In the wake of madness : the murderous voyage of the whaleship Sharon

by Joan Druett

Hardcover, 2003




Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003.


Recounts the story of the whaleship Sharon, whose captain was murdered by a trio of mutineers and whose remaining crew members died over the course of three subsequent years under mysterious circumstances.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
In the Wake of Madness is half-baked. The material available should have made for a rip-roaring sea-yarn but Druett somehow managed to miss the boat. The mystery of future events is what drives narrative non-fiction forward but she recounts the whole story in summary at the start - an unnecessary spoiler. Despite being a short book it is overloaded with minor characters and the main characters never quite come alive. The second half is an improvement but there is an over-abundance of incident in a short amount of space leaving one somewhat perplexed at the whirlwind of movement. She correctly emphasizes the string of bad luck the ship experienced, a curse almost, finally giving it some narrative mystery. The scene in which the black cook is flogged to death is very moving, as is the mutiny scene. Despite these complaints, this is a work of original research breaking new ground on an old mystery and regardless of any writing technique problems it is a solid work of micro-history.… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
In the early to mid-19th century, the whaling industry offered much profit for those daring enough for the challenge. Think The Deadliest Catch before reality TV. Adventures on the high seas eventually were hot stories in the media (once they got there), as well as the stuff of novels. In fact, the greatest whaling novelist of all time, Herman Melville, intersects this story of the whaleship Sharon several times throughout its course.

Perhaps I've too many similar stories that even authentic ones seem formulaic. A sadistic captain terrorizes his crew. Some or all of the crew rebels. In this case, captain is killed. drama and legal issues ensue.

The captain of the Sharon was killed by some islander crewmen picked up in the Pacific, but not before he beat a black crewman to death. The islanders then took control of the ship, which was single-handedly retaken by the first mate, who became a hero for his action. The inquiry afterward seemed to avoid the issue of mass desertions before the murder; and the one surviving killer was never even charged with a crime.

Author Joan Druett pieced this together from journals recently uncovered, written by the third mate and cooper. While embellished to create a full story; Druett doesn't stay too far from what is known. The result is rather thin...we never really know the characters too well, foreshadowing is not couched in mystery, ("...little did the captain know he had but 17 months to live." While I'm not expecting a completely over-the-top fictional account ala Melville, a little more plausible connecting of the dots could have resulted in a more robust story (say, like Erik Larson).

If you like 19th century nautical adventures -- and I do, In The Wake of Madness might scratch an itch. There are a lot of good fiction and non-fiction books covering these same waters...this one doesn't quite make it to the bow, however.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
Once again, I've dived into the realm of maritime history with New Zealand
resident Joan Druett. I've read two of her earlier books about females at
sea and greatly enjoyed them. Recently I discovered that Druett has begun to
write a mystery series featuring a character who's a member of the U.S.
Exploration Expedition. (I reviewed a book about this expedition earlier
this year.) Since I'm fascinated by the Expedition and I enjoy Druett's
writing, I couldn't wait to get my hands on one of these mysteries, so I
scurried over to Barnes and Noble's website. I wanted to get free shipping,
so I just *had* to buy two books. I bought the first in Druett's mystery
series, A Watery Grave, and this one: In the Wake of Madness, The Murderous
Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon.

In its day, the murder of Captain Howes Norris by three native sailors
aboard the whaleship Sharon was sensational stuff, but the entire story was
never told and interest died out rather quickly. Recently journals written
by men on board the Sharon were unearthed, Druett read them and wrote this
book. I gobbled it up.

The story began in Martha's Vineyard in the late 1830s. Druett sets the
scene by explaining how the entire whaling industry began and why it
eventually centered in New Bedford. She tells us the backgrounds of each of
the important "players" on this voyage: Captain Howes Norris, First Officer
(and relative of Norris) Thomas Harlock Smith, Second Officer (and another
Norris relative) Nathan Skiff Smith, and Third Officer Benjamin Clough.
When the Sharon sets out on this voyage, Druett gives enough particulars
about how to go whaling and life aboard a whaler to keep you fascinated
without going into overkill. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, weaves in
and out of the picture. He was at sea during the same time, knew some of the
sailors on board the Sharon, and experienced many of the same things they
did. Fortunately, he did not experience Captain Howes Norris.

One of the many tidbits I learned while reading this book is that New
Zealand was a center of the American whaling industry and, for a while, had
more Americans living there than practically any other nationality. Once the
British government took over there, they made it uncomfortable for the
Americans who were forced to look elsewhere for a base. But I digress.

In the Wake of Madness is a deft blend of history and mystery.
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LibraryThing member Radella
This was quite an interesting book, with a realistic look at what a whaling ship was like (and all things considered, I'm quite happy I never shipped out on a whaling vessel!). What caused Captain Howes Norris to be murdered? Why were there so many desertions from the ship? Joan Druett looks beyond the sensational stories of the time to the journals and logs of the crew to piece together the story. It was an easy read, (much easier than the oft-mentioned Moby Dick!) and interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member usnmm2
[In The Wake of Madness] by Joan Druett
An interesting read. This is the account of the cruise of the whaleship 'Sharon' out of Fairhaven Mass. from 1841 till 1845. Whose Captain was murdered a year later by three of the crewmen. And then the ship being almost single handedly being retaken by the third officer.

The story mostly unfolds through the journals and letters of the Third Officer Benjamin Clough and the ships cooper Andrew White. Also other ship logs from other ships that crossed their path.

Two things make this simple account very interesting;
One, it reveals the sinister side of the whaling industry. At this time, whaling at it's height with over 700 American ships hunting for whales. This leads to ships being manned by sailors with little or no experience. This also seems to be the case with many captains as well as many were given this post at very young ages with only one or two cruises under their belts. This inexperience and youth seems to be a factor in the violence of many Captains to their crews.

Two, these years (1841 to 1845) were the same ones that Melville was sailing the same waters. Where he jumped ship (the whaleship Acushnet ). He had seen many of these same conditions that are described in the book on his ship. Also as there were over 20 deserters from the Sharon he might have heard tales about the Mad Captain who flogged a seaman to death. The author Joan Druett references Melville many times during this narrative.

She also dwells on the reasons that this chapter in whaling history is not well known.
All in all a very readable and interesting history.
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