A four-language sea letter, written in English, Spanish, French, and Dutch, required the signature of a notary to whom the vessel’s master had given a sworn oath regarding the accuracy of the document’s contents.
A sea letter was written in four languages so it could be read by foreign officials at sea or in port along the voyage. It was a type of passport or protection for safe passage, signed by the President.
Sea letters are mentioned in federal maritime legislation and international treaties. They were evidence of a neutral American ship of commerce during a period of international conflict. By mid-century, as America grew strong, and the merchant fleet was more secure, there was less need for a sea letter. During the Civil War, New England whalers faced the additional danger of Confederate attacks.
For the 1854 voyage of the Nantucket whaler Mohawk, the sea letter was notarized in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, by Joseph T. Pease, a Massachusetts notary public and collector of customs. It was signed by President Franklin Pierce and Secretary of State William L. Marcy.
Transcript of Sea Letter for the Whaler Mohawk
President of the United States of America,
To all who shall see these presents, GREETING
BE IT KNOWN, That leave and permission are hereby given to
Charles Grant master or commander of the Ship called Mohawk of the port of Nantucket of the burden of 350 tons, or thereabouts, lying at present in the port of Edgartown bound for the Pacific Ocean and laden with whaling utensils, casks, provisions, ship stores, etc.
to depart and proceed with the said ship on his said voyage, such ship having been visited, and the said Master having made oath before the proper officer that the said Ship Mohawk belongs to one or more of the citizens of the United States of America, and to him or them only.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have subscribed my name to these presents, and affixed the seal of the United States of America thereto, and caused the same to be countersigned by the collector at Edgartown the 12th day of August in the year of our Lord 1854.
[President’s seal attached]
William L. Marcy, Secretary of State
Most Serene, Serene, most Puissant, Puissant, High, Illustrious, Noble, Honorable, Venerable, Wise, and Prudent Lords, Emperors, Kings, Republics, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters, Schepens, Counsellors, as also Judges, Officers, Justiciaries, and Regents, of all the good cities and places, whether Ecclesiastical or Secular, who shall see these patents or hear them read:
We, Joseph T. Pease, Notary Public, make known, that the master of the Ship Mohawk appearing before us, has declared, upon oath, that the vessel called Mohawk of the burden of about 350 tons, which he at present navigates, is of the United States of America, and that no subjects of the present belligerent Powers, have any part or portion therein, directly or indirectly, so may God Almighty help him.
And, as we wish to see the said master prosper in his lawful affairs, our prayer is, to all the beforementioned, and to each of them separately, where the said master shall arrive with his vessel and cargo, that they may please to receive the said master with goodness, and to treat him in a becoming manner, permitting him in paying the usual tolls and expenses in passing and repassing, to pass, navigate, and frequent the port, passes, and territories, to the end to transact his business, where and in what manner he shall judge proper. Whereof we shall be willingly indebted.
Joseph T. Pease
On a later voyage, shipmaster Charles Grant brought back the enormous lower jawbone of a sperm whale, now on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. His wife and children accompanied him on whaling voyages.
Source: Nantucket Historical Association
In 1820, the whaler Essex, from Nantucket, shown in the image above, was rammed and sunk by an 85-foot sperm whale in the south Pacific Ocean. Of the twenty crew members, only 8 survived at sea. They headed toward South America in three small whaleboats but became separated.
One boat was lost. The second boat was rescued after 89 days by the British whaler Indian. The third boat was rescued by the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin after 95 days. Three stranded survivors were rescued from Henderson Island by the merchant vessel Surrey.
The survivors ran out of food and water and resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of 7 crew members.
Two survivors wrote accounts of their ordeal that inspired Herman Melville to write his famous novel Moby Dick in 1851.
In 2015, director Ron Howard released an adventure-drama film, In the Heart of the Sea, the story of the whaler Essex and the survivors.
1. Whaleship Essex, sketch by survivor cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, age 14, Nantucket Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia
2. Notary Seal Joseph T. Pease, Edgartown, Massachusetts, 1854