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Cannonball Read 2 #9: In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon by Joan Druett

In the Wake of Madness is another entry into my beloved maritime disasters series, though this one isn't necessarily a disaster so much as it is the tale of cruelty, mutiny, and murder on a New England whaling ship.

In 1841, the whaleship Sharon left Fairhaven Massachusetts under the control of Captain Howes Norris. A year later, he was murdered by three Pacific Islanders (who had joined the crew after unprecedented desertions throughout the trip) while the rest of the crew were out whaling. The third mate launched a heroic rescue to re-take the ship from the Islanders, and although that dramatic experience was widely publicized, little was said a the time regarding the reasons behind the murder. Racism at the time, as well as the traditional code of silence among sailors, made the easiest answer--the Pacific Islanders just went crazy because that's what "those people" do--the accepted answer. The author attempts to explain the murder by researching journals written by the crew, as well as combining other evidence to build a picture of a power-crazed, violent man who was frustrated by his failure to capture enough whales and haunted by difficulties on previous voyages. She posits that Captain Norris was killed because he terrorized his crew--going so far as to beat a young black steward to death--and because of their race, the Pacific Islanders had feared for their lives during some still unexplained confrontation with Norris. Although the full truth will never be known, since the only men who knew all died without ever confessing, Joan Druett does a very good job at presenting her case along with evidence that supports her theories.

On the whole, a good, well-written, well-researched book, but with nothing particularly spectacular to add to the genre. There is quite a bit of extra information regarding the whaling industry of the mid-nineteenth century, which is fascinating. I'd recommend it only to someone who is already interested in the subject.

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