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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LIII, No. 5 (May 1881)
p. 451-456.

A Conflict of Authority. 451

. . . .



      The story which I here relate, is that of an incident in the career of my neighbor and friend, Captain Barnabas Gorham, a veteran mariner who has just retired on his laurels, after a rough and adventurous, but on the whole a successful, career. He is a man of honor and of spotless veracity, so far as my intimate knowledge of him enables me to judge, and I have no doubt that the circumstances as related by himself are true in every particular.

      Gorham, when a young man of seven-and-twenty, – these figures representing less than half his present age, – was sailing out of New York as mate of the packet-ship Endeavor, making voyages to Liverpool and back. He had been three years in the same employ, and stood high in the confidence and esteem of his commander, as well as of the agents of the company on both sides of the Atlantic. He felt himself a competent seaman and navigator, and was eagerly looking forward for some vacancy to occur, which would give him promotion to the command of the ship, and enable him to marry the maiden of his choice. It was an English girl at Liverpool who had levied an attachment upon him, but he determined not to commit matrimony, and undertake family cares upon a mate's pay.

      On one of the outward voyages of the Endeavor, when nearly in the longitude of the Azores, but a long way to the northward of the group, a sail was raised ahead; and on approaching her she was made out to be a small bark, lying with her main-topsail aback under easy sail.

      The stranger was, of course, set down as a whaler manoeuvring in the pursuit of his regular business, and as the Endeavor was carrying a press of canvas with a leading breeze, Captain Randall had no idea of stopping to communicate with her. But on a nearer approach, it became evident, that, although the bark was a whaler, her boats were all gone from the davits. They might, to be sure, have gone to a considerable distance in pursuit of whales, but what was strange there was no lookout-man even at the bark's masthead, nor could any person be seen moving either on or above the deck. The course of the ship was changed to pass within hailing-distance, but no response was received to the hail. A legion of ravenous sea-birds rose and took flight as the Endeavor ran past her stern, and an odor, not like that of Arabia Felix, was wafted from under the lee-quarter of the "Bohemia of New Bedford," lying with a whale alongside in the fluke-chain. From all appearances the whale must have been dead many days. The view of the bark's deck from the new direction still showed no living being in sight, and it became evident that something

452 Ballot's Monthly Magazine.

was wrong, some mystery about the deserted whaler which ought to be investigated. Captain Randall gave the order to haul in the studding-sails, and bring the ship to the wind.

      As soon as she was hove to, my friend Gorham was sent with a boat to board the Bohemia, and make observations. The result of these was not such as to explain or throw light upon the mystery of her abandonment. Everything was in tolerable order on board, and nothing indicated that any mutiny or difficulty had occurred. The logbook was found written up to noon on the 29th day of May, though it was now the 20th of June, showing that three weeks had elapsed since the desertion of the vessel.

      From the same source it appeared that Alfred Deroll was or had been master of the Bohemia, and Richard Clarke first-officer. The last entry of latitude on the log showed her to have been then some six degrees south of her present position, and not far from the Azores, when the accident, or whatever it might have been, occurred. She had been ever since lying on the port-tack, and gradually working to the northward, and as she had met with a succession of moderate weather, and had, moreover, been drifting the slick of the decaying whale, she had made a smooth sea of it, and everything remained safe in its place without loss or damage.

      Gorham did not stay long to take notes, but returned with his report to his superior officer. Here was a windfall indeed! The horizon had been sharply scanned in every quarter from the lofty mast-heads of the packet-ship, but no sail of any kind could be discovered far or near, excepting the uninhabited whaler. It is not every day that one has the good fortune to pick up a ship, tight, stanch, and strong, with neither owners nor crew to lay claim to her.

      A copy of the shipping-list which chanced to be at hand, gave the date of the sailing of the Bohemia from New Bedford, her tonnage, the captain and owner's names, and reported her as having six hundred barrels of sperm oil in her hold but three months back. No doubt she had added to her catchings since that time, and the bark and her cargo were probably worth, in round numbers, nearly forty thousand dollars. Such a prize was not to be lost, for Gorham and his commander were both shrewd Yankees with an eye to a good fat salvage. It was possible for the Endeavor to spare her mate and four men, and a prize crew; and Barna Gorham, who felt a host in himself, was confident that he could take the Bohemia into an American port even with a very small crew. The season of the year was favorable, and he could keep her under moderate canvas.

      Not many minutes were spent in preparation, for it was only necessary to pass the personal effects of five men into the boat. The Bohemia was in good condition, with plenty of provisions stores, and water, an board; and within half an hour, Gorham had assumed his first command, and was cutting away the loathsome carcass of the whale from alongside, while the Endeavor had spread all her kites, and was speeding away on her course toward the British Channel.

      Gorham's instructions from Captain Randall, were to make the best of his way back to New York, and then to give up the property to the agents of the packet line, leaving the matter of adjustment in their hands. As soon, therefore, as the incumbrance of the whale was cleared away, the main-topsail was filled away, and the courses set; keeping close on a wind, and heading nearly up to her course for the home-port. The topgallant-sails were suffered to remain furled, but Gorham did not propose, short-handed as he was, to carry sail like a full-manned ship. But the Bohemia proved a rapid sailer, and the weather continued favorable. Everything went on regularly and ship-shape, and repeated trials at the pumps showed the bark to be perfectly tight.

      Of course the new crew talked much about the mystery that surrounded the disappearances of the old one, and endeavored to account for it by a variety of theories, more or less absurd. As before related, there was not the least evidence of mutiny or trouble on board, nothing denoting that the ship had been abandoned by reason of panic; all around had the appearance of the crew having left on some temporary business, intending to return very soon. All the boats were gone, except one new one which was on the skids over the quarterdeck, where whalers usually carry their spare boats. Of course they might have gone in chase of more whales, after securing one alongside, and this seemed a natural explanation, supposing they had lost the run of their ship by reason of darkness or otherwise; but who had ever heard of all hands leaving a ship at sea, even a whaler, to take care of herself without any shipkeeper? The case certainly had some strange features about it, and Gorham and his men, after discussing it, at length were obliged to dismiss the subject in an unsatisfied way.

      A week later, the Bohemia, having made a good stretch to the southward and westward, was crossing one of the favorite whaling-grounds of the North Atlantic, and a whaling-brig was seen to windward with her boats down, and making various manoeuvres. But, as all this was none of Gorham's business, and he had no need to communicate

A Conflict of Authority. 453

with the brig, he kept steadily on his course. The brig's boats apparently did not succeed in overtaking the whale, and, having abandoned the chase, were lying with their oars a-peak, when the Bohemia passed along under their lee, within a mile. One of the boats – there were only two of them – suddenly headed off under the full impulse of both oars and sail, pulling directly athwart the bark's track as if desirous to head her off and speak to her.

      Gorham had no objection to exchanging a few passing words with any brother seaman, if he could do so without deviating from his voyage; but was quite unprepared for the angry shouts and frantic gesticulations of the man at the steering-oar of the whale-boat. His peremptory orders to "Heave to!" were enforced by a volley of oaths and threats, received only with a contemptuous smile.

      "What's the matter with you, man?" he asked. "And who are you, any how? What brig is that to windward?"

      He caught the answer "Draco, of Provincetown!" from the boatsteerer in the head of the boat, but the first speaker continued to shout tike a madman.

      "Who are you, I'd like to know? My name is Deroll, master of that ship, and I told you to heave to! How came you aboard of her, any way?"

      "Picked her up adrift," was the cool reply.

      A fusilade of curses was sent after the bark, but the boat was now dropping into her wake, and was soon left out of hearing. The oars were again manned, and she pulled up to meet the Draco, which was coming to take up her boats.

      The brig hovered about the bark's weather-quarter, keeping the same course with her; and during the night the wind entirely died away, so that both vessels were becalmed next morning within two miles of each other. Soon after sunrise a boat was seen approaching the Bohemia, and Captain Deroll, though flushed and tremulous from excitement, restrained himself and kept a civil tongue, until he was alongside the bark.

      Gorham handed him the man-ropes, and received him with proper courtesy as he came in on decks. He glared furiously about him, but seemed struck dumb, for a moment, with astonishment at seeing naught but strange faces.

      "Where's all my crew?" he thundered at last. "And who are you that pretends to be in charge of my ship? Do you know who I am? My name is Deroll, and I am master of this bark, the Bohemia. You understand, sir? I take charge of her now, from this moment."

      The usurper did not seem at all overwhelmed with awe at this, as the speaker had seemed to expect he would. He felt that possession was nine points in the law, and had no idea of loosening his grip upon the handsome pile of salvage-money quietly.

      "Not so fast," he said quietly. "You say that you are Captain Alfred Deroll, master of this ship. Any man might come on board and make the same claim; however, I am quite willing to take your word that you are Captain Deroll, and that you were, until recently, the commander of this vessel; but you are not so now. sir. The Bohemia is, in a certain way, a prize to the packet-ship Endeavor of New York, of which I am first officer, and I am here as prize-master, taking my instructions only from Captain Randall of that ship."

      "But where's all my men? And my mate and second mate? And where are you bound with the ship? And what's to become of me with my voyage all broken up?" he demanded, following one question up with another in great excitement.

      "My dear sir," said Gorham, "I know no more about your officers and crew than you know yourself, for I know not yet how you yourself left the ship, or how you came to be in the Draco. As to where I am bound, as soon as there is a breeze I shall go on my way toward New York, where I am ordered. I am truly sorry that your voyage is broken up, but you are a sailor, and know that such things belong to the fortunes of the sea. I shall be happy to offer you a passage home in the ship; as to your personal traps, they are all safe, and at your disposal."

      But it was very hard to persuade the unfortunate captain to talk or act rationally on any subject. He insisted that he had a right to take charge of his own ship wherever he found her; declared his intention to call for help from his friend, Captain Nickerson of the Draco, to take her by force, if necessary; vowed that the bark should not go home, for he could take her back to Fayal, and ship more men, if he did not find his own, and prosecute his half-finished voyage, and, in short, he conducted himself like one demented by his troubles.

      His boatsteerer, the same who had given the name of the brig the day before, now beckoned him aside, and seemed to be remonstrating with him to bring him to reason. A third man was called into the conference, and appeared to take sides with the boatsteerer. But the captain was quite unable to see how anybody could depose him from the command of his own ship, and seemed not only angry now, but hurt in his feelings at the idea of his own men deserting his cause, and yielding up the vessel and cargo to a gang of usurpers without a struggle for her. Indeed, could he have

454 Ballot's Monthly Magazine.

mustered a few men, he would surely have made an attempt to re-take the Bohemia by force; but Barna Gorham and his four ship mates were prepared to meet any such movement, and would have proved themselves worthy foemen even against great odds.

      But another boat was seen approaching; and soon Captain Nickerson, of the Draco, answered Gorham's hail, giving his name; and, as the boat shot alongside, obeyed the request to leave his crew in the boat until some friendly understanding could be arrived at. As soon as he stepped on board, himself, and offered his hand, Gorham was satisfied that he had a common-sense man to deal with. A few words were sufficient to make him comprehend the whole situation, and he laughed at the idea of any one questioning Gorham's title to the command which he held.

      "Look here, Deroll," said he, in a cheery way, "it's just the fortune of the sea, and you've got to make the best of it. I dare say now Captain Gorham will give you and your two men a passage home in the ship, as he is so very short-handed, and may even agree to see that you are paid wages for working your passage, if that is any object. But the ship and cargo are certainly a partial loss, at least, to her owners, and to you, and the salvors must have their share first of all out of the heap."

      Captain Deroll, finding himself alone, was compelled to submit to his fate, though with an ill grace; and one of the boats being sent back to the Draco, an adjournment was made to the cabin of the bark, where a series of mutual explanations followed, though without fully clearing up the mystery.

      It appeared that the three boats of the Bohemia, in charge, respectively, of Captain Deroll and his two mates, had been lowered in pursuit of sperm whales on the day indicated by the last entry made in the logbook.

      The bark was left in the care of old Scott, the ship-keeper, he having the cooper, the black cook, and two Portugese[sic] boys to assist him in working her. A whale had been taken during the forenoon, and secured alongside, but as more were in sight, it was determined to go in pursuit of them, deferring the operation of cutting in. The captain's boat struck another whale which proved to be a racer, and ran him several miles to windward at such a rate that the other two boats were unable to get near him, and the last time that Captain Deroll had noticed them, they were still far to leeward of him, and tugging away at their oars. After this, he made up his mind to go it alone at any risk; and after a hard and long siege, he succeeded in checking the speed of his whale by a mortal wound. But now. for the first time, he became conscious of what, in the excitement of his work, he had not before observed, that a fog-bank had crept down upon him, and the ship was hidden from view. Still he hung on a while longer, hoping the mist might lift again, for it was hard to give up and lose the whale now, after all the struggle for victory; but night was closing in, – nothing could be seen, and no sound could be heard in response to frequent blasts of his own foghorn. He was driven to the mortifying necessity of cutting from his prize: and now shaping his course with the best judgment he could, by the little boat-compass, and the wind, he began his tedious search for the ship.

      But from that hour he had never seen either the Bohemia or the other boats. As shown by the log-book, the Bohemia was at that time several degrees south of the position where she had been picked up by the Endeavor, but was, nevertheless, north of the usual cruising-ground. Captain Deroll knew that there were several vessels cruising between him and the islands, and his best chance of safety lay in making his way southward, so if he did not meet a vessel he could certainly make the land in a few days. After suffering much from hunger and exhaustion, he was picked up by the Draco, which having spoken several other vessels, and heard nothing of the Bohemia, left for another cruising-ground more to the westward. She had distributed a part of the men into other whalers, as usual in such cases, so that only two beside Captain Deroll now remained. They had done ship's duty with the Draco's crew, and as the mate had met with an injury, and was temporarily off duty, Captain Deroll had volunteered to take charge of his boat, and thus had chanced to be so near his own ship as to recognize her at sight.

      He had, up to this time, felt no concern about the safety of the Bohemia, or of her crew. Mr. Clark was a competent man to take charge of her, and the captain expected in a few weeks to return in the Draco to Fayal, where he would, doubtless, find his own vessel waiting for him, since the mate would, of course, have learned that he and his boat's crew were safe, and on board other vessels of the fleet.

      The statement of Gorham as to the place and circumstances of the finding seemed a strange one, but there was the log-book before him with his mate's handwriting up to the fatal date; then a blank of three weeks, after which the entries were resumed in a new hand, and at a point six degrees further north. The bark must have been all that time lying aback on the northern tack, with the whale in the fluke-chain,

A Conflict of Authority. 455

and not a living soul on board. It was easy enough to believe that the other boat's crews had, like himself, been lost in the fog; but it was unaccountable that all the shipkeepers, five in number, should have left the vessel. But they had done so of course, for the Bohemia had carried a spare boat on her cranes, and this too was gone when she was fallen in with.

      There would seem to have been some rashness or imprudent management, and perhaps some day it might be explained, for it was not probable that seventeen men in three boats had all perished.

      The alternative now offered to the unfortunate captain and his two men, was either to go home on sufferance in his own ship, or to return to Fayal in the Draco. His wisest course was to take Captain Nickerson's advice and follow the fortunes of the Bohemia, though to his peculiar nature the idea of going home in her in this ignoramus way was galling enough. He listened to reason at last, however, and as there was a prospect of a breeze springing up, the Draco men returned to their own vessel, leaving him and his men behind.

      With this timely re-enforcement, Gorham felt strong-handed enough to carry sail as he wished, and the voyage across the Atlantic was made without further adventures worthy of note. The two subordinates were jolly enough, and seemed to fall into their old places quite naturally; but the old skipper was morose and sullen most of the time, despite all the efforts of Gorham to rouse him into a different state of feeling. The very idea of a ship-master being permitted to work his passage home on board his own ship in this humiliating way!

      "Why, I feel," he said, "like a prisoner of war, with my ship in the enemy's hands. Yet I never abandoned my ship. I may say that she abandoned me."

      As soon as the Bohemia arrived off Sandy Hook, and took a pilot, Captain Deroll slipped quietly away, and hastened immediately to New Bedford to report to his owners.

      The bark was turned over to the care of the packet-line agents, and all the crew were held as witnesses. In the adjustment of the case, it was considered that the vessel and cargo had been most effectually lost to her owners at the time she was picked up, and the salvors were justly awarded the lion's share of the whole property. Gorham pocketed a handsome sum as his proportionate share; and, as it never rains but it pours, while he was being detained as a witness, a vacancy was opened by which he got command of the fine ship Fidelia, belonging to the same line of packets as the Endeavor, and, on the return voyage, brought home the faithful English maiden as his wife.

      But the more tragic part of the story was not explained until several months later, and even then but obscurely. A French merchant-vessel passing across the North Atlantic had picked up the wreck of a whale boat with one man nearly starved, clinging to her bottom, having been several days in that miserable situation. The poor wretch was kindly cared for, and landed at Brest; and after a series of wanderings, at last he reached his home in the Azores, and proclaimed himself the sole survivor of the Bohemia, not then knowing the captain and his boat's crew had been rescued. His thrilling story, as given to the American consul, was that the mate and second mate giving up the chase of the captain had struck another whale, Which stove one of the boats so that she filled and sunk. That the other boat having also a small hole knocked in her, and being overcrowded with twelve men, was also in a sinking condition; and being then not far from the ship the most frantic signals were made for relief. That old Scott, on the impulse of the moment, lowered away the spare boat, and imprudently called all hands into her, leaving the bark to take care of herself. With a short-handed and insufficient crew, the boat made but slow progress to windward, and even before they had reached their comrades, the stoven boat had filled under them and rolled over; and just then the fogbank shut down around them, hiding the ship from view. Here now were seventeen souls depending for safety upon a single frail boat, and in the midst of the confusion that followed, she also filled and overturned. The struggle for life was fearful, as the poor lad described it. Some were drowned immediately, and one by one they dropped off into watery graves.

      The wrecked boats drifted apart from each other, and the next day there were still three alive beside Antoine upon the one, while the other was not to be seen when the fog cleared away. To add to the agony of their situation they could see the Bohemia not many miles distant, and still forging away from them. Some unavailing attempts were made to roll the boat up again, as they hoped to be able to bail her out, but in their feeble and exhausted state this was found impossible, and they abandoned themselves to despair.

      His companions had all perished and disappeared before the second day was spent, and he could not tell anything that occurred from that time until he was rescued. He jammed his thumb into the plug-hole in the boat's bottom, and clung to his station mechanically as by the mere instinct of life, but his mind had been nearly a blank,

456 Ballot's Monthly Magazine.

and he had little or no idea of the lapse of time.

      In time, this deposition of poor Antoine reached the United States, and was published in the journals of the day. This was the key that unlocked the mystery; and the statement of the Portuguese boy was doubtless true in all essential particulars.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Conflict of Authority.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 53, No. 5 (May 1881)
Pages: 451-456