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19th Century American Whaling

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No. 1.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 1 (Jan 1886)
pp. 44-48.



No. 1.

Cabin and Forecastle Councils. – Into Talcahuano and Out Again.

      We had plowed W the South Pacific all up in furrows to little purpose. Our first right whale season had proved a failure; a cruise on Chili had made but a small addition to our oily treasure; "Off shore" and "the Archer ground" had yielded to us little besides disappointment; and we had zigzagged "off Guafo" till patience had ceased to be a virtue. Eighteen months of our voyage had slipped away, and still the stout old "Gorgon" reared her plankshears high out of water, and both sperm and right whales seemed to fly her presence, as if fearing the power of petrifaction she might possess in virtue of her appellation. We "hailed" only four hundred barrels, all told, while her capacious hold required eight times that quantity to chock it off. Hope deferred had made all our hearts sick; murmurs about "the unlucky ship" pervaded the forecastle, the bull-room, and even the after cabin. Discontent stalked abroad night and day among us. There was no prospect of our making a successful voyage without such a great turn in fortune's wheel as seemed aimost a miracle.

      "Mr. Pomroy," said Captain Stetson, one evening, after they had both walked the quarter deck, each on his respective side of it, without exchanging a word for a matter of twenty minutes, " I'm going up north." "How far up, sir? asked the first officer. "As far as the ice will let me go," the captain answered, " unless we fall in with whales sooner."

      "Good!" exclaimed Mr. Pomroy. "I shan't be far behind you, I hope, when you get there."

      "I don't see any other course for us," resumed the old man. "Here's nearly half our time gone by, and we haven't oil enough to lay a ground tier yet. It's no fault of ours, either, that I can see. We get as much oil as our neighbors, when we see a chance; but we can't make whales. Now there's no question but there's plenty of whales up north there, and that's our only salvation. I wish now that we had gone last season."

      "So do I, as it has turned out," replied Mr. Pomroy. "But it's not too late to save the voyage now, if we could get one slashing good cut up there."

      Mr. Pomroy was one of the finest specimens of manly beauty that I have ever seen. A man of Herculean strength, with noble and dignified air, his character comported well with his appearance. He justly bore the reputation of a " high killer," and could "horse a right whale" with any of his contemporaries, even of the New London school in which he had been reared.

      "If whales are as plenty up there as they are reported, it won't take long to rattle in a couple of thousand barrels. Three seasons that I made on the ' nor'west' we took from two thousand to twenty-five hundred barrels each time. The last two seasons I went we didn't do so well. The right whales were getting thinned out, and mighty shy, too. But these new grounds that are opened up about Behring's Straits ought to give us a good cut. And if accounts are true, those 'steeple-top-whales,' as they call 'em, are an easier fish to take than the regular right whale," continued the mate.

      "Well, I've never been up there yet," returned the old man, who had served his time and graduated in the sperm whale fishery, and had been very slow to make up his mind about going up north, but was by no means wanting in any quality necessary to conduct a voyage of that sort, after having fully decided on it. "I've right whaled it on the 'Banks' in my young days, but I never had much luck at it. Our southern right whaling season this voyage has brought us nothing but disappointment, but I still hope that a northern one will make up for our lost time. "Mr. Paddack," said he to the second mate, who had just come up from below, "what do you think of a, season up among the bowheads?"


      "I'm all ready for anything, sir, that will fill up our casks," answered Paddack, a young man from Nantucket, who had also been educated as a sperm whaleman. "I never had anything to do with right whales, or bowheads either; in fact, with anything that wears two spoutholes, and what I don't know about them would fill a big book; but still, if I get hooked to a nor'wester, I think I can mucklc him, if he shows any sort of decent play, that is; for the best of us all get run away with now and then, even by sperm whales. I'm ready to go, sir, to the very jumping-off place, if there's whales to be found there."

      "They are up there," answered Captain Stetson; "there's no doubt about that. And I'm told the high latitude ground where the bowheads live is a pleasant place to cruise; that there is a great deal of smooth weather in the summer season, much more than on the right whale grounds, down in forty-five and fifty. Then the whales yield so much oil it wouldn't take many in number to fill us."

      "Three hundred barrels apiece, or so," said the second mate, "if we are to believe what some of them tell us who have been there. Let's see—about twenty-seven hundred more would do our business for us —that's nine whales. Just think of it! the "Gorgon" only wants nine whales to fill."

      "Perhaps we may hook to that fellow that Rovs saw up there in the 'Superior,'" said Mr. Pomroy, carrying on the joke. "It was reported in the Honolulu papers that they saw a whale so big that they thought they couldn't cut him."

      "Was it their mainmast or cutting pendents that they were doubtful of?" inquired the old man.

      "I don't know, sir," replied the mate.

      "Well, if we should happen to get that fellow," said Mr. Paddack, "and find we can't roil him, we'll strip one side of him, at any rate."

      "I am glad to find you all willing to make this change in the voyage," the captain said, pleasantly. "I know Mr. Norton is all ready to go, for that's his element. He's an old stager on the nor'west, and is as tired of cruising for sperm whales as any of us can be. So I may be assured I shall have to make no change of officers. I am very well satisfied with my ' team 'as it is, not meaning to flatter any of you. I may ship a fourth mate, if I happen to find the right man. Tomorrow morning, then, we'U make sail and head her off for Talcahuano, and from there we are bound—up north."

      Of course, when I was relieved from the wheel, after having listened to this conference, I went forward among my shipmates as full of cabinet secrets as an egg is of m«'at, to use a homely but expressive phrase, I was a " special reporter, high in the confidence of the administration,'' and did not fail to make the most of my temporary importance. There was some growling among the boys about going up into those cold regions concerning which they had heard some tough yarns while gaming with northern cruisers; but most of us were well satisfied with the news, and not the less that it involved a good "blowout" in Talcahuano, before pushing up into the realms of old Boreas. Only two or three of our crew had ever been further north than the Japan sperm whale ground, while more than half of us were on our first voyage, and had, of course, but little experience in whaling of any kind, though we had worn away a year and a half in unsuccessful cruising.

      "Me no hke nor'west," said Jim Crow, a burly Kanaka from the Society Islands. "Me been one time—no like."

      "Didn't you find plenty of whales up there?" I asked.

      "O yes," replied the Tahitian. "Too many ile."

      "Why didn't you like it, then?"

      "No good. Too much cold. Kanaka no like."

      "No, you Kanakas are warm-weather birds, like cockroaches," said old Tim Kendall, argumentatively. "You can't stand the climate, d'ye see, no better'n one of them Arctic Injuns could stand yours in Tahiti. We had three Kanakas when I was up on Kodiak in the Bragaza, and two on 'em wilted and died, and the third was all shrivelled up and torpid like; but he rubbed through, and when we got down into warm weather, he thawed out again. Did the old man say he was going away up on the new ground, Parker?"

      "Yes," I answered. "This is just what he said. 'I'm going as far as the ice will let me go, if we don't fall in with the whales sooner."

      "Well, Jim Crow, you'd better leave in Turkeywarner, then," said old Kendall. We'll go away up to seventy north, and, as you're a pretty good sort of a shipmate, I


don't want to see you with a red comforter round your neck. Soon's ever you see a Kanaka put on a red tippet," he said, looking round upon us all, in his old argumentative way, again, "you may know he has got his log all written up, and is about ready to kick the bucket. So if the old man won't discharge you. Jim Crow, you'd better run away."

      "You get out," said the Polynesian. "Me no lun away."

      "Well, taint as 1 wanted to get rid of ye," said old Tim. "I only advised ye for your own sake. But there ain't nothing about it to scare a white man that's been born and brought up in cool weather. If you believe all the twisters that's told ye, boys, you'd think we was all going to be froze up. stock-and-fluke; but that's all moonshine, unless we should happen to get marooned, aud have to winter there."

      "When it comes to that," said the carpenter, "I want 'em to count me out. A Canada winter is hard enough for me, and I don't want to be any nearer the pole than that, after September."

      "Hut the whalers on the Greenland side winter up there, and take whales in the winter, too, when they come up at the airholes in the ice." said 1.

      "Yes, I believe they do," returned old "Chips;" "but all I can say is, let 'em, if they want to. They're entirely welcome to my share of the fun. But it's not much use our discussing the matter. If the old man has made up his mind to go north, he'll go, and we must go too, unless we choose to run away in Talcahuano. So let's turn in. and you that have the watch on deck can do the rest of the talking about it."

      When all the hands were called the next morning, sail was packed on the ship with a will, aud our course shaped for Talcahuano, before the inevitable operation of washing off decks commenced. A few days found us snugly at anchor in this favorite rendezvous of whalemen. Sailor-like, we gave no thought to the perils and hardships of tomorrow, but made the most of the present hour. Nor'west or southwest was all one to us, with the anchor down and a dollar in our pockets. Jack is no borrower of trouble. The heavens may fall tomorrow; he'll meet the emergency when it comes; "but sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

      We enjoyed ourselves during a stay of three weeks, and, strange to say, lost no men by desertion. The change in the original nature of the voyage, instead of driving the men out of the ship, as had seen feared, had engendered new hope, and lispelled the cloud of discontent that had been settling down upon us all. The spirit of adventure was roused within us, too; and as we passed out by Quiriquina Island, before a fresh souther, we were even impatient to be one of the earliest ships of the season to reach the hyperborean cruisinggrounds, and to encounter the cetaceous monsters of the species known as the great, Greenland whale, of which we had read in our school-days. The descriptions of the whale fishery as compiled from the journals of Scoresby and other polar adventurers, had all the fascination of romance for our youthful minds; but our experience in whaling thus far had been altogether at variance with the preconceived ideas gathered from their perusal. We were now to have the opportunity of investigating the matter for ourselves, with the prospect of getting well paid for our time, if we found the whales as numerous as represented; and at no time during the last twelve months had our spirits been as light, or our hearts as buoyant with hope as when the "Gorgon's" head was fairly pointed north, with a fresh breeze iu her favor. The polar voyage, from being a great bugbear in the distance, had grown to be a matter of course, almost a visible reality.

      Jim Crow, with all his dislike of high latitudes and low temperatures, stood stoutly by us, aud so far from profiting by his old shipmate's suggestion to " lun away," had even declined accepting his discharge, wheu offered him by Captain Stetson. He was afraid he might go further aud fare worse, if he cut loose from the "Gorgon," and his cupidity was excited by the stories he heard from "last seasoners" while in port, about the immense bowheads lying up there "in windrows," waiting to be slain and stnpped of their unctuous jackets. "Xuinui-ile, nor'west." was the burden of his thoughts.

      We had shipped a fourth mate at Talcahuano, to take charge of the starboard boat, the old man having decided to rest on his laurels, and retire from active service in the boats. This change was agreeable to all the other officers, as the four boats would still be manned and appointed, while the captain, of course, would be in charge of the


ship during their absence. Every whaleman knows the importance of having a careful and responsible man in the position of "ship-keeper." His confidence and daring are much stimulated by the knowledge that some one is on board upon whose vigilance and judgment he can safely rely; for not only may the ship afford him valuable ,co-operative aid, by manoeuvres and signals, but his own safety may depend much upon the management of those lelt on board. Especially is this the case in a part of the ocean so infested by sudden and impervious fogs as the North Pacific in its higher latitudes.

      The new officer, whose name was Bishop, was of the Sag-Harbor school; a man of fine understanding and much general knowledge, an excellent navigator, and might have been long before at the top of the ladder, but for an unfortunate propensity to open his mouth and crook his elbow as soon as the anchor went down. As a consequence, although his reputation as a whaleman and as an officer, when beyond the roach of temptation, stood deservedly high, he was constrained to ship in such a berth as might be offered him, when he had swallowed his last dollar. He had been up the season before as second-mate, aud thus was the only man on board the "Gorgon " who had visited the new Arctic grounds, or seen a bowhead whale. He had with him a neatlykept journal of his last season's cruise, which, of itself, was a prize of great value. Altogether, he was a great acquisition to our whaling force, and our quartet of boatheaders might be looked upon as one not easily matched among the northern fleet. The unfortunate leviathan who might come within range of their strong arms and sharp lances would have little to expect from their tender mercies.

      "We must touch at Honolulu, on the way up, for letters," said the captain, as he walked the deck again, the evening after we left Talcahuano. "It won't detain us but an hour or two to go in with the boat."

      "If you are going ashore there, sir," said Mr. Pomroy, " wouldn't it be a good plan to buy a gun and a few bombs?"

      "Oh, what do we want of those newfangled rigs?" burst out the old man. "The old way of killing a whale is good enough. I ain't afraid but that either of you will kill your whales by hand."

      "Neither am I, sir," returned the first officer, coolly, "provided the whale shows good play, so that we can get up alongside of him. In that case, we should have no occasion to use a bomb-lance. But there are times when a whale runs so that it's impossible for the best boat's crew in the world to get fairly up abreast of him, but a bomb-lance might be shot into him, quartering and bringing him to."

      "Have you ever used one yourself?" the captain asked.

      "No, sir. I never had one; but I have often wished I had something of the kind, and have lost a number of whales in my own experience that I think I could have saved with a bomb-lance."

      "Do you want to use the gun yourself?"

      "I am all ready to use it, if you get it for us, though I am not at all particular whose boat you put it into. It's only for the general interest of us all that I recommend it. Mr. Bishop understands using it; has used one a season on Kodiak, and thinks at least five hundred barrels were added to their season's work that would have been lost without it."

      "How does he know that those whales would have been lost?" asked the old man, a little impatiently.

      •'He doesn't say he knows," answered Mr. Pomroy, but he thinks so. Of course a man could not swear under oath that he knows; but if he is a man of experience, his judgment is worth something, when he knows all the circumstances."

      "It will cost, I suppose, a hundred and fifty dollars," remonstrated the old man.

      "I presume it will," the mate said; "but supposing it does cost the ship two hundred dollars, and one whale is saved by it—that's a hundred and fifty or two hundred barrels of oil—wouldn't it be a paying thing?"

      "Yes, I suppose it would," admitted the captain, half-convinced.

      "Well, I know," pursued Mr. Pomroy. "that some of those northern right whales, as soon as the iron enters 'em, will give one farewell snort and point to windward, and they won't slack up their racing speed till they tire out the best man living, and get away from him at last, because he can't get up near enough to use his hand-lance so as to do any good with it."

      "Yes, I presume there's much truth in that," said Captain Stetson yielding a little more. "Well, I'll see about it."

      It was evident to me, who listened to all


this, that the mate would carry his point, however impossible such a result would appear at the outset. Captain Stetson was rather unprogressive in his ideas; inclined to be old fogyish, as the phrase goes; too apt to think that what answered for the Pilgrim forefathers, because they didn't know any better, was good enough for the present generation; and that any departure from the established modes of rigging, stowing or manoeuvring a ship laid down in Hamilton Moore and other venerable authorities as practiced in the royal navy a century ago, was heterodox and unseamanlike. He was rather fond, too, of starting a discussion on such points, which generally ended in his getting the worst of the argument, and sometimes effecting a radical change in his views. For, to do him justice, although decidedly slow and couservative, he was not the man to persist in error after having been fully enlightened; but when vanquished, horse, foot and dragoons, he generally went over to the enemy, and enlisted, heart and soul, in the new cause. I had no doubt that before the " Gorgon" went north of the Sandwich Islands, her inventory would include the best whaling gun that could be bought, and a supply of the explosive lances.

      These bombs consist merely of a hollow cone of cast iron—a sort of Parrott shell in miniature, charged with powder—a fuse being attached to it, which burns ten or fifteen seconds before reaching the charge. The fuse is ignited when the gun is fired, and the bomb explodes within the whale, making sad havoc among his vitals. The gun itself is a short, heavy piece, with percussion lock, which is raised to the shoulder and fired by a trigger, in the ordinary way.

      About the time of which I write, or soon after the opening of the great North Pacific whaling grounds, various improvements in whaling gear were brought forward, each of which had to make its way into use. like most other new inventions, by hard strug.

      gles against ancient prejudice and cautious conservatism. Harpoon guns in great variety were in the market, each of which claimed its peculiar points of advantage; but these met with but temporary favor, and were, for the most part, abandoned. The Greener gun, as it is called, which is hung as a swivel or pivot gun, and aimed point blank at its object, met with good success, possessing many advantages over the various shoulder guns. Hut most whaleineu still prefer to trust the strong arm at close quarters with the monster, in any case where it is possible to approach him near enough to dart by hand. A harpoon gun had been sent out in the "Gorgon,'' and numerous experiments had been made by our officers in the early part of the voyage, not upon whales, but by lowering a boat, and practicing at a target in the sea. It was eventually condemned and laid aside, though its performances were highly effective, particularly at the breech or butt-end. To have attained to any certainty of aim with it would have required more knowledge of disparts and parabolas than Marryatt's gunner, Mr. Tallboys, could boast of. When fired, the irou usually struck the water athwartships, and skipped pleasantly off, while the gun, which was secured by a stout lanyard, went overboard on the other side of the boat, and the astonished marksman was left flat on his back, with his head under the midship thwart. This tableau, being far more picturesque than satisfactory, helped to fortify Captain Stetson in his conservatism. He had no doubt that the gun was an ingenious affair. Like most new-fangled rigs, it was a first-rate plan, but it wouldn't answer. To strike a whale, there was nothing like a stout heart and elbow-grease. But everything has its uses; and it has since been discovered that the whaling gun was admirably adapted for firing into a flock of aquatic birds at short range, scattering about half a pint of small shot with satisfactory results.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 1.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 1 (Jan 1886)
Pages: 44-48