Books by willis j. Abbot

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The vitality of the traffic in the face of growing international hostility is to be explained by its increasing profits. The effect of the laws passed against it was to make slaves cheaper on the coast of Africa and dearer at the markets in America. A slave that cost $20 would bring $500 in Georgia. A ship carrying 500 would bring its owners $240,000, and there were plenty of men willing to risk the penalties of piracy for a share of such prodigious profits. Moreover, the seas swarmed then with adventurous sailors--mostly of American birth--to whom the very fact that slaving was outlawed made it more attractive. The years of European war had bred up among New Englanders a daring race of privateersmen--their vocation had long been piracy in all but name, a fact which in these later days the maritime nations recognize by trying to abolish privateering by international agreement. When the wars of the early years of the nineteenth century ended the privateersmen looked about for some seafaring enterprise which promised profit. A few became pirates, more went into the slave-trade. Men of this type were not merely willing to risk their lives in a criminal calling, but were quite as ready to fight for their property as to try to save it by flight. The slavers soon began to carry heavy guns, and with desperate crews were no mean antagonists for a man-of-war. Many of the vessels that had been built for privateers were in the trade, ready to fight a cruiser or rob a smaller slaver, as chance offered. We read of some carrying as many as twenty guns, and in that sea classic, "Tom Cringle's Log," there is a story--obviously founded on fact--of a fight between a British sloop-of-war and a slaver that gives a vivid idea of the desperation with which the outlaws could fight. But sometimes the odds were hopeless, and the slaver could not hope to escape by force of arms or by flight. Then the sternness of the law, together with a foolish rule concerning the evidence necessary to convict, resulted in the murder of the slaves, not by ones or twos, but by scores, and even hundreds, at a time. For it was the unwise ruling of the courts that actual presence of slaves on a captured ship was necessary to prove that she was engaged in the unlawful trade. Her hold might reek with the odor of the imprisoned blacks, her decks show unmistakable signs of their recent presence, leg-irons and manacles might bear dumb testimony to the purpose of her voyage, informers in the crew might even betray the captain's secret; but if the boarders from the man-of-war found no negroes on the ship, she went free. What was the natural result? When a slaver, chased by a cruiser, found that capture was certain, her cargo of slaves was thrown overboard. The cruiser in the distance might detect the frightful odor that told unmistakably of a slave-ship. Her officers might hear the screams of the unhappy blacks being flung into the sea. They might even see the bodies floating in the slaver's wake; but if, on boarding the suspected craft, they found her without a single captive, they could do nothing. This was the law for many years, and because of it thousands of slaves met a cruel death as the direct result of the effort to save them from slavery. Many stories are told of these wholesale drownings. The captain of the British cruiser "Black Joke" reports of a case in which he was pursuing two slave ships:

"When chased by the tenders both put back, made all sail up the river, and ran on shore. During the chase they were seen from our vessels to throw the slaves overboard by twos, shackled together by the ankles, and left in this manner to sink or swim as best they could. Men, women, and children were seen in great numbers struggling in the water by everyone on board the two tenders, and, dreadful to relate, upward of 150 of these wretched creatures perished in this way."

In this case, the slavers did not escape conviction, though the only penalty inflicted was the seizure of their vessels. The pursuers rescued some of the drowning negroes, who were able to testify that they had been on the suspected ship, and condemnation followed. The captain of the slaver "Brillante" took no chance of such a disaster. Caught by four cruisers in a dead calm, hidden from his enemy by the night, but with no chance of escaping before dawn, this man-stealer set about planning murder on a plan so large and with such system as perhaps has not been equaled since Caligula. First he had his heaviest anchor so swung that cutting a rope would drop it. Then the chain cable was stretched about the ship, outside the rail, and held up by light bits of rope, that would give way at any stout pull. Then the slaves--600 in all--were brought up from below, open-eyed, whispering, wondering what new act in the pitiful drama of their lives this midnight summons portended. With blows and curses the sailors ranged them along the rail and bound them to the chain cable. The anchor was cut loose, plunging into the sea it carried the cable and the shackled slaves with it to the bottom. The men on the approaching man-of-war's boats, heard a great wail of many voices, a rumble, a splash, then silence, and when they reached the ship its captain politely showed them that there were no slaves aboard, and laughed at their comments on the obvious signs of the recent presence of the blacks.


A favorite trick of the slaver, fleeing from a man-of-war, was to throw over slaves a few at a time in the hope that the humanity of the pursuers would impel them to stop and rescue the struggling negroes, thus giving the slave-ship a better chance of escape. Sometimes these hapless blacks thus thrown out, as legend has it Siberian peasants sometimes throw out their children as ransom to pursuing wolves, were furnished with spars or barrels to keep them afloat until the pursuer should come up; and occasionally they were even set adrift by boat-loads. It was hard on the men of the navy to steel their hearts to the cries of these castaways as the ship sped by them; but if the great evil was to be broken up it could not be by rescuing here and there a slave, but by capturing and punishing the traders. Many officers of our navy have left on record their abhorrence of the service they were thus engaged in, but at the same time expressed their conviction that it was doing the work of humanity. They were obliged to witness such human suffering as might well move the stoutest human heart. At times they were even forced to seem as merciless to the blacks as the slave-traders themselves; but in the end their work, like the merciful cruelty of the surgeon, made for good.

When a slaver was overhauled after so swift a chase that her master had no opportunity to get rid of his damning cargo, the boarding officers saw sights that scarce Inferno itself could equal. To look into her hold, filled with naked, writhing, screaming, struggling negroes was a sight that one could see once and never forget. The effluvium that arose polluted even the fresh air of the ocean, and burdened the breeze for miles to windward. The first duty of the boarding officer was to secure the officers of the craft with their papers. Not infrequently such vessels would be provided with two captains and two sets of papers, to be used according to the nationality of the warship that might make the capture; but the men of all navies cruising on the slave coast came in time to be expert in detecting such impostures. The crew once under guard, the first task was to alleviate in some degree the sufferings of the slaves. But this was no easy task, for the overcrowded vessel could not be enlarged, and its burden could in no way be decreased in mid-ocean. Even if near the coast of Africa, the negroes could not be released by the simple process of landing them at the nearest point, for the land was filled with savage tribes, the captives were commonly from the interior, and would merely have been murdered or sold anew into slavery, had they been thus abandoned. In time the custom grew up of taking them to Liberia, the free negro state established in Africa under the protection of the United States. But it can hardly be said that much advantage resulted to the individual negroes rescued by even this method, for the Liberians were not hospitable, slave traders camped upon the borders of their state, and it was not uncommon for a freed slave to find himself in a very few weeks back again in the noisome hold of the slaver. Even under the humane care of the navy officers who were put in command of captured slavers the human cattle suffered grievously. Brought on deck at early dawn, they so crowded the ships that it was almost impossible for the sailors to perform the tasks of navigation. One officer, who was put in charge of a slaver that carried 700 slaves, writes:

"They filled the waist and gangways in a fearful jam, for there were over 700 men, women, boys, and young girls. Not even a waistcloth can be permitted among slaves on board ship, since clothing even so slight would breed disease. To ward off death, ever at work on a slave ship, I ordered that at daylight the negroes should be taken in squads of twenty or more, and given a salt-water bath by the hose-pipe of the pumps. This brought renewed life after their fearful nights on the slave deck.... No one who has never seen a slave deck can form an idea of its horrors. Imagine a deck about 20 feet wide, and perhaps 120 feet long, and 5 feet high. Imagine this to be the place of abode and sleep during long, hot, healthless nights of 720 human beings! At sundown, when they were carried below, trained slaves received the poor wretches one by one, and laying each creature on his side in the wings, packed the next against him, and the next, and the next, and so on, till like so many spoons packed away they fitted into each other a living mass. Just as they were packed so must they remain, for the pressure prevented any movement or the turning of hand or foot, until the next morning, when from their terrible night of horror they were brought on deck once more, weak and worn and sick." Then, after all had come up and been splashed with salt water from the pumps, men went below to bring up the dead. There was never a morning search of this sort that was fruitless. The stench, the suffocation, the confinement, oftentimes the violence of a neighbor, brought to every dawn its tale, of corpses, and with scant gentleness all were brought up and thrown over the side to the waiting sharks. The officer who had this experience writes also that it was thirty days after capturing the slaver before he could land his helpless charges.

No great moral evil can long continue when the attention of men has been called to it, and when their consciences, benumbed by habit, have been aroused to appreciation of the fact that it is an evil. To be sure, we, with the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors and our minds filled with a horror which their teachings instilled, sometimes think that they were slow to awaken to the enormity of some evils they tolerated. So perhaps our grandchildren may wonder that we endured, and even defended, present-day conditions, which to them will appear indefensible. And so looking back on the long continuance of the slave-trade, we wonder that it could have made so pertinacious a fight for life. We marvel, too, at the character of some of the men engaged in it in its earlier and more lawful days, forgetting that their minds had not been opened, that they regarded the negro as we regard a beeve. If in some future super-refined state men should come to abstain from all animal food, perhaps the history of the Chicago stock-yards will be as appalling as is that of the Bight of Benin to-day, and that the name of Armour should be given to a great industrial school will seem as curious as to us it is inexplicable that the founder of Fanueil Hall should have dealt in human flesh.

It is, however, a chapter in the story of the American merchant sailor upon which none will wish to linger, and yet which can not be ignored. In prosecuting the search for slaves and their markets he showed the qualities of daring, of fine seamanship, of pertinacity, which have characterized him in all his undertakings; but the brutality, the greed, the inhumanity inseparable from the slave-trade make the participation of Americans in it something not pleasant to enlarge upon. It was, as I have said, not until the days of the Civil War blockade that the traffic was wholly destroyed. As late as 1860 the yacht "Wanderer," flying the New York Yacht Club's flag, owned by a club member, and sailing under the auspices of a member of one of the foremost families of the South, made several trips, and profitable ones, as a slaver. No armed vessel thought to overhaul a trim yacht, flying a private flag, and on her first trip her officers actually entertained at dinner the officers of a British cruiser watching for slavers on the African coast. But her time came, and when in 1860 the slaver, Nathaniel Gordon, a citizen of Portland, Maine, was actually hanged as a pirate, the death-blow of the slave-trade was struck. Thereafter the end came swiftly.

**Transcriber's Note: Page 91: changed preeminance to preëminence



In the old "New England Primer," on which the growing minds of Yankee infants in the early days of the eighteenth century were regaled, appears a clumsy woodcut of a spouting whale, with these lines of excellent piety but doubtful rhyme:

Whales in the sea Their Lord obey.

It is significant of the part which the whale then played in domestic economy that his familiar bulk should be utilized to "point a moral and adorn a tale" in the most elementary of books for the instruction of children. And indeed by the time the "New England Primer" was published, with its quaint lettering and rude illustrations, the whale fishery had come to be one of the chief occupations of the seafaring men of the North Atlantic States. The pursuit of this "royal fish"--as the ancient chroniclers call him in contented ignorance of the fact that he is not a fish at all--had not, indeed, originated in New England, but had been practised by all maritime peoples of whom history has knowledge, while the researches of archeologists have shown that prehistoric peoples were accustomed to chase the gigantic cetacean for his blubber, his oil, and his bone. The American Indians, in their frail canoes, the Esquimaux, in their crank kayaks, braved the fury of this aquatic monster, whose size was to that of one of his enemies as the bulk of a battle-ship is to that of a pigmy torpedo launch. But the whale fishery in vessels fitted for cruises of moderate length had its origin in Europe, where the Basques during the Middle Ages fairly drove the animals from the Bay of Biscay, which had long swarmed with them. Not a prolific breeder, the whales soon showed the effect of Europe's eagerness for oil, whalebone and ambergris, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century the industry was on the verge of extinction. Then began that search for a sea passage to India north of the continents of Europe and America, which I have described in another chapter. The passage was not discovered, but in the icy waters great schools of right whales were found, and the chase of the "royal fish" took on new vigor. Of course there was effort on the part of one nation to acquire by violence a monopoly of this profitable business, and the Dutch, who have done much in the cause of liberty, defeated the British in a naval battle at the edge of the ice before the principle of the freedom of the fisheries was accepted. To-day science has discovered substitutes for almost all of worth that the whales once supplied, and the substitutes are in the main marked improvements on the original. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the clear whale oil for illuminating purposes, the tough and supple whalebone, the spermaceti which filled the great case in the sperm-whale's head, the precious ambergris--prized even among the early Hebrews, and chronicled in the Scriptures as a thing of great price--were prizes, in pursuit of which men braved every terror of the deep, threaded the ice-floes of the Arctic, fought against the currents about Cape Horn, and steered to every corner of the Seven Seas the small, stout brigs and barks of New England make.

The whale came to the New Englander long before the New Englanders went after him. In the earliest colonial days the carcasses of whales were frequently found stranded on the beaches of Cape Cod and Long Island. Old colonial records are full of the lawsuits growing out of these pieces of treasure-trove, the finder, the owner of the land where the gigantic carrion lay stranded, and the colony all claiming ownership, or at least shares. By 1650 all the northern colonies had begun to pursue the business of shore whaling to some extent. Crews were organized, boats kept in readiness on the beach, and whenever a whale was sighted they would put off with harpoons and lances after the huge game, which, when slain, would be towed ashore, and there cut up and tried out, to the accompaniment of a prodigious clacking of gulls and a widely diffused bad smell. This method of whaling is still followed at Amagansett and Southampton, on the shore of Long Island, though the growing scarcity of whales makes catches infrequent. In the colonial days, however, it was a source of profit assiduously cultivated by coastwise communities, and both on Long Island and Cape Cod citizens were officially enjoined to watch for whales off shore. Whales were then seen daily in New York harbor, and in 1669 one Samuel Maverick recorded in a letter that thirteen whales had been taken along the south shore during the winter, and twenty in the spring.

Little by little the boat voyages after the leviathans extended further into the sea as the industry grew and the game became scarce and shy. The people of Cape Cod were the first to begin the fishery, and earliest perfected the art of "saving" the whale--that is, of securing all of value in the carcass. But the people of the little island of Nantucket brought the industry to its highest development, and spread most widely the fame of the American whaleman. Indeed, a Nantucket whaler laden with oil was the first vessel flying the Stars and Stripes that entered a British port. It is of a sailor on this craft that a patriotic anecdote, now almost classic, is told. He was unhappily deformed, and while passing along a Liverpool street was greeted by a British tar with a blow on his "humpback" and the salutation: "Hello, Jack! What you got there?" "Bunker Hill, d----n ye!" responded the Yankee. "Think you can climb it?" Far out at sea, swept ever by the Atlantic gales, a mere sand-bank, with scant surface soil to support vegetation, this island soon proved to its settlers its unfitness to maintain an agricultural people. There is a legend that an islander, weary perhaps with the effort of trying to wrest a livelihood from the unwilling soil, looked from a hilltop at the whales tumbling and spouting in the ocean. "There," he said, "is a green pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread." Whether the prophecy was made or not, the event occurred, for before the Revolution the American whaling fleet numbered 360 vessels, and in the banner year of the industry, 1846, 735 ships engaged in it, the major part of the fleet hailing from Nantucket. The cruises at first were toward Greenland after the so-called right whales, a variety of the cetaceans which has an added commercial value because of the baleen, or whalebone, which hangs in great strips from the roof of its mouth to its lower jaw, forming a sort of screen or sieve by which it sifts its food out of prodigious mouthfuls of sea water. This most enormous of known living creatures feeds upon very small shell-fish, swarm in the waters it frequents. Opening wide its colossal mouth, a cavity often more than fifteen feet in length, and so deep from upper to lower jaw that the flexible sheets of whalebone, sometimes ten feet long, hang straight without touching its floor, it takes a great gulp of water. Then the cavernous jaws slowly close, expelling the water through the whalebone sieve, somewhat as a Chinese laundryman sprinkles clothes, and the small marine animals which go to feed that prodigious bulk are caught in the strainer. The right whale is from 45 to 60 feet long in its maturity, and will yield about 15 tons of oil and 1500 weight of whalebone, though individuals have been known to give double this amount.

Most of the vessels which put out of Nantucket and New Bedford, in the earliest days of the industry, after whales of this sort, were not fitted with kettles and furnaces for trying out the oil at the time of the catch, as was always the custom in the sperm-whale fishery. Their prey was near at hand, their voyages comparatively short. So the fat, dripping, reeking blubber was crammed into casks, or some cases merely thrown into the ship's hold, just as it was cut from the carcass, and so brought back weeks later to the home port--a shipload of malodorous putrefaction. Old sailors who have cruised with cargoes of cattle, of green hides, and of guano, say that nothing that ever offended the olfactories of man equals the stench of a right-whaler on her homeward voyage. Scarcely even could the slave-ships compare with it. Brought ashore, this noisome mass was boiled in huge kettles, and the resulting oil sent to lighten the night in all civilized lands. England was a good customer of the colonies, and Boston shipowners did a thriving trade with oil from New Bedford or Nantucket to London. The sloops and ketches engaged in this commerce brought back, as an old letter of directions from shipowner to skipper shows, "course wicker flasketts, Allom, Copress, drum rims, head snares, shod shovells, window-glass." The trade was conducted with the same piety that we find manifested in the direction of slave-ships and privateers. In order that the oil may fetch a good price, and the voyage be speedy, the captain is commended to God, and "That hee may please to take the Conduct of you, we pray you look carefully that hee bee worshipped dayly in yor shippe, his Sabbaths Sanctifiede, and all sinne and prophainesse let bee Surpressed." In the Revolution the fisheries suffered severely from the British cruisers, and when, after peace was declared, the whalemen began coming back from the privateers, in which they had sought service, and the wharves of Nantucket, New Bedford, and New London began again to show signs of life, the Americans were confronted by the closing of their English markets. "The whale fisheries and the Newfoundland fisheries were the nurseries of British seamen," said the British ministry to John Adams, who went to London to remonstrate. "If we let Americans bring oil to London, and sell fish to our West India colonies, the British marine will decline." For a long time, therefore, the whalers had to look elsewhere than to England for a market. Nevertheless the trade grew. New Bedford, which by the middle of the nineteenth century held three-fourths of the business, took it up with great vigor. For a time Massachusetts gave bounties to encourage the industry, but it was soon strong enough to dispense with them. By 1789 the whalers found their way to the Pacific--destined in later years to be their chief fishing-ground. In that year the total whaling tonnage of Massachusetts was 10,210, with 1611 men and an annual product of 7880 barrels sperm and 13,130 barrels whale oil. Fifteen years earlier--before the war--the figures were thrice as great.


Before this period, however, whaling had taken on a new form. Deep-sea whaling, as it was called, to distinguish it from the shore fisheries, had begun long ago. Capt. Christopher Hursey, a stout Nantucket whaleman, cruising about after right whales, ran into a stiff northwest gale and was carried far out to sea. He struck a school of sperm-whales, killed one, and brought blubber home. It was not a new discovery, for the sperm-whale or cachalot, had been known for years, but the great numbers of right whales and the ease with which they were taken, had made pursuit of this nobler game uncommon. But now the fact, growing yearly more apparent, that right whales were being driven to more inaccessible haunts, made whalers turn readily to this new prey. Moreover, the sperm-whale had in him qualities of value that made him a richer prize than his Greenland cousin. True, he lacked the useful bone. His feeding habits did not necessitate a sieve, for, as beseems a giant, he devoured stout victuals, pieces of great squids--the fabled devil-fish--as big as a man's body being found in his stomach. Such a diet develops his fighting qualities, and while the right whale usually takes the steel sullenly, and dies like an overgrown seal, the cachalot fights fiercely, now diving with such a rush that he has been known to break his jaw by the fury with which he strikes the bottom at the depth of 200 fathoms; now raising his enormous bulk in air, to fall with an all-obliterating crash upon the boat which holds his tormentors, or sending boat and men flying into the air with a furious blow of his gristly flukes, or turning on his back and crunching his assailants between his cavernous jaws. Descriptions of the dying flurry of the sperm-whale are plentiful in whaling literature, many of the best of them being in that ideal whaleman's log "The Cruise of the Cachalot," by Frank T. Bullen. I quote one of these:

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