Seafarers’ Sketchbooks: historic journals capture drama of life on the ocean wave

For as long as humans have been adventuring, it seems, we have had an innate desire to communicate our experiences to others when we return home. “We would not take a sea voyage in order never to talk of it,” wrote the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal in 1669, “and for the sole pleasure of seeing without hope of ever communicating.” These days, of course, there’s a whole chunk of the tech industry which caters to modern-day adventures wishing to share their exploits with the world: from gadgets like GoPro cameras and selfie sticks right through to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the denizens of Silicon Valley are labouring night and day to ensure that no heroic gap year bungee jump need ever go unrecorded again. In the past, however, men and women journeying to far-off lands had to resort to simpler means to record the things they saw, thought and felt, and in many cases the medium they chose was the humble notebook or sketchbook: portable, more-or-less indestructible (as long as you’re able to keep it dry) and infinitely adaptable. And as demonstrated by The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Huw Lewis-Jones, paper and ink has another significant advantage over the tech toys of today: it encourages the user to concentrate on the things they see around them, rather than constantly putting themselves at the centre of the story.

Cover of The Sea Journal, by Huw Lewis-Jones
Cover of The Sea Journal, by Huw Lewis-Jones

As its subtitle suggests, The Sea Journal consists of extracts from the notebooks, sketchbooks and other small-scale paper records that seafarers have kept over the centuries, and the work of each sailor or adventurer is preceded with a brief scholarly introduction. Some of the names will be familiar – William Bligh, Francis Drake, Vasco da Gama, Horatio Nelson – but most of the mariners featured here will be new to most people.

In his introduction, Lewis-Jones notes that, as early as the 16th century, ships’ officers were being encouraged to get their experiences down on paper. “Take with you paper and ynke,” one anonymous English sailor advised another in the 1580s, “and keep a continuall journal... that it may be shewed and read at your returne.” The ways in which this recording has been done, however, are as diverse as the people doing the recording.

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A few of the seafarers featured here were professional artists, and their work is predictably good: Turner, it turns out, was quite the dab hand at painting seascapes. Who knew? More interesting, though, (arguably) are the sketches made by people with no serious artistic aspirations.

Illustrations by Georg Muller from The Sea Journal, by Huw Lewis-Jones

Take for example Tupaia (1725-1770), a Polynesian navigator who, in 1769, found himself assisting the English botanist Joseph Banks in collecting plant specimens in Tahiti, and who subsequently joined Banks and Captain Cook on board the Endeavour. His intricate sketch map of the Society Islands shows just what an asset he must have been to Cook and his crew during their voyage, while his drawing of Banks bartering for a crayfish in New Zealand in 1796 suggests he may have had a sly, wry sense of humour (both Banks and the New Zealander look more than a little unsure of themselves.)

Similarly entertaining are the drawings of Georg Müller (1646-1723), an apprentice gunsmith from Alsace who left home at 14 to travel the world and ended up sailing for Java with the Dutch East India Company. During his 12 years at sea, he drew many of the wonderful new creatures he saw (including a puffer fish with a very human-looking face) as well as fantastical creatures copied from books he’d read – among them a very scaly merman and an eccentric-looking half-tiger, half-elephant.

In a lavishly-illustrated book like this, images will always have more impact than the written word, but there are still one or two journal entries that cause a shiver: Frances Chichester’s logbook from his 1966 round-the-world voyage on Gypsy Moth IV (“Hot news! Passed half way today...”) and William Bligh’s neatly written descriptions of some of the men who had led the mutiny against him on board the Bounty, jotted down after he had been set adrift in an open boat with 19 men and nothing but bread, water and rum.

Lewis-Jones’s book has everything from illustrated accounts of whaling voyages and naval battles to depictions of Kamtchatkan kayakers and fluorescent sea slugs. As far as I can see, though, it only contains a single self-portrait.

The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks, by Huw Lewis-Jones is published by Thames & Hudson