Books by willis j. Abbot

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"Suddenly the mate gave a howl: 'Starn all--starn all! Oh, starn!' and the oars bent like canes as we obeyed--there was an upheaval of the sea just ahead; then slowly, majestically, the vast body of our foe rose into the air. Up, up it went while my heart stood still, until the whole of that immense creature hung on high, apparently motionless, and then fell--a hundred tons of solid flesh--back into the sea. On either side of that mountainous mass the waters rose in shining towers of snowy foam, which fell in their turn, whirling and eddying around us as we tossed and fell like a chip in a whirlpool. Blinded by the flying spray, baling for very life to free the boat from the water, with which she was nearly full, it was some minutes before I was able to decide whether we were still uninjured or not. Then I saw, at a little distance, the whale lying quietly. As I looked he spouted and the vapor was red with his blood. 'Starn all!' again cried our chief, and we retreated to a considerable distance. The old warrior's practised eye had detected the coming climax of our efforts, the dying agony, or 'flurry,' of the great mammal. Turning upon his side, he began to move in a circular direction, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until he was rushing round at tremendous speed, his great head raised quite out of water at times, slashing his enormous jaws. Torrents of blood poured from his spout-hole, accompanied by hoarse bellowings, as of some gigantic bull, but really caused by the laboring breath trying to pass through the clogged air-passages. The utmost caution and rapidity of manipulation of the boat was necessary to avoid his maddened rush, but this gigantic energy was short-lived. In a few minutes he subsided slowly in death, his mighty body reclined on one side, the fin uppermost waving limply as he rolled to the swell, while the small waves broke gently over the carcass in a low, monotonous surf, intensifying the profound silence that had succeeded the tumult of our conflict with the late monarch of the deep."


Not infrequently the sperm-whale, breaking loose from the harpoon, would ignore the boats and make war upon his chief enemy--the ship. The history of the whale fishery is full of such occurrences. The ship "Essex," of Nantucket, was attacked and sunk by a whale, which planned its campaign of destruction as though guided by human intelligence. He was first seen at a distance of several hundred yards, coming full speed for the ship. Diving, he rose again to the surface about a ship's length away, and then surged forward on the surface, striking the vessel just forward of the fore-chains. "The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock," said the mate afterward, "and trembled for few seconds like a leaf." Then she began to settle, but not fast enough to satisfy the ire of the whale. Circling around, he doubled his speed, and bore down upon the "Essex" again. This time his head fairly stove in the bows, and the ship sank so fast that the men were barely able to provision and launch the boats. Curiously enough, the monster that had thus destroyed a stout ship paid no attention whatsoever to the little boats, which would have been like nutshells before his bulk and power. But many of the men who thus escaped only went to a fate more terrible than to have gone down with their stout ship. Adrift on a trackless sea, 1000 miles from land, in open boats, with scant provision of food or water, they faced a frightful ordeal. After twenty-eight days they found an island, but it proved a desert. After leaving it the boats became separated--one being never again heard of. In the others men died fast, and at last the living were driven by hunger actually to eat the dead. Out of the captain's boat two only were rescued; out of the mate's, three. In all twelve men were sacrificed to the whale's rage.

Mere lust for combat seemed to animate this whale, for he had not been pursued by the men of the "Essex," though perhaps in some earlier meeting with men he had felt the sting of the harpoon and the searching thrust of the lance. So great is the vitality of the cachalot that it not infrequently breaks away from its pursuers, and with two or three harpoon-heads in its body lives to a ripe, if not a placid, old age. The whale that sunk the New Bedford ship "Ann Alexander" was one of these fighting veterans. With a harpoon deep in his side he turned and deliberately ran over and sunk the boat that was fast to him; then with equal deliberation sent a second boat to the bottom. This was before noon, and occurred about six miles from the ship, which bore down as fast as could be to pick up the struggling men. The whale, apparently contented with his escape, made off. But about sunset Captain Delois, iron in hand, watching from the knight-heads of the "Ann Alexander" for other whales to repair his ill-luck, saw the redoubtable fighter not far away, swimming at about a speed of five knots. At the same time the whale spied the ship. Increasing his speed to fifteen knots, he bore down upon her, and with the full force of his more than 100 tons bulk struck her "a terrible blow about two feet from the keel and just abreast of the foremast, breaking a large hole in her bottom, through which the water poured in a rushing stream." The crew had scarce time to get out the boats, with one day's provisions, but were happily picked up by a passing vessel two days later. The whale itself met retribution five months later, when it was taken by another American ship. Two of the "Ann Alexander's" harpoons were in him, his head bore deep scars, and in it were imbedded pieces of the ill-fated ship's timbers.

Instances of the combativeness of the sperm-whale are not confined to the records of the whale fishery. Even as I write I find in a current San Francisco newspaper the story of the pilot-boat "Bonita," sunk near the Farallon Islands by a whale that attacked her out of sheer wantonness and lust for fight. The "Bonita" was lying hove-to, lazily riding the swells, when in the dark--it was 10 o'clock at night--there came a prodigious shock, that threw all standing to the deck and made the pots and pans of the cook's galley jingle like a chime out of tune. From the deck the prodigious black bulk of a whale, about eighty feet long, could be made out, lying lazily half out of water near the vessel. The timbers of the "Bonita" must have been crushed by his impact, for she began to fill, and soon sank.

In this case the disaster was probably not due to any rage or malicious intent on the part of the whale. Indeed, in the days when the ocean was more densely populated with these huge animals, collision with a whale was a well-recognized maritime peril. How many of the stout vessels against whose names on the shipping list stands the fatal word "missing," came to their ends in this way can never be known; but maritime annals are full of the reports of captains who ran "bows on" into a mysterious reef where the chart showed no obstruction, but which proved to be a whale, reddening the sea with his blood, and sending the ship--not less sorely wounded--into some neighboring port to refit.

The tools with which the business of hunting the whale is pursued are simple, even rude. Steam, it is true, has succeeded to sails, and explosives have displaced the sinewy arm of the harpooner for launching the deadly shafts; but in the main the pursuit of the monsters is conducted now as it was sixty years ago, when to command a whaler was the dearest ambition of a New England coastboy. The vessels were usually brigs or barks, occasionally schooners, ranging from 100 to 500 tons. They had a characteristic architecture, due in part to the subordination of speed to carrying capacity, and further to the specially heavy timbering about the bows to withstand the crushing of the Arctic ice-pack. The bow was scarce distinguishable from the stern by its lines, and the masts stuck up straight, without that rake, which adds so much to the trim appearance of a clipper. Three peculiarities chiefly distinguished the whalers from other ships of the same general character. At the main royal-mast head was fixed the "crow's nest"--in some vessels a heavy barrel lashed to the mast, in others merely a small platform laid on the cross-trees, with two hoops fixed to the mast above, within which the lookout could stand in safety. On the deck, amidships, stood the "try-works," brick furnaces, holding two or three great kettles, in which the blubber was reduced to odorless oil. Along each rail were heavy, clumsy wooden cranes, or davits, from which hung the whale-boats--never less than five, sometimes more, while still others were lashed to the deck, for boats were the whale's sport and playthings, and seldom was a big "fish" made fast that there was not work for the ship's carpenter.

The whale-boat, evolved from the needs of this fishery, is one of the most perfect pieces of marine architecture afloat--a true adaptation of means to an end. It is clinker-built, about 27 feet long, by 6 feet beam, with a depth of about 2 feet 6 inches; sharp at both ends and clean-sided as a mackerel. Each boat carried five oarsmen, who wielded oars of from nine to sixteen feet in length, while the mate steers with a prodigious oar ten feet long. The bow oarsman is the harpooner, but when he has made fast to the whale he goes aft and takes the mate's place at the steering oar, while the latter goes forward with the lances to deal the final murderous strokes. This curious and dangerous change of position in the boat, often with a heavy sea running, and with a 100-ton whale tugging at the tug-line seems to have grown out of nothing more sensible than the insistence of mates on recognition of their rank. But a whale-boat is not the only place where a spill is threatened because some one in power insists on doing something at once useless and dangerous.

The whale-boat also carried a stout mast, rigging two sprit sails. The mast was instantly unshipped when the whale was struck. The American boats also carried centerboards, lifting into a framework extending through the center of the craft, but the English whalemen omitted these appendages. A rudder was hung over the side, for use in emergencies. Into this boat were packed, with the utmost care and system, two line-tubs, each holding from 100 to 200 fathoms of fine manila rope, one and one-half inches round, and of a texture like yellow silk; three harpoons, wood and iron, measuring about eight feet over all, and weighing about ten pounds; three lances of the finest steel, with wooden handles, in all about eight feet long; a keg of drinking water and one of biscuits; a bucket and piggin for bailing, a small spade, knives, axes, and a shoulder bomb-gun. It can be understood easily that six men, maneuvering in so crowded a boat, with a huge whale flouncing about within a few feet, a line whizzing down the center, to be caught in which meant instant death, and the sea often running high, had need to keep their wits about them.

Harpoons and lances are kept ground to a razor edge, and, propelled by the vigorous muscles of brawny whalemen, often sunk out of sight through the papery skin and soft blubber of the whale. Beyond these primitive appliances the whale fishery never progressed very far. It is true that in later days a shoulder-gun hurled the harpoon, explosive bombs replaced the lances, the ships were in some cases fitted with auxiliary steam-power, and in a few infrequent instances steam launches were employed for whale-boats. But progress was not general. The old-fashioned whaling tubs kept the seas, while the growing scarcity of the whales and the blow to the demand for oil dealt by the discovery of petroleum, checked the development of the industry. Now the rows of whalers rotting at New Bedford's wharves, and the somnolence of Nantucket, tell of its virtual demise.

These two towns were built upon the prosperity of the whale fishery. When it languished their fortunes sunk, never to rise to their earlier heights, though cotton-spinning came to occupy the attention of the people of New Bedford, while Nantucket found a placid prosperity in entertaining summer boarders. And even during the years when whales were plentiful, and their oil still in good demand, there came periods of interruption to the trade and poverty to its followers. The Revolution first closed the seas to American ships for seven long years, and at its close the whalers found their best market--England--still shut against them. Moreover, the high seas during the closing years of the eighteenth and the opening of the nineteenth centuries were not as to-day, when a pirate is as scarce a beast of prey as a highwayman on Hounslow Heath. The Napoleonic wars had broken down men's natural sense of order and of right, and the seas swarmed with privateers, who on occasion were ready enough to turn pirates. Many whalers fell a prey to these marauders, whose operations were rather encouraged than condemned by the European nations. Both England and France were at this period endeavoring to lure the whalemen from the United Colonies by promise of special concessions in trade, or more effective protection on the high seas than their own weakling governments could assure them. Some Nantucket whalemen were indeed enticed to the new English whaling town at Dartmouth, near Halifax, or to the French town of Dunkirk. But the effort to transplant the industry did not succeed, and the years that followed, until the fateful embargo of 1807, were a period of rapid growth for the whale fishery and increasing wealth for those who pursued it. In the form of its business organization the business of whaling was the purest form of profit-sharing we have ever seen in the United States. Everybody on the ship, from captain to cabin-boy, was a partner, vitally interested in the success of the voyage. Each had his "lay"--that is to say, his proportionate share of the proceeds of the catch. Obed Macy, in his "History of Nantucket," says: "The captain's lay is generally one-seventeenth part of all obtained; the first officer's one-twenty-eighth part; the second officer's, one-forty-fifth; the third officer's, one-sixtieth; a boat-steerer's from an eightieth to a hundred-and-twentieth, and a foremast hand's, from a hundred-and-twentieth to a hundred-and-eighty-fifth each." These proportions, of course, varied--those of the men according to the ruling wages in other branches of the merchant service; those of the officers to correspond with special qualities of efficiency. All the remainder of the catch went to the owners, who put into the enterprise the ship and outfitted her for a cruise, which usually occupied three years. Their investment was therefore a heavy one, a suitable vessel of 300-tons burden costing in the neighborhood of $22,000, and her outfit $18,000 to $20,000. Not infrequently the artisans engaged in fitting out a ship were paid by being given "lays," like the sailor. In such a case the boatmaker who built the whale-boats, the ropemaker who twisted the stout, flexible manila cord to hold the whale, the sailmaker and the cooper were all interested with the crew and the owners in the success of the voyage. It was the most practical communism that industry has ever seen, and it worked to the satisfaction of all concerned as long as the whaling trade continued profitable.

The wars in which the American people engaged during the active days of the whale fishery--the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War--were disastrous to that industry, and from the depredations committed by the Confederate cruisers in the last conflict it never fully recovered. The nature of their calling made the whalemen peculiarly vulnerable to the evils of war. Cruising in distant seas, always away from home for many months, often for years, a war might be declared and fought to a finish before they knew of it. In the disordered Napoleonic days they never could tell whether the flag floating at the peak of some armed vessel encountered at the antipodes was that of friend or foe. During both the wars with England they were the special objects of the enemy's malignant attention. From the earliest days American progress in maritime enterprise was viewed by the British with apprehension and dislike. Particularly did the growth of the cod fisheries and the chase of the whale arouse transatlantic jealousy, the value of these callings as nurseries for seamen being only too plainly apparent. Accordingly the most was made of the opportunities afforded by war for crushing the whaling industry. Whalers were chased to their favorite fishing-grounds, captured, and burned. With cynical disregard of all the rules of civilized warfare--supposing war ever to be civilized--the British gave to the captured whalers only the choice of serving in British men-of-war against their own countrymen, or re-entering the whaling trade on British ships, thus building up the British whale fishery at the expense of the American. The American response to these tactics was to abandon the business during war time. In 1775 Nantucket alone had had 150 vessels, aggregating 15,000 tons, afloat in pursuit of the whale. The trade was pushed with such daring and enterprise that Edmund Burke was moved to eulogize its followers in an eloquent speech in the British House of Commons. "Neither the perseverance of Holland," he said, "nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this most recent people." But the eloquence of Burke could not halt the British ministry in its purpose to tax the colonies despite their protests. The Revolution followed, and the whalemen of Nantucket and New Bedford stripped their vessels, sent down yards and all running rigging, stowed the sails, tied their barks and brigs to the deserted wharves and went out of business. The trade thus rudely checked had for the year preceding the outbreak of the war handled 45,000 barrels of sperm oil, 8500 barrels of right-whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of bone.

The enforced idleness of the Revolutionary days was not easily forgotten by the whalemen, and their discontent and complainings were great when the nation was again embroiled in war with Great Britain in 1812. It can not be said that their attitude in the early days of that conflict was patriotic. They had suffered--both at the hands of France and England--wrongs which might well rouse their resentment. They had been continually impressed by England, and the warships of both nations had seized American whalers for real or alleged violations of the Orders in Council or the Ostend Manifesto; but the whalemen were more eager for peace, even with the incidental perils due to war in Europe, than for war, with its enforced idleness. When Congress ordered the embargo the whalers were at first explicitly freed from its operations; but this provision being seized upon to cover evasions of the embargo, they were ultimately included. When war was finally declared, the protests of the Nantucket people almost reached the point of threatening secession. A solemn memorial was first addressed to Congress, relating the exceedingly exposed condition of the island and its favorite calling to the perils of war, and begging that the actual declaration of war might be averted. When this had availed nothing, and the young nation had rushed into battle with a courage that must seem to us now foolhardy, the Nantucketers adopted the doubtful expedient of seeking special favor from the enemy. An appeal for immunity from the ordinary acts of war was addressed to the British Admiral Cochrane, and a special envoy was sent to the British naval officer commanding the North American station, to announce the neutrality of the island and to beg immunity from assault and pillage, and assurance that one vessel would be permitted to ply unmolested between the island and the mainland. As a result of these negotiations, Nantucket formally declared her neutrality, and by town meeting voted to accede to the British demand that her people pay no taxes for the support of the United States. In all essential things the island ceased to be a part of the United States, its people neither rendering military service nor contributing to the revenues. But their submission to the British demands did not save the whale-trade, for repeated efforts to get the whalers declared neutral and exempt from capture failed.

Half a century of peace followed, during which the whaling industry rose to its highest point; but was again on the wane when the Civil War let loose upon the remaining whalemen the Confederate cruisers, the "Shenandoah" alone burning thirty-four of them. From this last stroke the industry, enfeebled by the lessened demand for its chief product, and by the greater cost and length of voyages resulting from the growing scarcity of whales, never recovered. To-day its old-time ports are deserted by traffic. Stripped of all that had salable value, its ships rot on mud-banks or at moldering wharves. The New England boy, whose ambition half a century ago was to ship on a whaler, with a boy's lay and a straight path to the quarter-deck, now goes into a city office, or makes for the West as a miner or a railroad man. The whale bids fair to become as extinct as the dodo, and the whaleman is already as rare as the buffalo.


With the extension of the fishing-grounds to the Pacific began the really great days of the whale fishery. Then, from such a port as Nantucket or New Bedford a vessel would set out, to be gone three years, carrying with her the dearest hopes and ambitions of all the inhabitants. Perhaps there would be no house without some special interest in her cruise. Tradesmen of a dozen sorts supplied stores on shares. Ambitious boys of the best families sought places before the mast, for there was then no higher goal for youthful ambition than command of a whaler. Not infrequently a captain would go direct from the marriage altar to his ship, taking a young bride off on a honeymoon of three years at sea. Of course the home conditions created by this almost universal masculine employment were curious. The whaling towns were populated by women, children, and old men. The talk of the street was of big catches and the prices of oil and bone. The conversation in the shaded parlors, where sea-shells, coral, and the trophies of Pacific cruises were the chief ornaments, was of the distant husbands and sons, the perils they braved, and when they might be expected home. The solid, square houses the whalemen built, stoutly timbered as though themselves ships, faced the ocean, and bore on their ridge-pole a railed platform called the bridge, whence the watchers could look far out to sea, scanning the horizon for the expected ship. Lucky were they if she came into the harbor without half-masted flag or other sign of disaster. The profits of the calling in its best days were great. The best New London record is that of the "Pioneer," made in an eighteen-months' cruise in 1864-5. She brought back 1391 barrels of oil and 22,650 pounds of bone, all valued at $150,060. The "Envoy," of New Bedford, after being condemned as unseaworthy, was fitted out in 1847 at a cost of $8000, and sent out on a final cruise. She found oil and bone to the value of $132,450; and reaching San Francisco in the flush times, was sold for $6000. As an offset to these records, is the legend of the Nantucket captain who appeared off the harbor's mouth after a cruise of three years. "What luck, cap'n?" asked the first to board. "Well, I got nary a barrel of oil and nary a pound of bone; but I had a mighty good sail."

When the bar was crossed and the ship fairly in blue water, work began. Rudyard Kipling has a characteristic story, "How the Ship Found Herself," telling how each bolt and plate, each nut, screw-thread, brace, and rivet in one of those iron tanks we now call ships adjusts itself to its work on the first voyage. On the whaler the crew had to find itself, to readjust its relations, come to know its constituent parts, and learn the ways of its superiors. Sometimes a ship was manned by men who had grown up together and who had served often on the same craft; but as a rule the men of the forecastle were a rough and vagrant lot; capable seamen, indeed, but of the adventurous and irresponsible sort, for service before the mast on a whaler was not eagerly sought by the men of the merchant service. For a time Indians were plenty, and their fine physique and racial traits made them skillful harpooners. As they became scarce, negroes began to appear among the whalemen, with now and then a Lascar, a South Sea Islander, Portuguese, and Hawaiians. The alert New Englanders, trained to the life of the sea, seldom lingered long in the forecastle, but quickly made their way to the posts of command. There they were despots, for nowhere was the discipline more severe than on whalemen. The rule was a word and a blow--and the word was commonly a curse. The ship was out for a five-years' cruise, perhaps, and the captain knew that the safety of all depended upon unquestioning obedience to his authority. Once in a while even the cowed crew would revolt, and infrequent stories of mutiny and murder appear in the record of the whale trade. The whaler, like a man-of-war, carried a larger crew than was necessary for the work of navigation, and it was necessary to devise work to keep the men employed. As a result, the ships were kept cleaner than any others in the merchant service, even though the work of trying out the blubber was necessarily productive of smoke, soot, and grease.

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