Sunday, July 20, 2014

Duncan McLean (1811-1896), Sailor--Newspaper Man

The Flying Cloud at Pier 20 in the East River
clipper ship by Donald McKay, described in the Boston Atlas by Duncan McLean

As promised in our last, more about the author of Whaling in the Straits of Timor from the lengthy mortuary notice published in the Boston Journal on Saturday, October 17, 1896:


Death of Old Sailor—Newspaper Man.

Used to Swim With Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Well-Known as a Sea Yarn Writer and Ship Editor.

Duncan McLean, the well-known journalist, died today, aged 85 years.

Capt. Mclean’s death occurred at his residence, 119 Princeton Street, East Boston.

Duncan McLean was born in Kirkwall, Orkney, one of the scenes of Sir Walter Scott’s “Pirate,” on Oct. 14, 1811, and was familiar with the sea from the time he could scramble into a boat. Most of the boys who live along the coasts of the Orkneys take to the sea as naturally as ducks, and soon become expert boatmen.

At an early age McLean left home in a schooner named George Canning, and made his first passage to Leith, the seaport of Edinburgh, and from thence sailed to Newcastle and engaged in the coal trade between that port and London. Disliking the trade he volunteered on board the Perseus sloop-of-war lying off the town of London, was transferred from her to the Hind cutter, and from her to the old line-of-battle ship Ramillies, lying in the Downs, as a guard ship.

She was commanded by Capt. Pigot, brother of the captain of the Hermione frigate, whose crew rose in mutiny on account of harsh treatment, killed nearly all the officers, and delivered the frigate to the Spaniards at Porto Cabello, from which she was subsequently cut out by boats from a British squadron, and most of her mutineers were either hanged or transported.

Capt. Pigot of the Ramillies was about to flog a man, who protested his innocence of the offence with which he was charged in vain. He was seized to the grating, the boatswain was about to apply the lash, when the sailor sang out, “Captain Pigot, remember your brother!” “Cut him adrift! Pipe down!” were the orders, and the captain called his gig and left for the shore. Those in the boat said that he cried like a child, for he dearly loved his unfortunate brother.

From the Ramillies McLean volunteered for the Gloucester, 74, and was up the Mediterranean at the close of the Greek Revolution. He remained in her between two and three years, during which time she was twice struck by lightning, and was so badly damaged by striking a rock off Cabrita Point that she had to put into Gibraltar, where she was hove down—a great undertaking—and was repaired so that she reached Chatham in safety.

Flogging was very common on board. The day she was paid off some six men who had gone ashore without leave received two dozen lashes each. She was commanded by a Capt. Coffin, some relative of Sir Isaac Coffin. When he commanded a frigate his own barge’s crew waylaid him outside of Portsmouth, tied him to a tree, and every one had a lash at him, which gave him a nervous twitch in the back ever afterward.

From the Gloucester McLean sailed in the East India trade, then went three years sperm whaling, returned to the merchant service, and in 1837 joined the ship Kensington, Capt. Curtis, in Liverpool, his first American ship. Half passage out the second mate was taken sick. McLean was appointed in his place, and when he arrived in New York was recommended as chief mate to Capt. Palge, long since deceased. Not being naturalized he was not eligible to take command, and therefore had to wait the usual time; but before this expired he left the sea and settled in Boston.

Here he made the acquaintance of Col. Greene, and entered his office to learn the art of printing at ?? per week and $15 per year. He was then 26, his hands were hard, and his sense of feeling blunt, but he persevered and made a fair compositor.

In two years he was assistant editor and second foreman of the Boston Post, and was earning by a new arrangement from $10 to $12 per week. When shipbuilding was most active he took to describing them, and his sketches soon attracted so much notice that he had plenty of work in that line, and was often well paid for it. He described all the clippers built by Mr. Donald McKay and most of the East Boston shipbuilders.

He left the Boston Post and purchased into the Atlas when Col. Schouler was its editor and Dr. Brewer its leading literary writer. When the Atlas was merged in the Traveller he took charge of its commercial and shipping department, a position he held 30 years. He considered his connection with the Atlas the best part of his newspaper life, because all the proprietors were gentlemen—there was not a doubtful character among them.

Mr. McLean was a religious man and firmly believed the revelations of Swedenborg, though a member of Rev. W. H. Cudworth’s church, and many years an active teacher in his Sunday School. He was very fortunate in his social relations, his wife was an American lady, and he was often heard to say when past 72 years of age that if he were once more young, and were to choose a wife, he would take her in preference to all others whom he had ever seen.

In 1881 he was elected an honorary member of the Boston Marine Society, which he esteemed as the best compliment ever paid to him. He wrote many sea stories for Mr. M. M. Ballou, and for the papers with which he was connected over the nom de plume of Capt. Oakum, and always had a good word to say for the men of the sea when they went up higher. Capt. R. B. Forbes was his personal friend many years, and continued so until the close of his life. The deceased said that he had described more ships and steamers and had written more obituary notices of shellbacks than any other man connected with the press.

He was not only a practical printer, but a good short-hand reporter, and flattered himself that he could conduct every department of a live newspaper. The late Chas. C. Hazewell, who prepared the first article he ever wrote for the press, was his devoted friend for 42 years. They loved each other as brothers. McLean was one of the liveliest old men who frequented the Merchants’ Exchange, and will be long remembered by hosts of friends.

In writing a letter to a friend in 1886, Mr. McLean jocularly spoke of being out of work and “taking a vacation,” the “first one I ever had” before again settling down to business.

During the palmy days of Fr Taylor’s ministry he was one [of] his right-hand men. Subsequently he wrote his obituary and furnished some of the matter for his biography, which was written by Bishop Haven. He was a sailor, a practical printer, a short-hand writer, a typewriter, and could swim like a fish. During his career he used to say that he had been dead four times, had falls enough to break every bone in his body, and thanked God that he owed no man anything but love.

In 1884 Mr. McLean had a hot controversy with Roland Worthington of the Boston Traveler Association, finally ending by the sale of Mr. McLean’s stock to Mr. Worthington and the discharge of the former.

Mr. McLean had a celebration of his 82d birthday three years ago and seemed hale and hearty then.


Many anecdotes are and might be related of Duncan McLean.

Once when he was on a whaling ship, the vessel was lying becalmed in the Soo Loo Sea, with a large dead sperm whale alongside. A boatsteerer, whose duty it was to hook on, sprang from the gangway overboard and struck the back of his head on the whale.

This no doubt stunned him, for he went down and never came up. Sharks were swarming about the ship, and probably tore him in places. Mac was appointed in his place.

A few days after he was made boatsteerer he was ranging up alongside a large sperm whale, when the mate whispered impressively, “Fasten!” Mac whispered back, calmly, “Lay on!” (That meant nearer.) Again the mate breathed, italics, saying “D—n your eyes! Fasten, or I’ll run a lance through you!”

Mac, with the iron poised ready for a dart, whispered back “Lay on!” The mate was frantic, and with one stroke of the steer oar, brought the bow of the boat head on and stern off, when Mac, quick as light, sent home on after the other, two irons, socket up, into the whale, which trembled, as if paralyzed, for a few seconds. The third mate’s boat came up on the other side, and put two more irons in him, which woke him from his stupor. He raised his flukes gently, as if feeling, and tipped Mac’s boat over. Then, with a savage swing, he cut the third mate’s boat clean in two, and away he went, spouting thick blood in his flurry.

Here were twelve men overboard in bloody water among sharks, and a mad whale circling around in the throes of death.

A cooper’s mate, a fat Englishman, who could not swim, was grabbed by the hair by Mac, who shoved an oar under his chin. When the water was out of his mouth he sung out,

“O, Mac, save me; I’ve got a dear wife and five children,” and then made a grab at him, but Mac gave him a dig in the ribs and told him to “shut his mouth and save his wind.”

He told him he would take care of him, and he did, as well as of another man.

He was, he says, probably more frightened than either of them, for more than once he felt himself in contact with a shark, and stabbed one of the monsters with a sheath knife. The whale soon ‘turned up,’ that is, died; and all hands were saved, for two other boats were close at hand.

In company with the late Hon. Charles C. Hazewell and Leonidas Ingraham of the Journal, Mac used to have swims in the Back Bay from Braman’s bathing house. Frequently he was in the water with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and noticed that the doctor was a good diver and an expert swimmer, always very quick in his movements, but not inclined to remain long in the water. His first movement from the stage was a spring head foremost, and when he rose he bounded up almost to the waist, struck out a few times, turned on his back, went hand-over-hand, ploughed a little on his side, took a porpoise dive, heels up and then went out, whereas Mac and his companions often remained in the water an hour.

--found in the Newspaper Archives at Genealogy Bank.
In August 1852 McLean's close friend Charles Creighton Hazewell wrote a stinging criticism of Melville's Pierre. Hazewell
"denounced Melville personally in the Boston Daily Times, calling him a would-be reformer thwarted in his goals by lack of personal experience with suffering." 
--Hershel Parker
In April 1859, McLean named the hero of his Knickerbocker whaling story "Melville."

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