Item #List2437 A 19th-century Seafaring Shantyman’s Daybook Kept on a Journey to Brazil on a Steam Frigate. Life at Sea - 1860s - Brazil - Musicology, Otis Littlefield.
A 19th-century Seafaring Shantyman’s Daybook Kept on a Journey to Brazil on a Steam Frigate.
A 19th-century Seafaring Shantyman’s Daybook Kept on a Journey to Brazil on a Steam Frigate.

A 19th-century Seafaring Shantyman’s Daybook Kept on a Journey to Brazil on a Steam Frigate.

Massachusetts, Brazil, et al. 1860-1861. (Newport, England; Bahia, Brazil; Vp, MA and ME; Charleston, SC): (April 20, 1860 - March 1, 1861). Large 16mo (3” x 5”; 76 x 127mm). Pocket journal(s) in marbled self-wrappers rebound in contemporary or old boards; front board absent, back board present but detached, scuffed, bumped, and rubbed. 48 leaves machine-ruled paper, paginated in pencil, comprising approx 82pp mss text recto-verso also in pencil; original marbled self-wrapper and first signature detached from a shaken text block, internally uniformly toned with some smudging. Manuscript contains text of three (3) 19th-century sea shanties, some of which showing possibly unattested verse variants. Good. Item #List2437

In this journal, American mariner Otis Littlefield vividly documents one important phase of his career as a rigger on a 19th-century transatlantic shipping vessel. He names himself as author at the outset, and announces the scope and purpose of his narrative:
“[This is] the journal of Otis Littlefield showing some of the events that transpired on his passage from Newport, [England], to Bahia in Brazil on board the ship Tranquebar [under Captain] Goodwin. We sailed Friday, 20 April [1860]. It is called an unlucky day….”
In what follows, Littlefield does not only describe his passage to Brazil; instead, he also records his subsequent northbound voyage to America, with port calls in Bath, ME, and Charleston, SC, respectively, and his final return voyage to England early the next year.
Apart from Littlefield’s proem, there is only limited internal evidence to establish his identity, or his place of birth. However, his scattered references to “the folks Downeast,” and his ostensible familiarity with the port of Bath, ME, do suggest that he was a denizen of that latter state. External evidence more securely corroborates this e.g. a listing in a Maine census of 1860, and later a federal census of 1870; an epitaph of 1922, housed in the Maine tombstone surname indices, and supplementary records in other Maine cemetery archives; and abundant holdings in the Maine Vital Records. In sum, it is very likely that Otis Littlefield was born in 1843 Chelsea, ME, and that he died in Augusta in 1922. His ship was certainly of Maine extraction: a decade later, South Carolina shipping records of 1870 do mention a certain Ship Tranquebar, whose embarking port was Richmond, ME, with its regular destination port in Liverpool, England.

Against the broader context of Littleton’s youthful career at sea, this journal necessarily begins in medias res. In an entry of May, 1860, just one month after his April embarkation from England, Littlefield notes he has been at sea six months to the day. What happened in the five months prior is, of course, uncertain, but what follows unto the conclusion of this journal constitutes a very thrilling story. Littlefield vividly describes catching flying fish for dinner; eating the sickening flesh of a porpoise, whose braised brain veritably poisoned his superior officers; stalking unhygienic cockroaches below deck; collecting desperately needed rainwater, both for drinking and washing; making various strategic alliances with with crew members, and seeing intense fights on board; longing for home, and the idyllic farm life he left behind; seeing sharks, and “a whale as long as our long boat” [p12]; and repairing his own clothes and making a checkerboard to pass the time. Furthermore, Littlefield’s account of 1860 Bahia, with contemporary recollections of his first view of its plantations and surrounding landscape, are likewise compelling, and they will be of interest to students of Brazilian colonial history.

It may be musicologists, though, who are most impressed by Littlefield’s journal, because it retains the text of three early shanties in manuscript form: “Annie Lisle,” the verses of which conclude with one of Littlefield’s droll but mysterious illustrations [pp 14-16]; “All the Girls Around the Horn” [pp 38-41]; and the “Salt Horse Shanty” [pp 43-44]. It is conceivable that Littlefield’s three shanties are among the earliest extant in manuscript form; they do, at the very least, evidence important textual variants in comparison to other known iterations.

Overall an engaging and substantive seafaring journal.

Price: $1,750.00