It is bloody work dashing out the poor little beggars’ brains while they look up with their big dark eyes into your face.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Arctic diary entry, 3 April 1880
In February 1880, a third-year medical student from Edinburgh abandoned his studies, temporarily, to sign on as the ship’s doctor of the S.S. Hope, a Greenland whaler sailing out of the Scottish port of Peterhead. The medical student was Arthur Conan Doyle, who would later go on to earn lasting fame with his stories of a fictional “consulting detective” named Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle kept a diary during his voyage, and ‘Dangerous Work’ (2012) is a handsome volume from the British Library, containing the 200 facsimile pages of that diary, complete with Conan Doyle’s many drawings and paintings. Since Conan Doyle was not yet a doctor, his handwriting is actually fairly legible—but the facsimile pages are helpfully followed by a transcript, copiously footnoted by Jon Lellenberg, a Conan Doyle and Holmes scholar, and Daniel Stashower, a Conan Doyle biographer.
The diary entries are bracketed by essays co-written by Lellenberg and Stashower—an introduction sets the scene and briefly summarizes Conan Doyle’s voyage; and, after the diary concludes, there’s a description of his early life in medical practice, and how he used his Arctic experience in his writing and lectures. The book is then completed by four samples of Conan Doyle’s “Arctic” writing—two essays, “The Glamour of The Arctic” (1892) and “Life on a Greenland Whaler” (1897); and two short stories, “The Captain Of The ‘Pole-Star'” (a ghost story published in 1883) and a Sherlock Holmes case involving a murdered whaling captain, entitled “The Adventure of Black Peter” (1904). (All my links take you to the full text of these pieces, at the splendid Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.)
The twenty-year-old Conan Doyle of the diaries is rather different from the rather stuffy-looking elderly man we’re used to seeing in photographs. He is hugely enthusiastic, cheerfully self-mocking, and keen to get involved in all the activities of the ship. He takes two pairs of boxing gloves on the voyage with him, and quickly establishes a reputation as “the best surgeon the Hope had had” after giving the steward a black eye during a boxing match. He also refuses to assume the role of an “idler” (a member of the crew who does not get involved in sealing and whaling duties), and puts himself in the thick of the action whenever he can.
He seems not to have had much to occupy his time in a medical capacity. One elderly seaman did die of a bowel obstruction during the voyage, and his burial at sea probably informed a poignant scene in “The Captain Of The ‘Pole-Star'”. As ship’s doctor, and therefore out of the chain of command, he was expected to provided companionship for the captain, John Gray, with whom he seems to have got along very well. Surprisingly, there was a good supply of wine and champagne aboard ship, which must have helped the conviviality along.
The Hope sails north, and reaches the pack ice in late March. As far as the eye can see, breeding seals are hauled out on the ice. But, under the terms of a treaty between Britain and Norway, sealing cannot commence until the 3rd of April. So ships from Peterhead, Dundee and Norway sail jealously up and down along the edge of the pack, waiting for the day when slaughter can commence. Conan Doyle pronounces himself extremely bored.
And then carnage follows—the opening quotation is Conan Doyle’s description of clubbing a seal pup to death. He was not at first particularly nimble on the shifting ice floes, and fell repeatedly into the Arctic Ocean, earning himself the nickname “the Great Northern Diver”. On one occasion he was only able to haul himself out of the water by gripping the tail of a seal he had been skinning:
The face of the ice was so even that I had no purchase by which to pull myself up, and my body was rapidly becoming numb in the freezing water. At last, however, I caught hold of the hind flipper of the dead seal, and there was a kind of nightmare tug-of-war, the question being whether I should pull the seal off or pull myself on.
As the season progresses and the pack recedes, the ships move northwards and towards Greenland, hunting the North Atlantic right whales which were their principal quarry in those days. The whales were still pursued in open boats, which were rowed right up on to the whale’s back so that a harpoon could be driven in at point-blank range from a gun mounted in the bows. The grim business then proceeds, and a modern reader will probably find little to identify with in Conan Doyle’s delight in the bloody “sport” afforded by a dying whale.
And yet, he also delights in the sight of living whales. The humpback whale (which Conan Doyle calls the “hunchback”) was not yet considered to be a worthwhile catch, and so they were left undisturbed:
Was called up about 11 PM by the Captain to see a marvellous sight. Never hope to see anything like it again. The sea was simply alive with great hunchback whales, a rather rare variety, you could have thrown a biscuit onto 200 of them, and as far as you could see there was nothing but spoutings and great tails in the air. Some were blowing under the bowsprit, sending the water on to the forecastle, and exciting our Newfoundland [dog] tremendously.
Rarity, unfortunately, was not necessarily any protection from sudden death at the hands of the whalers, however.
Two very rare ducks were seen behind the ship this evening. The Captain went off himself in a boat and nailed them both with a right and left barrel.
Footnotes by Lellenberg and Stashower are highly informative, giving background detail, explaining references to card games and Shetland hotels, sailors’ jargon and literary references. They draw the line, however, at explaining the name “John Thomas” which Conan Doyle bestows on a Clio sea snail he keeps as a (short-lived) pet.
This one, I’d say, is not for the squeamish—like many of his contemporaries, Conan Doyle finds “sport” in what most modern readers would view as wholesale cruelty and indiscriminate slaughter. But if you can get past that, this book is a fascinating insight into the final days of Greenland whaling, and into the mind and character of the young Conan Doyle.