Monday, August 2, 2010

The Uncommon Log Book Of A Common Sailor

Francis Sartorius. (1734-1804)
Four Frigates Capturing Spanish Treasure Ships. (1804)
One Of The Frigates Is The HMS Medusa.

(Image Courtesy of National Maritime Museum.)

From Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island to Moby Dick to Two Year's Before The Mast, tales of maritime adventure have mentally transported landlubbers to imaginary tall ships on the high seas for centuries. Here the reader thrills to the dangers of the deep, without risking walking the plank, submitting to a flogging, or being keelhauled. In these nautical fantasies, we imagine ourselves fearless commanders or intrepid First Mates, leading our loyal crew through dangerous waters. But in reality had we been seafarers in the nineteenth century, most of us would have been lowly common sailors at the mercy not only of the sea, but also of the iron hand and swift justice of our superiors.

Cover for the 1911 Edition of
Two Years Before The Mast,
By Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Cover Illustration By Samuel Chase.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia)

The majority of fiction and non-fiction works taking place on the Seven Seas are the stories of high-ranking men whose word is law. Their ordinary shipmates are seen as nameless, faceless, deck hands who either blindly follow orders, or rebel and become a mutinous mob. One reason for this is that the vast majority of the surviving documents from the days of frigates, schooners, and brigantines were written by officers. Most common sailors of the day were illiterate. A log book, begun in 1802, and newly restored, deciphered, transcribed, and digitized by the University of Glasgow and the University of Dundee, is among only a handful of documents in the world written by a junior crew member of a tall ship.

The Cover Of The 1802 Log Book Of Andrew Service,
Prior To Preservation By The University of Dundee.

(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

This seaman's journal was kept by Scottish sailor Andrew Service. He was born in Port Glasgow, and joined the crew of HMS Medusa in 1801 at the age of twenty. Service is registered in the muster rolls as entering the ship as an ‘LM’, or landsman, which suggests that he had no previous seafaring experience. He became one of dozens of shipmates "before the mast," a phrase which refers to the common sailors quarters on the forecastle of the ship. Service diligently logged his days in the Royal Navy from 1802 through 1810. During these years he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, along the entire Mediterranean coast, and through the Indian Ocean. He wrote of sea and land battles in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as detailing everyday encounters with local inhabitants, other ships, and life on board the Medusa.

The Cover Of The Log Book Undergoing Preservation.
(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

This extraordinary record of a sailor's life was handed down to each generation of the Service family for 170 years, before it was finally donated to the University of Glasgow. Nearly two centuries of storage had taken its toll on the log book. The parchment cover had torn and shrunk, the paper pages had warped and become coated with dirt, and the original binding had loosened, leading to the loss of several pages. Conservator Emma Fraser, of the University of Dundee's Book & Paper Conservation Studio, was given the difficult task of restoring this rare artifact to seaworthy condition.

The Fully Restored Cover Of The Log Book.
(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

"We looked at the fact the book was in its original binding and how to maintain as much of that original material as possible during the conservation work," she said. "In that respect, we were very successful. It was actually a well made book to start with, which helped, as there was a lot of material left intact. This is perhaps surprising when you consider it was kept on a boat, and therefore the potential for damage from water and other contaminants."

The Log Book's Pages Before Preservation.
(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

The conservation and restoration was done in several stages, according to Fraser. "Initially, we engaged in cleaning to remove surface dirt. One problem we encountered is that there were pages missing. That is not unusual for a book of this age, as blank pages were often removed to be used elsewhere. We had to add new pages to build up the book to its original size and prevent further damage to the spine. The original cover is parchment, which tends to shrink. [It was] humidified and that it returned to its previous shape."

The Pages During Preservation.
(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

Emma Fraser noted that the physical book itself is as important as its contents."From the point of view of us, as conservators, what was interesting was the fact the logbook was still in its original binding. As it was not a re-bind, it also allowed us to learn more about how books were made in those times, and study the process for future restorations. For historians, the book reveals a lot about the time, and is a fascinating, first-person account of well known and vital incidents in the Napoleonic Wars."

The Fully Restored Pages

Lesley Richmond, Director of Archive Services at the University of Glasgow was given the arduous task of decoding the diary's contents. "The most difficult part of deciphering Andrew Service's handwriting was the names of the places that the ship visited," she said. "The spelling is erratic and you have to sound out the letters to get the word... you have to keep saying it out loud because it is phonetic," noted Richmond. "Place names were really hard to decipher, so I had to use an atlas to check for possible places on the sea routes. There are still a few that we have to crack and I hope that someone reading the logbook online may be able to provide the missing ports of call. But he at least knew how to write. The fact he kept a log was unusual. He may have been doing it illegally, because you weren’t supposed to do it when you were in battle."

A Page From The Original Plans Of the HMS Medusa,
Showing the Shop's Quarterdeck and Forecastle.

(Image Courtesy of The University Of Glasgow.)

A nineteen year-old student, Emily Graham, was happy to help Lesley Richmond with the transcription. Like most readers of sea-faring tales, she went on an imaginary voyage while dipping into the story told by Andrew Service's log book. "It is a fascinating read of far-flung places from the icy waters of Newfoundland to Sri Lanka, as well as descriptions of sea battles, the seizing of enemy ships, and the deaths of fellow shipmates. Even Andrew did not escape unscathed, crushing a finger which had to be amputated. But the one image that sticks in my mind is that of a sailor going ashore with bags of clothes and food singing Rule Britannia."


  1. Very interesting and informative, post. I really relish artifacts from everyday people when seeking to get a real glimpse of past times. What an awesome project to be involved in!

  2. A very interesting story of how paper works are restored as well as a story of a lowly sailor.

  3. Fascinating to this armchair historian and nautical fiction author!

    On a related topic:
    I would like to preserve and make good copies of my father's photo album and log from Guadalcanal during WW II. The pages are black and he wrote captions in white ink. The photos of course, are black and white. Any ideas?


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email