I’m working from home today, which means I have the luxury of being able to listen to music (and sing along very loudly) while I type! One of the tracks I keep coming back to is Old Maui, from The Works by Spiers and Boden:
The Spiers and Boden version is based on a whaling song from the 1850s called Rolling Down to Old Mohee. Unlike many other whaling songs from the period, this is not a work song. Instead, it tells of the sailors’ longing for home after a season catching bowhead whales in the “bold Kamchatka Sea” (now the Sea of Okhotsk).
Whaling was a thoroughly miserable business. The ships faced constant threats from storms and ice floes – and even from the whales themselves, who could capsize a vessel while thrashing around. If you were lucky enough to catch a whale, it had to be hauled onto the deck of the ship, skinned and rendered down into train oil (melted, purified blubber). This messy, stinking process was carried out in a giant metal cauldron called a try pot. We have a try pot from the Antarctic sealing industry right outside our building:
The third verse of Old Maui vividly expresses these hazards and hardships:
Through many a blow of frost and snow and bitter squalls of hail
Our spars were bent and our canvas rent as we braved the northern gale.
The cruel isles of ice-capped tiles that deck the Arctic sea
Are many, many leagues astern as we sail to old Maui.
After several months in the icy Siberian seas, the Hawaiian island of Maui, where ships were refitted at the end of the whaling season, must have seemed like a paradise. Another version of this song, by Jeff Warner, hints at attractions beyond the “green hills” and “coconut fronds”:
How soft the breeze from the island trees now the ice is far astern,
And them native maids and them island glades is awaiting our return.
Even now their big, black eyes look out hoping some fine day to see,
Our baggy sails running ‘fore the gales rolling down to old Maui.
(The “baggy sails” in the last line suggest gentle tropical breezes rather than stormy gales.)
I’m particularly taken by this song because it reminds me of several objects in the Polar Museum. We have a collection of prints from 1856, taken from drawings made during a journey across eastern Siberia in 1852. The drawings date from the same time as Rolling Down to Old Mohee and show some of the places and people that the whalers might have encountered:
A more modern view of this region was given in a recent exhibition in the Polar Museum, which showed photographs from the Siberian port of Magadan.
I’m also reminded of our large collection of scrimshaw, decorative whalebone objects that were made by people involved with the whaling industry. Whaling expeditions were long and tedious and some sailors spent their free time carving and engraving whalebone. Many pieces of scrimshaw show images of whaling and maritime warfare, but others show exotic scenes from foreign countries or wistful images of home. I’ve chosen the piece below because it dates from the 1850s (the same time as Rolling Down to Old Mohee), but also because it it has a more humorous image than most. One side shows a woman caught in a storm that has blown her umbrella away – perhaps the sailor who made it is contrasting the “bitter blasts” of the Kamchatka Sea with a blustery day back home?
Whale tooth, Y: 62/15/5, Scott Polar Research Institute