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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLVI, No. 6 (Dec 1877)
pp. 529-530

How we Captured the "Schoolmaster." 529

. . . .



      We had lowered our boats one fine day in chase of a school of sperm whales which were moving quickly to leeward, appearing to have lately had the regularity of their habits disturbed – or, in whaleman's parlance, to have been "gallied." (This word "gallied," which is in every-day use among members of the craft, would seem to be a corruption of the obsolete verb "gallow," to frighten, as used by Shakspere and other old writers. Thus we have in King Lear, "The wrathful skies gallow the deep wanderers of the dark.")

      The sperm whales on the cruising-ground where we then were – among the Micronesian groups, nearly under the equator – are generally of small size, the cows yielding from fifteen to twenty barrels of oil each when full grown. But it was not uncommon to find in company with the school of cows and calves one patriarchal old bull who was dignified with the honorable title of "schoolmaster;" and of course there was always an eager desire to capture this old fellow, whose yield would be equal to that of half a dozen cows. In this case no large whale had been seen from the masthead before the boats were lowered, and consequently there was no special look-out from the boats for any particular animal.

      As we drew near the whales, the mate's boat leading a little, the outer or "off" whales of the school seemed to take the alarm, and, the panic spreading to the rest, one after another rounded her hump out, and, skimming her flukes just above the surface, went out of sight. It was evident they would "stand not upon the order of their going," and we all redoubled our efforts with the paddles, hoping yet to be in time for the last straggler. Another and yet another went down, and when, as Mr. West's boat was shooting into the slick water, he gave the word to his boat-steerer, "Stand up, Tom!" there remained only a single cow with a very small calf. Tom drew back his iron for a dart; but the cow

530 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

had already pitched, and was just out of reach.

      "Try the calf, Tom," said Mr. West.

      With a twinge of conscience at what seemed wanton cruelty, Tom sent his shining barb into the body of the infant whale, who seemed scarcely able to carry off the weapon in his descent. However, down he went, and Mr. West gave him line freely, while we in the other boats hovered round the spot. For we were pretty sure that when he rose again the mother would rise with him, and fall a victim to her parental instinct; while the chance was good of the whole school "bringing to," so that several of them might be captured. In such case we might secure a good "cut" of oil, by striking a whale which, alone, was of little or no value.

      The calf had sounded out perhaps fifty fathoms, when the strain was suddenly relaxed, and the line hung slack.

      "We are loose!" cried the mate. "Haul in line!"

      Then shouting to us to "pull ahead," so we might have a chance again when the school should rise, he and his crew proceeded leisurely to gather in and coil down what they supposed to be stray line.

      Presently the mate's line seemed to be foul of something which offered a strange kind of resistance to his efforts. It did not bring up firmly, "all standing," but it appeared to be grating or chafing round some obstacle, so that ho still gained on it, though making slow progress.

      "What's the matter, Mr. West?" inquired the captain, whose boat was just passing, he having lowered from the ship a little later than the rest.

      "Don't know, sir. Something's foul of my line."

      Just then there was a heavy surge that boxed his boat down with her chocks nearly to the surface of the water; then the same grating and slipping again, and he got in a few more fathoms.

      "Something's under us," said the mate, again. "Slack line, and stand by your oars!"

      The oars were put in motion, "backing water," and the boat steered off clear of the danger. Hardly had this been accomplished, when there was a commotion and a lifting of the sea, as it were, just ahead of the boat; and with a loud roar, as he broke water and ejected his first spout, the ponderous "junk" of a ninety-barreler was forced up into view! He straightened, showing his immense breadth of beam, and with a thundering flap of his immense flukes, which half drowned Mr. West and his crew in a shower of spray, he started to windward, towing the boat after him. It was evident that Mr. West was fairly "harnessed" to the veritable schoolmaster, and we hooked down lustily to our oars for a stern chase.

      "Clear away my lance!" shouted the excited mate, who was now in his element. "We're fast to him, solid, Tom; but how, the Lord only knows; I don't."

      "If that's the whale that I struck," said the boat-steerer, "he has grown out of all knowledge within ten minutes."

      We in the other boats were all as puzzled as the mate himself. But we were coming to the rescue as fast as muscle and determination could bring us. The larboard boat was hooked to the schoolmaster; that was enough glory for the present, and we should know more in due time.

      He soon slackened his pace, giving us all an opportunity to fasten to him; and when we hauled up to give him the death-wounds with our keen lances, the mystery was fully explained.

      The large whale, while plunging in the depths of the sea, had fouled the line with his lower jaw, and the strain had drawn the harpoon out of the tender little calf. In his subsequent struggles the monster had rolled over, and the boat's crews had been hauling the line across his jaw until they had got all the slack in, and the harpoon and pole had formed a secure toggil across his "jole," at the corner of the mouth. In another hour we hauled him, with his broadside turned up to the sun, alongside the good ship Marcia, highly elated at the singular accident by which we had made this involuntary exchange of a worthless little calf for a full-grown bull with full ninety barrels of spermaceti in his jacket.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: How we Captured the "Schoolmaster".
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 46, No. 6 (Dec 1877)
Pages: 529-530