Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLVI, No. 2 (Aug 1877)
pp. 158-161.

158 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      Captain Galvan was, perhaps, neither better nor worse than the average of old school shipmasters. Despite his rough exterior and rude speech, there was much good in him, and when brought to the pinch it generally appeared that his heart was in the right place, yet in his everyday dealings with his crew and officers, he was to the last degree arbitrary, and at times even brutal. More than once on the voyage he had said and done many hasty things, of which he had occasion to repent at leisure – even in sackcloth and ashes.

      We were cruising for right whales near the island of Tristan D'Acunha in the Southern ocean, or on what was called by the regular old professionals, the "Trusteen Ground." We found the best whaling quite near the island, and often chased and captured whales,even among the kelp which, attaching itself to the rocks below, forms a sort of network extending out a considerable distance from the land. The captain was getting rather old and stiff-jointed for active service, and seldom went in his boat, leaving the work almost entirely to the mates who were all young men. They were smart and efficient officers, ever zealous in the performance of their duty, which in the main was to fill the hold of the good ship

Taken at his Word. 159

Midas with whale oil. But things did not always run smoothly, of course, and when luck was against us, the captain was prone to storm away at his subordinates, and to make things very uncomfortable for the time being, while he was almost sure, in every such instance, to feel very much ashamed of himself afterwards.

      One dull gloomy day, when our boats had been chasing whales the greater part of the day without success, and Captain Galvan was more than usually out of temper, he had climbed into the mizzen-top, as a post of observation, whence he could see the several boats, which had separated from each other, but were now concentrating and working slowly back towards the ship, for the weather was threatening, and indicated that a gale would soon blow up. The third mate's boat was nearest and as she approached within hail, the captain suddenly raised his voice, for he had been growling and blaspheming to himself in a tone not loud but deep.

      "What's the matter, Mr. Armstrong? Why don't you strike a whale?"

      "Can't get near enough to 'em, sir. There's whales enough about, but they don't come together in a gam, and they are mighty shy."

      "If you can't do anything, any of you, I suppose I'll have to go down and get a whale myself. Come! there's a whale blowing now up under the land there."

      "He's gallied," said Mr. Armstrong. "It's the same one that I was after three or four risings, but he's very shy, sir." And his crew continued pulling leisurely towards the ship, while he himself looked dubiously at the threatening sky.

      "What the –– are you coming alongside for?" roared Captain Galvan, with a sudden accession of fury. "There's a whale up there, blowing you all out of water."

      "Do you really want us to give chase to him?" inquired Mr. Armstrong, who could hardly believe but that the captain was joking.

      "Do I mean it?" shouted his superior, with all the cutting sarcasm he could throw into the word. "Yes, I mean it! Be off, and don't come aboard this ship until you bring a whale!"

      "Ay, ay, sir," coolly answered the young third mate. "Pull three oars – hold water two – pull ahead."

      And his boat headed up toward the land in the direction where he had last seen the whales.

      He had gone well out of hearing before the other two boats, nearly abreast of each other, came up under the quarter, and Mr. Gaston, the chief mate, inquired, "Where's Mr. Armstrong bound on that tack?"

      "After that whale up yonder," said the captain.

      "And it's time we began to get the ship snug for heavy weather, I think," said Mr. Gaston, with the utmost coolness. "Way enough! Ship in your oars – stand by here, everybody, to hoist the boats!"

      The captain had half a mind to order the other two boats off again, as he had Mr. Armstrong, but he looked in the resolute face of his first officer, and decided to let the subject drop.

      Besides, his own better sense was beginning to assert its sway. He knew that he had done wrong in sending even one boat's crew on a chase which could involve nothing but risk without any good results, for the gale was already increasing rapidly. The larboard and waist boats were taken up on the crane in a hurry, for no time was to be lost, and every man pulled with a will under the orders of Mr. Gaston. The captain did not interfere or give any command though he had descended from his perch in the mizzen-top, but still continued sulky and out of temper.

      "Hadn't we better run up a signal, sir, for Mr. Armstrong to come aboard?" inquired the mate.

      "That's my business, when I'm ready to attend to it."

      "Certainly it is. If it had been mine, I should have attended to it long ago. But I remind you of it, in the name of common humanity, and if you care for the lives of those under your orders, you'll lose no time about it."

      "Mr. Gaston, who commands this ship?"

      "You do, sir. More shame to you that you allow your sulky humor to make you forget your obligations. You know as well as I that this is not a fit time to send anybody on a wild goose chase, and that the sooner we get the canvas off the ship the better."

      "Well, go ahead, and shorten sail, then." And Captain Galvan went aft to hoist the signal of recall with his own hands, while the active mate proceeded to make the ship snug, bringing her down to her foresail and

160 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

close-reefed maintopsail. This was done none too soon, for before it was finished the wind and sea had so increased that the peril to which we knew those in the starboard boat must be exposed became a matter of intense anxiety.

      The lookout, sent to the masthead, had reported that he could see nothing, and when the boat had been last seen, while we were on the topsail yards reducing sail, she was still pulling to windward, though the captain's signal was flying, and must certainly have been seen by the third mate.

      "What can that mean?" asked the mate. "He certainly would return, if he saw the flag at the gaff, and wouldn't be long in making up his mind either. I can't understand it."

      "I can," said the second mate, who had heard something from one of the shipkeepers. "The old man was in one of his tantrums, and the last words he yelled at Mr. Armstrong was not to come back to the ship without bringing a whale."

      "Is that really so?"

      "Yes sir – old Fisk the shipkeeper heard it all, and he says that Mr. Armstrong only answered, 'Ay, ay, sir,' very quietly, and pulled away to windward without even looking back again."

      "This accounts for it all," said Mr. Gaston, thoughtfully. "I can imagine the cutting way of his saying the words, and I only hope they may not prove the death of as fine a young man as ever jumped, and of his whole boat's crew, besides. The old man makes a perfect fool of himself at times, and then is sorry for it afterwards. I am very much afraid he will have a repentance in this case that will burn his conscience as long as he lives."

      At this moment, Captain Galvan stepped out of the cabin, pale not with anger, but with anxiety. Reason and common sense had returned, though too late to undo his rash act.

      "Masthead, there!" he cried. "Do you see that boat?"

      "No sir, nothing in sight?"

      He threw his hat on deck, and jumped into the rigging himself, climbing up to the maintopmast crosstrees with an agility surprising for one of his years and weight. Yet he always prided himself upon his eyesight as being very keen, and he stood there and faced the blast, gazing long and earnestly off the weather quarter for some sign of those who had been lost through an act of rash folly on his part, sacrificed to his own wayward temper.

      At length he descended slowly, and with a face expressive of tenfold more of anxiety and remorse than before.

      "Mr. Gaston," said he, "we must get her round on the other tack, and head up as well as we can toward the land. Can we get more sail on her?"

      "We can set a little more, sir, I suppose, but it would do no good, and would soon have to be taken in again, for the force of the gale is increasing all the time," answered the. mate.

      "Yes, yes, so it is. It would be folly, I know, but we must go on the other tack, for I suppose that is all that we can do. Stand by there to wear ship!"

      The ship when trimmed on the other tack looked well up to windward of her old wake, but under her short canvas, she made a large drift, and so far as the possibility of doing anything to save the lost boat was concerned, it really made little difference which tack she was on. The darkness settled down upon us with nothing in sight but sea and sky, for the now distant island was hidden in the gloom, and the gale blowing still harder during the night, sail was reduced until we were brought down to storm-staysails. The captain paraded the deck all night unable to sleep or eat, the worm of remorse gnawing at his heart. His last bitter and tantalizing words to Mr. Armstrong recurred to his mind in their full force, with the effect they would be likely to have upon the feelings of the sensitive young officer. He would have given worlds, had he possessed them, to be able to recall his last speech to a brave man who had ever done his duty faithfully, and had never merited a word of reproach from his superiors.

      For the next three days we were lying to most of the time, the weather not permitting us to make sail to work up again to our old cruising grounds. There were sad hearts on board the Midas, for the tragic fate of our shipmates had cast a gloom over all hands, but saddest of all, was the crashing remorse of Captain Galvan.

      The mates respected the agony of his feelings, and said not a word of reproach. Of course they could say nothing in the way of consolation or encouragement, and thus the wretched man was left to the torture of his own conscience.

Taken at his Word. 161

      When at last the change of weather enabled us to make sail and bear up for Tristan D'Acunha with a leading wind, he resumed some of his old life and spirit in his anxiety to return to the place, at least, though he could not but feel that any search for boats or men must be hopeless. The change wrought in his appearance by the sufferings of those restless days and sleepless nights was fearful to behold.

      It was a fine pleasant day, when with all sails set we again drew near to the bold inhospitable island. There were whales in sight too, that morning, but we had not delayed to lower for them. The captain intended to communicate with the old lord of the isle, Governor Glass, as he was called, and after reporting our loss, to shape his course for Cape Town or St. Helena to ship men, for we could not proceed on our whaling voyage short-handed as we were. We must have been very nearly at the old position, where we were lying aback when the captain gave his last fatal order to Mr. Armstrong, when the lookout aloft reported that he saw a boat apparently fast to a right whale in shore of us, and quite close to the rocks. His words were received with incredulity, for every one thought he must be mistaken, but observations with the spyglass soon proved that he was not. There was a fast boat, sure enough, and close by her was to be seen a whale spouting thick blood. But where could the boat belong? for there was no ship visible.

      "It must be that Governor Glass has manned a boat or two, and is carrying on the whaling business from the shore," said Mr. Gaston. "He talked of doing so, when I was here last voyage."

      "But his settlement is away round on the other side of this land, isn't it?" asked the second mate.

      "Yes, they'll have a long way to tow their whale, unless, perhaps, they may have set up a whaling station on this side."

      Captain Galvan had taken the telescope, and was gazing through it with all the power of his keen old eyes. He looked and looked again, the color came and went in his face; he signed to the helmsman to keep her away a little more, to run nearer in shore, took his old position again, and resumed his scrutiny with the spyglass.

      "What's the matter with the old man?' said one to another. "See how excited he is."

      Suddenly the telescope dropped from his hands with a crash to the deck.

      "God be praised, it's my boat! it's Mr. Armstrong!" And the captain, entirely overcome by the reaction of his feelings, sank to the deck and sobbed like a child in the presence of all his crew.

      It was indeed our young third mate, who had now killed his whale, and taking it in tow, set his waif for more help, which was not long in reaching him. The whale was towed alongside the ship, and the captain, stepping below into his cabin, sent word for Mr. Armstrong to come down, feeling that their first meeting ought to be sacred from prying eyes and ears, but the steward sees and hears many things, which he is supposed to know nothing about, and this was the station I filled on board the Midas.

      "Mr. Armstrong! God bless you, and welcome back!" said the captain; "you may be able I hope to forgive my last unkind words to you, but I can never forgive myself. But how did you escape, and where have you been all through the gale?"

      "Snug on shore, sir, and making a good lee of it, only we had to live on muscles and birds' eggs. After I saw the ship this morning, I came out and struck the whale in good time to bring him alongside, when you arrived at the old cruising station."

      "But do you know the misery I have suffered through these long, long days and nights? O Mr. Armstrong! Why didn't you turn back when you knew it was blowing a gale!"

      "For that matter, I knew it well enough when you sent me up to windward, but your last order to me was, not to come back till I brought a whale, and I never should have come back to this ship without bringing one."

      "But you saw my signal of recall, surely?"

      "I did sir, but at that time, I had got so far to windward that I was making a lee under the island, and it was really safer to keep on than to undertake to return."

      "Well, it's all well as it has turned out, but your escape with life seems a miracle, and I hope what I have suffered the last few days may be a lesson to me as long as I live."

      And there's no doubt it proved so. For ever afterwards, during the voyage, when Captain Galvan felt himself in danger of giving way to his hasty passion, he checked himself with the remembrance of this episode, and especially if the young third mate was present, a single look into his face was sufficient to recall the captain's better nature, by reminding him of the time when he had been taken at his word.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Taken at his Word.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 46, No. 2 (Aug 1877)
Pages: 158-161