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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Joshua Slocum and the Smithsonian

Announcement for a Slocum lecture at Everett House, New York (undated; NAA INV 02881600, photo lot 70, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Every now and then, maritime historians of the National Museum of American History have to
address the belief that the vessel Liberdade of renowned sailor, Joshua Slocum (1844-1908?*), is buried in storage somewhere in the Smithsonian. Slocum designed and built the boat following the wreck of the Aquidneck, his coastal trading bark, which left him, his wife and two sons stranded in South America. Using lumber and fastenings salvaged from the wreck, and local timber, he built a 35-foot-long, six-ton, sea-going canoe, beam of seven and a half feet and draft of three feet. The small cabin, covered only by a canvas tarp, was home to the Slocum family for the entire voyage of an incredible 5,500 miles. Liberdade journeyed from Brazil ending up the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., of all places, in 1888.

Slocum's model for the boat came from his memory of the Cape Ann dories of New England, modified by a photo he had on hand of a Japanese sampan. "As might be expected, when finished, she resembled both types of vessels in some degree" he wrote. He rigged the boat in the Chinese sampan style, "which is, I consider, the most convenient boat rig in the entire world.” His wife made the sails.

Liberdade, built with local help and launched on the day slaves were declared free in Brazil (hence the name) was indeed exhibited for a time at the Smithsonian. But first, after wintering in the nation’s capital (until 1889), the family made their way up to New York and then on to New England, receiving much attention all along with way for their adventure. Slocum, his career as a commercial captain over after a series of mishaps and outright disasters, wrote about the journey as a means to support his family. Slocum brought the Liberdade back to Washington, keen on self-promotion, leaving the unique vessel to be viewed, outdoors. With the pressing need for space due to rapidly growing collections and not wanting to destroy the deteriorating boat (despite the Captain’s permission), Smithsonian officials urged Slocum to return to Washington to take re-possession. In December 1906, he brought the Liberdade—beginning to rot away although the Captain intended to save the planks and rib to rebuildto a boatyard on the Potomac River. Some pieces were given away to spectators but no relic is currently identified, anywhere, including the Smithsonian collections. And no record of the last of the Liberdade is known. As it happens, there is not even a cataloged copy of Slocum’s account of the journey, The Voyage of the Liberdade (Boston, 1890) in the Smithsonian Libraries.

Collection of the author
There are, however, other tangible objects in various Smithsonian collections associated with Slocum most famously the first to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly. Links to this important figure in maritime and literary history can be readily found thanks to catalogs and online databases from sources both within and outside the Institution, with their relevant information and images. They provide a fuller picture of the Captain – or at least of this  curious and remarkable episode with a boat he made himself.

In the age of the decline of sail, Slocum left Boston in April 1895 on the Spray, a rebuilt and entirely reconfigured oyster sloop. A superb sailor and navigator, he had 46,000 miles under Spray’s keel when he completed his astounding circumnavigation in Newport, Rhode Island, and then onto his home port in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in June and early July of 1898.

Front cover of the Cullman Library's copy
From this epic voyage, Slocum penned that classic of travel literature and adventure, Sailing Alone Around the World. It is a lyrical book, and the 37-foot Spray, is a trusted companion throughout:

March 31 the fresh southeast wind had come to stay. The Spray was running under a single-reefed mainsail, a whole jib, and a flying-jib besides, set on the Vailima bamboo, while I was reading Stevenson’s delightful ‘Inland Voyage.’ The sloop was again doing her work smoothly, hardly rolling at all, but just leaping along among the white horses, a thousand gamboling porpoises keeping her company on all sides.

Title page with Professor Mason's signature
The story was initially published in serial form from September 1899 to March 1900 in The Century Magazine; the first edition of Sailing Alone Around the World came out in 1900. Having read the book only in paperback form, I was delighted to catalog the 1900 imprint in the Cullman Library (G440.S628 1900 SCNHRB). It was a presentation from the author to his friend Otis Tufton Mason (1838-1908), Curator of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, who helped to have Slocum take away the Liberdade. Unlike Slocum’s previous writings, Sailing Alone was a great success and still resonates, beloved of maritime writers and "live-aboards".

Photograph courtesy of The Millicent Library, Fairhaven, Massachusetts
Sailing Alone was a best seller and made the captain a celebrity. For a fee, rather sadly, Slocum had the Spray hauled up the Hudson River and Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York for the extravagant Pan-American Exposition of 1901, to capitalize on his hard-won popularity. As related to Mason, Slocum intended to refit the Liberdade with an engine for the towing to Buffalo but couldn’t manage to get to Washington in time. For this World’s Fair, a “Special Pan American Edition” of Sailing Alone was issued and his wife, Henrietta Slocum, produced a pamphlet, Sloop Spray Souvenir, with a piece of the boat’s mainsail tipped-in. Despite the dozens and dozens of printed materials from the Pan-American Exposition, Sloop Spray Souvenir is not in the Smithsonian Libraries’ collections. There is a copy of this rare title nearby though, in Georgetown University’s Special Collections archives.  

The Millicent Library's copy with a fragment of Spray's sail
Card catalog in the National Anthropological Archives
Slocum returned to Washington in early 1902 when he went to the White House to talk to President Theodore Roosevelt of his adventures. Carried back on the Spray during that trip are a few items now in the Anthropology Department of the National Museum of Natural History: stone and shell axes, one procured from a “colonial resident” in New South Wales, Australia, and another from (perhaps) New Guinea. These artifacts were probably presented by Slocum to Mason, who, along with George Brown Goode, did much to reorganize and display the collections in the then-new United States National Museum. Despite lacking much of a formal education in his native Nova Scotia, Slocum likely sensed a kindred spirit in Mason, who was born nearby, in the remote seafaring islands of Eastport, Maine (although he did not grow up there) and their shared interest in anthropology.  

Otis Tufton Mason (photo Wikimedia Commons, originally from Popular Science Monthly, vol. 74, January 1909)
Captain Slocum and Group of Gilbert Islanders (undated photograph by Merritt & Van Wagner; NAA INV 05048400, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
But another, later Smithsonian curator, Howard I. Chapelle (1901-1975), was among Slocum’s critics and suggested that Sailing Alone was ghost-written. Slocum had earlier publications, long before his fame, including Rescuing Some Natives of the Gilbert Islands in 1883 (VK1424 .G46 S63 ANTH). Although largely self-educated, Slocum was well-read (his publisher stocked a library on Spray) and it is hard to imagine that the good humor and dry wit of his descriptions, where the ocean is never portrayed with malice, could have any author other than Slocum.

Chapelle was a nautical architect and in the abstract for the catalog record on the thorny “Constellation Question” is described as “as straightforward as he is learned” (SILSRO 113108). The author of several works, including American Small Sailing Craft (1951; VM351 .C481 NMAH), Chapelle sought to show that Spray could be easily capsized and not be righted if rolled. However, he found in his analysis that she was stable in most conditions.

There are other associations of Captain Slocum’s in the Smithsonian. The Botany Department has at least one specimen from his various nautical wanderings: Encycliakingsii (C.D. Adams) Nir (Caribbean). He had presented President Roosevelt with a rare orchid before taking the President's son, Archibald, sailing on Spray from Oyster Bay, Long Island. Impressed with the child's natural nautical talent, Slocum later considering presenting Archie with the Liberdade (wherever it was at that time). And as quoted in the biography, The Hard Way Around, Slocum wrote the Smithsonian a letter of February 1901 "requesting that if and when a 'flying ship' were launched, 'I could have a second mates position on it to soar.'" With his circumnavigation, he had already helped shrink the world.

Frontispiece of Sailing Alone (Cullman Library copy)
Illustrations in this first edition are by Thomas Fogarty and George Varian
Slocum never flew and his story does not end well. Black clouds and legal troubles followed him through life; sadness and despair could only be managed at sea. Trying to settle in a house and farm on Martha’s Vineyard after his circumnavigation, Slocum was soon restless and embarked on shorter solo trips. Inevitably, he set off again in 1908, both he and Spray deteriorating, with the intention of sailing to South America to find the source of the Amazon. Neither was seen again.

Julia Blakely
Smithsonian Libraries

*Slocum's death date is often cited as 1909, when he was legally declared dead. See Geoffrey Wolff's The Hard Way Around (New York, 2010; p. 212) for why the date should be 1908.

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