On February 28th… Arthur Conan Doyle Goes to Sea (Twice)

“On the quarterdeck” [from Life on a Greenland Whaler]
On February 28, 1880, Arthur Conan Doyle, still a medical student, set sail from Peterhead on the Hope, a whaling ship bound for seven months in the Arctic. He was to be the ship’s surgeon  taking the place of a friend who could not make at the last moment.

He published an account of his journey in The Strand magazine in January, 1897, under the title “Life on a Greenland Whaler”.

It is brutal work, though not more brutal than that which goes onto supply every dinner-table in the country. And yet those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice-fields, under the peaceful silence of a blue Arctic sky, did seem a horrible intrusion. But an inexorable demand creates an inexorable supply, and the seals, by their death, help to give a living to the long line of seamen, dockers, tanners, curers, triers, chandlers, leather merchants, and oil-sellers, who stand between this annual butchery on the one hand, and the exquisite, with his soft leather boots, or the savant using a delicate oil for his philosophical instruments, upon the other.

He kept a journal of his experiences. That handwritten journal, complete with illustration sketches, can be seen in Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure (2012), edited by Jon Lellenberg (JHWS “Towser”) and Daniel Stashower. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Arthur Conan Doyle’s personality as well as his adventures. In an interview for NPR, Lellenberg says:

I remember there’s one entry where he says, ‘We had nothing to do, and we did it.’ And another entry, he talks about spending the night with the crew, which is basically an evening of music, song, drinking — he says, ‘gin and tobacco in the crew’s berths.’ And the next entry starts, ‘Suffered for the gin and tobacco.’ … He’s a young man reporting what he’s seeing and hearing and experiencing in quite a remarkable way.

Two years later, on February 28, 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle boarded the troop transport Oriental for the 3 week voyage to South Africa. He had been waiting for his orders to come he asked by a friend to go to the South African town of Bloemfontein. He was to help set up a hospital. He was help pick personnel, work as a physician and be unofficial supervisor.

Information for this post comes from the excellent A Curious Collection of Dates by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”)

Posted by Chips and Selena

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