Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Mistery of Whaling (1841)

This unusually vivid and detailed description of whaling appeared in the Nantucket Inquirer nearly six months after Herman Melville shipped for Cape Horn and the Pacific Ocean in the whaler Acushnet. As reported in Herman Melville's Whaling Years (68-9), the Acushnet would anchor in Santa harbor, Peru ("her first Pacific Ocean anchorage") on Wednesday, June 23, 1841. Transcribed below, the unsigned sketch was first published in the Inquirer on June 12, 1841, then reprinted in numerous other newspapers under the corrected title, "The Mystery of Whaling."

An abbreviated version with more commas and fewer hyphens was published in volume 15 of the Quaker literary magazine, The Friend (Philadelphia, 1842): The Mystery of Whaling in The Friend 15.26 (1842): 203-5. Also published on January 22, 1842 in the Supplement to the Hartford, Connecticut Courant.

Perils of Whaling, sketch by F. A. Olmstead, 1841
Perils of Whaling by Francis Allyn Olmsted via Wikimedia Commons


Several sketches, descriptive of the process of taking whales, and of the operations on board ship connected with that gigantic sport, have from time to time been given to the public, per newspaper and pamphlet. We have seen no one, however, which for minuteness and fidelity of detail, surpasses the following. Its spirited and graphic delineations will not only interest the practical whaler; but is systematic account of the entire process, from beginning to end, will furnish both amusement and instruction to the uninitiated.—We are under obligations to the ingenious and able author, who has manifestly “seen a little service” in this pursuit—sufficient to obtain complete mastery of his subject—for this highly welcome contribution.

Written for the Inquirer.

“There she blows—there she blows—there she blows,” repeated at intervals of half a minute, is a cry often heard, and oftener wished for, from the mast-head of a whale-ship in whaling waters. And quickly is that cry from aloft followed by the question of “where away?” from the deck. “Two points off the lee bow, sir.” “How far off?” “Three miles, sir.” —“What do you call him?" says the captain. “Sperm whale, sir,” roars out the man aloft; and again he gives the cry of “there she blows,” with a noise that wakes the sleepers below, and puts to flight the dreams that have doubtless been coursing through their brains—for most people dream at sea whether they do on shore or not—and many of the dreamers have full faith in them, too, and can tell to a certainty by the dream of the previous night, whether the day will bring forth whales; whether they will be obtained if seen; whether there will be one seen or many, and whether they will behave civilly or show fight. The cry is given, and vivid excitement pervades all on board. But the captain exhibits no hurry. He turns perhaps to the cabin gangway, and says, “steward.” The word is followed at the instant by an emphatic “sir” from below. “Pass up the glass.”—“Ay, ay, sir,” is the response. A second more and the crisped locks of the sable steward emerge from the stairway. He presents the glass, an unequivocal smile separating his lips, and his eyes rolling with joy, though trying to preserve his dignity and imitate the coolness of the captain. With the spyglass on his shoulder the captain goes aloft and looks through his tube, to determine whether it is a sperm whale or some other kind, of which there are several, and although the appearance of their spout is somewhat different, they cannot always be distinguished by even a practised eye at any great distance. If the captain is satisfied of its being a sperm whale, he calls out “get the boats ready.” “Ay, ay, sir,” answers the mate from the deck. The watch below are called up; the boatsteerers look to the boats to see that every thing is in its place; superfluous clothing is thrown aside; belts are buckled on and suspenders thrown off. The cooper must stop working (in some ships) lest the noise should reach the whales and alarm them. The boys are strung out on the lower yards, and have just caught sight of the spout. “There she blows—blows-—blows,” becomes more frequent and less loud. Now they are seen from the deck. A few minutes have elapsed, and the captain is coming down. He passes aft to the quarter deck. The whales are getting near —perhaps within a quarter of a mile. The mate is standing by the captain. The latter speaks. “Let the main-yard come aback, Mr. A.” “Haul the main-yard aback,” says the mate. It is done, and the ship is stationary.—“Stand by the boats.” The crews group about their several boats, ready to jump in. The three mates are in the sterns of their different boats, with a boatsteerer in the head of each. Six men are at the different falls, ready to lower. The captain gives the word— “now lower away gently.” One after the other the boats drop into the water and are cleared from the tackles. The crews tumble in as they may and shove off.

As it is barely possible that there are persons who have never seen a whaleboat when rigged for service, let us occupy a moment in looking at one. A whaleboat is about 25 feet long, 6 feet wide in the centre, sharp at both ends, clinker built, and light. It is pulled (landsmen ignorantly say rowed) by five oars—three on one side, two on the other. It is steered with an oar similar in shape to those used in pulling, but of two or three times the size. A boat's crew consists of six, viz: a boatsteerer, who pulls the first or harpoon oar; one man to pull the next, or bow oar; one at the next, or midship oar, which is the heaviest and requires a strong pair of arms; one at the tub oar which comes next; and one at the after oar, which is the last and lightest, and is generally pulled by the smallest of the crew. The mate has the steering oar and is commander. The boatsteerer, whose title would indicate the steering-oar as his place, does not have charge of it until the whale has been struck with the harpoon, when he changes place with the mate, who finishes the performance with a lance. The person who is steering stands up. There are paddles in the boat to be used when the noise of oars might frighten the whales. There is generally a mast that can be hoisted or taken down at leisure, with a goodly sized sail to aid in propelling the boat; and sometimes two masts and sails, and a jib beside, making three sails. The line, coiled in a tub pierced with augur holes, is placed between the seats or thwarts of the tub and after-oarsman. When the whale is struck and runs out line, the tub-oarsman seizes a small bucket, placed at hand for the purpose, and douses water in the tub to keep the line wet and prevent the rapid friction from causing fire. In the stern of the boat is a keg containing a lantern, a tinder box, matches and candle. A keg of water, one or two buckets, a boat hook, and five paddles are stowed under the seats.—Along the sides are tied up spare harpoons, lances, and a large instrument called a spade. It is used for cutting holes in the whale's head, or elsewhere, when dead, for ropes to pass through. Spare thole-pins are tied to those already in use, to supply the place should any of them break. They form the row-locks for the oars. In the head of the boat are two harpoons ready for immediate use. A hatchet and boat-knife are also there, secured in convenient places to be at hand if needed. The line is passed from the tub round a stout piece of timber near the stern, called the logger-head, and thence forward to a grove in a head called the chocks. A small wooden pin keeps the line from jumping out of the chocks. A sufficient length of line is drawn through and coiled down to throw out with the harpoon. The end is made fast to one iron, (harpoons are so called) and the other attached to the same line by a piece of rope or short warp.

Thus prepared, the sails are hoisted, the oars are peaked, and the men, seated on the sides or gunwale of the boat, add the force of the paddles to the assistance of the wind. Carefully avoiding to pull on the whale's eye, they get directly behind him, taking a wide circuit to do so if necessary, and keep as much so as possible until the head of the boat is nearly up with his flukes (tail.) The mate then sheers out and runs the boat up alongside, calling out at the same time to the boatsteerer, “stand up.”—The boatsteerer drops his paddle and seizes the harpoon. “Dart,” says the mate. The men drop their paddles, jump to their seats, and take the oars. The iron flies —it has fastened— the second iron follows quick as thought—the whale is struck. With a start and lash of his huge tail he makes a hillock of foam. “Stern all” is the word, and the boat is backed off by the oars.

But all this is the work of a moment, and the whale has disappeared. He is going down, and the line is whizzing round the logger-head and through the chocks. The tub-oarsman throws water on the line; the mate goes in the head; the boat-steerer goes aft; the bowman clears away the lance for the mate. The line all this time has been left to run free, but it begins to go out with less velocity. “Take a turn,” says the mate. The boat flies through the water, throwing a sheet of foam from either bow as she follows the course of the whale; for he is now running parallel to the surface of the water though a long way down. He may run in this way a mile or two, but generally comes up sooner. When he first comes to the surface he will very likely flounce and thrash about for a few minutes, and then be quiet before he takes another start. Now is the time to go up to him. “Haul line,” says the mate, “haul hard, boys, there he lays like a log.” By hauling in the line, the boat is drawn up near enough to the whale for the mate to throw a lance in some vital part. Very often the whale is killed with a few well directed lances, or even one; but sometimes it is a more serious affair. To get near enough to reach the whale with a lance, and still to avoid getting hit by him, requires quick work and cool judgment. When the animal is kind, it is easy enough; but when it is an ugly whale, when there is a tossing, broken sea, rendering it difficult to work the boat quick, then it is that strong arms, cool heads, and bold hearts are needed.

Boats are often knocked to pieces by the whale's flukes, or bit in pieces when he is gnashing his teeth in his agony; but comparatively few persons are killed, or even hurt, when such occurrences do take place. Two or three boats will be destroyed, partially or entirely, without an individual being hurt. When a lance has taken much effect, he spouts out blood with his breath. This is a welcome sight to all concerned, and is hailed with noisy manifestations of joy, “There's blood”— “There he spouts thick blood”—“There he rolls it out, thick as tar.” After spouting out an immense quantity of blood, and bleeding from all the lance holes, his giant strength begins to fail.—He breathes slower and lashes the water with less force. Presently he stops blowing, but his strength is suddenly renewed. He starts off with a speed equal to his most successful efforts in his palmiest days of health and strength. He does not go in a straight line, but describes a circle. Now slack line and give him room.—Keep out of his way, for he no longer sees or heeds boat, harpoon, or lance—mate, friend or enemy. Onward he plunges with the energy of delirium. “Slack line—pull out of his way—pull hard—there, let her run, he'll go clear,” are the successive orders of the mate as he puts the sheath on his lance, knowing that its work is done. The whale has circled round once, twice, and perhaps again; but his race is nearly run—he stops—he raises his monstrous head as if trying to escape from his native element—he sinks back and turns upon his side—he shows the corner of his fluke—he is dead.

Glee now takes the place of anxiety in the countenance of the timid, and quiet satisfaction in that of the resolute. Now haul in your slack line and coil down. It comes in merrily. No urging is now needed. The boat is by the whale's head. The spade is cleared away, with which the mate is cutting a hole to pass a rope through. The bow-man is holding the boat up with his boat-hook. The hole being made the rope is passed. “Give us the waif" says the mate briskly. A small flag is handed out and stuck on a pole. It is the signal to those in the ship that the whale is dead.

Let us go to the ship. She is four miles of to windward. The other two boats are within a mile of her, chasing whales, but cannot get up to them. The captain is on the fore-top-gallant-cross-trees with his spyglass. He sees the waif. It is near night. “On deck,” he calls out. “Sir,” answers one on deck. “Run that signal up at the mizen peak.” “Ay, ay, sir,” says the man. The signal halliards are brought in, the flag made fast and run up. It is the signal for the two near boats to come aboard. They see it, and relinquish the chase. They are soon along side and hoisted up; the sails are filled, and the ship is running down to the dead whale. But it is getting dark; the wind is light, and the whale is four miles off.—The captain has lost sight of whale and boat and is running by guess. Presently a small light is seen for an instant on the surface of the water and disappears. It is enough—the boat is there. “Keep off another point" is the order from aloft. “Keep off another point, sir,” is repeated from the deck, and the ship is again headed for the whale. The light of the boat's lantern is visible or hidden as she rises and falls with the swell of the sea. It becomes more and more constant, and soon ceases to disappear.

While the ship is drawing down, preparation is made for securing the whale to the ship. A stout cable is strung along the deck to be passed round his flukes. One end of this cable, or fluke rope, has an eye, formed by unlaying the strands, doubling back, and splicing in; while the other end is whipped up snug to be rove through the eye. A small line with a buoy at one end is fastened by the other end to the eye of the fluke rope. A lead sinker is attached to the line at the distance of two or three fathoms from the buoy. As the light becomes visible from the deck, those on the look out aloft have come down and are leaning over the rail, still watching its position. When nearly within hail of the boat, some of the sails are clewed up, and the ship's head-way sufficiently diminished for getting the whale to the ship. This is effected by various manoeuvres, and he is placed alongside; the small line that is fast to his head having been handed on deck, by which he is now held. The buoy rope with the lead attached is dropped in the water between the whale and ship. A slanting direction is given to the sinker to carry it under and outside of him. The lead is heavy enough, with the momentum it acquires in dropping, to carry the buoy down and under the whale, when it rises on the outside, and is hooked up with the line-hook from the deck.—The eye of the fluke-rope being fast to the other end, is immediately drawn round and hauled up to the rail. The free end is then rove through and bowsed up taut, thus bringing the eye down to the small of the whale (which is the part just before his flukes) and jamming up tighter the more it is pulled upon. Now pass the end over the side again and forward to the hawser-hole in the bow—pass it in and stream across deck. “Hook on every body, and slew the whale round.” Round he comes—his flukes are drawn forward, and the head goes aft, abreast of the main chains. “Make fast all,” says the captain. The fluke rope is secured by repeated turns round the bits (or timbers at the heel of the bowsprit) and stoppered together with spun-yarn; parcelling is put round where it runs through the hauser-hole, and well smeared with slush to prevent chafing. Another stout rope is made fast to the short warp in his head, and secured on the quarter deck. The first act is finished. He is ready to be cut in on the morrow.

It is now late in the evening, and they have eaten nothing since dinner, or quite as likely; since breakfast. The cook has taken a kid of potatoes and a bucket of tea to the fore-castle, and the same to the steerage. They have bread, molasses, and cold meat below. The steward has been setting the table in the cabin. The captain speaks to the mate: “Let the people have their suppers Mr. A.”—"Go to your suppers, there," calls out the mate. They dive down, nothing loth. Each one helps himself to a tinpotful of tea, and stirs in some molasses; puts one or two good sized sweet potatoes in his pan, with a slice of salt junk and a cake or two of bread. Perhaps he has a piece of "duff" to eke out the repast. Duff is a pudding made of flour and water, nicely shortened with slush and boiled in salt water. Eaten with molasses it is nutritious, and palatable to most persons. To some it smacks a little of the glauber and other salts contained in the briny fluid in which it has undergone the process of cooking. Thus accoutred, seated around on their sea-chests with pan in lap and tin pot alongside, they set to in good earnest, keeping up at the same time an animated discussion of the performances of the day; interspersed with plenty of joke, gibe, and repartee. In the meanwhile the steward shows himself and announces to the Captain that "supper's ready, sir ;" or if he is in the humor for a polite flourish, he makes a half scrape and says, "please to walk down to supper, sir." The captain says, "ay, ay," or "very well," or perhaps nothing at all, but continues leaning against the mizzen-top-sail-sheet-bits with the mate at his lee side. In a few minutes he starts to go down, saying at the same time “supper, Mr. A."— "supper, sir," answers the mate. The captain goes down and seats himself at the table. The mate has remained on deck. Two or three minutes elapse and the mate makes a move. He walks to the second mate; says "supper, Mr. B." and goes below to take his seat by the side of the captain. The second mate answers “supper, sir," and goes to the third mate, to whom he says "supper Mr. C.," and then follows the mate to the table. The third mate responds as the others "supper, sir," and looks for the boat-steerers before he goes down. He gives the intimation as before, only omitting the Mr. before the surname. The boat-steerers answer "supper, sir," or "supper," or "ay, ay," as they feel inclined; the necessity for etiquette diminishing as the rank descends. All having been duly summoned, in the course of ten or fifteen minutes from the first announcement they are at the table. As those first seated do not wait for the others before commencing operations, it might at first appear that the order of rank would give a decided advantage in disposing of the contents of the dishes. The supposition may not be entirely groundless; but as the captain does most of the talking, the mate somewhat less, the second and third mates but little, and the boat-steerers say nothing at all, the disadvantage the latter comers might labor under is somewhat diminished, by these last giving undivided attention to the subject in hand, while the first seated are losing time in wordy discussions.

Supper being over, a half an hour may elapse before the watch is set and all others sound asleep, recruiting strength for the labors of the ensuing day. The boat-steerer who has the watch, is walking forward and aft on the quarter deck, occasionally stopping and leaning over the gangway rail. He is looking complacently at the whale. His black body is indistinctly seen in the darkness, but the phosphorescent flashing of the water as it ripples against his flukes, head, and sides, marks the outline of his dimensions.

“That's a big whale" says the man, "he'll make ninety barrels." "Yes more" answers his fellow of the watch," if he don’t stow down a hundred, I'll eat snakes and milk, and I don't like 'em neither." The boat-steerer turns away and resumes his walk, beguiling the time in calculating how many more such fellows will be wanted before the joyful sound of "full ship" will be heard; or in thinking of some token of remembrance for wife, friend, or sweetheart, to be fabricated from the ivory teeth of the whale. And a far more threatening aspect they present in his wide opened jaw, than when converted into the shining reel or polished swift on which some fair one winds her threads, and greets the donor and perchance the conqueror too, with the fairy smiles of grateful love. In such and other idle fancies the time is wiled away, until the bell strikes the signal that the watch is out. The second watch come up rubbing their eyes, in no very sweet disposition of mind; for having been turned in just long enough to taste the sweets of sleep after fatigue, without its having had time to do its kindly work of restoration, the short summons to the deck is anything but agreeable, or calculated to produce placidity of feeling. Nevertheless they are there. The word is passed (that is, whatever orders the captain may have left), the relieved stop a minute or two to chat with the relievers (unless they are too sulky) and then go below to sleep quietly till morning. Let us leave them at their slumbers, and the second watch to occupy their time on deck, and be in turn relieved by the third, to take another nap ere the first streak of daylight summons all hands to the task of cutting in. 
--Nantucket Inquirer (June 12, 1841); found in the online archive of historical newspapers at Genealogy Bank.
Reprinted widely in 1841-2, for example:
  • Schenectady Reflector, Friday Morning, July 2, 1841
  • [Jamaica, New York] Long-Island Farmer, Tuesday, July 20, 1841
  • Alexandria [Virginia] Gazette, Wednesday, December 1, 1841
  • New York Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, December 1, 1841
  • New York Spectator, Saturday, December 4, 1841
  • [Hartford] Connecticut Courant, Friday, January 22, 1842
  • Bridgeton [New Jersey] Chronicle, Saturday, March 5, 1842
  • [Worcester] Massachusetts Spy, Wednesday, March 16, 1842
  • Raleigh [North Carolina] Register, Friday, May 27, 1842; reprinted "From the Nantucket Inquirer" over the signature of "C. C. R. 
 Related Melvilliana post:

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