Living history: Cristina Baptista documents the Morgan final voyage - Interview
Posted on 07 October 2015.
By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)
Once part of a fleet numbering more than 2,700 vessels, the Morgan cast off for its 38th voyage nearly 80 years after it was retired as a waling vessel. One passenger on the Morgan’s final journey was the poet and English professor Cristina Baptista, who documented her experience in an online poetry collection entitled, Taking Her Back. Before her journey, Baptista spent three months researching Portuguese communities and the history of the ship, including its last captain who was Portuguese. Her research included listening to audio cassette interviews of the last captain’s grandson, talking about his Portuguese grandpa at New Bedford’s Research Library.
Indeed, living history was made when The Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaling ship headed back to sea for a final voyage between New Bedford and Mystic Seaport, hosting 85 selected passengers from different backgrounds and disciplines, participating in a living history project.
Originally launched in 1841, the Morgan is America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat. Following a five year restoration, the final voyage called attention to ocean sustainability and conservation as well as celebrating the ship’s long career and whaling history in which the Portuguese people contributed immensely.
Cristina Baptista is a Portuguese-American writer, who was born in the United States. Her parents emigrated from mainland Portugal, with her father’s side of the family settling in Hartford, CT and parts of Canada (Winnipeg) and her mother’s side congregating around Ludlow, MA.
Baptista is a literary scholar and English Instructor at Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, Connecticut. Prior to working at CSH, she taught at Fordham University where she received her Ph.D. in English, with a focus on Modern American Literature.
In this interview for Portuguese American Journal, Baptista discusses her writing as well as her fabulous adventure on the Morgan.
What attracted you to this adventure?
A: I have never ceased being fascinated with the sea, with ships and boats, and with adventure. Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea is a place I have visited very often throughout my life, as I was born and raised in Connecticut.
As I am also an “Americanist” by profession (or, in other words, I study, write about, and teach American Literature), my path has often crossed with Herman Melville and the story of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick has never not felt like a part of my memory — I suspect it has something to do with frequent viewings of the Gregory Peck version of Moby-Dick. I also grew up watching probably too many Errol Flynn movies and, so, pirate stories captivated me thanks to their rollicking adventures, voyages, and exotic exploits.
As a New Englander born to two very strict Portuguese parents, who did not offer much in the way of freedom to go out and about, I needed to believe in these stories so that I can transport myself through books, film, and historical narrative. And, mostly, being Portuguese-American, the ocean is a natural part of family stories, trips, and ancestral legacy. Whether a great-uncle was in the navy or a cousin was a fisherman or another related family had a house by the sea, the Atlantic was an alluring lull in the background, its waves curling like a welcoming hand around my world. It was only a matter of time before I reached back and took hold.
How did you get invited to be one of a few selected people onboard? Was there a process?
A: Mystic Seaport announced a call for Voyagers on their social media and homepages in the fall of 2013. I applied by sending a CV, a project proposal, and a cover letter.
After we were selected, Voyagers (there were 85) met at Mystic Seaport in April 2014 for a day of orientation — learning to row whaleboats, climbing the rigging, pawing through the Seaport’s archives and storage facilities, and touring the Morgan. Then, it was time to prepare for our individual legs of the Voyage — mine was in July 2014.
How did you apply?
A: When I first saw a call for Voyager applications on the Seaport’s Facebook page in fall 2013, there was never a doubt that I would apply. As I had previously worked on the depiction of Portuguese and Lusophonic figures in American literature, when I was writing my dissertation, I knew that there was a whole history of Portuguese whalemen that was not adequately discussed or examined, let alone brought into a larger public sphere. Herman Melville’s essay “The ’Gees,” about Portuguese seamen in New England, was unsatisfying to me in its outdated, discriminatory, and incomplete reflections. I longed to add my own voice to the conversation—and poetry has always been my go-to method of total freedom of expression.
The Charles W. Morgan is nearly identical to the whaleship on which Herman Melville sailed to the Pacific, later inspiring Moby-Dick. What similarities did you notice?
A: Although I can only surmise what it was like for Melville, or any other actual whaleman, I daresay that the 38th Voyage replicated past whaling adventures as well as anyone could in 2014.
In 1839, Melville set off on the Achushnet and later wrote Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). True whaling involves the capture and dismembering of whales—something that, in the twenty-first century, we certainly will not replicate. We want to preserve things, particularly animals and nature. We want to preserve history as much as forge ahead. Yet, it is not hard to shut one’s eyes and listen to the calls and commands from the captain, or first- or second-mates, to haul a line, set a sail, or set about to some other necessary task. Although our 38th Voyage did not venture into open water, as we never lost sight of land, we still toured the eastern seaboard and followed in the trail of the Morgan’s earlier voyages out to Stellwagen Ban. We felt the same rocking beneath our feet; we smelled the same briny air; we felt the coarse fibers of ropes and watched whaleboats shift slightly on their davits. We even had hardtack biscuits on our leg of the Voyage — so we got to experience what it feels like to nearly break a tooth on indestructible bread products.
The captain and crew of the 38th Voyage successfully sailed The Morgan under her own power for the first time in 90 years. The voyage took place in 2014 — what prompted this trip?
A: In a nutshell, this Voyage began as a leap of faith. It meant trusting master craftsmen and — women to restore and resend the ship afloat. A whaleship is meant to sail — is meant to be on water. It meant trusting in strangers (the Voyagers) to record the experience and share their comprehension with others. In 2014, we could not bring back a cargo of whale oil, but we could bring back a cargo of knowledge that could help our nation and planet better understand its history and environment, its past and its future.
How long was the voyage?
A: The 38th Voyage itself was about three months long — the Morgan launched in May 2014 and returned to the Seaport in August of that year. So, the Morgan essentially spent her summer touring the eastern seaboard and visiting her old whaling grounds, albeit, taking aboard people more “green” when it comes to sailing than the original green-hands and on the lookout for experience rather than whales. Each Voyager was assigned to a group and went on one portion — or a “leg” — of the Voyage, which was a couple of days at a time. This leg included spending the night on the Morgan and then sailing the following day.
What was it like being on board?
A: All the feelings of being on board are poured into Taking Her Back, but I can say, a bit more forcefully, that it feels like arousing the dead and then holding a conversation with ancestors, including those I did not even know about until further immersing myself into this project.
What’s it like below deck?
A: it’s a haunting feeling. It’s a feeling of being surrounded by ghosts, but not in some horrific way. It is peaceful in the belly of the Morgan and one of my favorite experiences was sleeping in the fo’c’sle (living quarters), slipping into a narrow bunk and smelling the wood, feeling the ebb of the ship, listening to the creaks and shifting salt between the boards, and even putting an ear up to the planks to hear the bubbling water on the other side. When you think about how all that prevents the water from rushing in is some wood, and that this wood is connected to a nearly 175-year-old keel originally fashioned by people long-since dead, you feel fascinated and frightened. Perhaps it’s a perverse feeling, one of secretly delight. Mostly, though, you feel amazed that human beings could fasten something so sturdy, so lasting—and that people continue to practice the shipbuilding craft to preserve a ship like this.
Being on board is also definitely a celebration of craftsmanship, the celebration of mankind’s potential and a tribute to adventurers and builders alike.
Standing on deck during the Voyage, I actually felt misplaced and like an annoyance — an annoyance to myself! A nuisance to the crew! You are kept on your toes as a Voyager, just to be sure you do not get in the way of someone rushing out to secure a line. One of my fellow Voyagers said she felt like “dead cargo,” and it is an apt comment, as because we were not part of the trained crew on the ship, we were not allowed to perform many of the traditional whaling tasks or sailing maneuvers. We each got a turn at the wheel, but it was brief and supervised. At one point, we were invited to work a line, and we rushed like mad people starved for experience.
At the end of the day, being aboard is like traveling in time, cavorting with the dead, and being a misplaced spectator in the fascinating world of sailing — all at once! Plus, I cannot get over how neat it feels to be the first “Baptista” aboard this ship in nearly 100 years (I know—I’ve checked the Morgan log books and crew lists!).
How did the Morgan hold up? Any accidents or emergencies?
A: The Morgan held up beautifully, without any accidents or emergencies, even after my leg of the Voyage (from New Bedford, MA to Massachusetts Maritime Academy) was delayed a day due to a hurricane. The Captain and Crew, as well as Mystic Seaport workers, had assumed the Morgan was a bit of a “dog of a ship,” one that did not necessarily maneuver that well or sail that smoothly.
The Morgan is rather boxy and squat — not built for beauty, necessarily, even if I think she’s gorgeous. But the Captain and Mates later shared that The Morgan was a smooth-sailing, easy-to-handle ship.
To the Morgan
Let me be your scrivener, thrusting
ink on your sails.
it is there, how sky slips
between folds, writing its words
in a history of secret languages,
eternal stories that linger in air and,
Let me record them, then
temptation and tempting pen,
with my awe and with my wonder.
Let me fold myself
amidst canvas and conspiracy
to let silence do all the talking.
(Text courtesy of the poet and Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea)
It’s like living history. Your poem “To the Morgan” typifies the voyage — Can you tell me the most significant experience you had while on board?
A: Any chance I got to be below-deck, alone, was the most significant part of the Voyage. While, in hindsight, I would say that meeting and staying in touch with other Voyagers and members of the Mystic Seaport team is a definite highlight of the Voyage itself, while sailing, I appreciated any moment where I got to “talk” directly to the Morgan and the lingering lives of its previous sailors. There was one moment during the sail, for instance, when I was the only one aboard below decks and I went down to the absolute belly of the boat—where, in the past, whale oil would have been stored in casks, and I pressed my ear and face against the ship’s body, leaning along with her forward-motion. The bubbling on the other side of the planks was a reassuring, lullaby-like sound. The darkness of the ship, illuminated by modern and temporary lights, was the perfect amount of shadow, cresting around some of the knees supporting planks. It was a spiritual moment in many ways — this communing with the ship, the past, and nature all at once.
The phrase from your poetry, “Take what you get from the sea/ and hope it takes you home” is evocative of past Portuguese fishermen and whalers who went to sea. . . what does that line mean to you?
A: They suggest how, for many Portuguese seagoing men, taking to the ocean meant a better life and greater acceptance into their communities (if they were immigrants in America) much more than a simple adventure. These were men looking to work hard, earn wages, and send or bring it back home to their families.
Going to sea, too, was — quite certainly — a gamble. The precarious circumstances in which a whaleship could become entangled were countless. Men could fall overboard, suffer injury while in a whaleboat, get sick and die due to lack of proper medicine, and the like. All men had was the “hope” that the ocean would take them home. I daresay that this hope, and the frequent thought of family, which I touch upon in my poetry collection, is what kept most whale-men going. A gruesome, dirty, foul-smelling, and brutal activity that took men away from home for months or years at a time, whaling was certainly not for the weak or cowardly.
Another passage that struck me: “But — I hate to tell you this — at the end of a voyage is a house where you are a stranger to the people there.” Was the end of your voyage bittersweet?
A: I was thinking about how whaling changed men in both body and mind, as well as socially and spiritually. Whaling was America’s first equal-opportunity employer. Immigrants like the Portuguese, Native Americans, African Americans — all were welcome aboard the whaleship, as long as they worked hard and were game for the long journeys.
I would think that a newfound sense of respect would follow the seaman home, but he would physically look dirty, thinner, aged beneath the sun. The whale-man’s faith may have strengthened at sea because all he had was prayer; or, maybe he had lost his way because the experience had hardened him.
For me, the end of the voyage was bittersweet because the excitement of being one of a very few living people in the world allowed to sail on this ship butted against the feeling of sadness that it was over. For months, I had researched whaling, used resources at Mystic Seaport and the New Bedford Research Library, and returned to works of literature for inspiration. I had talked to local Portuguese people in my communities and in New Bedford, watched videos about whaling, even re-read Moby-Dick. The sail itself felt leisurely while I was on board but over far too soon.
A year later, as various Voyagers complete and share projects that range from original musical compositions to visual artwork to a whalebone corset to scholarly articles or to poetry (as is the case with me), we are all reliving the Voyage each day. Do I think I am changed after the Voyage? Yes — because I’ve become a time-traveler and managed to indulge a childhood fantasy to sail on an old ship, even if there were no pirates, white whales, or peg-legged captains aboard. I’ve managed to give voice to ancestors I did not know existed and could not imagine before this. I’ve seen another lifetime, and now I’m able to talk about it.
Your online poetry collection, Taking Her Back. Is it about the Morgan’s voyage and/or also about you too?
A: Taking Her Back, gets its title from something Mystic Seaport President Stephen C. White said at the Voyage launch in May 2014 — he said, about the ship, “we’re taking her back.” He meant we were taking the Morgan back to the sea, to her origins, and to doing what she was built to do. I thought the title appropriate to operate on both levels. And just as the ship is a carrying object, I, too, am a carrier of experience and knowledge after this Voyage.
Your book is said to be “A Portuguese-American poet explores ancestry, heritage, history, and self in 78 poems inspired by the Morgan.” What is you major take-away?
A: I am only one voice contributing to the Voyager projects, but I took away a sense of personal responsibility, potential, and power. I had read an article by sociologist M. Estellie Smith in which she calls the Portuguese in America the “invisible minority.” I was struck by this image—being Portuguese, I did not want to be or feel invisible. I thought as if I could stand somewhere and people would puff through me like smoke.
I felt responsible to return a voice to those silenced, overlooked, forgotten, or considered insignificant in preserving. I wanted to give them presence, one that could not be avoided or ignored. Every individual has a story, and even when underprivileged, has the ability to share that story in some way.
What would you like readers of your poetry to remember?
A: Taking Her Back is about making visible the invisible lines that connect all people, places, and eras. We do not necessarily have to see these lines tangibly, but I do think we have the responsibility to feel them and to embrace them—to even allow ourselves to be entangled within the lines now and then. After all, if we do not preserve the past and illuminate its truths, how can we expect others to do the same for us?
Cristina J Baptista’s presentation about the Portuguese presence in American literature the 38th Voyage is posted here, and her poetry collection “Taking Her Back” is posted here.
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), Practical Love Poems and Only More So (forthcoming). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie
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