Nestled at the bottom of an old leather trunk for well over a century lay a forgotten manuscript—a long-lost story the authors great-great-grandson has now brought to life. At the heart of A Whaler at Twilight is the true account of an American whaler who embarked on a harrowing adventure in the South Pacific during the mid-nineteenth century in search of absolution and redemption. After the deaths of his parents, young Robert Armstrong lived with a successful uncle—a well-respected Methodist shopkeeper in bustling 1840s Baltimore—and attended the nation’s first dental school. But Armstrong threw his future away, drinking himself into oblivion. Devoured by guilt and shame, in December 1849 he sold his dental instruments, his watch, and all other possessions and signed on for a whaling voyage departing from New Bedford.
Decades later, Armstrong wrote an autobiographical account based on his travel logs, chronicling his thrilling, gritty experiences during his ten years overseas. His memoirs describe his encounters with other whalers, beachcombers, Peruvian villagers, Pacific Islanders, Maori warriors in New Zealand, cannibals on Fiji, and the impacts of American expansionism. He also recounted his struggles with drink, his quest for God, and his own redemption.
Armstrong’s gripping personal account is bookended by thoroughly researched contextual background compiled by Alexander Brash, a noted professional conservationist. Brash fills out Armstrong’s intimate and timeless tale by shedding further light on whaling and its impacts, his ancestor’s religious milieu, and the importance of marine conservation today. A Whaler at Twilight is a fascinating dive into both human morality and American history.
Alexander R. Brash was born and raised in New York City. An early love for birds evolved into a passion for quantitative community ecology and then a devotion to conservation. Along the way he worked on Great Gull Island, in the American Museum of Natural History, and graduated from Buckley School, Hotchkiss School, Connecticut College, Yale School for the Environment, and worked on a PhD at Rutgers University. After a hurricane wiped out his study site, he took a job with NYC Parks and rose to be the chief park anger, managing the agency’s uniformed officers, Natural Resource Group, Communications, Historic House Trust, and Special Events. At NYC Parks he initiated the Forever Wild Project, now 47 park preserves covering over 8,700 acres, Project X, the city’s first program to re-introduce extirpated species, and he was a first responder on 9/11. After nearly two decades in New York, he joined the National Parks Conservation Association as the northeast regional director lobbying for our national parks, particularly bringing attention to the system’s urban parks and cultural icons, as well as initiating the effort to establish Katahdin Woods, Stonewall Inn, and Paterson Falls as new national parks. Alex then spent three years as president of Connecticut Audubon, which he re-invigorated by moving its finances into the black, tripling its endowment, doubling the size of its nature preserves, and re-aligning its educational programs with STEM. Now retired in Riverside, Connecticut, he enjoys consulting, writing, traveling, birding, and spending time with family. Happily married to Jane, they have two great children, Ian and Emily.
Robert W. Armstrong was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1828, the only child of William and Rebecca Armstrong. After attending the esteemed Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the worlds first dental school, he served for a short while as a dentist in the Midwest and the South. He then spent ten years in the South Pacific as a whaler and a logger before returning to Baltimore and starting a second career as a store clerk. He worked at his uncle’s millinery firm Armstrong, Cator and Co. Soon after, he married Eudocia Muller and together they opened their own successful millinery store on Lexington Street, which Eudocia ultimately managed. The couple had eight children, and later in life Robert became more involved in church and community affairs. Robert died peacefully in 1902 and lies with his family in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Using his great-great-grandfathers previously undiscovered nineteenth-century account of whaling, logging, and searching for salvation as an anchor, Alexander Brash weaves a fascinating tale in which he not only illuminates his ancestors compelling journey of discovery, but also his own. Part history, part meditation on the meaning of religion and life, and part plea to better protect the environment, A Whaler at Twilight is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. The colorful characters alone are worth the price of admission.
— Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan and Black Flags, Blue Waters
A Whaler at Twilight reads like being invited over to a new friend’s home and hearing all about his family’s sprawling history. It’s a chronicle that reels in a panoply of subjects—ecology, religion, and history—and ultimately serves as a tender reminder that, no matter the era, our relationship with the ever-changing world is just as complex as the relationship we nurture with ourselves.
— Brandon Presser, author of The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania & Mutiny in the South Pacific
A unique and engrossing duet format. Alex beautifully intertwines his great-great-grandfather Rob’s autobiographical account with reflections and thoroughly researched historical context. Rob’s fascinating account steeps readers in a mid-nineteenth-century whaler’s life and in Rob’s formative ten-year journey wrestling with his inner demons to find himself. Alex’s reflections and research deepen readers’ understanding of Rob, the time period, the South Pacific region and inhabitants Rob came into contact with, the whaling industry, and the cultural milieu.
A Whaler at Twilight is also a compelling bridge between the past and present as Alex shares his own journey retracing his great-great-grandfather’s footsteps in New Zealand and considers his and Rob’s differing paths and circumstances. The book ends with Alex’s reflections as a conservationist on man’s relationship with the natural world and its future. Readers can’t help but parallel and compare the grim realities of whaling in A Whaler at Twilight with man’s relationship with nature today.
— Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Ventures; owner of P&T Knitwear Bookstore
It’s extraordinary, its very clever, and hauntingly profound on so many levels. I’m in awe, you write fabulously well. I just wish I was back in the Southern Ocean with you.
— Nicolas Dillon, New Zealand wildlife artist
This previously unpublished narrative of nineteenth-century whaler and lumberman Robert W. Armstrong is so full of compelling and shocking stories about life at sea and the impact that men, whaling, and colonialism had on the people and ecosystems of the South Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand that it deserves an important place on the same shelf as the narratives of J. Ross Browne, Henry Cheever, and Francis Allyn Olmsted. The layering of Armstrongs grappling with redemption, Brashs historical interpretation, and his own quest of discovery as a descendant who has spent his career in conservation builds A Whaler at Twilight into a unique and deeply personal odyssey.
— Richard J. King, visiting professor at the Sea Education Association (Woods Hole) and author of Ahabs Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick
An adventure story beyond just the era it depicts. Alexander Brash ties the tale together with his passion for environmental conservation to provide an epilogue to [his ancestor] Robert Armstrong’s exciting accounts.