Madagascar Lemurs and American Whalemen

Madagascar Lemurs and American Whalemen

The women labor around a carved-out tree trunk, alternately lifting and lowering the large pestles with seeming ease. Their bodies are covered with cloths, the hint of decorated borders and fringes providing an element of ornamentation to their simple dress. Their faces are framed by knotted hair and jewelry. Despite their physical labor, the two appear to be barely exerting themselves. The words “Madagascar Corn Mill” appear to mock this scene of domestic labor, as if to ask:

This is the height of industrial sophistication on the island? Women performing agricultural labor?

From the Voyage of the Clara Bell, Mystic Seaport Library
From the Voyage of the Clara Bell, Mystic Seaport Library

To their left, a man stands at attention, with two cloths around his torso and one over his shoulder, a mark of prestige. He grips a long and deadly-looking spear in his right hand. His hair and earrings are similar to the women, but his strength is undeniable. Below his form is a similarly dismissive label, that of “Native.”

At first glance, this rural African scene could be from almost anywhere in Africa: an idyllic scene of rural production. The bodies of the Africans are likewise idealized as powerful, but their dress and activities stress their distance from Western influences. The three Africans are simultaneously exotic and simple.

Stops and route of the Clara Bell
Stops and route of the Clara Bell

The placement and production of this particular image further indicates the islanders’ distance from the cosmopolitan world of the mid-nineteenth century. This picture of life in St. Augustin Bay appears in Robert Weir’s journal where he detailed his daily experiences on board the New Bedford whaler, the Clara Bell. His commentary alternates between expressions of the tedium involved in searching for elusive water spouts and struggles between sailors and humpback whales. His pencil and pen drawings express an urgency only known by men who had sat on board tiny ships dwarfed by their prey.

The son of a gifted artist, Weir ran away from New England to escape gambling debt and family shame. His guilt followed him from port to port, as he sought to recover news that his father had forgiven him. His drawings have been featured in publications about nineteenth-century American whaling. He even transformed some of the more simple artwork into color paintings, as seen in this link:

Taking a Whale, by Robert Weir

As Weir learned the dangerous craft of hunting, the Clara Bell stopped at a variety of ports throughout the southwestern Indian Ocean. At each tropical beach, Weir celebrated the abundance of food. In the Seychelles, fruit was “as cheap as sand” and he was “reveling” in the varieties of bananas, coconuts, and many others for which he lacked the names. As the boat returned to sea, the “boys” on board stowed sugarcane in their berths to supplement their diet of hard tack and salt beef. Sailors rejoiced when the captain purchased oranges from an “Arabian” slave ship and ate countless eggs of sea birds taken from the uninhabited “Bird Island.” The environmental repercussions of their procurement were immense in this world of feast or famine.

When the ship finally steered into St. Augustin Bay in 1858, the crew having been at sea for over two years, it was as if they had entered a fertile paradise. Despite the aridity of the surrounding shoreline, men and women immediately boarded the whaling bark with food for sale. After a few weeks at anchor, the whaler set sail again with ample sea stores and terrapins skittering across the deck. Clearly turtle soup was on the menu.

Lemur from the Clara Bell

While Weir never mentions eating corn in Madagascar, his calm picture of well nourished women grinding corn into meal provides a significant departure from his other images of life at sea. Even the strong warrior offered something to admire. Weir confesses that he “should very much like to get several spears, shells, + different kinds of cloth” from the people of Madagascar but he lacked the necessary purchasing goods to acquire these souvenirs. Weir’s idealized view of St. Augustin Bay provides him with a different souvenir of his visit to Madagascar: a memory of abundance carefully crafted by the people living along the shores of Madagascar.

Even a lemur was offered for purchase by local merchants, clearly aware that sailors prized such pets on board their ship. Weir’s sketch depicts a tame primate in a relaxed, almost human pose. The animal’s relaxation provides a stark contrast to the harsh and violent existence of sailors on board an American whaling vessel of the nineteenth century.

For more on the voyage of the Clara Bell, see the scanned copy of Weir’s journal online at the Mystic Seaport Library.

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