Archival Follies, Golden Ghetto, Our Glorious National Heritage

Humblebragging Around the Horn

Or, Don’t Even Get Him Started on CrossFit


Richard Cleveland was a sailor, an entrepreneurial merchant, and a well-traveled man – but not a shy one. In his retirement, he published at least three editions of his memoirs, and by the end of the nineteenth century, and he and his children had produced some three different versions of his life’s story, all also in multiple transatlantic editions. Scholars still look to him today for details on Americans’ dealings in the Pacific, and beyond.

He’s a good source, if one we should perhaps examine mainly for its narrative framing and plot elements as much as for specific details. Among other feats, he was, as he explained in the preface to his lengthy autobiography of his time spent on the seas, as good a flinty, thrifty New Englander as Max Weber (or Freeman Hunt) could ever have wished for:

The character of the citizens of New England for enterprise and industry, is very generally acknowledged. Being for the most part obliged to seek their own fortunes, they are thus early accustomed to the endurance of privations, and to those industrious and frugal habits, which lead to competence and wealth. In the pursuit of that independence of which all are more or less desirous, of persevering determination, of disregard of fatigue and suffering, which are very remarkable; but which pass unobserved from their frequency, no less than from the unobtrusive habits of the actors.

A simple account of such enterprises [that is, Cleveland’s own story], drawn from journals and letters written at the time of the events therein related occurred, is here given to the public.

Subtle, right? And, lest you think that the #humblebrag dates from 2011, Cleveland’s account of how he’d thrived against all odds should set you straight:

Those who may honor me with a perusal of my narrative will perceive, that I have navigated to all parts of the world, from the sixtieth degree of south latitude, to the sixtieth degree north; and sometimes in vessels whose diminutive size and small number of men caused exposure to wet and cold, greatly surpassing what is usually experienced in ships of ordinary capacity; that i have been exposed to the influence of the most unhealthy places; at Batavia, where I have seen whole crews prostrate with the fever, and death making havoc among them; at San Blas, where the natives can stay only a portion of the year; at the Havana, within whose walls I have resided five years consecutively; that I have suffered captivity, robbery, imprisonment, ruin, and the racking anxiety consequent thereon. And yet, through the whole, and to the present sixty-eighth year of my age, I have taken a drop of spirituous liquor of any kind; never a glass of wine, of porter, ale, or beer, or any beverage stronger than tea and coffee; and, moreover, I have never used tobacco in any way whatever; and this, not only without injury, but, on the contrary, to the preservation of my health. Headache is known to me by name only; and excepting those fevers which were produced by great anxiety and excitement, my life has been free from sickness.

And that’s just the preface! You can imagine his conclusion.

Image: mattersofgrey,”Made a new nerd shirt. #humblebrag,” accessed 10-16-2013

Quotations: Richard J. Cleveland, A narrative of voyages and commercial enterprises (Boston: C. H. Peirce, 1850), 9, 11-12.

1 thought on “Humblebragging Around the Horn”

  1. Yet, wounded and defensive when he discusses how he was mistreated by his marine insurance company: [forgive the lack of commas, this is Google copy & paste]:

    “The conviction that the supposed honorable liberal high minded men with whom I was thus brought in contact were capable of such conduct was very painful to me. Indignant at such treatment and mortified at being thus duped I determined to give them a word at parting expressive of those feelings.

    “Accordingly … I addressed a letter to the President of the National Insurance Company in which I referred to mine dated the 5th of October, enumerating the unusual services I had rendered the Company in the recovery and successful employment of the Beaver, and further remarked that if I had condescended to make invidious comparisons, I could have proved that what they considered to be an extra commission bore no proportion to the extra earnings of the Beaver over those of every other vessel then on the Peruvian coast, and this less from any concurrence of fortunate circumstances than from a difference in favor of my management.

    “I again reminded him of his promise of remuneration, and of its being repeated at a subsequent interview, and expressed my belief that these promises were made with the intention of throwing me off my guard, and of lulling me into security, the better to deceive me, and that the success attending it had been, I doubted not, gratifying to all who shared in the two and a half per cent thus saved to the Company. This letter closed by the remark that had I conducted your business with as little regard to the observance of the rule of doing unto others as we would that they should do unto us as has been observed in this instance towards me, the result of the Beaver’s voyage would have been very different from what it is.

    “To this letter I never received a reply.”


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