“A Thousand Leagues of Blue” -June 2020
A tell-all book upends the romantic, noble notion of whaling
by: Brian Bushard
The captain is drunk. His mistress is on the ship. He is ferrying passengers from island to island in the South Pacific, not paying any attention to the whales he’s sailed thousands of miles to hunt.
Betsy Tyler remembers coming to this realization as she read a journal kept by a 17-year-old crewman aboard a whaling ship. The ship was the William Gifford, out of New Bedford. The year was 1872. The captain was Nantucketer Charles Veeder.
“I have good reason to believe that he is so far lost to self-respect and decency that he will remain at one of these islands with the native woman whom he had on board the vessel as his mistress,” the young crewman wrote.
The journal is a first-hand account of a descent into madness in the Polynesian islands.
“It’s one of those stories where the more I found out, the more I couldn’t put this off,” said Tyler, whose book, “A Thousand Leagues of Blue,” tells of Veeder’s downfall.
“There is no other story like this,” she said. “There flat out is none.”
Logbooks, diaries, journals and letters are the primarysource path that historical researchers walk every day. Tyler is the former head of research at the Nantucket Historical Association’s research library on Fair Street. During her tenure, she read the diary of Charles Veeder’s wife, Susan Veeder.
Susan Veeder was a certain type of 19th-century Nantucket woman. Instead of staying at home on the island when her husband set out on the Nauticon for what turned out to be a nearly five-year whaling voyage in 1848, she stepped aboard and went with him. For good measure, she also brought their children with her.
Tyler had always found the stories fascinating: A woman who gave birth to her daughter at sea, and raised her with her two sons aboard a whaling ship, surrounded by rugged men entangled in the gruesome business of hunting whales.
But one day Tyler found another logbook. This one was written 24 years later, by that young whaleman on the William Gifford. Susan Veeder did not sail on that voyage. In fact, her story paled in comparison to the one Tyler found playing out in the pages of the diary.
The young sailor’s journal tells the story of the once successful whaling captain, again at sea, slowly drinking himself into insanity, falling in love with a teenage Polynesian girl, and abandoning his own ship in what is now French Polynesia.
In 1878 Capt. Charles Veeder successfully fell off the map.
“Page by page it was an account not like anything I had ever read,” Tyler said. “Logbook keepers don’t write about things he was writing in this journal.”
At the same time, Susan Veeder was writing a journal of her own about life with her children at their home on Orange Street, thousands of miles away from her husband. “All is well,” she writes.
“She’s writing, ‘All is well, Charles sent me a letter saying he has 11,000 barrels of oil’,” Tyler said.
The idea behind “A Thousand Leagues of Blue” came when Tyler was writing another book with the NHA in 2010. That book, called “Sometimes Think of Me,” is a collection of stories of Nantucket women at sea, illustrated with photographs of Nantucketer Susan Boardman’s “embroidered narratives” inspired by those women.
Susan Veeder’s story is part of that book. But after she found the sailor’s journal, Tyler decided the well-documented story of Veeder’s husband and his downfall deserved a book of its own.
“We have this Disney-fied version of history where it all looks really pretty, and ‘weren’t they just industrious people’,” she said. “But it was a brutal, nasty business. It was dirty. So many people died at sea, died of illness and families were broken. The town smelled.”
“In a weird, darkly humorous way, we hear about Capt. Veeder making squirt guns, women dancing, Veeder in the water tub with his mistress. It’s crazy stuff. What makes history real is when you have the real story of people who struggled every day,” Tyler said.
Aside from the logbooks, journals and watercolor paintings that Susan Veeder made on her voyage on the Nauticon, there is little Tyler could find in terms of firsthand accounts describing the Veeders’ lives both at sea and on Nantucket. Much of the story, she admits, is based on speculation.
Susan Veeder must have had reason to divorce her husband, she said. The loneliness of the open ocean must have been enough to discourage her from ever sailing again. Charles Veeder must have grown tired of the job of hunting and butchering whales and boiling their flesh. A life in the paradise of Polynesia must have been much more tempting.
Most of the journal entries are only daily accounts of whales captured or the ship’s location.
“Things went along as they should,” Susan Veeder wrote, after delivering her daughter as the ship rounded Cape Horn, heading into the Pacific.
One year later, however, Veeder wrote another journal entry that stood out to Tyler. Her daughter was teething, and a Tahitian doctor recommended she take a dose of a strange powder to alleviate the pain. Tyler said it was the most heartfelt passage she has ever read.
“She was poisoned, no doubt, by taking the powder,” Veeder wrote. “What can be done, what can be done, was all that we could say. The thought of losing our babe was more than we could bear to think of. She was a fine child, too good to live, and at 11 o’clock a.m. she breathed her last.”
Researching the rest of the voyage, as well as Charles’ final voyage, became challenging.
Charles Veeder had no obituary. All Tyler knew was that he had been relieved of duty in 1872, when his crew forced him to sail to Tahiti. He never made it back to his wife on Nantucket.
“He got off the ship in Tahiti, said he liked to live the way the local people did, and that was the last we know of him,” Tyler said. “Then I found a death record for 1878 in Polynesia. So for six years he’s somewhere in the Pacific.”
The research took about nine years from the time Tyler started to the time the book was published last fall. But there were stretches of months at a time during those nine years when the story lay untended. It was during one of those times that a thought crossed Tyler’s mind.
“How can I write about the South Pacific if I’ve never been to the South Pacific? I’ve never been on a ship in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
A flight to Tahiti and a partfreighter-part-cruise-ship journey took her to an atoll in French Polynesia called Raroia, where Charles Veeder took his mistress.
It’s the same island where Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl made landfall. In 1947 Heyerdahl made a 5,000-mile voyage there from Peru on a handmade balsawood raft, to prove the point that the islands could have been settled by South American peoples. The name of the raft was the Kon-Tiki, after the Inca sun god.
“I call it a research trip but it was more of an atmospheric thing to see what that part of the world was like,” Tyler said. “You see these islands, they’re barely above the horizon. You see these palm trees just above the water in the middle of nowhere.”
As part of her research, Tyler also found death records and obituaries for Susan Veeder’s children and grandchildren. They led her to her great-great-granddaughter, who lives in Seattle, and sails for fun with her family.
But she did not know about her great-great-grandparents. The story had been lost.
“At some point, the family didn’t talk about it,” Tyler said. “It’s just so odd to me. It’s only four generations back.”
Tyler told them about their great-great grandparents. The wife who sailed to the Pacific Ocean on a four-year voyage to raise her children. The husband who started to drink, and years later fell in love with a younger girl and a life in Polynesia.
She talked about the two journals. One from Susan Veeder on Nantucket. Another from the 17-year-old crewman aboard a whaling ship with Charles Veeder, describing a much different string of events on the other side of the world.
“On the same day, thousands of miles away in the South Pacific, (Susan’s) husband was ashore with his mistress at Typee Bay, Nuku Hiva, when our disgruntled young journal-keeper recorded, ‘Capt. is still ashore drunk for the last four days and no signs of his ever coming off ’,” Tyler wrote in “A Thousand Leagues of Blue.”
“With the help of large quantities of alcohol, a Polynesian mistress and a frightened and desperate crew, he successfully fell off the map.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.