A Captain of the Vanished Fleet
His tall spare figure was for many years a familiar object in the streets of Nantucket. Jovial,energetic, sinewy, and active, he represented the type of men who built up a great industry. Born when that industry was nearly crushed out of existence by the war with England, the child of eight years trudged to school through the streets of the greatest whaling port of the world; his voyages covered the age of its greatest prosperity, and in his retirement on his island home he watched its decline and its extinction.
One day, when looking at the crumbling wharves and shallowing docks, he said, “When I was a boy these looked like a cedar swamp.” The masts of sloops, schooners, and ships, two or three deep at the wharves, rose along the harbor front, like a forest, where now there is nothing — a coal schooner, perhaps; or maybe a wood coaster might pull in for a week, and then have to wait for high tide to get clear of the mud in which she had been lying.
This whaleman was born when Nantucket was at a standstill and was cold and hungry. The war had taken from the islanders their only occupation. Their ships, which had escaped burning and capture, came hurrying home when they heard of the war, like birds flying to cover on the approach of a storm. The soil of the island was poor; little or no wood was then growing there. During the first year of the war the islanders fished for cod and chased the humpback whale in the waters to the east of their island; this gave them food and light. Once a privateer appeared and captured their boats. As they dared not put out again, food now became scarce, — of fuel there was but little, — and they were cold and hungry, as their fathers had been during the War of the Revolution.
As a boy, our coming mariner played about the wharves and climbed the rigging of the many ships then fitting out; or with some companions got an old whale boat and played whaling in the harbor, as other boys “off island ” played Indian. With a log for a whale and an old “iron,” they became skillful harpooners long before they were called upon to change play into grim work; and like the Carib boy, who had to pierce his food with an arrow before he could have it, the Nantucket boys became experts before they went to sea. And they became strong of back and powerful of limb in this whale boat, painted black on one side and white on the other, for boys did not agree any more then than now. Agreeing, however, to disagree, the larboard and starboard watches divided, and painted their respective sides to suit their own tastes.
The shipping of those days amounted to a little over twenty thousand tons, making Nantucket the greatest whaling port in the world, with its vast fleet whose “harpoons penetrated with success every nook and corner of every ocean.” What is twenty thousand to-day ? Many a great ocean liner nowadays has a greater tonnage, and so accustomed are we now to bigness, that some, knowing nothing else, will not believe it to be possible that those small vessels could have lived through the gales which they experienced. We forget that an enormous steel monster, driving into a head sea at the rate of seventeen to twenty miles an hour, is a very different problem from a light wooden vessel, hove to, and riding like a duck on the surface of a long mountainous wave.
Is safety always in size ? Some modern writers seem to think so. One who recently described a voyage he took in a “four-poster” from San Francisco to Liverpool, tells of a gale he experienced off the Horn, making the statement that, in his opinion, no ship of less than one thousand tons could have lived through it! How many whale ships of less than three hundred tons have ridden the gales off that stormy cape, and probably made better weather of it than his great elephant ever did ? Of three hundred tons! The old Lydia of Nantucket made two Cape Horn voyages, besides spending a year in that region hunting “elephant oil,” and going eight voyages to the South Atlantic, and was of only one hundred and sixty tons! Between 1790 and 1800 there were thirty Cape Horn voyages from Nantucket alone, to say nothing of those from other ports of the United States, and all in ships under three hundred tons. None of them were lost, and it is more than likely that some met with gales fully as severe as those of our young author, describing his first voyage at sea.
Our captain’s first experience at sea was as a boy, in the capacity of two men. He once jocularly said to me, “ I had two berths — cook and steward — two men, and I was only fourteen.” I have often wondered how the men fared on that little sloop, as she sailed away to Philadelphia full of oil and spermaceti candles, with a fourteen-year-old boy as cook and steward. The food must have been simple, or the digestions of the crew very good, for he made several trips back and forth, leaving the oil and candles in Philadelphia, and bringing home things which they had not at home — corned beef, flour, iron, and other raw materials for the many trades then thriving on his busy little island, where all the refitting and provisioning were done, so that the island teemed with a life that is now scarcely credible.
The flour from “off,” as the mainland was called, was made into ship’s biscuit or hard-tack and stamped with the baker’s initials. Some of these stamps have survived the wholesale destruction of old things. One was a circular disk of wood through which hand-made nails had been driven and their heads secured. In the centre of this bristling array of sharp points were fastened crudely carved G. F.’s or T. C.’s,the whole looking somewhat like a home-made curry-comb. The points made little holes around the initials in the soft dough and were pressed in before baking. Then these flinty disks of bread were packed into new oil casks, as were all provisions and stores for the ships, and these casks, when emptied, were ready for the oil as it came hot from the coolers. Sometimes it came in so fast that the busy cooper could not keep up with it; then the casks had to be broached and the hard tack thrown overboard to make room for the more valuable oil.
In those days smithies rang with the blows of hammer on anvil, as the iron work was turned out, as the harpoons and lances, the whale-spades and boarding-knives, were fashioned. The streets echoed with the rumble of oil carts; the clicking of the calker’s mallets and the chanties of the heaving riggers made lively music among the wharves.
When walking along the now quiet streets, my friend said to me, “When I think back, I hear the old noises — and that makes the streets as empty as the wharves.”
Among the riggers was one who landed on Nantucket from a wreck, a British man-o’-war’s man, — Robert Ratliff, — who spent the best part of his life as master rigger there, until the great fire swept his all away. I listened to his story as he told it at the Asylum (as the islanders charitably call their home for the poor) shortly before his death,—of his voyage on the Northumberland, and how the great Corsican appeared on his way to St. Helena.
All is past and nearly all forgotten. Of the seven great rope-walks, where shrouds and cables, running rigging, and tow lines were made, not a trace remains, and I doubt if there be many now living who can point out the places where they stood. The great sail-lofts where the arrivals and the departures of ships were chalked upon the dark beams and the polished floors, with the harder knots of the planks standing out like little hillocks, have all gone, and with them the sail-makers who had first worked in “Rushie” duck, and then in cotton canvas. There is not a man left now who can cut even a small boat’s sail.
There were great warehouses and candle-works, where the sperm oil was handled and separated from the waxy spermaceti. The summer oil had much, and the winter oil had little, of this valuable material. The winter’s cold hardened the wax from which the oil was pressed, and as it would not thicken, this winter’s oil was used for burning in outdoor lamps. Nearly all the spermaceti went into candles; none, as now, on shirt fronts and metallic cartridges.
My friend — for he was my friend — learned the trade of cooper, making his first voyage “a-whalin”’ in that capacity. On this voyage he learned the craft of a seaman; on his second he shipped as boat-steerer and could wear the “chockpin ” in his upper two button-holes. This long wooden pin, which held the tow line in the chock at the head of the boat, was worn when ashore by one who had taken his whale.
The cooper was a very important man on a whale ship, for the casks were not all made up when the voyage began, though some of course were ready for the oil. Room for some hundred completed barrels was provided, and new ones made from the roughly shaped staves and heads, which formed part of the whaler’s outfit. Then there were the casks which had been emptied of their stores and water, kindling wood and “slops,” as the clothing, tobacco, and other necessities for the sailors were called.
Generally, by the time whales were “raised” there was plenty of space for the oil. For whales then lived far away from that island in whose waters they sported when the Indian dwelt there. One of the first settlers, pointing to them, said, “There is the green pasture where our children’s grandchildren will go for their bread.” Yes, in our friend’s day, sperm whales had gone from Nantucket, from the Bahamas, from the Brazil Banks, and had been followed round Cape Horn into the Pacific, where the first was taken in those waters by one of these hardy islanders.
It was often long before the first whale was “fin out. ” There is written on a flyleaf of one of the old logs, a date, and “Nine months out, 23 Bbls sperm oil, Oh dear.” It takes but little imagination to hear the deep sigh as this was written, to see the man come on deck and gaze for the thousand thousandth time over the empty waters and to feel that great sinking of disappointment.
Many have told of the chase, — of the attack with harpoon and lance, of the flurry and death of the whale, of the cutting-in and trying-out, of the joy and excitement of whaling, — but it is left to those who read some of the old letters, now yellow and crumbling with age, to know of the homesickness — of the longing to hear from home and family. The delivery of letters in those days was very uncertain indeed. Every vessel sailing carried many letters and packages, sometimes amounting to a thousand, to the fleet “on the other side of land,” as the Pacific was then called, to be delivered at certain rendezvous: at “ Turkeywana,” at Lahaina, at the Bay of Islands, or perhaps at a “gam” on the “grounds,” should the ships meet. Sometimes the letters were brought home; the desired ship was not spoken, or she may have been a missing ship or have sailed away to new grounds or to other seas.
The cooper’s “lay” was a good one, as good as that of some of the officers. The crow of whalers were not paid wages; instead, each member signed on for a definite share, or lay,of the voyage. Sometimes the voyage was a short one, when they had “greasy luck,” as in the case of the Loper, which came home in a little over fourteen months, a full ship. I knew one whaleman who was forty-nine months away, and when the voyage was settled up, he found that he was, with his advance and his slop-chest account, seventy-five dollars in debt; he might have belonged to that crew which “got no oil, but had a rattlin’ good sail.”
So our cooper sailed away on his first voyage to the “other side of land,” in a ship of less than three hundred tons. With royal and, maybe, to’-gallant yards on deck, and their masts housed, they worked in a leisurely way around the Horn, where the mariner of those days hung his conscience and left it there until his return. His ideas of what a Christian was were crude but clear. “He got his religion round Cape Horn,” he once said when speaking of a brother captain; and “He would n’t lower a boat on a Sunday — no, not if the whales were chafin’ the sides of his ship — but he’d squeeze the last cent out of you.” Then followed an account of some shady transactions of this religious captain. After a long silence he added, “He was a good Christian — but he was a d — d rascal.”
The whale ship of those days was a thing of beauty, for expense as well as care was lavished to make everything “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” There was a pride and romance in those picturesque times — pinching and nail-paring economies had not come. The crew made a show on gala days with the while duck trowsers and red shirts of the starboard watch, and the blue ones of the larboard. In spite of the blood and gurry, the oil and soot, after the whale was cut in and tried out, everything was cleaned, and with lye every spot of grease taken from the decks, leaving them “ as clean as a hound’s tooth.” Our whaleman never forgave Dana for his slurring remarks on whalers, and the mere mention of Two Years before the Mast drew from him violent and uncomplimentary remarks.
He knew George W. Gardner, who in 1818 struck out into new fields. Steering west from the Galapagos Islands, he found an area which fairly swarmed with sperm whales, thus quieting that whaleman, who only the year before boldly stated that no ship “would ever fill with sperm oil again.” For the “Inshore grounds,” as they were called after the discovery of the “Offshore grounds,” were then practically exhausted, as the whaling fleet had hunted there exclusively for years, up and down the South American coast, keeping the glistening white Andean tips “just a-liftin’” from their mastheads.
Later, he knew the grounds himself, and also those stretching from Japan to the eastward, near the then called Sandwich Islands. These “Japan grounds" were discovered by a townsman of his in the ship Maro, in company with an English ship, the Enderby, commanded by a Nantucket Coffin; “ but the Nantucket ship,” he always added gleefully, “took the first whale there.”
The horrors of the wreck of the Essex did not turn this lad of eight years from his desire to go to sea. He knew the survivors, as every one did, and of their terrible sufferings in open boats for three months. And other disasters daunted him not, nor any of the Nantucket boys either, for that matter. They not only knew the dangers of their future calling, from the whale itself, — the stove boat, the foul line, — but they were familiar with the stories of wrecks on uncharted reefs, of fire and missing ships, of the attacks of natives, and of scurvy. They knew the other side too, as many came back; for they had imaginations, and pictured the excitement of the chase, the sweets of the balmy coral isle, and the life at sea. Nothing could stop them. Whole classes in the high school laid their plans, and when free shipped together. Then no real man could become engaged to his sweetheart until he had killed his whale, or marry until he was captain. “She married him before he had a ship,” was a reproach in the whaling circles of the island.
He knew William Carey,“who lived in the Wawinet country,” as he called the eastern end of the island. “Who was he ? ” I asked. He was the only survivor of the Oeno, I learned, which struck on one of the Fiji Islands and soon became a wreck. He landed with the twenty others of the crew, and the natives received them kindly. Inside of a month a conquering tribe visited the island. They were hungry, perhaps, for they massacred and ate all hands but the boy Carey. An old woman threw oil on him and then they could n’t touch him. Thus tabooed, Carey lived there for three years among the savages, until a visiting ship took him off.
And many were the savage attacks on the whalemen of those days. Nor was it always treachery or savagery on the part of those people, but more often an act of revenge for some wrong done them. But this did not matter — they were “only natives” to these men whose consciences were hanging on Cape Horn for the nonce. The wrong, it is true, may sometimes have been merely indifference on the part of the white man to some native custom or religious rite, as when Captain Cook chopped up the idols for firewood, — an act of sacrilege which cost him his life. Sometimes it was wanton outrage for a small theft: a cannon loaded to the muzzle with bullets and scrap iron was fired (as a “lesson”) into a peaceful village of thatched huts, among innocent women and children. Then woe to the next ship which came, for it was race against race. A boat’s crew was enticed ashore, spirited away, and killed. Then the papers rang with accounts of “Another horrible massacre.” Six wdiite men against fifty or a hundred killed and mangled natives! In the one case, massacre; in the other, “just retribution.”
And speaking of theft, I was told, as a good joke, how at Lahaina a party of Kanakas were “foolin’ round the grindstone, and before we knew what they was up to, they had it overboard. We lay in eight fathoms. They dove down and rolled it a piece over the bottom and came up, and others went down, and by rollin’ of it and spellin’ of each other they got it to the beach.”
Native and Kanaka in his mind, as in the minds of all whalemen, were synonymous. I well remember how furious he became when a newly arrived “stranger” to Nantucket, on being introduced to him, politely said, “I’m glad, Captain, to meet one of the natives of this lovely place.” For some moments he could not speak; and when he had recovered somewhat he stamped out into the shed with rage in his eye; the only evidence we had of him for the rest of the evening was the odor of his tobacco. “She took me for a Kanaka, ” he said, when I next saw him. “Me!” and his florid face became scarlet.
He “knocked off goin’ to sea” not long after the great fire of 1846. So he was an old-timer, for he stopped before innovations came in. He knew nothing of double topsails. His were single, and he liked to tell of the races between the crews of the three masts, when they reefed topsails at sunset on the cruising-grounds. For whalers carried large crews — more than enough to handle the sails. The four or five whale boats, each with a crew of six men, made thirty or more “hands.” At a given signal the men swarmed aloft and out on to the yards, to see who could close-reef their topsail first. This reefing was done in order that as little headway as possible should be made in the darkness, for whales could not be seen at night.
He took with him on his last voyage the newly invented whaling-gun, and forgot all about it until nearly home. Then he thought he would try it — and he did — from the deck of his ship as she was bowling along with stun’ sails set alow and aloft. He was a powerful man and said nothing after the discharge. He then handed the gun to the mate, a small man, telling him that it was good sport. He later gathered the mate up from the lee scuppers, and nursed his own shoulder for days after.
He, as an epitome of the island’s history, went with some of the best blood of the place to California. The fire had swept away two-thirds of the town, and now petroleum was being pumped from the great oil fields of Pennsylvania. No one then believed that this rock oil would hurt the whale fishery. “ How we laughed,” a whaleman once said to me, “ when we heard that, burning oil had been discovered in the ground! I was comin’ home from the Indian Ocean and had just sunk St. Helena astern, when we spoke and ‘gammed’ a New Bedford ship. The captain told me of the finding of rock oil — said it was prophesied that it would kill whalin’ — kill whalin’, the idea!” And they laughed, as these two ships swayed on the long blue South Atlantic swell, with their topsails against their masts, the one knowing and the other learning of the discovery which would in a short time be the death-blow to their great trade.
Now our Californian came home but little richer than when he left. He had saved, however, and had been lucky on his last voyage. He stayed about his island home and saw the last ship sail away, the last schooner come in with a humpback and cut it up alongside the wharf. He saw the houses of his town taken down in “bays” and sold “off.” He saw the ways, where several ships had been built, crumble away under the insidious boring of the “worm,” and he saw a new race come in with the bluefish, and swarm over his island, as was prophesied in the old Indian tradition,— for, said they, after the blue-fish had come, stayed for a time, and then disappeared, “when they come again, there will come with them a new race;” and with them indeed came the “stranger,” the suspected, the “off-islander,” the tolerated summer visitor.
The strength of these old men was remarkable. Those who lived through such lives as theirs were truly survivals of the fittest. He, with a brother octogenarian, two years his senior, each year had at least one “cruise a-fishin’. ” Alone they sailed, anchored, and fished. Did they talk of the past ? — the aged recognize no future, and the present to them is dim. Did the one tell of his eight voyages around the world, with his wife as a companion for forty years; of his sea life, and of his children’s birthplaces on Pitcairn’s, at Samoa, and at Norfolk Island ? Did he tell him how, when the boats were all out after whales, he launched, with the ship-keeper’s help, the spare boat and struck and killed his last whale when he had passed the sixtieth yearstone of his long life ? This I cannot say; but once they did lose a borrowed anchor and felt so badly about it — not the anchor, but the unseamanship of it — that they went the next day to find it. Each of these old men — the one eightytwo, the other eighty-four—took a dory and rowed a mile or two. They got the ranges, which they had instinctively taken, dragged about for an hour or more, with two bricks and a piece of trawl line between them, hooked it up, brought it back, and threw it into the sail-boat with the remark, “ Sorry we kept it so long.”
My friend passed away as quietly as did the great industry with which he was so closely associated. The first sign was a willingness to rest, —something which his long active life had never known. He then knew and said that he had “signed on for his last voyage.” His last words were, “I’m all clear now,” showing that he knew that crooked channels and treacherous shoals were behind him, and that he was now rolling away steadily over the blue curve of the sea, as his ship had so often done, and would soon slip over the horizon into the great unknown.