I am always happy when I can find a published text about an expedition I am cataloging. These often help clarify spellings and handwriting legibility issues with locations or types of specimens collected. One might wonder why we catalog the field books if there are published texts. The published texts may tell the stories of expeditions and travels, but archives hold the unedited, “behind the scenes” accounts. This usually means a plethora of details that are summarized or glossed over in the published version. Sometimes this includes discussions of relationships between the expedition participants.
A while back I cataloged the Henderson Family Papers, 1868-1923, (RU 7075) which includes a journal from the Tomas Barrera Cuban Expedition (1914). The expedition was relatively short in duration and focused on collecting birds and marine life including mollusks. The journal was written by J.B. Henderson, Jr., who was an assistant on the voyage. His account vividly describes interactions and disagreements between expedition participants. Field books sometimes touch on personal exchanges, observations of contemporary events; Henderson’s were particularly candid. In the first few pages of the log book he wrote:
“The ferocious conversations of all, especially of the “fish expert” [Manuel Lesmes], is amusing if one is feeling well, but if not, it is irritating. The most violent conversations and heated arguments are started at once by a reference to sharks or to amphibians or snakes which awaken memories of terrible tragedies in the mind of the fish man. He is an ignorant ass whose knowledge of natural history is based upon the teachings of the newspapers and whose arguments are founded wholly upon the hearsay of the superstitious.”
Henderson published an account the voyage, The cruise of the Tomas Barrera; the narrative of a scientific expedition to western Cuba and the Colorados reefs, with observations on the geology, fauna, and flora of the region (1916). The text provided an interesting juxtaposition of his personal thoughts and public account. His comments are not much different in tone.
“The subject of sharks was one that always could be relied upon to precipitate a discussion on board that assumed as it progressed all the outward signs of an anarchistic rally. Men of the Latin race enter upon arguments with an earnestness and amount of feeling that perplexes the Anglo-Saxon. Is it not likely, he asks aside, that these men will do each other violence?
Our fish expert (Lesmes) cherished gruesome memories of sharks and he was positive that they are always very dangerous. His eyes gleam with apparent rage; with quick threatening gesture he suddenly approaches his disputant and hurls at him an argument like canister hot from the cannon's mouth. The other staggers, but recovering from the charge and reinforced by others who rush into the wordy affray, he delivers back an argumentative broadside and the battle is on. We of the north glance at each other apprehensively. Something really should be done to quell this riot before our fine crew is destroyed or we ourselves, as innocent bystanders, shall be injured. Then the cook announces that coffee is ready and the dove of peace flutters in and the shark swims out.” (p. 48)
Throughout each account of the expedition, there is a humorous if frustrated tone. Expeditions, especially at sea, can be intense experiences depending on the combination of personalities. This expedition appears to have been just that, though with some humorous moments.
For those of you looking for some new reading material, Henderson’s published account has been digitized and is available through the Internet Archive.