Whalemen Adventurers

by W. J. Dakin

Chapter 1


Rounding the Cape - Danny Hahlbohm
"Rounding the Cape" Danny Hahlbohm

THE first whaler to round Cape Horn and enter the Pacific Ocean was, as we have just seen, a British vessel, the Emilia, [footnote 1] owned by Sam. Enderby & Sons, of London. She not only sailed the Pacific, but she made a success of her voyage and returned to London in 1790 with a full cargo of sperm oil. Sam. Enderby, very proud of the venture, wrote a short letter as his ship lay below Gravesend, waiting a few days until she would be entitled to bounty premiums on her cargo. In a few words he sums up the future prospects: "From her account the whales of the South Pacific Ocean are likely to be most profitable; the crew are all returned in good health, only one man was killed by a whale."

Let us hark back, then, to 1790 and the years that followed, when transport to Australia meant sails and very long voyages.

The whalemen in their ugly wooden barques of 250 to 300 tons were amongst the hardiest of all sea-folk. Some of the whale-ships' crews may not have been sailormen when they commenced their voyages, but these were generally long enough (sometimes even four years) to leave no doubt about seamanlike ability at the close. Those in command saw to that. But the standard of seamanship will always remain somewhat of a vexed question, because there was a mighty jealousy between the sailors of merchantmen and the whalemen. The latter, possibly on the score of the dangers they overcame, and the length of their voyages, considered themselves superior to the former, whilst the sailors of the later clipper-ships regarded the whalemen's sail-handling as rather a joke and made rude remarks about their vessels. Melville illustrated this rivalry some years later in Moby Dick, where he remarked that the whale-ship "has explored seas and archipelagoes where no Cook or Vancouver had ever sailed. . .. Often, adventures which Vancouver dedicates three chapters to, these men accounted unworthy of being set down in the ship's common log. Ah, the world! Oh, the world!"

Seeing that the whale-ships were usually bluff in the bows and had the appearance, as one author puts it, of being "built by the mile and cut off in lengths as you want 'em," they were not craft for speed. They were, however, more than usually staunch craft in construction, and what they lost in speed they made up in seaworthiness. But if we grant the clippership sailor an ability in one aspect of his work, we must grant the whalemen no less expertness in other sea ways; they had no equals in open-boat work and their successful captains were superb seamen with a varied assortment of other attributes necessitated by their dangerous calling.

It is still possible to see one of the whale-ships of the old days-perfectly preserved too, as regards her fittings, even to the horsehair sofa in the captain's cabin. She is the oldest whaler in existence and one of the oldest of all sailing ships. It is almost certain that she has sailed a greater distance than any other sailing ship. She is, however, no longer afloat. As the Charles W. Morgan whaled in Australasian seas, and as I have climbed her masts and poked my nose into her dark holds, a note for those who are unlikely to visit the spot where she is laid up seems reasonable.

She was built in 1841 at New Bedford, so she is now ninety-six years of age. She has been a lucky ship. Her very first voyage was to the Pacific and she made about £14,000 for her owners on that voyage. She has never done anything else but whaling and she did this for eighty-four years. She made thirty-seven voyages, so the average duration of her voyages was over two years three months. Her last long voyage was in 1920-2 1. She has been ashore, has been set on fire by the crew, has seen mutinies, been struck by lightning, and nearly wrecked in a hurricane near the Crusts. She has outlived all her captains and crews. And speaking of her personnel it is interesting that one of her officers who spent possibly the longest time on her was George Parkinson Christian, the great-grandson of Fletcher Christian, the ringleader of the mutiny of the Bounty. He spent twenty-five years whaling aboard the Morgan, and altogether had a remarkable life. He was born on Norfolk Island in 1856; went to sea at the age of fourteen and then commenced shipbuilding at Auckland. Next he went out whaling in the Sydney ship Robert Towns, which was afterwards lost in a hurricane. Then Christian returned to Norfolk Island and was one of those who helped to build the beautiful Memorial Church (Bishop Patteson Memorial) on Norfolk Island. After a period as pearl-diver he returned to whaling-probably on the Hobart ship Othello. Then after some other sea experiences he joined the Charles W. Morgan when she was in Australian waters. One of the Auckland reviewers of the first edition of this book remembered the Morgan calling at Auckland in the early nineties.

The Charles W. Morgan may last many more years if she escapes fire and is cared for properly. She lies within a concrete basin on the shore at South Dartmouth, New England, a memorial to the American whaling industry and to the spirit of those hardy seamen who were ready to invade the Arctic ice or the tropical regions in the hunt for leviathan.

A whale-ship's crew was usually as mixed a collection of human beings as could be found in the small space which was their home. The low forecastle, badly lit and ventilated, and often not wider than sixteen feet, had to contain twelve to twenty-five men. Yankee owners, particularly from 1830 to 1860, deliberately sought crews mixed in nationality as well as colour. There was less chance of mutual agreement and mutiny with such a heterogeneous crowd. This did not apply, however, to the English or Nantucket ships which visited the southern Pacific in the first years of South Sea whaling. The crews of the Australian ships were also somewhat mixed in type; aboriginals and South Sea islanders made good whalemen.

Full Sail - Danny Hahlbohm
"Full Sail" Danny Hahlbohm

Despite the quarrels, and some of the most ensanguined of murders, one must confess that the men hung together not too badly. Twenty-four or thirty men cooped up together for four years! Perhaps the fact that the safety of the ships and the profits of the voyages (and thus the earnings of each man, be he captain or seaman) depended upon the common luck of co-operative work, is partial explanation of the coherence.

The typical whale-ship had three masts, and was blunt in the bows with a cut-off square stern. She carried six or seven boats, five of which were slung over the bulwarks on heavy davits. These boats were beautifully built - indeed, were specialized craft for the unique duties they had to perform. The deck of the whale-ship was encumbered just behind the main mast with the try-works, brick erections very ugly in build, and comprising two large cauldrons with two furnaces below. When a whale-ship was full and making a quick passage homewards, these unusual deck "fittings" were often thrown overboard.

When the try-works were in action, especially at night, the outfit didn't look at all healthy for a wooden ship perhaps already well laden with oil. Not once or twice do we read of the try-works having taken fire, with grave risk to rigging and sails. I cannot resist quoting (from Melville again) that wonderful word-picture of a whale-ship by night:

The wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphurfreighted brigs of the bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbours, with broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates and folded them in conflagrations.

The crew lived "forrard" (the companion opened to the deck in front of the mainmast). Amidships was the main hatch, which led to the hold where stores and oil alike were kept. The ship's stores were stowed in the casks that would be used later on for oil. Aft, of course, was the home of the ruling class! The captains, of whom some few were owners or part owners, varied exceedingly. Some, according to the author of Moby Dick, paraded their quarter-deck with "an elated grandeur not surpassed in any military navy." There was one peculiarity, however, about the whale-ship's complement aft: not only had room to be found for the skipper and his officers, but also for a special class unknown elsewhere on the high seas. These were the harpooners (sometimes styled harpooneers), the chief of whom was the specksynder or specksioneer. They occupied bunks in a compartment (often called the steerage) situated forward of the cabins of the mates.

Many tales are told of the wonderful prowess of these men, yet it is questionable whether the stories exaggerate their physique, for whilst their harpoons were not particularly heavy, this javelin throwing had to he done in addition to pulling the foremost oar in the whale-boat. The boat-steerer was expected to urge on the boat's crew with stimulating yells, and a vocabulary that would shame an American baseball fan. When within reach of the whale, the harpooner would be ordered to stand and seize his harpoon. What an excitement there must have been in that mad rush of the light cedar whale-boat, often over stormy seas! Amazing rescues in the wild Atlantic Ocean may surprise us with what can be accomplished with ships' boats even amidst breaking waves, but these whalemen were the real professionals in small-boat work, and one can see that no chances were missed, when, after unlucky and monotonous months of voyaging with few or no barrels of oil, a whale was sighted during' rough weather.

Upwards of 1800 feet of the best rope [footnote 2] were coiled in one or two tubs aft, and a trailing serpent of it went forward to provide yet another danger if some luckless rower should get an arm entangled in a bight at a critical moment. This was a very real danger, as any reader of whale-ships' logbooks soon discovers. Melville again describes it more dramatically than any one else:

Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions (of rope) he put in play like ringed lightnings; . . . and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say.

Almost every one knows something of the methods of whale capture of those olden days; the glimpse of white vapour and foam betokening a whale spouting; the lowering of the boats and the chase, which might be long, until the whale was lost to view, or harpooned, or itself triumphant over a stove boat. One New Bedford writer (and who should know better) stated that the whale hunt "from the time the distant spoutings were observed up to the time of the whale's death flurry and the crew's cry of victory 'Fin out' was one of the greatest sports known to man." What trade or profession provides anything like the excitement and danger to-day, apart from war or deep-sea fishing in winter with drifter or trawler? It is an interesting biological question whether the healthy human being doesn't lack that something exciting in his life to-day. His movies and talkies, his detective stories, his hosts of diversions, from sailing dinghy races and wild-game shooting down to the feeblest 0£ all sports - watching other people play the game: are they not all part of the industrialized being's unconscious effort to grasp something which for thousands of years was part of man's everyday existence?

You will find ordinary descriptions of whale-ships in well-known books, but searching through old manuscripts of the day about which I am writing, I found a slip of paper on which someone-perhaps the captain, or the owner, or maybe the owner was captain-had neatly enumerated every single item in the equipment of his vessel, including the cost of his stockings. It is worth setting out exactly as it was written 140 years ago, with the cost of herrings and guns, joiner's wages and codfish, delightfully mixed up together. It indicates the prices of common things in England in 1790, and it shows what it cost to purchase and equip a whaleship, and to find a crew for her down to the day on which the venture commenced:

Prime cost vessel 650 0 0
Carpenters wages etc. repairing bottom etc. 77 1 9
Riggers and Labourers 33 2 6
Servants board 7 9 0
Coals £4, Sawdust 6/- 4 6 0
2 doz. pair stockings 1 3 0
Customs House Charges 2 4 8
Captain's wages in harbour 24 5 8
Disbursements 3 5 7
Mate, one month in advance 3 10 0
Salt 5 17 4
Ale and beer 45 14 0
Casks 231 5 0
Pork, butter, and beef 106 10 8
Herrings 21/-, Gun 25/6 2 6 6
Cheese £8/2/6, Candles 37/8 10 0 2
Cartage £2/4/6, Glasses etc. 8/10 2 13 4
I puncheon of Brandy 14 6 0
Water, 35/6, Potatoes £4 5 15 6
Joiner's work £9/10/9, Codfish £4 3 10 9
Fresh beef in the river 22 8 2
Harpooners, one month's wages 10 0 0
Pilotage and extra attendance 5 7 0
Wages advanced to seamen 206 10 0
Beds for servants - apprentices 4 10 0
Telescope 20/-, Measuring Vessel 2/6 1 2 6
Sundry incidental expenses 5 2 7
Tobacco, £5/10/-, Iron hoops £7/16/11 13 6 11
Harpoons £12/10/, Braziers £15 27 10 0
Slops £27/11/4, Boots and shoes £20/9/4 48 0 8
Wine £2/17/8, Groceries £12/12/5 15 10 1
Bread and flour 82 2 4
Smith 130 4 1
Sailmaker £74/8/6, Painters £4 78 8 6
Cordage and whale lines 132 19 4
Carpenter etc. 316 10 2
Tar oil and hides 5 4 11
ditto 16 7 8
Guns and iron pots 2 5 0
Rum £5/10/-, Medicines £6/17/4 12 7 4
Blocks, oars etc. 49 0 0
£2429 4 8

The cost of the hull is low, but no indication is given of the size of the vessel. Evidently oil-casks were an expensive item in the equipment of a whale-ship, and the whale-lines and cordage cost more than might be surmised. The ale, beer, and brandy were solely for the use of the officers!

The first whale-ships to set out from the Australian coast itself did not belong to the host, partly British, mostly American, that eventually followed in the tracks of Enderby's pioneer vessel round the Horn. They were the transport vessels which had brought out convicts, and the first that we hear about arrived in 1791. Ten vessels of this class had reached Port Jackson, and one former whaling captain reported that he had just seen more whales in one day than off the coast of Brazil in six years. No less than five of these ships put to sea after whales. The attraction of the game was overwhelming, and quite a number of such British ships put to sea to take part in it immediately upon discharge of their human cargoes.

Stray whales are still occasionally, very occasionally, responsible for excitement by wandering into Sydney Harbour. The first report of such a happening was I July 1791 and then three young naval officers went in an open boat to look at it. They were upset by the whale and drowned.

An interesting letter which has come down to us was written on board the whale-ship Britannia as she lay in Port Jackson on 22 November 1791. It tells the story of the position at Sydney at its very beginning, arid it gives a glimpse of the men who brought out the convicts. This ship also belonged to Sam. Enderby & Sons, and the captain who wrote the letter was Thomas Melville. It would be a pity not to give the whole of this old document, which now lies in the Mitchell Library of Sydney; such letters from whalemen of the past are romances in themselves. This and others to follow have not been altered in any way; they are often strangely laconic, and stops and capitals are sprinkled haphazardly. But who would criticize an eighteenth century whaling captain for not being a scholar?

Ship Britannia,
Sydney, Port Jackson.
Nov. 22nd, 1791.

To Messrs. Sam. Enderby & Sons,

I have the pleasure to inform you of our safe arrival in Port Jackson in New South Wales, October 13th after a passage of 55 days from the Cape of Good Hope. We was only six weeks from the Cape to Van Diemens Land, but met with contrary winds after we doubled Van Diemen's Land, which made our passage longer than I expected.

We parted company with our agent the next day after we left the Cape of Good Hope and never saw him again till we arrived at Port Jackson both in one day. The Albemarle and us sailed much alike. The Admiral Barrington arrived three days after us. I am very well myself thank God, and all the crew are in high spirits. We lost in all on our passage from England twenty one convicts and one soldier. We had one birth on our passage from the Cape. I try'd to make and made Island of Amsterdam and made it in the I,longitude of 76.4.14.E from Greenwich by a good lunar observation. My intention was to run close to it to discover whether the Sealing business might not have been carried on there but the weather was so bad and thick weather coming on, I did not think it prudent to attempt it, likewise to lose a night's run and a fair wind blowing. The day before we made it we saw two shoals of Sperm Whales. After we doubled the South West Cape of Van Diemens Land we saw a large Sperm Whale off Maria's Islands but did not see any more being very thick weather and blowing hard till within 15 leagues of the latitude of Port Jackson Within three leagues of the shore we saw Sperm Whales in great plenty. We sailed through different shoals of them from 12 o'clock in the day till sunset, all round the horizon, as far as I could see from the mast head. In fact I saw very great prospects in making our fishery upon this coast and establishing a fishery here. Our people was in the highest spirits at so great a sight and I was determined as soon as I got in and got clear of my live lumber, to make all possible despatch on the Fishery on this Coast.

On our arrival here I waited upon His Excellency, Governor Phillip and delivered my letters to him. I had the mortification to find he wanted to despatch me with my convicts to Norfolk Island and likewise wanted to purchase our Vessel to stay in the Country, which I refused to do. I immediately told him secret of seeing the whales thinking that would get me off going to Norfolk Island that there was a prospect of establishing a fishery here and might be of service to the Colony and left him. I waited upon him two hours afterwards with a box directed to him. He took me into a Private Room, he told me he had read my letters and that he would render me every service, that lay in his power: that next morning he would dispatch every long boat in the fleet to take our convicts out and take on our stores immediately which he did accordingly and he did everything to dispatch us on the Fishery. Captain King used all his interest in the business. He gave his kind respects to you. The secret of seeing the whales, our sailors could not keep from the rest of the whalers here, the news put them all to the stir, but have the pleasure to say we was the first ship ready for sea. Notwithstanding they had been some of them a month arrived before us. We went out in Company with the Will and Ann, [footnote 3] the 11th day after our arrival. The next day after we went out, we had very bad weather and fell in with a very great number of Sperm Whales. At sun rising in the morning we could see them all round the horizon we run through them in different bodies till two o'clock in the afternoon when the weather abated a little, but a very high sea running. I lowered away two boats, and Bunker followed the example in less than two hours we had seven whales killed but unfortunately a heavy gale came on from the S.W. and took the ship aback with a squall that the ship could only fetch two of them, the rest we was obliged to cut from and make the best of our way on board to save the boats and crew. The William and Ann saved one, and we took the other, and rode by them all night with a heavy gale of wind. Next morning it moderated. We took her in. She made us twelve barrels. We saw large whales next day hut was not able to lower away our boats. We saw whales every day for a week after, hut the weather being so bad we could not attempt to lower a boat down. We cruised fifteen days in all having left our 60 Shake's of Butts on shore with the Gorgon's cooper to sett up in our absence which Capt. Parker was so kind as to let us have, and wanting to purchase more casks of Mr Calvert's ships and having no prospect of getting any good weather I thought it most prudent to come iii and refit the Ship and compleat my casks and fill my water, and by that time the weather would be more moderate. The day after we came in the Mary Anne came in, off a cruise, having met with very had weather shipped a sea and washed her try-works overboard, He informed me he left the Matilda in a Harbour to the Northward, and the Salamander had killed a ten barrel whale and lost her by bad weather. There is nothing against making a voyage on this Coast but the weather which I expect will be better next month. I think to make another months trial of it.

If a voyage can be got upon this coast, it will make it shorter than going to Peru, and the Governor has been very attentive in sending greens for refreshment to our crew at different times. Capt. Parker has been kind and has given me every assistance that lay in his power. He carries our longboat home as we cannot sell her here. He will dispose of her for you, or leave her at Portsmouth. He will wait upon you at his arrival in London. Capt. Ball of the Supply who is the bearer of this letter has likewise been very kind and rendered us every service that lay in his power. He will wait upon you likewise.

The Colony is alive expecting there will be a rendezvous for the fishermen. We shall be ready to sail on Tuesday the 22nd on a cruise. The Matilda has since arrived here, she saw the Salamander 4 days ago. She has seen more whales, but durst not lower their boats down. She has been into harbour twice. We have the pleasure to say we killed the first 4 whales on this coast. I have enclosed you the certificates for the convicts and receipts for the stores. Capt. Nepean has paid every attention to me and has been so kind as to let us have a copper. He dines with me tomorrow. I am collecting you some beautiful birds and land animals and curiosities for you. The ship remains tight and strong, and in good condition. I will write you by the Gorgon, Man of War; she sails about a month or six weeks time.

I am,
yr humble servant
Capt. of Ship Britannia
Sydney, P.J.
Nov.22 1791.

High Seas - Danny Hahlbohm
"High Seas" Danny Hahlbohm

When I first read that letter a picture of Port Jackson as it might have been in those days rose before me. Convicts - merely live lumber: "twenty-one convicts died on our passage from England!" What a hellish lot is left untold. Whales, whale-chasing, possibilities of shares and good money. Like gold-seeking, it gripped its men to the exclusion of all else. I could picture the tactics of the captain, facing Governor Phillip, and understand how the early governors came to be excited about whaling. After all, they were human, and mariners at heart. And then I realized full well those whalemen's troubles with the weather. Have I not experienced a whole winter season with the sea never even moderately calm off that same coast, wind or no wind?

There is a Captain Bunker mentioned in this letter; we shall hear more of him. At that time he commanded the William and Ann. After his return from the first cruise, and when about to sail again (this time for the north-eastern coast of New Zealand), he was approached by Governor King, who had been interested in the possibility of using the New Zealand flax, and wanted some New Zealand natives to show the Australian colonists how to treat it. Bunker was offered £100 to bring two natives from the Bay of Islands. But he couldn't coax them to sail with him. This voyage of Bunker's is reputed to be the first visit of a whaler to the coast of New Zealand; and according to the historian, Robert McNab, it is the first record of any commercial voyage to New Zealand. It did not take long to bring to light the advantages of New Zealand and the beauties of the South Sea islands.

In the meantime the peace of 1783 with America revived the Nantucket whalers who, cute as any of the world's sea dogs, sailed close on the heels of the British ships round the Horn. In 1791 they fully realized the scope of the Pacific Ocean and then began the fifty years of growth which was to result in the biggest whaling fleet the world has ever known.

The hunts, explorations, fights, mutinies, and altogether amazing exploits of the ships from Massachusetts in the ice of the Arctic, the doldrums of the equator, the blissful or murderous isles of the South Seas, form the background to the early part of my story which concerns more particularly an undescribed British side of this never-to-be-forgotten adventure. Often rivals, sometimes mates, the New Englanders and the Old Englanders discovered the South Seas together.

In the year 1793 twenty whalers returned to England from the Pacific Ocean fishery, and four of these ships were listed as coming specifically from the New South Wales coast. The trade was pickled in danger from the beginning. A 400-ton convict ship, the Matilda, which set out on a whaling expedition immediately after reaching Sydney in 1791, sailed over to the Peru grounds. She was wrecked near Osnaburg Island. Her claim to history is that she was the first British whaler to be wrecked in the Pacific.

About this time another very enterprising whaling exploration was undertaken by Sam. Enderby & Sons, under the auspices and direction of the Lords of the Admiralty. The commander was Lieutenant Colnett, R.N., and the vessel, the whale-ship Rattler. She was sent to explore certain islands in the Pacific Ocean, with a view to finding some which would afford "refreshment" for the crews of the whaleships in that ocean. The Rattler sailed round Cape Horn, but kept to the American coast and went north. Eventually, the Galapagos Islands were reached-islands afterwards to become famous through Darwin's description (and other later descriptions) of the remarkable animal-life abounding there, more especially the giant tortoises standing three feet nine inches high and the thousands of big lizards. About these islands Sperm whales were seen in plenty; the region is described in the report of the voyage as a whale nursery. The whaling master of the ship wrote that he had never seen Spermaceti whales copulate before, "but saw them often do it amongst the islands." Fifty years afterwards, the Pacific Ocean just westward of the Galapagos was to become one of the greatest of all Sperm-whaling grounds.

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footnote 1

This ship has often been called the Amelia in books on whaling. In the copies of Sam. Enderby's letters preserved in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, it is distinctly referred to as the Emilia. Since the first edition of this hook was published the author has confirmed the fact that the ship was the Emilia," by evidence collected in the Whaling Museum at New Bedford, United States of America.


footnote 2

In some Australian notes this is described as 1.5-inch Manila, but an American writer describes it as an aristocrat in the world of ropes, a 2-inch hemp line of 51 yarns, each tested to sustain one cwt. As a matter of fact, Manila came later into use.


footnote 3

Captain Ebor Bunker.