THE WHALEMEN OF 1810-60 AND THEIR ADVENTURES IN THE PACIFIC AND IN THE AUSTRALIAN BIGHT
Now let us find out what manner of men went down to the sea in whaling ships and suffered the rigours and risks of this life in the years about 1840. There was much diversity in the ships engaged in the trade; their captains were still more varied in character, so differences naturally extended to the crews. Human nature presents an infinite series of grades between its extreme types, and there is no doubt that the whale-ships provided choice examples of all of them. A hard life furnished little attraction for other than hard men; but there is no evidence that existence on the better-run whale-ships was more brutal than on merchantmen. On the other hand, some were veritable hells. This applies most especially to the American ships of the 1830-60 period. The prevailing state of affairs was dependent on owners and captains, and on unlucky choice in the collection of a crew. The length of time away from port was, obviously, an outstanding feature of the whale-ship, and one that brought many difficulties in its train. There was nothing like a good yield of oil below deck for keeping things in order. Then the crew could at least look forward to their shares if they stuck to the ship. Bad luck meant desertions; there was nothing to lose by clearing out.
On a previous page I have given extracts from letters of the Weller Brothers, of Sydney. Amongst their old correspondence is a very interesting letter to a whaling captain - the intimation that he was appointed to command a certain ship, and the instructions for the voyage. Here, then, is a first-hand example of the kind of orders which an Australian firm dealt out to its captains nearly a century ago:
Perusal of the ships' logs shows that the captains often had more serious difficulties with their officers than with their men.
In a description written about 1846 an American writer tells amusingly of his introduction to the whaling fraternity. He was short of money, and seeking adventure - a young man ready for anything - when he saw a notice: "Wanted immediately: six able-bodied landsmen to go a whaling voyage from New Bedford. Apply upstairs before 5 o'clock p.m." He applied and was received by an excessively polite old gentleman of prepossessing appearance and every manifestation of cordiality: "A whaler, gentlemen, is a place of refuge for the distressed and persecuted, a school for the dissipated, an asylum for the needy. There is nothing like it. You can see the world." Such was the reception by the "spider ."
A few days later, on the way to New Bedford to join the ship, the same young man heard the following, apropos of whaling and the aforesaid benevolent old gentleman agent: "I would sooner be in the penitentiary any time, and New Bedford is the sink-hole of iniquity, and fitters are all blood-suckers, the owners cheats, and the captains tyrants."
So you can guess that human nature in those days was just the same old fickle melange. You might be lucky with your company, or, on the other hand, you might not!
The successful conduct of a whaling expedition required courage, ingenuity, and ability in managing and navigating a sailing ship into unexplored waters and over a long period. And in addition, as an American writer put it. "thrift to a point of parsimony." These qualities were found in the New England stock. The crews obtained to work the American ships of the period 1800-25 contained a large percentage of similar men. But as the American Pacific whaling fleet expanded during the golden days of the decades 1830-60, the appalling conditions in the forecastles of many whale-ships deterred the better types of young men, who were finding greater opportunities on land, and, as sailormen, in the Merchant Service. The forecastles of the Yankee whalers thus came to be inhabited by the most mixed collection of nationalities, with a big sprinkling of Portuguese - Cape Verde and Azores islanders; the rest were pretty bad.
We know that many of the sealers (Americans as well as others), who visited the South Australian coast, were amongst the vilest of men. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that some of the New Bedford whalemen had more than a touch of Quakerism in them, and more than one whale-ship was well spoken of by missionaries. After immersing myself in New Bedford history I am prepared to say good words of the old New Enland seamen - at all events of the men who sailed before 1845.
The influence of the whalemen on the peoples of the pacific islands has been terrific. The South Pacific was the scene of the worst orgies of the most disreputable crews. One Hawaiian authority says that "no study of the ethnology of the Pacific can omit or fail to give its proper prominence to the whalers and their intercourse with the islanders of this ocean - and the effects of this intercourse will only cease when the weaker race has wholly succumbed to the advance of the white race."The whale-ship influences were not, however, one unmitigated evil. "It is impossible to believe that the influences of the sturdy men who sailed from New Bedford and Nantucket were very bad. Have not we known and shaken hands with their descendants ?"
About 1846 a discussion arose in the pages of The Times and other English journals on the decline of British whaling in the southern Pacific. (The serious aspect of this decline was magnified by the fact that at this period the Americans were succeeding wonderfully and expanding the industry.) Pertinently, a man wrote the following letter from Liverpool, England, to The Times:
Personally, I don't accept or believe this generalization, but it might quite well have applied to some ships working the Australian grounds. Wilkes, the American explorer, who was specially instructed to inquire into Pacific Ocean whaling (1844-5), was not complimentary in his description of events on the Australian seas, and although he may possibly have been biased by his national outlook, I think he was more likely to have been £air.
You must realize that the American whaling fleet of 1844 consisted of 675 vessels, and most of these were in the Pacific Ocean. Sixteen thousand men were required to man the ships, and their annual return exceeded five million dollars.. Whaling was a great industry in those days. Wilkes visited the Sperm whalers and the American Bay whalers in Australasian waters, and re£erring to the inlets and coast of Australia and New Zealand, he remarked that Bay whales were more common there than Sperm whales. "They were Common," he said, "in the bays of the East and West Coasts of Australia and New Zealand, and few places surpassed these localities for the commission of all kinds of vice. They were all bad, but those of New Zealand were the worst! Some merchants, it is said, in Sydney, advance. the capital and share the profits with those who undertake the business. The latter generally engage in their service a large number of natives and some of the lowest whites, whom they allow to indulge in every sort of vice so long as they can make use of them. Quarrels o£ten take place, and bloodshed."
The United States explorer appears to have been of the same opinion as the English missionaries.
Now, in contrast to this, although, mind you, I don't ask you to accept it as a complete testimonial to purity and high mindedness, let me produce a statement emanating from Hobart Town. The original appeared in the Tasmanian of a date in October 1829, and was reprinted in the Sydney Gazette of 15 October of that year to show what Hobart could do, as an example to the men of Sydney:
Were it not for the indications that a drunken orgy was likely in Hobart Town, we might have sided heavily against the missionaries. It seems likely enough that those whalemen were fine young fellows of a courage and strength to be admired. And after all, if they finished up with a drunken carousal, one might ask what other relaxations were offered to them in the Hobart of 1829, when hard drinking was the custom.
I am not so happy about the character of the Bay whalers. In fact, comments on their bad conduct were frequent; in 1838 a definite dispatch from Franklin, then Lieutenant-governor of Tasmania, states that the misconduct of the men was such as to hamper the industry. Indeed, the whaling proprietors offered to defray the salary of a magistrate at Recherche Bay.
Perhaps the explanation of some of the differences of opinion regarding the crews of the whale-ships lies in the fact that since the American ships predominated - even in Australian seas - it was usually of American crews that accounts were written. And there is no question that apart from differences between ships, there was a remarkable deterioration in the crews in the years 1830-60 as compared with the earlier pioneers. The Hobart Town men of this later period were of much better standing. [footnote 1] In fact, one writer emphasizes the fact that the Flying Childers (which sailed out of Hobart Town in 1846) was largely built by Tasmanian youths and sailed by Tasmanian boys. The averag age of the crew did not exceed nineteen years. That youthful company was carefully selected, and their good characters seem justified by the successful records of the ship's voyages.
Taking into account the youthful nature of the crews and the long time at sea in a filthy forecastle, it is not surprising that the change to shore conditions was often accompanied by a real emotional explosion.
The fact is that true sailormen have always been a class apart; and there is no evidence that the whaling crews engaged in the Australian colonies were shanghaied aboard their vessels, although many of the Yankee seamen never saw their ships until they were way out from land, for they arrived on board in an alcoholic dream, the prey of the outfitters, inn-keepers, and brothel-keepers. Towards the very end of the old whaling days in Australia in 1860 or thereabouts, it is reported that the profits of a Tasmanian Sperm-whaling cruise provided the seaman with no more than the common sailorman's average wage - he might get almost nothing. [footnote 2] It was "looked on as a colossal Aquatic Sport, combining excitement of perilous adventure with the contingency of a good prize and promotion according to merit." Foor these reasons it had always "been a favourite pursuit with young Tasmanians." The youthfulness of the whale-ship's crew was, in fact, one of its most marked features.
The following extract from a Hobart whale-ship's log is also good evidence of character. It was not writen for publication to the outside world at all. The ship was the barque Litherland, bound from Hobart Town to Bering Strait in 1851. The reference is to one day's entry:
There were many times when the bravery of whalemen must have been truly demonstrated. But the logs never speak of it - it was what the men were paid for (if lucky). This voluntary action is the only one I have ever found praised in a whaling ship's log.
I have been fortunate in obtaining access to these journals, and it has been difficult for me to refrain from quoting more fully from them. As is usual on shipboard, the chief events of the day were entered regularly in log-books by the whaling captains or by officers deputed so to do. Most of these records have been lost, but there are valuable collections in the Whaling Museums and Libraries at Nantucket, New Bedford, and Salem, in the United States, and the author was most kindly received by their custodians. Don't think for a moment that ships' log-books make thrilling stories of the sea for everyone. The writers were more familiar with steering-wheel and sails, with blocks and tackle and the ways of ships. They were mightier with the harpoon than with the pen. No time was wasted over writing, and generally each day is represented by something brief like the following:
To the reader with imagination and some knowledge of sea-ways the log-books are, however, often thrilling. It is not difficult for the initiated to translate and expand the laconic notes into very real pictures of the events recorded. But, afraid of exaggerating, I am sinning by minimizing.
Every now and then entries occur which repay one well for pages of curt weather reports. The thrill of it all is amplified and made electrical when you are reading from the actual weather-beaten volume, the survivor of storms and perhaps of mutiny and murder, written by one whose bones have crumbled away or been converted into coral long years ago.
A few logs were written up by more fluent writers. One such is the log of the whaling ship Elizabeth. It is particularly informative; some of the crew (and the writer) seem to have been quite religious. I have had access to several other log-books of whale-ships more especially engaged in Australian whaling. In all of them one finds the peculiar freshness that belongs to a record of facts by plain men - a thing so unusual in these days when novelists tell us in fashionable showy style of life in the most unlikely regions.
Sometimes the whale-ship captains took their wives with them, But there is little or no information given of the kind of women they were or how they stood their amazing experiences. One log-book I have examined (not an Australian log) was actually kept by the captain's' wife. I append one extract of a rare occasion when she writes of herself one day in the Pacific Ocean:
This is taken direct from the old log with no alteration or correction. I introduce it here because it serves as a particularly good indication of the character of some of these remarkable people who endured the difficulties of whaling. And it must not be forgotten that education was not very advanced or universal in 1855.
Now let us glance at the log of the Elizabeth. She sailed from London on 17 April 1831, bound for the New Zealand grounds. She carried three mates, surgeon, steward, cooper, cooper's mate, carpenter, armourer, four boat-steerers, one ship keeper, nine seamen, eight apprentices, cook, and two cabin boys. There was nothing shoddy or haphazard about the sailing of this vessel. Of the crew it is noted on the return to England (all their names are given at the beginning), that one was drowned off the Cape of Good Hope, and one at New Zealand. One was left sick at Tongatabu (Friendly Islands) and died. Four were left at Rotumah (Fiji Islands), and seven left elsewhere - New Zealand, etc.
The keeper of the log states that he kept to his bed the first four days of the voyage with a cold! (He takes himself very seriously throughout.):
One can sympathize with that skipper and his officers, thinking of the delicious bit of roast pork that they might have had!
Whales were looked for throughout the voyage when the weather was fine. The log tells day by day of incidents, mainly of the weather, until the real whaling-grounds were reached.
The following are entries which occur quite close together, as you will see by the dates:
And so it goes on for many pages. We will skip, and pick out some of the high-lights. New Zealand was sighted on 17 August, four months after leaving England, and the Bayof Islands reached the next day. As I have suggested, the writer of this log was indeed a virtuous man - see what he says of his first glimpse of the native women:
Four months had passed without any whaling, but various duties had still to be performed before the ship could proceed to the whaling-grounds. The rudder was unshipped and the main mast stripped. The writer of the log went to church on 20 August - there was a small church at the Bay of Islands built by the missionaries. We are told that the preacher addressed the natives in their own language and that afterwards a psalm was sung. There was a large attendance of chiefs and natives.
This meant being towed about the ocean for six weary hours and all the time with the possibility of being attacked, since it was a Sperm whale. I leave you to imagine the heartbreaking finish; cutting the line meant loss of pay, to say nothing of the harpoons and rope. Later on, the Elizabeth reached Tongatabu. The log gives some interesting descriptions of the natives, and also of mission services. Whatever we may think about the character of the writer, it is quite evident that not only he himself, but a number of the crew frequently attended the services of the missionaries on these islands of the Pacific.
Later on, one finds evidence of another danger common to whale-ships; it is recorded in the log for 8 January 1832:
A pretty kettle of fish! A wooden ship, with a network of rigging suspended over cauldrons of flaming oil, and a squall at night. Add to this the isolation of the ship, perhaps in mid-ocean, and the situation is not a happy one.
Even in 1832 the missionaries had impressed some of the South Sea islanders with the peculiar notion that the beautiful human body is something too vile to be exposed. The log for 24 January 1832 reads:
In another place, the writer says that New Zealand natives gave an exhibition of dancing on board the vessel, and that the English crew followed this up by giving an English country dance. This does not look as if the crew's tastes were those of the scrapings of the San Francisco waterside or of the rotten "water-rats" of Wapping.
The voyage of the Elizabeth was not to end without some serious grumblings from the crew; indeed, the contrary would have been a unique experience for a whale-ship. The initial cause of trouble in this case was a narrow escape from wreck on a reef, after which the ship leaked so badly that pumping became a constant daily duty. Now you can take my word for it that there is nothing so disagreeable as prolonged hand-pumping on board ship. It led to curses in this instance. Some of the crew objected to work any more until the ship was taken into port to be examined and properly repaired. The captain's viewpoint was evidently very different from the men's. He ordered all the crew up on the quarter-deck, explained the condition of the ship, and proposed to continue the voyage until the following January (it was then only April), when he would sail direct for England. His case was cleverly put, but lost on many of the crew, who still wished to be put ashore rather than to continue under such cumstances. (The ship at this time was off one of the Fiendly Islands, a pleasant place called Eova by the whalers.)
The next entry in the log-book comes right in the middle of all the argument, and informs us that: "Our surgeon was married in the morning to one of the native girls, but I was not present at the ceremony." Whether this was deliberate abstention or due to other tasks is not stated. The log-book then goes on to the following day, and an entry to the effect that in another interview with the grumbling crew, the captain set out the expense of going into Sydney for a refit at £3000, and then he would only get the Sydney price for oil (£35 per tun instead of the London £83). This speech converted all the crew but five, who were probably attracted by more immediate feminine rewards on shore. However, the objectors were locked up, and finally all of them returned to duty. The mutinous ones cleared out later on at another island. They were sick of the sea. After this the Elizabeth sailed north for Japanese waters. We leave her there.
Unusual in its sadness and untold tragedy is the log of the barque Arabian, which sailed from Sydney towards Timor on 1 September 1848. [footnote 3]
In this instance I shall begin with three of the more typical and ordinary entries ( of which there are many pages), and then select some closely following days towards the end, which came after twenty and a half months' cruising:
So the diary goes on; ships are spoken from Nantucket and Hobart Town, boats are lowered, whales are caught, and missed, and then:
Evidently some control was being exercised in New Zealand waters by 1847. In that year the Hobart Town ship, Macquarie, was seized by H.M.S. Racehorse because the master had exchanged arms with the New Zealand natives. The master was fined, and a Hobart Town newspaper says that he deserved the severest reproof.
It must not for a moment be expected that the seaman on a whale-ship ever received the amount of his lay. From the moment that his contract was made, possibly even before that, an account was opened against him. The goods he received on shore for outfit, and the continuous issue of necessaries during the voyage from the slopchest on board (the ship's store!) were all charged up to him - and at a high rate of interest. The sale of these goods rarely brought less than 100 per cent profit to the shipowners. The poor pawn in the game never knew what payment he would get at the end of his journey; for, apart from the chance of his lay he was never told what his purchases cost till the day of final accounting.
I am indebted to Dr W. L. Crowther of Hobart, who with the greatest generosity, lent me this and other log-books, and gave me other help of the utmostt value.
The men rescued by Captain Raine...