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19th Century American Whaling

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Ashley's Glossary of
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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXVII, No. 6 (Jun 1868)
pp. 539-544

Ballou's Monthly Magazine. 539



      It is now some thirty years since I shipped as third mate in the old barque Shylock of Fairhaven, Captain North, for a sperm whaling voyage in the Pacific Ocean. But little need be said here of the ship or the voyage generally. The Shylock was an old-fashioned, square-built vessel, such as were said to have been "built down east by the mile, and sawed off in lengths to suit;" a comfortable old boat, but as for her sailing qualities, she would travel a great distance in a long time. Captain North was a fair specimen of a large class of shippers of the old school, who, though not bad men at heart, seemed to labor under the mistaken idea, that no man could be properly drilled as a sailor unless he was cowed and kept down, and that the discipline of a ship could only be preserved by a continual series of petty persecutions of men and officers. To do him justice, he was impartial in the distribution of his favors, and, as a consequence, things all went wrong; for, as each man could look for nothing but abuse and fault-finding whatever he might do, there was no inducement to strive to do well. Our voyage was for a time unbroken by anything beyond the usual routine of a sperm whaling cruise, in an ill-regulated and ill-disciplined ship.

      We had been out two years, and had met with medium success, having taken about eleven hundred barrels, when an accident occurred, which, at this distant day, makes me shudder as I look back to it, and the dark scars associated with it are not more legibly written on my body than is the impression of the event of that dreadful night upon my memory.

      We had sailed from Otaheite very shorthanded, having lost many of our crew by desertion, and finding it difficult to replace them at that time. But as we were to make a sort of running cruise on "between-seasons" down the equator, and refit at the Sandwich Islands for a Japan season, Captain North decided to lose no more time, but to pursue his voyage, and pick up some natives at the islands to fill the vacancies. We ran down among the Kingmill's Group, and while trading at Simpson's Island, shipped two strapping young savages, who, by promises of indefinite quantities of tobacco and tapa (cotton cloth), were induced to expatriate themselves for a season. One of these, a smart, active young fellow, and apt to learn his duty, at once became a favorite among the men, and was christened "Spunyarn." The other, though apparently as stout as an ox, was stupid and sullen, and was, by general consent, dubbed "Blockhead." Old North could see no difference in them, or, if he did, would give no outward evidence of it, and both were equally the subjects of his delicate attentions in the form of kicks, cuffs and blasphemous words. Spunyarn bore it all philosophically and made rapid progress in his duty; while Blockhead, on the contrary, grew more and more sullen every day, and spent all his spare time under the lee of the try works, sighing for a sight of his native isle of the sea "Eppeemama," and, doubtless, luxuriating in fancy on cocoanut and raw flying fish.

      We had cruised about a fortnight without having taken any oil, when one afternoon, being well to windward of Hall's Island, another of the same group, the tops of the trees having been seen from the masthead that morning, sperm whales were "raised," and it was decided to try for them, though we could man only two boats, our whole force at this time being sixteen men, though the regular complement of the Shylock when on a "war footing," was twenty-four. It fell to my lot, under these circumstances, to act as boatsteerer to the larboard or chief mate's boat, and I had ordered Spunyarn to stand by to go in the boat with us, when Captain North interposed.

      "Don't take that stupid Kanaka in the boat! Here, you, cook! jump into the larboard boat! Put him at the midship oar, Mr. Beckwith, and let him work some of his fat off! Blockhead, take his place in the galley and hanahana the supper. I suppose you know enough to boil water, and, if you don't, I'll teach you with the end of the clew-garnet. It's well said, 'The Almighty sends us grub, but the devil sends cooks.'"

      We shoved off in pursuit of whales, and the last words I heard from "the old man" were a volley of oaths and execrations hurled at the devoted heads of the two savages, who

540 Boarding through the Stern Windows.

composed the whole working force left on board, with the exception of the steward, a dark Portuguese from one of the Cape de Verd Islands, who was stationed at the masthead, keeping a lookout for the whales.

      We pulled up to windward, as the whales were working in that direction, and the Shylock was kept along on a wind with the foretack down, and the mainsail in the buntlines, the wind being light, with occasional squalls of rain, such as are common in those latitudes. After a short chase, the second mate's boat struck one of the whales, and we pulled up to render assistance, or to get a chance at another in case the school should "bring to." But at the next rising they broke water, going to windward "eyes out," and as further pursuit was hopeless, we turned our attention to the fast whale. We soon had him spouting thick blood, and were congratulating each other upon an easy prey, which we would have snugly chained alongside before sundown, when our attention was attracted to the ship by an exclamation from Mr. Luce, the second mate.

      "What in the world is the old man doing, Mr. Beckwith? He must see something to leeward. He has been running off now for some minutes, and don't square in his afteryards. I thought at first he was wearing round, but that cannot be."

      "He yaws three or four points each way," said Mr. Beckwith. "But he has got one of those stupid Kanakas at the wheel, of course, and is swearing at him till the poor devil don't know which end he stands on. But the whale is about dead now, and I will go to the ship and lend a hand to work her up."

      "I don't know what can be the matter with the ship," he continued, after a pause. "The steward is still aloft, and there goes his small signal! See! he is running it up and down as fast as he can! Something is wrong! You go on and waif the whale, Mr. Luce, and then follow on," said the mate, severing our line with the boatknife at the same time. "Coil down your line, and lay round for the ship! Down to your oars, men, and pull ahead!"

      The Shylock was now about a mile and a half from us, still running to leeward before the light breeze, and yawing about in a most unaccountable manner. The steward had left his signal flapping at half-mast, and we now saw him coming down from his perch in the topgallant-crosstrees. Presently down came the main-topgallant-yard by the run, as though the halyards had parted, or been suddenly let go. Still Manoel continued to descend the rigging, and his movements, as was plain to us, even at that distance, gave evidence of great hurry and excitement. He swung himself off into the maintop, and in a minute afterwards, down came the main-topsail, the lifts bringing it up with a jerk which threatened to snap the yard in two at the slings. As we saw this, a suspicion of the truth flashed upon our minds – the two natives had got possession of the ship, and were running her in for the land! Mr. Beckwith and I exchanged glances, but for a minute nothing was said. We were considering what was to be done, and viewing the emergency in all its bearings. It was plain to both of us that the steward had cut the main-topgallant tie, and then, the topsail-tie being chain, he was obliged to descend low enough to cut the runner. It was evident the captain had been disposed of in some way; either murdered or overpowered and secured. The Portuguese, being "marooned" aloft, was safe for the present, as he had the advantage of position, and they dared not attack him; and he was doing all he could to cripple the progress of the ship, and to retard their efforts to run her to the westward. They had, doubtless, been instigated somewhat by motives of revenge for ill treatment, but their ulterior object was to beach the ship and plunder her, as they knew the land was within a few hours' sail. But Manoel was shortening sail for them very fast, for he had, by this time, slid down the main-topmast-stay into the foretop and cut the jib, topsail and topgallant halyards, so that everything was on the cap and "Spanish reefed." The ship was mainly impelled by the foresail now, the spanker being of little consequence with the wind so far aft, and as the old Shylock was not noted for speed even under favorable circumstances, it was plain that we could soon overhaul her in this trim. "But what then? what can we do?" was the question we all asked; for the waist boat bad now ranged up alongside of us for a consultation, and we could converse as we pulled abreast of each other.

      "We must pull as near as we can and reconnoitre," said the mate, "and we can communicate with the steward aloft. It's plain enough that Spunyarn and Blockhead have got the ship for the present, and we may have a tough job to get her out of their hands. The land must be about twelve miles under the lee. They cannot see it from the deck, and it is so late in the day, the canoes will

Boarding through the Stern Windows. 541

not come out to windward to-night, even if they see the ship. But what is the steward doing now? Cutting the clewlines and topgallant sheets?"

      "To get the quarter-blocks," said I. For it was evident enough what he was at. He had collected several blocks at his feet in the foretop to be used as missiles to defend himself in case of attack, and had also secured a marlinespike which had been left hanging in the rigging, so that, with his inevitable sheathknife, he had no contemptible armory of weapons.

      As we neared the ship, all was quiet on deck; not a living soul was to be seen but our friend in the foretop, who was on the alert and signified by gesture that the enemy were in ambush behind the rail. But as from his position he could only get glimpses of them now and then, by reason of the intervening sails, he was unable to give us information as to their movements. The first salute of the mate, as we came within hailing distance, was:

      "Steward, where's the old man?"

      "He dead, sir," hailed Manoel. "Kanaka been kill him."

      "Where are the Kanakas now?"

      "I no see him from here, sir. Hold on till I get back to main-topmast crosstrees, then I tell you, sir."

      To slide from the main to the foremast down the stays was comparatively easy, but to get back again was an undertaking of some difficulty. But the wary Portuguese had hitched the bight of the staysail halyards in the top, and using the standing part as a footrope proceeded to work his way carefully up the main-topmast-stay. We in the boats watched his progress with suspended breath till we saw him again safely posted in the crosstrees, whence he could survey the field.

      "Well, steward, what do you see?" said the impatient mate.

      "Kanaka he down under quarter-sail, sir. One this side, one 'tother. Got lance – got spade – all ready to kill you if you come too nigh, sir."

      The two mutineers, seeing that further concealment was useless, now sprang to their feet with a yell, and showed their heads above the rail, brandishing sharp blubber spades, and shouting defiance at us. They knew we had no fire-arms in the boats; so here we were, twelve men held at bay by two who had the advantage of position. The ship was thus converted into a floating fortress, to attack which would involve great loss of life before we could effect a lodgment and overpower the small garrison. We could perceive that Spunyarn, from time to time, gave his attention to the helm to keep the ship headed off the same general course. It appeared they had observed the effect of the spanker in broaching her to, for they had hauled it up, and it now hung in the brails. They did not, however, seem to know enough to square in the mainyards, for everything was still braced up sharp.

      Manoel in his perch was quite safe from assault, as the savages knew nothing about using guns, and stood in wholesome fear of them, from what little they had seen of their effects. Had there been a gun aloft, the Portuguese might have cleared the deck in short metre; but in default of this, he was now collecting more blocks, as if for the purpose of bombarding the quarter-deck if a good opportunity was presented.

      We next pulled under the bows to try the project of boarding from the bowsprit, as the jib halyards were hanging down from the boom end. But the savages were there ahead of us with plenty of weapons, and a keen lance whizzing between the bowman's head and mine, narrowly missing both of us, was a sufficient admonisher of the peril of the undertaking, and we hauled off and lay on our oars for another consultation. We might perhaps have got the steward off in safety; indeed he suggested that we should do so, as he could go forward and slide down the flying-jib stay, and lower himself from the boom end into the water to be picked up by the boats. But Mr. Beckwith decided not to do so, except as a last resort in case we made up our minds to abandon the ship. So long as there was any prospect of retaking her, he might render us valuable aid by remaining where he was.

      The sun was rapidly sinking below the horizon as we lay considering plans for recapturing our own, and as there would be no moon the first part of the night, and the weather promised to be overcast and squally, we should have all the advantages of darkness. The ship must be boarded and retaken at any cost; otherwise, the only alternative left us was death from starvation in open boats, or death more speedily at the hands of the savages on one of these islands. We might board with the two boats simultaneously in the darkness, and so carry the deck by a coup-de-main, but several of us must be killed or wounded in doing so, and a victory so dearly bought was hardly to be thought of.

542 Boarding through the Stern Windows.

      To retake the ship without loss of life, it was absolutely necessary to get possession of fire-arms. I had a plan for doing this, and as I was then young and adventurous, I did not hesitate to volunteer to put it in execution myself. I told Mr. Beckwith I thought I could board the ship through the stern windows after dark, and as I knew the whereabouts of everything in the cabin, I could secure the guns and ammunition. There was no light in the cabin, and it was almost certain that the two natives would keep the deck as long as the boats were prowling about. The mate doubted whether I could get into the cabin without discovery, but was quite willing I should attempt it if I chose to run the risk. I had calculated all chances, and thought that, even if I raised an alarm I could elude danger by diving, and get out of range to be picked up again by the boats. The second mate's boat would be off in a direction ahead of the ship and show a light, which would distract the enemy's attention from the cabin, and would also serve as a beacon to me, to indicate the whereabouts of the boat in case of failure. If I got into the cabin, I was to show a light a moment at the window, which would then be answered by the mate astern. After this I was to be governed by circumstances. If I thought it feasible to make an attack myself after securing the guns, I could do so, or I could show another flash as a signal for a man to reinforce me. If the worst befell and I was obliged to retreat, I could, at least, bring off a gun and some bullets, with a tight flask of powder from the captain's state-room. With these in our possession we could attack and take the ship.

      The details being arranged, we pulled up nearer, hailed the steward, and gave him an outline of our intentions, that he might be prepared to act in co-operation. We then hauled off again, waiting anxiously for darkness.

      The weather being so warm here, nearly under the equator, there was no inconvenience about remaining in the water for any reasonable length of time. As soon as it was fully dark, I stripped to my pants, leaving my shirt in the boat, and armed with a boathook, and a sharp knife in the belt round my waist, I dropped quietly overboard, and let myself drift alongside. The ship was forging ahead very slowly with the light air, and moving so slowly, she had but little more than steerage way. As I passed along in the waist I caught at a boat-gripe which had been left towing overboard, and arresting my progress, listened intently, hearing nothing for a minute or two but the flap of a sail, or the swash of the sea among the ragged copper, as the ship gently rose and fell. At length, I caught the guttural sound of the two Kanakas conversing in low tones, and knew they were somewhere forward near the bows of the ship. Thus far all was in my favor. I had no doubt that I was seen and watched by the Portuguese from the maintop, as he would be on the lookout for me, but I knew he would not dare to give me any sign of his knowledge. I knew there were two jawbones of whales towing astern, which had been there several days, bleaching out. The tow-ropes attached to them led through cleets on the taffrail nearly over the stern windows. Upon one of these ropes, with the help of my boathook, I must depend in climbing. I knew that the dead-lights were both open as they usually were in tropical latitudes, if the weather was moderate; I knew also that the old Shylock had very little rake of stern to contend with, her stern frame being almost perpendicular. All these circumstances were in my favor, but the chief danger was that of being discovered in the act when one of them came aft to right the helm. But I had rightly judged they would pay little attention to this, as they would be watching the boats during the hours of darkness, and would depend upon daylight next day for running the ship ashore. They would also be shy of passing back and forth near the mainmast, for fear of having a block dropped on their heads by the vigilant steward.

      Thus having arranged all my scraps of knowledge, both of the field of action and of the enemy's tactics, I drifted silently out clear of the counter, and seized one of the towropes. With my sharp knife I cut adrift the jaw-pans, retaining the end of the rope, with which I swam in, so as to catch the ring on the rudder with the boat-hook, which I had shortened somewhat before starting so as to use it conveniently with one hand. I pulled myself carefully up on the rudder, and by great exertion, and by using my hook where there was no hand-hold, I soon found myself seated astride at the shoulder or jog, which in this old barque was of ample width; and here I paused a moment to recover my strength, and to satisfy myself that all was quiet above me. Everything was still as death and the Kanakas were doubtless on the bow, watching

Boarding through the Stern Windows. 543

Mr. Luce's light. I knew that the mate's boat must now be astern and within hail, though just out of the range of vision.

      I next pushed the boat-hook above my head into the window until it landed on the transom, with half the pole projecting so as to be within my reach when wanted. Seizing the rope as high up as possible, I raised myself, hand and hand, till my feet were level with the window, and then holding my weight by one arm, with a twist, I got a firm hold with the boat-hook, and pulled myself inward. Here was the greatest trial of strength and wind, but after a series of desperate struggles I succeeded in launching myself into the opening, but in so doing, lost control of my faithful boat-hook, which fell with a rattling noise from the transom into the cabin. Quick as thought, I had drawn my sheath-knife, and crouched low in the dark, resolving, if brought to bay, to sell my life dearly. I listened intently for the pattering of bare feet coming aft, but a minute of dead silence satisfied me that I had not been heard. They must, then, be still watching on the bow, and now was my time to give the signal. Seizing a match from a lantern at hand, I flashed it a moment at the window, carefully shielding it with my body, that the light might not shine up through the skylight. It was answered almost immediately by a light from the mate's boat astern, at sight of which both the rascals came tramping aft with grunts of satisfaction at knowing where the boat was. All this was in my favor, as it served to divert their attention, and there would be no danger of their coming below. The boats now pulled up both in sight, and began to harass the enemy by making feints of attack and hailing the steward aloft, all of which served to cover my operations in the dark. Glancing up the companionway, I observed that the upright doors of the cabin were shut, but the slide above was a little way open, showing a small patch of sky through it. Now for the guns. There was a small fowling-piece in the mate's room, which was clean and in good order, with powder and bullets ready at hand. This I brought out, loaded and capped it carefully, and stood it ready at the foot of the stairs. Standing in a rack against the bulkhead were five old flint-lock muskets, such as are sent out in whale-ships for purposes of trade, not very serviceable, but one of them I knew to be pretty sure fire, and I knew which it was, provided the guns had not been disturbed since we left the ship. But it was not unlikely that the savages, in their superstitious admiration for these weapons, might have handled them, and so changed their order in the rack. I took the middle one of the five, however, and loaded it carefully. All this time there had been a great confusion going on, and I had heard lances darted several times at the boats, but I knew that my shipmates would be careful to keep out of darting distance. Now the noise had subsided, and glancing from the window, I found that the boats had dropped off materially and were pulling to keep up to their position. I then heard a movement of the helm, and it was evident that a little breeze had sprung up and the barque was forging ahead smartly. Whatever was to be done must be done quickly. As I passed along to place my gun by the other one I unfortunately hit the butt of the fowling-piece with my foot, and it fell to the floor! I was discovered, then!

      To grasp and cock it and take my stand at the foot of the stairs was the work of an instant. The doors were thrown open with a bang, the lithe figure of Spunyarn appeared in the gap, and simultaneously with the crack of my gun, a blubber spade came ringing down the stairs. I had been too quick for him; a howl of pain gave evidence that he was at least winged if not killed, and as I dropped the gun and seized the old flint-lock, I was conscious that my shoulder was bleeding freely from a cut inflicted by the corner of the spade as it passed me. I could not stop to look at this, however, I knew the wind was freshening, and could hear the voices of Mr. Beck with and Mr. Luce urging their men to "give way, hard!" and straining every nerve to get alongside. I threw another glance upward in turn to see the Portuguese coming down the backstay with the marline-spike in his teeth, and something heavy slung to his shoulder. I saw Spunyarn dart back to encounter this new foe in his rear, and the next instant, with a leap like that of a tiger, his brawny partner, Blockhead, was upon me! I had time to back into the cabin and pull trigger, but the old musket hung fire; I whirled it in my hands, and met him with the stock, the blow taking effect on his shoulder, and staggering him enough to give me time to draw my knife! I could see a longer knife, the cook's carver, gleaming in the darkness, and knew that the death struggle had come as we closed with each other. I knew that blood was flowing freely from both of us, but neither could get the other at ad-

544 Forgive and Forget.

vantage for a fatal blow. In our struggle, we had thrown ourselves across the cabin table, which was heavy and well secured to the deck. Crash went a leaf of the table, and Blockhead, thrown off his balance, lost his knife from his grasp! I heard it ring on the floor, as he seized me by the throat with his powerful teeth, while my arm was so tightly held in his vice-like grasp that I could not get a blow at him. His head was just over the edge of the table; in my agony, I threw my whole weight upon him, and bore him down – down – I could feel his choking struggles – still down I bore upon him till his hands unloosed their hold – his muscles relaxed – and his head hung pendent over the side of the table. His neck was broken! I was free, but covered with his blood and my own. I reeled off the table to the floor; tried to stand, and fell into the steward's arms – heard the shouts of my shipmates as they jumped in over the rail – and knew no more.

      When I became conscious, I was in my berth, with my wounds carefully dressed, and my anxious friends showing me every possible attention. My cuts, though numerous and painful, were not dangerous, and by the time the ship, under the mate's command, was ready to sail from Oahu, where I found the best of medical aid, I was able to resume my duties on board as second mate.

      The steward, it seems had been too quick for Spunyarn. As he rushed to the attack with a short spade, Manoel let go the backstay when three or four feet above him, and dropped directly on his head, bringing him to the deck, and before he could regain his feet, the iron-strapped quarter-block had descended upon his skull and finished him. His left arm was already broken by my shot

      The owners rewarded me handsomely for my exploit on our arrival home, and gave me the command of the ship on her next voyage. So it was rather a fortunate affair for me, in its consequences. But I can never repress a thrill of dread when I think of the adventures of that dark night on the broad Pacific, when I boarded the old Shylock through the stem windows.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Boarding Through the Stern Windows.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 27, No. 6 (Jun 1868)
Pages: 539-544