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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms

No. 6.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 6 (Jun 1886)
pp. 503-507.


. . . .



No. 6.

A Nocturnal Visitor. – Killed and Scalped. – A "Scrag" Whale.

      The first half of the night wore slowly away, and I could hardly be said to have slept, though I had lost my consciousness three or four times for very short periods, only to rouse up again, chilled by the night wind, and stamp back and forth within the narrow limits of our camp to quicken circulation. All was dark and cheerless round us, yet there was nothing really threatening in the aspect of the weather. The sky was overcast, but it was not so thick but that I could see the blink of the ice, which I knew must be outside of the headlands, unless it had set shoreward since dark, which was not probable. The wind had not increased any, but was still a smart, double-reefed topsail breeze, and held the same direction. I had heard the mate call Jim Crow, and had dropped asleep while he was lighting his pipe at the fire. When I awoke again, which could not have been more than half an hour later, I found our boatsteerer, Francisco, or Frank, as he was called, piling wood upon the fire, and the Kanaka sitting, as if carved in bronze, on the bottom of the boat, a lance lying by his side, his pipe still between his lips, but the fire in its bowl had died out, and he seemed to be unconscious of it, though I could see by the firelight that his eyes were wide open, and fixed upon a particular spot to leeward, the camp being, as I have observed, open at the end. I had opened my lips to speak to Frank, when I saw Crow's finger beckon impatiently, while his glance remained fixed as before. I was at his side in an instant, my look following the direction of his. I saw a colossal figure whiten in the obscurity, and needed no words of explanation. I had read Scoresby and Parry, and knew that the sovereign of the Arctic land beasts, the great polar bear, was before ua.

      The Kanaka's pipe dropped, unheeded, to the ground, as his lips opened.

      "No make noise," he whispered, still without moving his eyes. "Call 'e mate. Call Mitter Bickup, too."

      A touch on the shoulder, holding my finger on my lips to enjoin silence, was sufficient to bring the two officers to their feet, guns in hand. All the rest were called in the same quiet manner, and the whole camp was under arms in less than a minute.

      Our visitor was not more than ten paces off, sitting erect upon his haunches, staring at the firelight. The expression uppermost in his countenance and attitude was one of astonishment at our audacity in having invaded his domain.

      "He'll be more astonished yet, if he stands his ground a minute longer," whispered Mr. Pomroy. "Be all ready with your whaling-craft", to pitch into him, if we don?t bring him with the bullets."


      The two mates brought their guns to a sight, aiming for the head of the animal, while the rest of us stood in a sort of guardagainst-cavalry formation, ready either to advance or defend ourselves.

      "Ready, Mr. Bishop?"

      "All ready, sir."


      And the old musket and the fowling-piece rang together.

      A terrific growl answered the reports, and the infuriated beast bounded forward into our camp, rushing upon the chevaux de frise of lances and harpoons, several of which entered his body at different points. But these weapons were almost useless, by reason of their unwieldy length, when so suddenly brought to close quarters. The irons remained doubled up in his body, and the lances were not available for more than one thrust, for the power and agility of the beast were incredible; he thrashed over upon the darts, twisting them up, and breaking lancepoles as if they had been jackstraws. I had seized a light boatspade, after losing my lance, and watching an opportunity, I struck him a blow across the eye which blinded him on one side, but in return was knocked down and had my arm severely torn by a sweep of the monster's terrible claws. In less than a minute he had cleared the arena, for we had found ourselves at a disadvantage in attacking with long weapons in so confined a space, and every one had jumped over or crept under the boats, to renew the attack from the outside. Bruin, though rapidly losing blood from his numerous wounds, showed the same indomitable courage and ferocity as ever. But a new engine of destruction was brought into the field. The mate rose from behind the boat with the heavy bomb-gun loaded, crying:—

      "Stand clear, now, all of ye I This'U settle him."

      He pulled the trigger as the bear dashed gallantly at him. The pointed cylinder of iron crashed into his skull between the eyes, and the mighty beast fell to the earth.

      "Keep back! " the mate shouted. "Fall back, or you may get hurt by the blast!"

      The charge exploded, scattering skullbones, brains, and bits of cast-iron, but we had taken care to keep out of range. We closed up bravely round him now, for all danger was over, and the whole top of the bear's head had been blown off—after he was dead.

      My arm was examined, and bound up as well as possible under the circumstances, and then all our tongues were loosened, and the changes were rung upon all the circumstances of the fight.

      "I don't think we've much to brag of," said the Bishop. "I feel rather ashamed of myself, don't you, Mr. Pomroy? To think twelve of us should let that beast come aboard, and clear the decks, and drive us all overboard, and at last have to bring artillery to bear upon him, and blow his skull off, while we all ran away to escape the explosion."

      "But I really believe," the mate answered, "that without the artillery he would have licked the whole of us. Look, what a general ravage he has made among our whaling-craft. We've hardly a lance or an iron left that's serviceable."

      "Well, we had better see what we have got fit for use, and have the guns loaded up again. His mate may be down upon us before morning. If she does, I shall open the battle with artillery next time, and give her a bomb-lance at the first salute."

      "Yes; our small lead bullets were only thrown away upon him. One of them shattered his jaw a little, and the other was flattened against his frontal bone."

      "Well, give us the boat-knives, and we'll skin him as well as we can; but it's a pity we've spoiled the hide by cutting it in so many places. Load up all the guns, Mr. Bishop, and keep a good lookout, as before. Never mind your humpback, Jim Crow; we are good for a breakfast of bear-steaks. We sha'n't be on short allowance of provisions for a week, at least."

      I had always, heretofore, thought the bear stories of the Greenland voyagers somewhat apocryphal. But I was satisfied that their accounts of the immense strength, cat-like activity, and desperate ferocity of the white btar when wounded were not in the least exaggerated.

      The specimen which we had killed, or rather murdered, as the Bishop insisted, must have been fully ten feet in length, and could not have weighed less than a thousand pounds; yet, spite of his gaping wounds, and the darts sticking in his body, his movements were as agile as those of a dog. I did not fail to secure the paw with which he had torn both jacket and flesh from my arm, and which I meant to preserve as a trophy of the encounter.


      This animal may well be honored as the sovereign of the land beasts of the colder regions, as the lion is of those under the tropics. And his dominion, unlike that of the lion, is not restricted solely to the land, for he is equally at home by sea, and, by means of the ice, he extends his ravages to a great distance from shore, and it is even said to attack and sometimes conquer the walrus in his own element.

      The night wore away without further interruption, and the morning of a gloomy, chilly day broke upon us. The ice lay in a line across the sea-horizon, but the ship could not be seen, the mist concealing everything beyond a radius of three or four miles. But the wind had abated to a moderate breeze, and we knew we could pull through the ice without danger if it were at rest. In high spirits we despatched our morning meal, making dreadful inroads on the bear's meat, and then, breaking up our encampment, pushed the boats afloat, and pulled down the bay, taking with us the skin and paws of the mighty animal, as well as the remains of his head, split open by the bomb. We no longer wondered at the ease with which he bit lance-poles in two, for his teeth were of wonderful strength and sharpness, and locked into each other like those of a steel trap. Woe to any unfortunate man or animal upon whom these jaws should close, for bones, sinews and flesh must alike be ground up into one mass.

      I found myself unable to do much with an oar, owing to the pain in my lacerated arm, but used a paddle instead, and thus facing forward, I kept my eye fixed on the mist that hung over the ice-drift. The wind was dying away every minute, and it was nearly calm ere we arrived at the border of the ice, which we found to be almost at rest, while the violent agitation and attrition of the pieces the night before had broken it up into smaller fragments. There was no difficulty about passing through it with boats now.

      "Sail Ol" I shouted, joyfully, as the ship loomed out of the mist within two miles of us, standing in shore before the light air. "And boiling, too!" I added, as I directly caught sight of a small cloud of black smoke floating slowly away from her.

      "Yes, he's got a whale, and cut him, which accounts for his not running in shore last night," said the mate. "Well, we'll soon be alongside now. Sail O! again," he shouted. "I thought wc would soon have a partner here; the old barrier is all gone, I suppose—there's no ice to be seen beyond the ship."

      "He is boiling, too," said I.

      "So he is. Well, he must have taken his whale outside of the ice. Set our waif so the old man may see us."

      It was seen almost immediately, and the "Gorgon" came to the wind, while the strange ship stood on. We were not sorry to run once more under the lee of our old floating home. Right motherly was her welcome to her wauderiug children, and dear she appeared to our eyes, though dirty and smoked grimed from stem to stern, below and aloft. Her cutwater was terribly gnawed, and both copper and sheathing torn away under the bow by the hugging she received in the ice, while the port quarter bore honorable scars of our encounter with the "Handsaw."

      "What have you been doing, Mr. Pomroy?" asked the captain, as we unshipped our oars and threw the warp up. "Here I've been worried half to death about you."

      "Bear-hunting," answered Mr. Pomrov.

      "I'll bear witness to that," added the Bishop, holding up an immense lump of meat, which he had brought in the stern of his boat.

      "We've got a whale since you left us," said the old man, triumphantly.

      "So have we," returned the mate.

      "Should think you had killed half a dozen, by the looks of your craft," was the next retort, alluding to the snarls of crooked lances, and irons, and broken poles, to be seen in the boats. "Where is he, then?"

      "He's safe enough, sir. He's anchored in the bay, as you told me, only he happens to be at the wrong end of the cable. He furnished his own anchor, so I let him have a buoy."

      "I thought this kind of whale didn't sink, by what I hear tell of them," said Captain Stetson.

      "This kind, sir? 'What kind of a whale have you got?"

      "A bowhead, of course. What's yours?"

      "A humpback, sir, of course! The bay is alive with 'em."

      "You don't mean it, Mr. Pomrov!" said the old man in astonishment.

      "The real Simon-Purc,Nantucket Shoals, sir. I guess he's raced Mr. Bishop's boat nail-crazy, and, if he hadn't bombed him, he might have been running yet, for aught I


know. But there he lies, moored in eighteen fathoms, rocky bottom. He's got no craft, but one iron in his small. The bear unrigged the rest quicker'n any whale that ever I saw could do it. And here's Parker's arm pretty roughly scratched," he said, calling the captain's attention to me.

      "Well, take up the boats, and let her head in shore again, whila I play surgeon a while. There's no ice heavy enough to hurt us, I suppose?"

      "No, sir; that's quite harmless to a ship, though we didn't find it so for boats last night. I thought at one time we should all have to pass the night on it, and quarrel for the biggest cakes."

      My arm, after being dressed, was comfortable enough, and I had abundant cause to be thankful that I had received no worse injury. I came on deck, feeling like a new man, which might have been, in some measure, attributable to a prescription which Captain Stetson seldom failed to administer in such cases, to prevent the application striking to the stomach, as he expressed it. I never could understand apothercaries' Latin, but I know he always kept this medicine ready prepared in a junk bottle, and graduated the dose by the width of three of his fingers clutched round a tumbler.

      The ship was moving through the ice stream when I came up, pushing it aside without difficulty, and our consort was nearly abeam of us, having gained while the "Gorgon " had been lying to.

      "Do you know who our neighbor is?" I asked, when I went forward.

      "'The James and Margaret,' of New London," said the boatsteerer, Westcott, who was tending the fires at the tryworks. "Her captain was here gamming, last night."

      "What luck has she had?"

      "Foar right whales this season. He's boiling a right whale now, that he took more to the southward."

      "Has he seen any bowheads yet?"

      "No. We have seen only one ourselves, and this one came up within an hour after you left the ship, right at the edge of the ice, where he went down the night before; for I believe," said Westcott, with a forcible expletive, " that it was the same whale, and that he stayed down all night! I can't account for it any other way."

      "Did you chase him far?"

      "No; we went on to him the same rising we lowered. Killed him easy enough, but. being so short-handed, it took us nearly all day to cut him."

      "But where are all the rest of the fleet of whalers?"

      "All gone to the northwest as soon as the ice moved, or as near that as the wind would let them. Bound to the Sea of Anadir."

      We stood close in to the land, and about noon the other two officers, who had remained on board yesterday, and thus got the first bowhead, were sent in to try their luck exploring with boats. Two other boats left the New London ship about the same time.

      "Going to try a humpback, Mr. Paddack ?" asked the mate.

      "Yes, sir; if I can't find anything better."

      "Here, take the gun with you, then. You'll want it if you get hooked to one."

      "But you may want it here, too."

      "Yes; we ought to have two guns in the ship. But you are more likely to need it this afternoon than we are, so take it."

      "All right, then, pass it along."

      We were so near that the humpbacks could be seen from the ship, the white puffs showing conspicuously against the dull background of the land. The boats could also be seen, and their course followed by the men at the masthead. We were all busily engaged in boiling blubber, as also in tinkering and renailiug our somewhat shattered boats, when the report came from aloft that one of the boats was fast. Five minutes later, she was to be seen from the deck coming seaward, the white water flying in advance of her, and a saucy pair of flukes, making a great show in proportion to their size, swept right and left, indicative of a frisky disposition on the part of the whale, who shaped his course directly for the ship. We hastened our preparations for lowering, cutting short the repairs of the boats, and tumbling the craft into them, without being exact as to its arrangement.

      "That's Mr. Norton, fast," said the captain, who had brought the spy-glass to bear upon the approaching boat; " and it is not a humpback, either, that he has got ahead of him. If he is, he has cut his hump off with the spade."

      "What can it be, then?" asked the mate.

      "It's a small whale of some sort. 'There'shis-bonnet!' It's a right whale—a regular 'scrag!' Have your boats all ready to drop, for Mr. Paddack won't catch him today, at the rate he runs."


      We lowered away, placed ourselves directly in his track, to attack him "head and head." On he came, a regular " scrag" indeed, stunted in growth, but ancient and grizzly withal, his trumpet-blast ringing loudly above a short scalp, which, as well as the edges of the lips, was covered with barnacles and vermin, and with the general tough, gnarly appearance common to this variety of right whale. We took our stations to let him pass between us, trusting that one or the other would find means to sicken him of running the guantlet.

      His bonnet came up almost under the starboard boat, so near, indeed, that to get out of his way was impossible,

      "Tarn! Tarn hard! " roared the Kanaka.

      But it was too late; she rose, suspended on the jagged scalp, and over went Mr. Bishop and his crew into the water, just as our iron from the opposite direction was driven home in the whale's back. Quickly, as if revolving on a shaft, he threw himself toward us, his fins thrown apart and his breast elevated above the surface, a tempting mark for the cool and ready whaleman. Down went Mr. Pomroy's lance, and the victory was won. The scrag's racing days were over.

      "No-o-good," said Jim Crow, solemnly, as we dragged him from his chilly immersion, for the Tarhitian was, in high latitudes, even quicker to show hydrophobic symptoms than his white shipmates, however amphibious he might be in his native coral seas.

      "Want the gun, Mr. Norton?" hailed the second mate, whose crew had worked harder than any of us, having plied their oars ever since leaving the ship.

      "No, you are too late," was the answer, "unless Mr. Pomroy wants to serve him as he did the bear,—kill him and then blow his scalp off afterwards."

      A couple of hours were sufficient to peel the small whale, and we were under sail again before night. The boats from the New London ship did not return, nor could we see them up the bay.

      "I want to spend one more day here, and have a look behind the island. We must be grateful for small favors. The scrag will make us thirty barrels, and if we can weigh your humpback tomorrow, we shall make a decent fare of the two," said the captain.

      "Yes," the mate answered, "we can boil the two together, and call it—sperm!"


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 6.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 6 (Jun 1886)
Pages: 503-507