Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Entry 23 3.29.11

Entry 23, March 29th, 2011, 10:52am (ship time)

I'm sitting on the back deck, looking out over Santa Marta and waiting for lunch to be served in the staff mess. We're in Santa Marta today, after spending yesterday in Cartagena. Strangely enough, there's also a tugboat (the Don Nicola) here which was in the port of Cartagena yesterday. I'm sure that it is the same one, as it has "Cartagena" painted on it . . . perhaps one of the tugs here broke down.

This is a heavily industrial port, we're actually moored at a coal loading dock carved into the side of a cliff (I may have mentioned this before, I'm not sure). The company headquarters is on the top of the bluff -- a low, two story building, white with blue trim. The building itself trickles down the side of the mountain, connected with walkways and exterior stairs, finally getting to the pier with a long stairwell threading its way through the whispy trees that cling to the slope beside it. Most of the free space near the water is taken up by several large mountains of coal and the bulldozers that move them around. The concrete pier juts out from the rock, but not very far -- I assume that the water deepens quickly here, because the pier is only perhaps twenty or thirty yards wide and we are pulled right up next to it. There is also a curious loading gantry about four stories tall, mounted with the end nearer to us on wheels while the other is anchored on a pivot among the mountains of coal. This way it can fill the entire length of a vessel evenly, something that I can imagine is important for an ocean-going vessel.

The story I was referring to yesterday was that of Joseph Banks, the intelligent, confident, and rich young Englishman who signed on to Cook's expedition around the world as a botanist at age 25 instead of taking the customary young rich socialite's trip around Europe. Most interesting so far is the account of Banks in Tahiti, an island in the South Pacific that when first discovered was known as "Paradise." The Endeavor, Cook's ship, stopped there for several months to observe the transit of Venus across the sun and measure it, a vital step in determining how far the Earth was from the sun. Banks, although a botanist by trade, became the principal ambassador, translator, and student of Tahitian culture aboard ship, and his writings represent one of the early recorded anthropological studies. He participated in Tahitian culture in a way no one else on the crew did -- sleeping in their villages, participating in religious rituals, and living among them for days at a time. When the instruments for measuring the transit of Venus were stolen the night before the measurement was to take place, he was the one who followed the thief seven miles inland and negotiated for their return via Tahitian custom. All of this was recorded in his daily journal, which was never published during his lifetime but has since been revised and released in a few different forms (the official report of the expedition, commissioned by the British government, was published in three volumes by an editor who clearly had no experience in any matters relevant to the expedition and spends most of the time moralizing against a Tahitian people whom he has never met).

Banks' story continues to interest after his return to Britain. It was rumored that he was to be engaged on his return to a Harriet Blosset (who he had seen much of before his departure three years earlier), but this never materialized. In fact, he didn't contact her at all for the first week after he got back; instead, she had to call on him to finally get a straight answer. To be fair, he was still dealing with the death of half the ship's company from Typhus in Indonesia, but it seems safe to say that Banks struggled with reintegration into British culture.

There's more to the story, of course -- scandal, gout, a king, and Banks becomes president of the Royal Society eventually -- but if you really want to know, go read the book. I, however, am finding myself envious of Mr. Banks. Yes, I am on a ship, and yes, I am going places I have never been before, but this is no journey of exploration. The Endeavor was headed to places that no Englishman had ever been to perform experiments no human had ever completed . . . whereas here we are ferrying the Columbian middle class around for a week getting them drunk.

I am comforted by the thought of another book I was reading before I left, "Two Years Before the Mast," by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. His voyage was a purely commercial one as well -- a young Boston law student, having trouble with his eyesight, signed about a vessel bound around Cape Horn for California with a cargo of various goods. This was no voyage of exploration, either, but he turned it into one -- an exploration of his own character, as well as the world of the average sailor. Perhaps I can do something similar here as well. The thought keeps me optimistic.

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