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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLII, No. 5 (Nov 1875)
pp. 441-444

Forty-five Puncheons of Rum. 441



      "Many years ago," said old Baxter, our sailmaker, who had been called upon either to sing a song or spin a yarn, "I drifted down to Nantucket, and for the first time shipped in a Whaler."

      "How many years ago?" queried one of the saucy boys from that classic island.

      "More than you know anything about, for it was long before any of you youngsters were born. You want to catch me tripping, don't you? Can you remember the old brig Norway?"

      "No; but I have heard my father tell of her, for he was in her two or three voyages."

      "Very likely; and it may be that your father and I were shipmates. Now don't interrupt me too often, or I'll put a stopper on, and leave you to guess at the story. Well, I shipped in the Norway, fitted out for a whaling cruise not to exceed eight months in length. Our outfit was figured mighty close, even for that short time. I should judge that if she got one large sperm whale, as oil was pretty high in price at that time, she would have paid expenses, and left the vessel clear to her owners. Well, we sailed in the fall of the year, just after the breaking up of a tremendous gale, in which many vessels had been wrecked, all along the Atlantic coast. We had taken the right slant in sailing just after the gale was over, and had a fine run across the Gulf Stream. When five days at sea we fell in with the wreck of a large schooner, with both masts gone, water-logged and abandoned. Her counter-board was so deep under water that we could not make out her name or port of register, and there was nothing on board or about her that would help us to make out who she was or where she hailed from. Having very fine weather, we lay by her all the next day, and by cutting away a part of the deck and rigging up some shears, we were so lucky as to get out forty-five puncheons of rum, and transfer it all on board the Norway. Here was, a good beginning for a whaling voyage! and, as we were so short a distance from home, the old man declared we might as well return, land the rum, and take a fresh departure. The liquor was of excellent quality, and the marks on the casks indicated that the schooner was from a West India port. She had also sugar and molasses among her cargo, but this was deeper down in the hold, and, of course, much damaged. The wind freshened in the night, and the next morning it was so rugged that we gave up working any more on the wreck, contenting ourselves with the rum. We hauled sharp on a bowline, heading as nearly as we could for the port we had so lately left.

      "In those days rum was in more common use by everybody than it now is – though I have my doubts whether there was any more drunkenness. We had our grog twice a day in the Norway, as, indeed, all seamen did then; but this was always under regulated allowance, and two glasses were not enough to do any harm. But now Captain Bunker was afraid he had an elephant on his hands. There was not room for all the puncheons below, as the vessel had all her stores on board, and was pretty well filled up. So there were about fifteen of them lashed along the rail, some on each side, above deck, which made us pretty well lumbered up. If the crew got a free swing at the rum he would be sure to have trouble, he knew; and to come on the coast of America at that season of the year with all hands drunk was not just the right thing for any prudent mariner. He could trust his mate – who was also a born Nantucketer – to look out for the casks during his watch on deck, and see that no one tapped them. But his second officer was an Irishman, and a stranger to the old man, who knew little more of him than the fact that he was half drunk when he was shipped, though he had the reputation of being a very good whaleman. So Barzillai Bunker, who was a fair specimen of the Nantucket Quaker sailor of that day, determined to stand a watch himself, and so look after the puncheons of rum and the second mate at the same time. He accordingly took charge of the starboard watch that night, and some of my shipmates, who had counted upon Mr. Farrell's love of 'the crater,' and proposed to have it all their own way, found their calculations all astray. Friend Bunker was so vigilant

442 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

and active that he appeared to be on every part of the deck at one and the same time. The gimlet and bucket were kept in readiness waiting for a slant, but no slant seemed to occur; and the port watch was no more fortunate than we were; for Mr. Swain had a young boatsteerer who was quite as vigilant as himself, and quite as determined to see the rum landed intact at Nantucket, though he made enemies of every man before the mast.

      "How to circumvent the watchful guardians of the liquor was now the great question; for some of our old salts were determined to have enough of it for one grand blow-out. Two or three days and nights passed, and we were again entering the Gulf Stream on our return passage, and might at any moment expect heavy weather, such as the old Norway was none too well fitted to encounter, even with all hands sober and at their posts. The gimlet, spile and bucket were held constantly in readiness, and the wished-for opportunity arrived at last.

      "A sail was in sight just at sundown, headed down across our track, running free, and evidently an outward-bounder. She edged off her course, as if she was desirous of speaking us, but it was not until it was quite dark that she approached within hailing distance. The old man went aft to the taffrail with his trumpet, but did not forget to give a cautionary word to the second mate, who continued walking amidships among the puncheons of rum. It would never do for any of us to attempt the feat of tapping a cask right under his eye; but word was passed to some of the watch below, who were in waiting for it. A little engineering had been managed the day previous; and it was ascertained by measurement that by boring upward through the deck at a certain point, the gimlet, if it were long enough, would pierce the head of a certain puncheon. To have done this in broad daylight would have involved discovery, as there must be a great deal of waste, and the leakage on deck would have been perceived at once. But now, if ever, was the time, and old Bill Lambert, taking a boy with him to hold the lamp and assist, went through into the hold, the two crawling on their knees upon the top tier of casks. There was just room to do this, and that only for a certain distance; while to get at the rum, which was stowed in the hold away aft, was simply impossible. Even as it was, it was a very cramped-up place where old Bill had to lie on his back and work his gimlet. The boy holding the light was in a still more uncomfortable position, if possible. All this I saw as I ran down into the hold for a minute, and peeped in through the bulkhead. Bill was working away with a will, sweating and grunting; and as I thought of what might be the consequences of his success, I was almost tempted to turn informer. But I could not do this without its being known to my shipmates; and, boy as I then was, my fate would be a hard one if I were caught blowing upon them and spoiling the drunken spree which they intended to enjoy. So I dared not do otherwise than hold my peace, especially as I saw one of the veteran salts of my own watch stood over the fore-scuttle, keeping an eye continually upon me.

      "Bill at last succeeded in working a hole through the tough wood, and the rum began to flow down through the deck, though of course much more was lost by running away above. A tin pot was ready to catch the drippings, for there was not room to work the bucket in the cramped space. Everything was now going on swimmingly, and my shipmates were smacking their lips in anticipation of the treat they were soon to enjoy.

      "'I say!' called old Tony the shipkeeper, down the scuttle, in a loud impressive whisper. 'Tell Bill to be careful of the light!'

      "The caution was well-timed, for this was really the principal risk. The rum was splashing and spilling everywhere, outside the tin pot as well as into it. And you will understand, shipmates, that this was rum; it hadn't been deaconed or doctored, and was no such stuff as is now sold under 'probitory' law, which will answer to put out fire with.

      "'Boy, come on deck!' said old Tony to me; and up I went. Captain Bunker had come forward again, the strange ship having passed on out of hail, and nearly out of sight in the darkness. As the deck was wet under and about the puncheons, the leakage of the rum was not apparent to the sense of sight, but the old man's smellers were sensitive enough, and he soon began to sniff and peer about, until he was satisfied that one of the casks was not all right.

      "'Here! this way, the watch! Mr. Farrell, let 'em cast off the lashings and heave

Forty-five Puncheons of Rum. 443

      down this puncheon, here! It's leaking all over the deck. Down with it, quick!'

      "The lashings were cleared away, and several pairs of horny hands seized the chimes. But the spile which was pushed through the deck from below offered some resistance, as it pinned the cask down! Another heave, harder than before, the spile broke, and down came the puncheon suddenly upon its bilge, nearly crushing me before I could back out of the way.

      "But at this moment a most piercing scream was heard from under the deck. such as I hope never to hear again. There was a rush up the forecastle ladder, and that cry, so appalling to the sailor at all times – 'Fire!' Dark smoke rolled up the scuttle, and out through its folds poured half-suffocated men, gasping for dear life as they reached the fresh air. Barzillai Bunker understood the whole matter and the imminent danger without waiting for words of explanation.

      "'Off with those main hatches!" he shouted. 'Water! water! Form a rank here, and pass down water! Shut on the fore-scuttle! Hard up your helm, there! Square the after-yards, and swing her right off before it!'

      "When men are working for their lives they will work with a will; and every nerve and muscle on board was strained that night to obey the captain's orders. The rum-drinking wretches who had brought us into this peril now felt that all their lives depended upon him as the master-spirit. The flames under the deck had gained some headway, but luckily there were no casks of liquor stowed below forward of the main hatches; otherwise our fate would have been sealed. The fight in the choking air of the hold was a fearful one, but we conquered at last, and saved the vessel. But the dead bodies of old Bill Lambert and the poor lad Jake were dragged out, charred and blackened, striking a chill of terror to the most hardened hearts among us. They had been overwhelmed so suddenly by the flames while in their cramped position, that they had no chance for escape, and had perished miserably, long before any aid could reach them.

      "It was a sad hour when the mutilated bodies were launched into the sea, and one might suppose that the warning would have been sufficient to make every man of that crew swear off from drinking liquor for the remainder of his life; but such was not the fact. Sailors, it seems to me, are much like children; these sad things seem to bear very heavily upon them for the moment, but the impression doesn't wear well.

      "That night we caught the Gulf Stream weather, butt-end foremost, and a heavy gale came on that tried the old Norway for her very life. We made all as snug as we could, and hove her to under a couple of 'three-cornered scrapers,' making a dead drift off to the southward; but the sea rose to such a fearful height that she labored and strained frightfully, and there was plenty of exercise for us at the pumps, with lifelines stretched athwart the decks for our safety. In the middle watch a sea boarded us amidships, breaking off four or five stanchions, and a part of the main rail with them; so that the puncheons of rum were all adrift; and then followed as frightful a scene as I ever want to witness as long as I live. The heavy casks were dashing with tremendous fury here, there and everywhere, and completely took charge of the deck amidships, for all we could do was to give them room and get out of their way. But the poor second mate, who was near the mainmast, overseeing the men at the pumps, when the sea broke on board, was not so fortunate as the rest of us. A puncheon of rum 'fetched away' upon him, jamming him against the mast, and his crushed body was swept away over the lee rail by the wash of the sea, after its first shock was spent. I caught a glimpse of it as it surged past the lee main rigging, where I had made my first jump for safety, and the memory of it still haunts me!

      "But again old Barzillai Bunker came out strong, as he always did in any emergency. A quiet plodding Quaker he seemed to be so long as all went smooth; but get him in a tight place, and he showed the real stuff that he was made of. He seemed to be everywhere that night, rousing us all from our paralysis of fear, pushing casks overboard to get them out of the way, and with powerful blows of his axe knocking in the heads of others as they drove past him on the heavy rolls of the old brig. By his efforts and his influence upon the rest of us, we were again saved from the immediate danger; and all of us breathed easier when we saw the last heavy puncheon forced clear of the vessel, and nothing to endanger life and limb but a few loose

444 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

staves of those which had been stoven to pieces.

      "But during all this, the water had gained so much in the pump-well that we were now threatened with a new danger. The strain of the heavy sea shipped had increased the old brig's leaks, and in consequence of the broken stanchions, a great volume of water found its way down through the plankshear. There was no hope for us but to keep her on the same tack, and all hands buckle to the pumps. Our strength was much reduced, for, besides the loss of the second mate, old Bill and Jake, we had two others disabled for the time by severe hurts received while fighting to get clear of the terrible rum puncheons. But the only wonder to me is that we were not more than half of us killed in that fearful rally among those infernal casks.

      "Clank! clank! the pumps were going all night, for dear life; and no man ventured to think either of sleep or dry clothing, for there was enough to do to keep our heads above water. Rum was served out to us, for the captain, like everybody else in his day, believed in it, though it was not every one that could regulate its use as he could. When daylight broke we were pretty well exhausted and worn out. The gale was moderating a little; but on sounding the hold we found there was rather more water than we noted three hours before. The leaks had gained upon us, in spite of all our efforts!

      "But there was a ship to windward of us, lying to on the opposite tack. Up went our ensign, Union down, as a signal of dire distress, and eager eyes were watching its effect; for if the stranger made sail, as it was probable he would very soon, his course on the other tack would soon carry him out of sight. We dared not go about, for if the rent in the plankshear were buried in the sea a few times by heavy lee-rolls, the brig would have gone down from under us in short order.

      "Our spirits found vent in three rousing cheers when at last we saw the ship set her foresail, and fall off gradually, with her head towards us! She came down so as to hold a short parley, and, learning our situation, she came to on the same tack with us, and remained in company until the weather had moderated enough to venture to lower a boat. Until that time we labored steadily, and more hopefully than before, at the pumps. But this is a kind of work that no sailor likes. It is not only hard and exhausting, but there is too much sameness about it – it's too much like sawing cordwood or turning grindstone; and glad enough were we when the moment arrived to abandon the old Norway, and take ourselves, with little more than what we stood in, on board the British ship 'Stromness.'

      "Before we had passed out of view of the Norway, she had sunk so that her deck amidships was under water, and she lay wallowing, a helpless wreck in the trough of the sea. Of course the thirty puncheons of rum which were stowed under deck went down with her. Whether anybody else ever 'wrecked' her, or ever picked up any of the rum casks that were swept off her deck, I never knew; but if so, I wish them joy of all the satisfaction they may have got out of any part of those forty-five puncheons of rum; for they brought nothing but death and disaster to that old brig and to all on board."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Forty-five Puncheons of Rum.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 42, No. 5 (Nov 1875)
Pages: 441-444