The Loss of a Harpooner

At the end of Moby Dickwe see the lethal consequences of not taking care with the lines attached to harpoons. We have already been primed for the accident, several hundred pages before, by a chapter headed “The Line,” in which is described, in great detail, how rope should be coiled in a whaleboat. Great care was taken: “As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub.” I wonder if this true story, about the demise of William Carr, Harpooner, gave Melville the idea for Ahab’s accident. This is from Scoresby’s A Voyage to the Whale Fishery, 1822 (published in 1823):

The whale they pursued led them into a vast shoal of the species: they were, indeed, so numerous, that their “blowing” was incessant; and they believed they could not have seen less than a hundred. Fearful of alarming them without striking any, they remained for some time motionless, watching for a favourable opportunity to commence an attack. One of them at length arose so near the boat of which William Carr was harpooner, that he ventured to pull towards it, though it was meeting him, and afforded but an indifferent chance of success. He, however, fatally for himself, succeeded in harpooning it. The boat and fish passing each other with great rapidity after the stroke, the line was jerked out of its place, and, instead of “running” over the stem, was thrown over the gunwale; its pressure in this unfavourable position so careened the boat, that the side sank below the water, and it began to fill. In this emergency the harpooner, who was a fine active fellow, seized the bight of the line, and attempted to relieve the boat, by restoring it to its place; but by some singular circumstance, which could not be accounted for, a turn of the line flew over his arm, in an instant dragged him overboard, and plunged him under water, to rise no more! So sudden was the accident, that only one man, who had his eye upon him at the time, was aware of what had happened; so that when the boat righted, which it immediately did, though half full of water, they all at once, on looking round at an exclamation from the man who had seen him launched overboard, enquired what had got Carr! It is scarcely possible to imagine a death more awfully sudden and unexpected. The murderous bullet, when it makes its way through the air with a velocity that renders it invisible, and seems not to require a moment for its flight, rarely produces so instantaneous destruction. The velocity of the whale on its first descent, is usually (as I have proved by experiment) about 8 or 9 miles per hour, or 13 to 15 feet per second. Now, as this unfortunate man was occupied in adjusting the line at the very water’s edge, when it must have been perfectly tight, in consequence of the obstruction to its running out of the boat, the interval between the fastening of the line about him and his disappearance, could not have exceeded the third-part of a second of time; for in one second only, he must have been dragged to the depth of 10 or 12 feet! The accident was, indeed, so instantaneous, that he had not time for the least exclamation; and the person who witnessed his extraordinary removal, observed, that it was so exceedingly quick, that although his eye was upon him at the instant, he could scarcely distinguish the object as it disappeared.

Letters to Elizabeth

Ribbons and Garters: New Whaling Technology in the 1820s

Most people are familiar with the industrial method of catching whales in the twenty-first century. In news items and protest video footage we see the giant warship-like vessels, armed with powerful harpoon cannons, dragging in the massive carcasses on chains, and the mechanised butchery that takes place on their decks. But in the 1820s, whaling was a dangerous and inefficient business. Around a hundred ships sailed each year to the Arctic, each with a crew of sixty men, and they pursued whales in small boats, harpooning them by hand. The image above illustrates how close whalers came to their prey: lances for killing the “fish,” flensing knives for removing blubber from the carcass as it floated alongside, grappling hooks, hatchets, and splicing tools for securing and towing the whale. These tools had been developed over two centuries of whaling, and while they had been refined in that time, they would have been recognised, or at least understood, by a whaler from the 1600s. In the 1820s, however, new technology was challenging the work of the most valued members of a whaleship’s crew, the harpooners.

The work of a harpooner was dangerous, and highly skilled. The best harpooners were so accurate in directing the boat, and throwing their weapons, that their abilities were regarded as somehow magical or otherworldly. Harpooners were the best paid amongst the crew of a whale ship, and were given privileges other whalers envied. There was a great deal of superstition surrounding their craft, and harpooners were careful not to jinx their luck. George Manby, who accompanied William Scoresby on his voyage from Liverpool on board the Baffin in 1821, observed harpooners weaving ribbons and garters, given by wives and sweethearts, into the lines attached to their harpoons. He explains “this at once elucidated the “magic spell,” as they were intended to animate the powers of the harpooner, who derives fame, and consequently, the approbation of his lass, in proportion to the number of whales he is able to strike and to capture.”

Whaleship owners took a rather more practical view of the process of capturing whales. They preferred technology to talismans, and were keen to develop harpoon guns that did not rely on the strength of the harpooner. One of the reasons Manby accompanied Scoresby on the 1821 voyage was to test his design for a harpoon gun (Manby is more famous for his rocket propelled line, used to rescue survivors of shipwrecks). By1820 several attempts had been made to design a gun, some, including rocket-propelled harpoons built by Sir William Congreve, more successful than others. In 1821 several Greenland ships carried harpoon guns or rockets, including the Whitby ship Fame, commanded by Scoresby’s father, which used Congreve rockets, the Trafalgar, of Hull, which had been supplied with Manby’s guns, and the Baffin herself.

Naturally, the harpooners were “jealous” of the harpoon gun, fearing their skills would no longer be needed, and Manby had a difficult task in persuading them otherwise. He explains in his journal that his inventions, including shells, to be used in killing the whale from a distance, were intended to improve the efficiency and safety of whaling: “The employment of these last missiles, was, I also stated, desirable on the ground of humanity, by their quickly terminating the misery of the fish, and obviating the necessity of the barbarity often avoidable in the present system”. Manby’s experiments with his harpoon gun and explosive harpoons, were undermined by the crew who refused to use them as instructed. Manby’s explosive harpoon was just one of several similar designs over the following sixty years. The gun which eventually brought about the end of whaling as Scoresby knew it, was designed in the 1860s by a Norwegian, Svend Foyn, whose harpoon gun was fired not from a small boat, but from the prow of a steam-powered whaleship. It was not until the 1880s that Foyn’s gun, and his harpoon with “umbrella” barbs and exploding head, was widely adopted, putting an end to the mystique and “magic” of the traditional harpooner.

In 1821, Manby knew his invention faced strong opposition, and felt it necessary to make the following address to Richard Simpkin, the harpooner of the gunboat:

“Richard Simpkin, you have been selected to the charge and direction of the boat, appointed to try the practical utility of my gun and other apparatus, which are intended to promote and ensure success in the whale-fishery, and to afford assistance, in the time of danger, to those who are prosecuting that service. I only ask for A Fair and Impartial Trial, to judge whether the adaptation of my inventions to their several intentions, will confirm their utility by practical examples of success, (which I expect that the inveteracy of prejudice cannot withstand,) or whether they will require any alteration or improvement to render them effectual. It is now proper for me to state, that you have been selected, as, this being your first voyage in the rank of harpooner, there is less liability of your being influenced by prejudice, or by an obstinate adherence to old customs.

I wish you to keep in mind, that my intention is to do an essential public benefit; and in its operation, to obtain advantage to the owners of the ship who give you employment; to your captain who promoted you to the situation of harpooner; to your companions, who are deeply interested in the success of your boat; and lastly, to yourself, not only from the rewards you may acquire from the use of the gun-harpoon, but the credit you will derive in being the first man to establish its utility.

Let these considerations animate your zeal; let it be ever foremost in your thoughts, that the success of the new system depends upon your own exertions, your collected conduct in the moment of use, and your ability when it is applied; and let these motives induce your particular attention to a branch of service, from which success will never fail to be derived, when the direction of it is skilfully executed.”

–From George Manby’s Journal of a Voyage to Greenland, in the year 1821.

From Letters to Elizabeth

The 1830 Baffin Fair

Caught in the Ice, 1830, by Thomas Henry Binks

Like modern oilmen, Arctic whalers took oil first from where it was easy. They began with Greenland and eastward towards Spitzbergen. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century whalers in that region caught 50 percent more whales than in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay to the West. By the late 1820s, though, the whales had almost been wiped out in the Greenland fishery, and like the deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, whalers were prepared to take more risks. In the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay the weather was less predictable, the ice more likely to trap you, and crush your ship.

In June and July 1830, after several years of poor catches in the Greenland Sea, the Davis Strait was packed with vessels. Whaling, especially Arctic whaling, was always a risky business, and some ships were lost every year, but in 1830 the weather in the Davis Strait was appalling. Violent storms pushed ice into the Strait, crushing ships and lifting them out  of the water.

That year the British whaling fleet lost 19 ships out of 90 in the Davis Strait. These included William Scoresby Jr.’s former ship Baffin, and the John, once captained by his brother in law, William Jackson. In 1830 the John was based at Greenock and her crew had a reputation for trouble. In 1829 some of them had refused to sail on a voyage of exploration in support of Captain John Ross and his ship Victory. The story of what happened on board the John in 1830 is not at all clear, but what is known is that when she was wrecked on September 24th, she was commanded by one of the officers, that her captain was dead, and that the mate and several of the crew had been set adrift in a boat. The John was the last whaler to sail out of Greenock.

Each of the 19 wrecked whalers had on board over fifty men, and for a while around 1000 were camped on the ice, drinking ale, wine, and rum plundered from the wrecked ships. This drunken way-below-zero jamboree was known as the Baffin Fair and went on for several days until the wrecked ships had been emptied and burnt. Free from the discipline of their ships the men were out of control, but when the food and drink was exhausted most were picked up by other ships and surprisingly few died. Basil Lubbock, whose book The Arctic Whalers is one of the best on the subject, estimates ‘eight or ten,’ did not survive, some of whom were deserters from French ships, and had been wandering on the ice even before the storms broke.

Besides the 19 ships lost, many more were damaged and 21 came home empty. After the 1830 catastrophe, whaling in the Davis Strait declined by about two thirds, and to make matters worse the American deep sea whaling industry had started to dominate oil production, making the Arctic fishery less attractive. Many British whalers turned to killing seals instead.

The image above can be downloaded from the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

Prevailing Winds, History, and Forgetting

One of the things I find most fascinating about the process of trying to understand the past is the extent to which we forget collectively about things that no longer seem to matter. How things that were once an acceptable or at least tolerable part of life become almost inconceivable. What we call progress is not simply a matter of overcoming problems and sidestepping obstacles, but of denying they exist. The Icelandic volcano that has disrupted air travel across Europe in the past month has been a reminder of just how dependent we are on a stable and predictable environment. We want our transport to be reliable and nothing less than a volcanic eruption can stand in our way. But even so the idea of being delayed in our travels round the globe because of a volcano seems faintly ridiculous. Volcanos are so prehistoric and passenger jets are so, well, shiny and modern. But what if transport, industry, and commerce could be disrupted by something as mundane as the wind blowing in the wrong direction?

In March 1822 William Scoresby and his crew of fifty men were preparing to sail from Liverpool to the whale fishery off Greenland in the ship, Baffin. Unfortunately the voyage was delayed for about a week because a westerly wind prevented them from leaving the dock. This would no doubt have caused problems for Captain Scoresby, since not only would the men have to be retained on the ship (as it happens two of the crew deserted during the delay) but the loss of a week from the short Arctic hunting season was expensive. Scoresby finally managed to begin his voyage north on March 27th when the wind shifted a little southward, but his ship was almost alone when it left the Mersey. Here’s how he describes it:

[We] were prevented from sailing by strong westerly winds, which prevailed for several days … At this time, nearly 500 ships were lying in the different docks wind-bound; but scarcely any of them attempted to put to sea on this occasion as the wind was not suitable for the South Channel, the outlet most suitable for the voyages to which the principal part of the fleet was destined.

Scoresby’s troubles should be seen in a wider context: around forty percent of world trade was conducted through Liverpool in the early nineteenth century.  Delays had a significant effect not only on individual ships but on the economy of Britain as a whole. Far more significant, no doubt, than the restrictions on European flights are today. It is also worth noting that the prevailing wind in Liverpool is from the West.

May-Day Ceremonies of Greenland Sailors

The first day of May is traditionally the first day of summer. It is an ancient date of celebration and ceremony of pagan origins, which is marked traditionally in England with such rites as Maypole dancing, garlanding and the crowning of the “Queen of the May”. Sailors in the Greenland whale fishery had their own traditions, marking May Day with ceremonies that began just after midnight and continued for several hours. At close to 80° Latitude, as far north as Spitzbergen, the Barents Sea, and Ellesmere Island, there is perpetual daylight from late May, so the ringing in of May Day at these latitudes would have taken place in dusk or twilight. William Scoresby Jr. recounts the events on board the Baffin on May 1st 1820 in his A Voyage to the Whale Fishery, 1822, and describes an excitable, rowdy scene in which the hierarchy of the crew was established and scores settled in an elaborate theatrical display. No doubt drink was taken. Scoresby himself did not join in the festivities:

The proceedings commenced on the striking of eight bells at midnight, by the suspension in the rigging of a garland (very gaily decorated with ribbons, and surmounted with a representation of Neptune, and emblems of the fishery), by the hand of that individual among the crew who had most recently entered into the state of wedlock. Another sailor, strangely metamorphosed in a garb studiously extravagant, was then heard to hail the ship, ordering the main-yard to be braced aback, and a rope to be given for his boat; and immediately afterwards the odd figure, representing Neptune, with his wife, a barber, and his mate, ascended the deck over the bows of the ship. All hands were now summoned by this assumed marine potentate; when each individual, as he passed before him, received from the barber distinguishing patches of black and white upon his face. His marine majesty then went below, and entered into a division screened off from the ‘tween-decks for the occasion, and ordered all the hands, who were not free of the Greenland Sea, to come before him. One at a time they were brought into his presence, and each submitted to his humorous interrogatories, and to the coarse operation of shaving.

Neptune was a striking figure; his back carried a huge hunch, and his swollen bandied legs rivalled the diameter of his body. He was clothed in a naval dress, augmented by a cloak and an immense wig, of which a swab formed the tail. His assistant, whose office it was to perform the shaving operation, was dressed in a neat suit (with the exception of some embellishments) of white nankeen, and formed a singular contrast to his acknowledged sovereign. His lather was a mixture of soot, grease, tar, and other filth, scraped up for the occasion; a tar-brush was the utensil with which it was applied, and a coarse piece of iron-hooping, the substitute for a razor. When the lathering commenced, various questions were proposed by Neptune, respecting the man’s occupation, station and country; and if the unlucky fellow happened to give an answer, the brush invariably penetrated to his throat, and filled his mouth with its superabundant juices. The shaving of such as were decent, well-behaved and orderly characters, though at the best not very delicate, was, nevertheless, accomplished without any severity; but some who had shipped themselves as seamen, and proved to be not only unacquainted with the profession, but, at the same time, mean and worthless characters, were shaven with vast deliberation and coarseness. Two of these being introduced to Neptune in the character of hypocrites, were ordered by him to pass through two or three courses of the operation, on the principle, that, all hypocrites having two faces, it was necessary to scrape frequently and deeply, that the false face might be removed, and the true one appear! The shaving being concluded, and all hands made free, a sort of rude masquerade commenced. The characters were not numerous, but they were, in general, well supported. The introduction of a female character, the wife of Neptune, though any thing but lovely, gave occasion for battle, plot, and dramatic incident. This scene being passed, the ship’s company were marshalled on deck and reviewed. Feats of agility by individuals succeeded; and some tumbling, which was commenced by an expert master of the ceremonies, was attempted by all hands, though at the expence of many coarse thumps on the deck, which it required all their thick and varied clothing to defend them against.

After these feats of agility, a rude, but active and energetic dance succeeded, sustained or directed by the noisy vibrations of every kettle and pan to be found in the ship, but without any instrument more harmonious. The whole terminated with a loyal song, which was chorussed by the whole crew; and then they dispersed with three huzzas, on a summons from the boatswain to “splice the main-brace.”

Scoresby’s Map of Greenland, 1822

In 1822 William Scoresby Jr., commander of the ship Baffin of Liverpool, spent the summer months in the Arctic, catching whales and mapping the coast of Greenland. It is sometimes difficult, looking back from the twenty-first century, to remember where to leave gaps when making sense of history, to remember what wasn’t known. This map, which you can click to see in more detail, is a good example. Scoresby’s voyage of 1822 came in the wake of two significant voyages of discovery funded by the Admiralty under John Barrow. As a mere whaler Scoresby had been passed over in the search for the North West Passage in favour of Captain John Ross, whose failed expedition of 1818 met with widespread public ridicule, and William Parry, who was more successful in his expedition of 1820.

Scoresby was not a man to harbour grudges, but he must have felt wounded by the rejection, given that he was widely acknowledged at the time to be the foremost expert on the Arctic region. His voyage in 1822, commanding the ship he had designed and had built for the purpose in Liverpool three seasons earlier, was primarily to catch whales. Without government assistance, Scoresby had to make his voyage pay. And pay it did: despite sailing outside the usual fishing grounds around Spitzbergen, and despite narrowly avoiding shipwreck, Scoresby brought back a full ship.

More importantly, Scoresby’s map of the Eastern coast of Greenland, as well as his examinations of the ‘mineralogy’ and botany of the region, were a significant advance on what had existed before. In the section of the map shown here the gaps are obvous. Huge areas of the land back from the coast are uncharted; the assumption was that rather than being a single large landmass, Greenland was in fact a series of small islands joined together by ice. At the end of his 1822 journal, published in 1823 as A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, Scoresby quotes a letter from Sir Charles Giseiké on ‘the Structure of Greenland’:

It is past doubt, that the whole coast of Greenland formerly consisted of Large islands, which are now, as it were, glued together by immense masses of ice.

Such inlets, or rather firths (fiords), which once formed sounds or passages, terminate always, according to my observations, with glaciers filling up the valleys at each end. Such is (to confine myself to the more northern latitudes), the ice-firth, or ice-bay, of Disco Bay, in 68° 40′. Such, also, is Cornelius Bay (North-east Bay, or Omenak’s Fiord), 71½°, the north-eastern arm of which is blocked up at both ends with ice running through a valley, and bending rather towards the ENE.

Scoresby named many of the headlands and islands he discovered after his friends and acquaintances back in Liverpool. If you look closely at the map you will see ‘Scoresbys Sound’ (named after his father) and ‘Jameson Land’ after his mentor Professor Jameson of Edinburgh University, but this section of coastline he names the ‘Liverpool Coast’: names such as Holloway Bay (after a Liverpool minister) and Rathbone Island (after the famous Liverpool shipping family who were close friends) betray Scoresby’s affection for the city. Many of these names did not make it onto the official Admiralty maps or were replaced by later navigators.

Reasons For Self-Publishing: Lessons from History

… Owing to my having been my own publisher and thereby displeasing all London bookseller/proprieters of reviews I am to be most severely handled in the Quarterly, Westminster, Monthly Lit. Gazette &c–but how Edin. will treat me I do not know. You will, however, be glad to learn that I have the consolation that I have 7,000 subscribers amounting to no less than £7,000!–My first object in being my own publisher was to get the book up so as to be a credit to the nation and all concerned, my 2nd object was to give it to the public cheaper, and to show thereby how the booksellers impose on both the authors and the public–and lastly that I might keep the property in my own hands.

–From a letter by Sir John Ross to William Scoresby, 28th April 1835. Quoted in Tom and Cordelia Stamp, William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist (1976).

Beer Aboard Ship in the Greenland Whale Fishery

In a chapter headed ‘The Decanter’ in Moby Dick Ishmael the narrator describes an ‘ancient volume’ detailing ‘the larders and cellars of 180 sail of Dutch whalemen’. He is struck by the volume of beer and gin taken on board (an ‘anker’ is roughly 35 litres):

The quantity of beer, too, is very large, 10,800 barrels. Now, as those polar fisheries could only be prosecuted in the short summer of that climate, so that the whole cruise of one of these Dutch whalemen, including the short voyage to and from the Spitzbergen sea, did not much exceed three months, say, and reckoning 30 men to each of their fleet of 180 sail, we have 5,400 Low Dutch seamen in all; therefore, I say, we have precisely two barrels of beer per man, for a twelve weeks’ allowance, exclusive of his fair proportion of that 550 ankers of gin.

Three centuries later, when Melville’s notional drunken Dutch whalers had been replaced in the fishery by the English, nineteenth century whale ships heading for Greenland would leave their home ports–Whitby, Hull, Liverpool,  Peterhead–in March and return in August with the catch. They often called in at Stromness on Orkney, or at the Shetlands, to pick up crew, but they would be at sea for most of the five or six months they were away. The amount of beer they took with them was significant. In February 1815 whaling captain William Scoresby Jr. was preparing the ship Esk for its voyage from Whitby to the Greenland fishery. His journal* for that year records that besides nine tons of meat, and five of bread the ship took on 11 casks (probably 160 gallons each) of beer ‘from Mr. Stonehouse’ and 10 casks, containing ‘five tons of beer from Clarks’. Stonehouse and Clark later delivered a further four barrels each (36 gallons per barrel) of beer and T. Fishburn Esq provided a cask of fine ale, ‘to be distributed to the crew in the progress of he fishery, if favoured with success’. To supplement this the ship also took on 3300 gallons of fresh water in 11 casks. Assuming Scoresby’s casks were 160 gallons each it seems the Esk sailed with an allowance of around three and a half pints of beer per man per day; more than enough to ward off scurvy, or so they thought, mistakenly.

I’m curious too about what kind of beer this would be. No doubt it was relatively strong by today’s standards, but there is clearly a distinction in quality here between the ‘beer’ taken on board in quantity as a nutritional substitute for water, and the ‘fine ale’ provided as a reward. There is a clue to the quality of the seamen’s supply in Scoresby’s journal for 1814, in which he details his own bottled supplies. Not for him beer from the common cask:

Wednesday 16th March [1814]. … Received from Gile and Brown stock of spirits for Harbour & Sea use, also 10 Dozn. Bottles of Porter: & from [Pierson?] & Frankland 5 Dozn. Port; 1 1/5 Dozn. Sherry & 1 Dozn. of Vidonia Wine. Completing my Sea & Harbour Stock of Wines, Spirits, & Porter.

In later life Scoresby was concerned about with the amount of alcohol sailors consumed and with the number of shipwrecks that seemed to have been caused by drunkenness among the officers and crew. It would continue to be a problem until fresh water supplies improved.

*The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Vol 2: The Voyages of 1814, 1815, and 1816. Edited by C. Ian Jackson. London: Ashgate, for the Hakluyt Society, 2008.