"Sandy, sterile soil tempting no one."
Middle age white guy gets off a boat in Nantucket and acts like he owns the place. No, not me. Seriously, The Exiles is a John Greenleaf Whittier poem about a man named Thomas Macy, who was essentially (but not immediately or explicitly) exiled by the Puritan Governor in his hometown of Amesbury, MA, for harboring a few Quaker travelers in his home during a severe thunderstorm.
Even though Whittier takes some poetic license with the story, Thomas Macy, along with Tristram Coffin, and seventeen other local residents purchased Nantucket from Thomas Mayhew, the Governor of Martha’s Vineyard and Macy’s cousin, to get out from under the yoke of the Bay State Calvinist-leaning scolds and do-gooders in the fall of 1659, two years after the above-mentioned incident. Thomas and his family then set out in a small boat on an almost suicidal journey to this distant island, into the unknown, around the Cape, and became the wind-swept and fog-bound isle’s first European settlers.
As Whittier writes:
Far round the bleak and stormy Cape
The venturous Macy passed,
And on Nantucket's naked isle
Drew up his boat at last.
And how, in log-built cabin,
They braved the rough sea-weather;
And there, in peace and quietness,
Went down life's vale together;
How others drew around them,
And how their fishing sped,
Until to every wind of heaven
Nantucket's sails were spread;
How pale Want alternated
With Plenty's golden smile;
How pale Want alternated
With Plenty’s golden smile;
Behold, is it not written
In the annals of the isle?
Thomas had arrived in America in 1635 from Chilmark, Wiltshire County, England, and was variously listed as a merchant, clothier and weaver. He settled in Newbury, MA, but was granted land in Salisbury, MA in 1640, a few miles up the Merrimac River. He was also a staunch Baptist his whole life, which I find almost surreal since Baptists are typically associated with the American South. He was elected the Chief Magistrate of Nantucket in 1676, which was a New York colony at the time, and remained one until 1709. Nantucket grew into a Quaker stronghold in the early 1700s, and became the celebrated center of the whaling industry for the next 150 years. Thomas’s wife, Sarah Hopcott, converted to Quakerism sometime before her death in 1706. They had five children who survived infancy: Sarah, Mary Bethiah, Thomas and John.
My son went to Nantucket this morning with a hunchell of his friends, and when I told him an abridged version of this, he shrugged and said “So what?” So what – Thomas Macy is your Great (9) grandfather. And your friends, who think they’re hot tamales because they’ve been Nantucketing their whole lives and bust your chops for being a newbie are really the way, way johnny-come-latelies. His response: savage. Kind of exactly right, I guess, depending on the meaning meant.
Whittier was one of the Fireside Poets, also known as the Schoolroom or Household Poets, a group that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Ralph Waldo Emerson is sometimes included in the group as well. Immensely popular, they were the pop stars of their day, and with a name inspired by Longfellow’s best-selling 1850 poetry collection The Seaside and the Fireside.
“In an era without radio, television, or Internet, these poets were able to garner a general public popularity that has no equivalent in the 21st century. Their influence was furthered by their respective long lives, as well as their other high-profile activities, including serving as professors and academic chairs, editing popular newspapers, serving as foreign diplomats, giving popular speeches, and translating works by Dante and Homer.”
I find their poetry for the most part old-fashioned, obvious, and dated, but I would highly recommend Emerson’s Essays, which I still think is a thought-provoking, deeply-inspiring, and wonderfully-written must-read book. Same era different school completely: Walt Whitman. He's well-worth a look, especially if you haven't had a taste of this bearded intellectual 'bundle of vain strivings by chance bonded together' since you bought the Cliff's Notes for Leaves of Grass in high school and still flunked the test.
As far as Nantucket, and whaling, and my Quaker ancestors, I think I’ve written about all that before. But I did want to mention some related reading. First, Moby Dick, of course. This is the Great America Novel in my opinion, period. I re-read it this past week while on a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, and I forgot how funny and cheeky Melville is. Great, fun stuff – like a Nantucket sleigh ride for the mind.
Second, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is a National Book Award Winner by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s a transcendent tale of the loss of the whaleship Essex in 1820, attacked and sunk by a sperm whale, and based on an account written by Thomas Nickerson, who was a cabin boy on board the vessel at the time. Melville had heard about this ship, and based his classic novel on it.
Third, I can't praise Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing enough. It’s the stand-your-hair-on-end account of Sir William Shackelton’s aborted attempt to reach the south pole. I’m not going to spoil the book by telling you any more – read all about it yourself. (And please don't watch the movie instead – it's quite frankly awful.) Guaranteed you’ll be engrossed and floored, and then want to go out and grab life by the neck. I will tell you a personal anecdote though, that brought the magnitude and difficulty of the bravery into sharp focus for me.
I was living in New York City a number of years ago, and there was a Shackleton exhibit at the Natural History Museum that I went to one day, just to have a curious look at. Wonderfully done, and so, so interesting. Artifacts and diaries and photographs – a living reminder of the eyeblink tragedy and majesty of life. Spoiler alert: Shackleton actually ended up rescuing his team by taking a small boat over 400 miles of wild, icy southern ocean to a tiny insignificant speck called, ironically, Elephant Island, that he and his boat crew of two then had to climb over the mountain in the middle of it to reach the fishing village on the other side.
The museum had a replica of this boat in the center of a small room lined with video screens on all four sides, that were projecting a stormy and cloudy middle of the freezing ocean scene. You got into the boat and were handed a sextant that was hooked up to a computer. The screens made you feel like you were being benignly but violently tossed around in the boat, while you tried to get a sextant reading on the almost totally-obscured sun. The computer then plotted your course to the island over the 400 miles. The only thing that would’ve made it more realistic is if they sprayed a cold firehose up your nose while you were trying to shoot your azimuth.
I've had some experience sailing, and some experience sailing in storm conditions out of sight of land, and with capsizing as you well know if you have been paying attention at all. I also know how a sextant, and navigation works. To make it to that insignificant blot, to be able to see it even, you'd have to navigate to within 16 miles of it either way, which is the distance to the horizon at any given point. The course I carefully plotted missed its mark by 46 miles. I would have sailed right by Elephant Island, never would have seen it, and everyone, including me, would have died for absolute certain. Even though Shackleton and his 2 crew mates were frostbitten half to death, and measured their distance by chucking a line overboard and counting the number of knots while mouthing to themselves I would assume, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, etc. since I’m sure they didn’t have a chronometer, they were to their infinite credit spot on and subsequently were able to save themselves and their whole crew.
Imagine for a moment the heave and roar of the beast of the sea; the gnawing hunger, the biting blanket-black and death-cold night; the numb hands and exhausted and uncertain eye. Absolutely astounding Homeric achievement; up there with landing on the moon, IMHO.
What ancestors do you have that are unique, or noteworthy, or have done beastly-cool things?