, who lived from 1741 to 1766, was killed by a whale at sea. Along with his great Uncle Thomas, Peter C. Brock, his father, two brothers, and two male cousins were whalers. Of these, three followed Thomas to a watery death - Peleg and Priam Brock, uncles to Eliza and cousins of Peter, were killed by whales, and Thomas Jr. died through a different misfortune at sea in 1835. Although Eliza never mentions it her journal, she was well aware of the dangers she would face at sea. Eliza and Peter C. Brock had four children. The eldest, Oliver, born in 1834, and her favorite child, was the only one to try his luck at sea. He was nineteen and sailing on the ship Carver at the time Eliza joined her husband on the Ship Lexington. On July 16,1855 she received a newspaper dated November 1,1854 which reported the bark Carver of Westport had bulwarks damaged in an Atlantic storm four days out and had returned to its home port on October 28th. She was moved to write, "Where is my boy now? Hard luck seems to attend him."
She also mentions her youngest son, Joseph Chase Brock, who spent his fifth, sixth, and seventh, birthdays on the Lexington. But she never mentions where Lydia G. and William, her middle children, spent their time while she was aboard the ship. Nor does she write why she was compelled to leave them behind. Who stayed with William, who was only seven, when the Lexington sailed from Brant Point? The whaling wife needed to face separation and even death with a quiet grace.
When the Lexington sailed Eliza Brock brought with her the history of the family; she could not leave it behind. Nor could she leave the history of Nantucket whaling behind. For she did not travel in isolation - rather, she sailed in the tides of the time. Peter C. Brock captained two very successful voyages in the bark Ann, the first in 1832 and the second in 1837. In 1842 he sailed on the Young Hero, after which he went into semi-retirement for eleven years. His obituary claims that he sailed in command of the Lexington because he pined for active service again, but this explanation is too simple. During those eleven years Nantucket whaling experienced a rapid decline that eventually led to - its extinction. In the year 1853 the five or six vessels that sailed in the Nantucket whaling fleet were the last of a persistant few. Captain Brock's voyage was an attempt to keep up a dying industry.
By 1853, whaling was more difficult for whalemen of every port. Mrs. Brock wrote many moving entries about the over hunted animals. The ship Lexington was out for six months before they ever saw a whale. On July 5th, 1854 she wrote, "the whales have grown wild and shy, they are not easily captured as in times gone by." She has compassion for man and beast alike:
"the bowhead is no longer the slow and sluggish beast he was at first found to be...they are not so numerous as in seasons ' past and are more difficult to strike, how can it be otherwise, by day and by night the whale is chased, harassed, the only rest they have is when the fogs are thick and the wind high."
Of the men she wrote:
"July 30, 1854
a hard way to obtain a living. Men find no rest here, they live in their boats. I might say they leave the ship at three in the morning and sometimes it is nine at night before they get back again often out all night in the fog or towing a dead whale."
Mrs. Brock brings a feminine perspective to the history of whaling and to the specific voyage of the ship Lexington of Nantucket. The journal presents a side of the great industry of whaling that is seldom seen. The men who are today known only as whalemen become human beings with families and personal histories. Mrs. Brock can rest at peace, knowing that her journal indeed has preserved for posterity, not only her story, but the story of the great whaling industry of Nantucket.
Miss Sherri Federbush was a member of the Nantucket History Class from the University of Massachusetts-Boston which studied at the Peter Foulger Museum during the winter of 1980.