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19th Century American Whaling

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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXIV, No. 6 (Dec 1871)
pp. 560-564.

560 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      The summer breeze played gently with the broad Atlantic, rippling its waves upon the white sand-beach at the "Cliff Shore," on the north side of Nantucket. A light whaleboat, with the oars peaked ready for a start, lay with her head grounded on the shore, while her stern lifted and swayed lightly by the buoyant power of the waters, as if she were impatient to be afloat and speeding away at the sport of her appropriate element.

      It was the last boat ashore from the Proteus, lying in the offing beyond the "Outer Bar," with her fore-topsail loosed, and her cable short-up-and-down. A long Pacific voyage lay before the six persons in amphibious costumes, who might easily have been selected as forming the crew of the whaleboat, though they were mingled with groups of their friends, who had come down to the beach to see them off.

      It is to a seventh personage, however, that we would introduce the reader; a man of tall stature and great length of limb, clad in a pair of "satinet" trousers, made evidently for service rather than for show, with a shirt of gray-striped kersey; while over all hung a coat of the peculiar cut affected by members of the Society of Friends. We say "hung" rather than "was worn;" for there was an air about the man, and the garment, too, as if it occupied a place on his back under protest, having no business there. The same was true of the broad-brimmed hat, which might be said to top his head rather than to cover it. It was as if they were an acknowledged violation of the fitness of things; a something to be soon deposed and sent into retirement, as really was the case.

      The woman at his side, on the contrary, wore her drab gown and closely-pinned scanty shawl about her shoulders as if they had grown there, and were part and parcel of her very nature. The bonnet on her head was such as her apostate descendants now ridicule as the "sugar-scoop" style; and her whole make-up quite effectually robbed the figure of any of those touches of grace or piquancy such as most of us poor frivolous mortals delight to look for in the gentler sex. She might have been comely, at some period of her life; but the features had long ago settled into rigidity, and the form developed into angularity.

      Two boys, who might have been called, respectively, twelve and eight years of age, the elder wearing the enforced garb under protest, like the father, the younger as prim and precise as even the mother could desire,completed this group, which was a little apart from the main body of their fellow-townsmen, many of whom had assembled to give thema Godspeed.

      "Thee acts as though thee’s in a hurry to get away from us, Gideon," said the wife, in a cold measured tone. "I don’t know what thy neighbors will think of thee to see thee care so little about thy family."

      "I don’t care what they think," answered the man, with an air of quiet indifference. "As for caring for my family, I think I’ve always tried to do my duty by ’em, and I suppose I love 'my children as well as men in general do. I don’t think it’s my fault that I haven’t lived very pleasantly with thee. We can’t seem to look at things alike; and I don't know why thee should take the pains to come down here to the beach at all, when I thought our parting was all over at home. Thee might have let the boys come."

      "But I didn’t mean to let the boys come, without I came with them. It would look nicely, wouldn't it, for Naomi Bunker to let her husband go to sea without coming to the Cliff Shore to see him off?"

      "That’s it! Always thinking how anything would look to outsiders. Suppose they could get a peep at the inside economy of our household, and – "

      "Le’ me go in the Proteus with you, father?" interrupted the elder boy.

      "Peleg," said the mother, sternly, "why will thee be so rude and unseemly? If thee would only behave thyself like Seth, I should not have to be always ashamed of thy actions before folks."

      "What’s the matter with his actions?" asked Gideon. "I don’t see but what he acts as any boy ought to at his age, if he has any grit in him."

      "Yes, of course, thee'd take his part and uphold him in his crazy conduct. Whatever Peleg does is always right in thy sight."

Gideon Bunker's Exile. 561

      "That’s not true. I’ve always loved both the boys alike; but I don’t like to see him snubbed as he is every time he lets out a little of the live boy that’s in him. Thee can’t make Quaker preachers of both of ’em."

      "No," said Peleg. "I never shall preach. I want to go round Cape Horn, and I’m going before I’m a year older."

      "Well, shut thy mouth now," said Naomi, sharply. "I suppose I shall have to let him go, for he wont be suitable for anything else, if he don’t; and sometimes I wish I had fitted him out and sent him with thee in the Proteus."

      "I don’t want him," retorted her husband, abruptly. "Or, at least, I don’t think he had better go with me. He’ll go to sea, of course; but I would rather somebody else had the training of him than his father. I think he’ll do better."

      "My brother Shubael will be going away next spring, and he can go with him," said the mother.

      "No! I forbid it!" exclaimed Gideon, with a sudden accession of sternness. To impress his meaning more forcibly he seized his wife’s hand in his own. "Let him go round Cape Horn if he wants to – he'll be old enough and stout enough next year – but not with Shubael Coleman! Mark what I say, not with him!"

      The act of the captain was seen by his subordinates, who were grouped with their respective friends just out of earshot, and was supposed to be a last affectionate hand-shaking, preliminary to a final start. It served as a signal to hurry up their adieux; and truly it was full time, for both wind and tide served for the good ship Proteus to commence her voyage.

      "Farewell, Gideon," said Naomi, rather coldly.

      Well, good-by," he answered, in a husky voice, as if a shade of regret, not to say compunction, touched his feelings for the moment. But he hurried to the water side without any show of the deep feeling which quite overcame some other members of the boat’s crew, who found it very hard to tear themselves away from their loved ones. His parting from his two boys, who followed him down to the boat, was much more affectionate, and no difference could be observed in the degree of tenderness for the two. His statement that he loved his sons equally might well be believed; while the partiality of the mother for her last-born, Seth, was notorious to the whole neighborhood. He was, indeed, a child after her own heart; cold, impassible and calculating, with nothing of the open bluff frankness of manner, or the impulsive daring which distinguished his father and Peleg.

      A few final words exchanged with the owner of the ship – a plain old Friend in rough garb, who did not look as if he owned even a better suit of clothes – and Gideon Bunker took his stand in the stern-sheets of the whaleboat, with legs wide apart, in the attitude so suggestive of an inverted letter Y, and gave the word to his crew, in a firm voice, to pull ahead. An hour later, the Proteus had spread her wings to the favoring breeze, and was laying her course to clear Great Point. The broad-brim and coat of formal cut had disappeared from sight ere the anchor was fairly at the bows, and the captain was himself again, in dress as in speech and action.

      In the days of which I write, intelligence from absent whalemen seldom reached home; the only chance for news being with casual encounters with homeward-bounders on the ocean. Thus it happened that Shubael Coleman arrived home in the Massasoit, and, after spending a winter on shore, sailed again the next year, while as yet no tidings had arrived concerning the Proteus. Naomi, in stubborn defiance of her husband’s parting injunction, fitted the boy out to sail with his uncle; and Peleg himself, only too glad to follow out his roving propensities, as well as to escape from the government of his mother, between whom and himself no warm feelings had ever existed, hailed with joy the prospect of emancipation. Shubael Coleman bore the reputation of a Tartar when on his quarter-deck, though at home he showed no character but that of the staid and demure Friend; but the youth, from day to day, impatiently watched the equipment of the ship, which was to bear him away on a career of adventure, and gave little weight to his father’s words spoken on the beach, which he, too, had heard.

      When too late, he called them to mind, as, striving hard to learn his duty on board the Massasoit, he met with nothing but abuse from one who should have been his guide and friend, as he was his near relative. The most contemptible tyranny and petty spite marked the whole conduct of Coleman towards his smart, ambitious young nephew, and it was a common remark on board, that

562 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      Peleg Bunker would have found more mercy at the hands of any stranger, and would soon have worked his way upward under the command of any reasonable man. But he was destined to a dog’s life where he was; kept constantly at the hardest of "work-up jobs," or the most menial of services, for which his only payment was short commons and "monkey’s allowance, more kicks than ha’pence." Grown desperate from ill-usage, he deserted at an uninhabited island of the Galapagos group, preferring to take his chances wherever fate might cast them, rather than longer endure thraldom on board his uncle’s ship. He went ashore with others to collect terrapins among the rocks; and failing to return, was reported missing. It is but justice to Coleman to say that he searched a reasonable time for the boy, and only gave him up when he felt satisfied that he must have perished.

      His ship had left the island but a few days when the Proteus, whaling on the same ground, touched there, and Peleg, coming down to meet the new-comers as they landed, with the intention of securing a passage somewhere, or indeed anywhere, found himself face to face with his father. After a grasp of the hand, which expressed the full strength of parental feeling, Gideon asked, sharply:

      "Got lost or runaway?"

      "Run away," was the boy’s answer, given proudly, and with an expression which said, "As you would have done yourself, if in my place."

      "What ship?"

      "Massasoit – Uncle Shubael."

      "I thought it. My last words – but never mind. What do you expect to do now?"

      He had led his boy a little aside, out of hearing of his subordinates.

      "To go with you in the Proteus."

      "No, that can’t be. You must wait for some other ship."

      "And why, father, can’t I go in yours?"

      "Because – well, I don’t want you – it’s no use to question me about it – it can’t be done."

      And spite of all that the son could urge, the father remained inflexible. He brought ashore provisions and various matters to insure the boy’s comfort, cruised in sight of the island a week, until he saw another ship touch and send a boat in, and visited the shore himself the next day, to find and bring away the record that Peleg had gone on board the English whaler Valorous, leaving this farewell message at a certain spot agreed upon by the two. The Proteus then bore away for the Spanish coast, while the officers, who knew the boy and the relationship, wondered at the meaning of it all; but Gideon Bunker was not in the habit of assigning reasons for his conduct to those sailing under his command.

      Some of his crew came home from time to time in other vessels, and told contradictory stories as to how the voyage had been broken up at Guayaquil, and the ship condemned, though most of them thought she was seaworthy enough. But Gideon Bunker soon disappeared from the port, and no one could tell whether he went away secretly in some other vessel or went inland. He neither returned to his home nor sent any word either to his family or to his owners. But his business was entrusted to competent hands, and the proceeds of the sale of the Proteus and her oil were correctly accounted for to the last dollar. Many years passed, and no one at home knew whether Captain Bunker was living or dead; he had, like many others, "strayed abroad," and was spoken of as "round the other side o’ land somewhere."

      Naomi Bunker, after she had ceased to look for the return of her husband, settled down into her hard formal ways, and reared her younger boy Seth after a standard of her own. She had never loved Gideon deeply, though she had, to all outward seeming, done a wife’s duty by him. Their union had been an ill-sorted one, and she was not likely to feel any great sense of loneliness at his absence, even though it might be permanent. He had left property enough to keep her and Seth above want; Peleg was providing for himself in his chosen vocation of a mariner; he was never a favorite with his mother, and the chances were that he would seldom trouble her with his presence. And so the Bunker family moved on quietly, without feeling much the loss of its head, who was gradually forgotten, or nearly so, by the majority of his townsmen and former acquaintances. Once or twice rumors reached home that he had been seen by some voyager, that he had taken a foreign wife, and had another family, and so on; but they had no stable foundation, and soon died out again.

      The Shepherdess, commanded by Peleg Bunker, lay at anchor in Nooaheva, homeward bound, after a successful voyage. A

Gideon Bunker's Exile. 563

canoe with several men and women had come alongside from a distant bay at the other side of the island, and among the party were a boy and girl, evidently of white parentage, at least on one side, whose rare beauty attracted general attention and many remarks from the crew and officers. An elderly man, extensively tattooed, like all the rest, sat in the canoe and declined to come on deck. Several times he called to the young people in the native tongue, and appeared to be urging them to make haste and start off again, as if he were anxious to reach their distant home before night.

      "What’s the matter with the old man?" said the mate of the Shepherdess to the halfbreed young fellow, who understood English tolerably well.

      "Speak – hurry up – go home – my fader."

      "Your father!" was the remark of the mate, spoken as half in ridicule of the statement. "If he is, who, for Heaven’s sake, was your mother?"


      The mate, who had been joined at the moment by Captain Bunker, was looking down attentively at the old gentleman in the canoe. The object of their scrutiny raised his face, and showed, spite of both tan and tattoo, the features of a white man.

      "I say, old shipmate!" said Peleg. "Come aboard and rest, and stretch your limbs a while."

      A gloomy shake of the head was the only reply, as if he would not trust himself to speak.

      "He’s a white man, at any rate," said the mate. "Maybe he’s a Frenchman or Dutchman, though, and don’t understand English."

      "I wonder," said Peleg, " what circumstances should ever make a civilized man willing to bury himself on an island like this, among barbarians, and decline to mix at all with people of his own color and faith? Unless he may, perchance, have committed some crime, for which justice is awaiting him in his own country."

      "Might he not be unhappy at home, even without having committed any particular crime?" asked the old man, in clear English.

      His bearer started with astonishment, and, at the same time, a strange thrill went through him, for there was something in the tones of the voice that carried him back far into the past. With an impulse that was uncontrollable, he grasped the man-ropes at the gangway, and dropped quickly into the canoe, by the speaker’s side. He peered curiously into the bronzed face, which now, for the first time, steadily returned his look. The recognition was mutual, and the rough crew of the Shepherdess, attracted by the strange conduct of their captain, saw, with feelings of respectful wonder, the mutual embrace of father and son.

      "Your mother?" asked Gideon, with tremulous voice.

      "Still lives," was the answer.

      "Does she ever speak of me as living?"

      "Neither as living nor dead," said the son, quietly.

      He felt that it was no time for deceit.

      "You have been a good son to her? and Seth, too?"


      "It is well as it is. Forget, if you can, that you have ever seen me."

      "Are this young man and girl your children, father?"

      "Yes. I cannot ask you to call them brother and sister, but they are none the less mine, and not less near to me than you and Seth."

      Peleg, although a man of fine moral perceptions, and of strict rectitude in his own conduct, was quite unable to repress his feelings of natural affection for his father, spite of all his wrong-doing. He was old enough when the Proteus sailed to realize that his parents were unhappy with each other, and that his father’s home had never been made what it should have been. He knew intuitively that it was this which had driven him to stay away from it, and that the knowledge of his own ill-treatment on board the Massasoit, where he had been sent in very spite and defiance of his father’s last expressed wish, was the last straw that had broken the back of forgiving endurance. It was in pursuance of his purpose to wind up the voyage and banish himself forever from his native land, that he had wished to leave his boy behind to be taken off the desolate island by some other vessel. The worst feature of the case was, the foreign wife and children, to which his father had honestly pleaded guilty.

      It were useless, he well knew, to urge him now to sever the new ties and go home. Indeed, to Peleg Banker‘s moral perceptions, it would not be right to ask it, and most certainly could not conduce to the happiness of either parent. It was better as it was. His father’s words, "Forget, if you can, that you have ever seen me," had all the force of a command.

564 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      But it could neither be forgotten nor kept secret, for many had been witnesses of their interview; and it was not long after the arrival of the Shepherdess at Nantucket ere the news reached the ears of Naomi. She sent for her son to come to her house; not a common occurrence, for the captain had a happy home of his own, and the mother’s tenderness, such as she bestowed, had always been given to Seth.

      "Peleg," said she, with outward calmness, but not so well assumed as to deceive the son, "thee has seen thy father. Is thee willing to tell me anything about it?"

      Without concealment or extenuation, all the circumstances were made known to her. She made no comment, gave no sign of strong emotion. But from that day, Naomi Bunker failed day by day, and not all the kindness of both her sons – the one, ever kind from a strong sense of duty, and the other really loving her to whom he owed everything – could avail to save or sustain her. Before Peleg’s ship was again ready for sea in the autumn, he stood by her deathbed.

      "He wronged me, Peleg," she said, when they were alone together.

      It was not to be denied. He could only press her thin hand in silent assent.

      An hour later she again spoke, almost with her last remaining breath.

      "But mine was the first and the greater wrong, Peleg. If thee – ever sees him again – tell him so."

      The son promised with the hand-pressure and with his eyes.

      And within a year be redeemed, the promise faithfully. The old man, who was also drawing near the end of life’s journey, was deeply affected. He never expressed any desire to revisit his home, but he no longer wished to be forgotten, and the yearning of his heart extended to Seth, for it was true that he loved the boys equally. The Shepherdess revisited that isle of the sea several times during the voyage, and Peleg had the melancholy satisfaction of closing his last surviving parent’s eyes in death, and of hearing him express hearty forgiveness of all who had ever wronged him. The blessing he sent by the elder brother to the younger was faithfully delivered, but had little value with Seth, who could never be brought to look upon his father’s erratic course with lenient eyes. This was the last conversation upon the subject; and though the brothers were tenderly attached to each other through life, the name of their father was never again mentioned between them.

      The descendants of Gideon Bunker are still to be met with by visitors to the island of Nooaheva, and, as fine specimens of physical manhood and womanhood, extort admiration from those who know nothing of their real ancestry, including, not unfrequentiy, their Nantucket cousins.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Gideon Bunker's Exile.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 34, No. 6 (Dec 1871)
Pages: 560-564