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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLIV, No. 5 (Nov 1876)
pp. 474-476

474 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      About the time we sailed in the Rodney, there was quite a little excitement about harpoon-guns. Guns of various patterns were then being pushed into the market, each of which claimed to have some peculiar advantages over all competitors. But all these terrible appliances for striking whales met with but temporary favor, and were for the most part soon abandoned. The Greener gun, which is mounted on a pivot, and fired point-blank at the object, met with good success, possessing a great advantage over any of the numerous shoulder-guns. But whalemen generally prefer to trust to the stout heart and the strong arm, whenever the prey can be approached within the proper distance, and in the long run, nothing has been found worthy to supersede the hand harpoon.

      The principal owner of the Rodney was also, at that time, agent for the sale of one particular style of shoulder-gun, and was desirous of sending one out in the ship and giving it a fair and thorough trial. Captain Hathaway, a conservative seaman of the old school, was inclined to pooh-pooh the new-fangled affair, and declared that for striking a whale effectually, there was nothing like pluck and "elbow-grease."

      But notwithstanding his prejudices the gun was put on board, and it was enjoined upon him, that, if he did not want to use it himself, he should at least let the younger officers practise with it, on the outward passage, and become proficient in the use of it. He could then be guided by his own fair judgment as to whether he would risk any part of the success of his voyage on its use.

Our Harpoon-Gun. 475

      It did not take many experiments to enable him definitely to make up his judgment. The gun proved a most effective weapon particularly at the breech or butt end. The experiments were made by lowering boats at sea in fair weather, and bombarding an old barrel or some similar object, thrown overboard as a floating target. But to have attained to any accuracy of aim with this famous gun, so as to hit a particular object, would have required more scientific knowledge of disparts and parabolas, than even Marryatt’s gunner, Mr. Tallboys, could boast of. When fired, the harpoon usually struck the crest of a wave "athwartships " instead of endwise, and skipped pleasantly off, while the gun itself, which was secured by a stout lanyard, invariably went overboard on the opposite side of the boat, and the astonished marksman found himself with his heels in the air flat on his back underneath the midships thwart. This tableau, though sufficiently amusing and unique, was far from being satisfactory, from a practical point of view.

      Our young second mate, who at the outset had been especially enthusiastic and eager to try the new gun, had after bruising both his shoulders black-and-blue, and nearly breaking his neck in one of his involuntary back somersaults, positively declined to have anything more to do with the patent shooting-iron. He had loaded her breech with lead till it was all he wanted to do to lift her to his shoulder, but spite of all this he declared "she could out-kick a whole tribe of Kick-apoo Indians." So the conclusion was generally arrived at, that the gun was like many other new and wonderful inventions – "a firstrate plan, but it wouldn’t answer." It had fallen into disgrace and been stowed away, out of sight long before we arrived on the northern cruising-grounds. But here it sometimes came into play, for it was discovered that the whaling-gun could be used to some purpose in blazing away among a flock of aquatic birds at short range; scattering about half a pint of small shot with quite satisfactory results.

      But when we cruised down among the Caroline group of island "between seasons," the old gun having been brought out one day and exhibited as a curiosity to the "Nannikin " or chief of Bortic in the island of Ponapi, his highness at once fell in love with it, and was seized with an irresistible longing to become the owner of such a prize. His knowledge of firearms was somewhat limited, his tribe being the possessors of only a few old trade-muskets bought at various times out of whaleships – mostly antiquated flintlocks which might have done good service at Bunker Hill or the Cowpens, but could hardly be touched off with a firebrand in their old age. An experiment or two made by the second mate with very light charges sufficed to convince the Nannikin that the harpoon-gun was the very ne plus ultra in its peculiar line. A bargain was struck for three boatloads of cocoanuts, which being duly forthcoming, the gun made a change of ownership and was seen no more on board the Rodney. And it must be confessed that we were rather glad to have found so good a market for it.

      The captain had instructed the Nannikin a little in the manual of loading and firing, and had directed how large a dose of gunpowder should be used as a maximum. The savage, however, paid little heed to this part of his lesson, and indeed seemed to think it would be a fine thing to load her up full to the muzzle and make a good big noise.

      There was a Scotchman named Jock Addie living with the tribe – one of those adventurers of whom one or two are to be found domesticated upon almost every islet in the Pacific, leading a kind of semi savage life. Jock was the owner of the only good gun to be found among the tribe, and he made sport of the Nannikin as far as he dared, for his foolish purchase. He had acquired much influence, and could take greater liberties with the chief than would be permitted to any of his more dusky subjects. But in this instance, the royal savage was inflexible; he was quite infatuated with the blunderbuss style of gun, and had no ears for the advice of even Jock Addie.

      It was a year before we revisited Boitic, and the useless old gun had been well nigh forgotten. Jock Addie was still there, and in higher favor than ever with our old friend the Nannikin. The first glance at the latter showed that he had been the victim of a serious accident since our former visit. His face, on one side, was disfigured by an ugly scar, and there was a deep indentation, as if one side of the head had been stoven in by the kick of a horse or some similar blow.

      "What’s the matter with the king?"

476 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

asked the captain. "Has been at war with the other tribe, and got a crack from a warclub, I suppose."

      "Not at all," answered Jock Addie. "It was all from that infernal old harpoon-gun that he bought of you. And the only wonder is that he hadn’t stove his brains out or blown his head off."

      The story was simply that the Nannikin, after he got possession of his new toy, was never tired of firing it off with heavy charges of powder. Noise was in his view the great desideratum, rather than good marksmanship or execution. He had a large supply of powder on hand just at that time, and he kept this clumsy blunderbuss blazing away for hours together, to the intense delight and admiration of all his native subordinates, but to the disgust of Jock Addie, who did his best to warn him against accident.

      Finding that his shoulder would not stand the strain, the Nannikin after having been knocked flat backwards a few times, contrived by means of a forked stick and some stones, to fix the gun in position, so that the recoil could not throw her out of place. He could now increase the charge, ad libitum, at least to the full capacity of the barrel; and trying more and yet a little more, he at last filled her right up to the muzzle, rammed it down hard, and prepared for the grand finale which was to finish the jubilee for that day. Jock said that he himself was sitting sulkily in the doorway of the great council-house, while every man, woman and child in the tribe had gathered around at a respectful distance, when the Nannikin stepped proudly forward, stooped down and pulled the trigger. The explosion that followed was fearful, and as the smoke cleared away, a wild yell went up from all in concert, at seeing their sovereign lying stunned and bleeding upon the sward, the gun having vanished entirely! Jock hurried to the spot and raising the Nannikin called for help. After awhile he succeeded in quieting the fears of the savages a little, and showing them the fragments of the butt which had inflicted the wound, they became satisfied of the material nature of the accident, the first impression having been that the gun had been spirited away into space and their chief killed by the agency of some offended gods.

      Though the poor Nannikin's head was frightfully crushed, yet thanks to his good constitution and simple habits, aided by the Scotchman’s rude surgery, his life was saved and a perfect cure effected, although the deep cavity on one side of his face gave him a strangely sinister appearance. The circumstance was a fortunate one for Jock, as the king from the date of his marvellous cure, looked upon him as a very divinity, and deferred to his advice on all occasions. He had carefully preserved the fragment of the gunstock loaded with lead, which had so disfigured him, and this memento was the last we ever saw of our famous harpoon-gun.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Our Harpoon-Gun.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 44, No. 5 (Nov 1876)
Pages: 474-476