Sunday, 9 September 2007

Chips from the Whaleships' Logs

According to "Who's Who," A. (for Alpheus) Hyatt Verrill is an author, artist, ethnologist, archaeologist and explorer. A graduate of Yale University, he has spent most of his lifetime in penetrating distant jungles, wallowing through tropical swamps, or climbing hazardous mountain peaks. He is best known for his explorations in the West Indies, Central and South America. He discovered and excavated a hitherto unknown civilization in Panama, and has led several expeditions in search of Mayan and Spanish treasure. Yet, despite an unusually active life, Verrill has found time to write one hundred and ten hooks, ranging from adventure fiction to serious works on the Mayan and Aztec cultures.

Chips from the Whaleships' Logs

A Fact Story


From Adventure Magazine 1951, Digitized by Doug Frizzle 2007

Like all other seamen, the oldtime whalemen had their logbooks, but these differed greatly from those kept by merchantmen. Aside from the weather, the position of the ship and similar nautical matters, the whalers' logs contained detailed accounts of all whales sighted or taken, the amounts of oil and bone obtained from each whale, descriptions of strange places visited and accounts of any unusual or noteworthy event.

In fact, everything that took place, either aboard ship or ashore, was duly recorded in quaint, terse, often curiously misspelled words—interlarded with fragments of verse and bits of homely philosophy.

In addition to the logbooks the whalemen had journals kept by the officers, and these often contained entries even more interesting and more unusual than the real logs. Both customarily began: "Remarks on board" or "Thus day begins" and closed with "So ends" or "Thus ends this day." For example the entry from the logbook of the Montreal:

"Remarks on Board the ship Montreal, F. L. Fish, master, in the Kamtskatkal Sea, Thursday, July 15, 1851. These 24 hours commensed with a light air and cloudy from southwards and westward the boats off chasing whales at 3 P.M. struck 2 whales and turned them up 7 miles from the ship and commensed towing them to the ship in calm, took them alongside with fresh breeze and rane from S. All hands sent below, at 7 called all hands and commensed cutting in, latter part puffy with a light air and a berg, heavy swell from S. All hands employed in cutting. At 12 M. had one whale in and hooked on other. So ends Lat. 60 53 N."

No matter was too trivial to be recorded. On days when no whales were taken there would be mention of how the crew was employed and often these were humorous. Thus, in the journal of the Morning Star, we find the entry; "Crew mostly engaged in pealing onions." In the journal of the Wanderer it is recorded that the crew was, "engaged in skylarking ashore," while in still another journal we learn that the crew were, "mostly employed doing nothing." On a merchant ship an idle crew is practically unknown, but aboard whaleships it was a different matter. When whales had been taken, everyone aboard worked strenuously from the time the carcass was alongside until the last bit of blubber had been cut in and boiled down and the oil stored away. There was no rest for anyone regardless of hours, and so, between times, the men were allowed to loaf and rest and recover from their exertions in readiness for the next whale, and only the most essential work, such as patching sails, overhauling gear or repairing injured boats was done.

To the hardy whalemen "going in" on a whale, harpooning the monster with a hand "iron," and finally running alongside and driving a lance into his heart, was all in the day's work. Boats were stove by the whales' flukes or headlong charges, men were wounded or killed, and there were feats of almost incredible daring. But such matters, along with mutinies, attacks by cannibals or pirates, although duly recorded in the logs and journals were regarded as merely incidental to the whalemen's calling, unless very exceptional, in which cases they would be described in the most minute detail.

Reading these old journals one comes upon matter-of-fact records of adventures that would make the wildest fiction seem tame.

In the journal of the ship Awashonks of Falmouth, Massachusetts under date of October 5, 1835, is a brief account of a near-tragedy when native islanders attempted to seize the ship. At the time the Awashonks was hove-to off Namarik, an island of the Marshall Group, to recruit natives.

About noonday, a number of the natives boarded the vessel and the captain, first and second mates went below for dinner, leaving the third mate in charge of the deck. When the others had finished their meal, Mr. Jones, the third mate, went below, and about fifteen minutes later rejoined the others on deck. At the time three of the crew were aloft working on the rigging, another man was on watch below and the others were forward with the exception of the man at the helm.

Suddenly, and without the least warning, the crowd of natives sprang to the whale spades and other razor-edged implements used in cutting-in the whales, and with wild yells dashed at the whalemen on the after deck. A blow with a whale spade killed the helmsman. The captain was beheaded by a spade wielded by another savage, and the first mate was butchered as he leaped down the fore-hatch.

The second mate had run out on the bowsprit for safety but was caught and clubbed to death, while the third mate seized a spade and hurled it like a javelin at a native about to cut him down. The savage dodged the weapon, which buried its blade in the woodwork, and the officer, who was the only member of the ship's company left alive on the deck. managed to gain the forehatch where the rest of the crew had taken refuge.

Afraid to go below to finish off the men, the cannibals shut and secured the hatches and then headed the ship for shore with the intention of wrecking her. In the meantime the three men still aloft descended as far as they dared, and slashing through the braces, allowed the yards to swing-to so that the ship, out of control, drifted toward the open sea.

Below decks the imprisoned men were busy, for the third mate had suggested a most dangerous manner of regaining their ship. Working their way aft the men secured muskets from the cabin; then, while they kept the savages away by firing through the skylights, the third mate broached a keg of gunpowder, emptied most of its contents on the upper steps of the companionway and laid a train of powder down the steps and across the cabin floor and, at the risk of being blown to pieces, he fired the train.

There was a terrific explosion and the companionway was blown out, killing and wounding a number of the cannibals who were preparing to rush the men below. Dashing through the debris, the third mate and his companions, with clubbed muskets, hurled themselves at the remaining savages. Too terrified at what had occurred to resist, the natives leaped into the sea. Short-handed as they were, the whalemen got their ship under control and sailed away.

In the log of the ship Polestar of Rockport, Maine, is the entry: "This day began with light airs from S.W. Hove-to off Perang. At fore bels sighted ship's boat. Came alongside with three men and Mr. Avery, second mate of bark Aurora. All badlie wounded. Reported all others killed by Malays two days before."

As Captain Crossley listened to the survivors' story he cursed long and fluently. With his own crew and volunteers from other whaling ships in the vicinity he sailed for the scene of the piracy, where with his armed men hidden he handled his ship as if disabled, thus baiting the Malays who sped to the attack of what they assumed was a helpless vessel.

Not a pirate remained alive when the battle was over and in the yellowed log of the Polestar Captain Crossley wrote: "So ends this day with a good deede wel dun."

Mutinies aboard whaleships were not uncommon but as the whaling captains could not afford to lose men, either by killing them or putting them ashore, and unlike merchant skippers could not pick up new hands in the remote spots they visited, they devised some most unusual and at times ludicrous means of punishing the mutineers. One old captain boasted of having "headed up" the mutineer leaders in oil casks and feeding them through the bung-holes. "By Judas, after ten days of that there wasn't no mite of mut'ny left in 'em," he declared.

On another ship the cooped fowls aboard were killed by a heavy sea and for several days an unvarying diet of chicken became too much for the men and they rebelled. But the mutineers were overpowered and the captain ordered them aloft where they were to "crow like cocks" until cured, while the mates stood by with ropes' ends and belaying pins to enforce the order.

The unusual occupation of the Morning Star's crew—"mostly engaged in pealing onions"—duly recorded in the log, was the punishment imposed for a mutiny that had been nipped in the bud.

At times, however, there were mutinies as bloody as any of fact or fiction, such as that on the bark Athol of New Bedford. Under date of December 25, 1853, it is entered in the log that: "This day begins fair with lite airs mostly southerly. This day being Chrismas the men to be give shore leaf on the island where the natives are friendly."

It was to prove a far from merry Christmas for the officers of the Athol, for the men, smuggling rum ashore, became drunk, incited the natives and with them attacked the ship. Taken completely by surprise, the few trusty men and the officers would have been killed had it not been for the cooper, whose timely action is recorded in a terse entry in the log as follows: "About six bells skylarkers come aboard with sum natives and attaked with spades, lances and speers. Cooper forard fired on the men with lifline gun and junk. Most of mutinears kilt or wounded. Decks cleared and sail made at 8 bels. Light air. S.W. Cut cable and got under way under tops'ls. Middle part clear, fresh breeze S. So ends this 24 hrs with thanks to God for a happy Chrismas."

It would not seem possible that a mutiny could have a humorous side, but such was the case with the mutiny that took place aboard the New Bedford schooner Pedro Varela in 1910. From any point of view, other than that of the vessel's officers, it was an out-and-out comedy and had no serious results for anyone concerned. After cruising fruitlessly for six months, with barely enough oil to "grease their boots" as the saying is, the men became heartily fed-up with whaling and longed for dry land. Since the crew was pretty much riffraff from the slums and gutters and far too cowardly to stage open mutiny, the men devised a unique but effective scheme to force the captain to return to port.

During the night watches everything movable that was connected with whaling was tossed into the sea. The wholesale sabotage was not discovered by the officers until a whale was sighted and they found it utterly useless to attempt to "go in" on him. Not a lance, harpoon, spade, weapon or implement was left aboard. All the cursing and fuming in the world would not restore the jettisoned implements and finally, having placed the crew in irons, the captain headed for Fayal. An American war vessel was in the harbor and after a preliminary hearing eight of the Varela's men were placed in the cruiser's brig and taken to Boston for trial.

The Court was in a quandary. The officers admitted there had been no open mutiny, that none of the men had refused to obey orders or had threatened the officers. Moreover, they could not swear the men had disposed of the missing implements. In other words there had been no mutiny as defined by the law.

The sentence finally imposed by the judge was, perhaps, the most amusing part of the entire fiasco, for each of the eight men, who had been brought home in comparative luxury aboard the warship, was sentenced to ten days in jail for "disturbing the peace."

Naturally, the taking of whales was the greatest source of the whalemen's dangers and adventures. Desperate battle with the leviathans are recorded in practically every log and journal and some seem almost unbelievable. But whalemen were not an imaginative lot, they recorded only what actually occurred and there was no need to embroider the events. Stove boats, boats crushed in the jaws of sperm whales, ships rammed and sunk by wounded infuriated whales, men killed or crippled were all matters to be expected.

But occasionally some unusual event would take place and would be recorded in detail as, for example, the epic battle that took place between Captain Haskins of the bark Wanderer and a huge right whale.

The story as outlined in the log is as terse and matter-of-fact as always and states: "In forenoon sighted rite whales two miles West. At 2 P.M. struck both whales and mate turned his up six miles from the ship. Captain's boat stove and he was atakked by the whale. For three quarters hour captain swam dodging and diving, the boats standing by, and drove the whale off sticking him in the nose with his nife. Captain bruised some but not much hurt. Took other whale alongside in calm. Fresh breeze came up and ran from E at 11. All hands sent below and commensed cutting in. Latter part cloudy with lite air. Medium swell from S.E. All hands employed cutting in and boiling. Lat. 51° 3 5' N. So ends with ship full up."

The cruise of the bark Alexander of New Bedford, in 1835, turned out to be, perhaps, the most unusual whaling cruise on record. And the entries in the ship's journal are fully as odd as the cruise itself, for they were made by the cooper, Ephraim Billings.

As his entries show, the voyage was an almost continual drunken orgy on the part of the officers, and nearly every page of Billings’ journal ends with: "May God have mercy on this ship!" . . . "God knows what will become of us all." . . . "May God grant this voyage is soon over" or "Thank God another day has passed."

For some time the cooper made daily notations as to the condition of the captain and mates, stating that: "The Captain was middling drunk" . . . "All hands came aboard drunk" or "The mates very drunk." But he soon abandoned this as a bad job and waste of time and noted only the more unusual occurrences, such as: "Captain only a little drunk" . . . "Some hands sober" . . . "Mates not so drunk," and once or twice, "Captain not drunk today."

Only on one occasion is there an entry to the skipper's credit. This was when the captain, temporarily sober, thrashed an insolent member of the crew and Billings recorded: "This is the best deed the Captain has done on this terrible voyage. Pray God he may repeat it often."

The poor cooper had a bad time of it and became very homesick. On every anniversary of his birth, marriage or the death of his wife he underscored the entries with heavy black lines. Like many others who kept the whalemen's logs he never wrote in the first person but always as someone else as: "This day is the birthday of Ephraim Billings, cooper of the bark Alexander" or "The cooper remained on board, all others being ashore drunk."

Billings' troubles came to an end when the captain had him arrested on a charge of mutiny in a South American port, the mutiny consisting of appearing on deck in his stocking feet!

He was rather grateful for being arrested, for he found the prison, bad as it was, a welcome change from the ship, and when the captain sobered up and tried to induce the cooper to return to the bark he flatly refused and recorded in his own journal: "As God knows I know too much of what goes on and what to expect." He finally obtained transportation home and closed his journal with the entry: "Never to go awhaling again, please God."

Probably the most amazing entry ever set down in a whaleship's log is that in the log of the ship Monongahela. Captain Jason Seaburry, who in 1852 was cruising for whales off the west coast of South America. The entry made by the captain tells of his boat "going in" on what they supposed to be a sleeping whale and then states: "As we approached we saw it was a long-necked monster that rushed at the boat. I instinctively held out my iron and the sharp point entered its eye. I was knocked overboard and felt a deep churning of the water around me. I rose to the surface and caught a glimpse of the writhing body and was again struck and carried down. I partly lost consciousness under water but recovered it. When I rose again in the bloody foam the snake had disappeared and I shouted to pick up the line. The iron was fast and the monster was fatally wounded. When the ship came up to the boat three other boats were lowered. We lanced the body repeatedly without eliciting any sign of life. To make sure, we continued to lance it and at last the monster drew itself up and we pulled away for safety and witnessed its dying struggles. It was a male, the length 103 feet 7 inches. He gave but little oil. So ends this day." Imagine actually battling with and capturing a "sea serpent," or whatever strange creature it was, and then —wholly commercially-minded as the whalemen were—stripping off its blubber and boiling it down for oil which, as the captain rather ruefully recorded, was "but little."

What a pity that the captain or some of the crew did not preserve the monster's head or skull as a souvenir. Perhaps someone did . . . Perhaps in some New England attic, in a musty old sea chest filled with seashells, curios and other "junk," the skull of the "sea serpent" may be hidden away and forgotten.

The End

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.