Modern history


The Ships and the Men

William Fish Williams’s childhood homes, the ships Florida, Hibernia, and Monticello, were more alike than any three houses in a small suburban neighborhood. The distinguishing marks between these ships, and the ships of the 1871 arctic fleet, were fewer than those between a Buick and a Ford, discernible only by knowing observers.

Between the landing of the first sperm whale in 1712 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the design of the American whaleship and the American whaleman’s techniques evolved into the classic model that would remain essentially unchanged until the dissolution of the industry one hundred years later. Herman Melville, who shipped aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841, might not have understood the workings of whaleships of the 1740s, but he would have been quite familiar with those of the 1770s. A whaler of the 1870s coming aboard a whaleship built a hundred years earlier in Nantucket or New Bedford would have found it smallish, but otherwise ordinary and serviceable. Once the design had been perfected, and with it the methods, they remained largely unimprovable. The whaleship Maria, built in Nantucket in 1781 by Joseph Rotch’s son, William, was still working in 1866, well past the peak years of Yankee whaling. A few other venerable—and lucky—ships had similar careers: the Rousseau, owned by George Howland (he hated the “infidel Frenchman” name, but changing a ship’s name has always been considered unlucky, so he purposely mispronounced it “Russ-o”) and then passed on to his sons, George Jr. and Matthew, was built in 1801 and outlived two generations of her owners, to be broken up in 1893. Most famous of all is the Charles W. Morgan, “a ship on which Poseidon and gods of the sea must have looked with special favor, because not only did she survive for more than eight decades the countless hazards of the sea as an active whaleship, but also—and equally miraculous—she was saved at the end of her long career by men who had come to love her and saw in her, as the last of her kind, a need to preserve her for posterity.”5 The Morgan, built in 1841, twenty-five years before the Howlands’ Concordia, is still afloat today at the Mystic Seaport Museum (in Mystic, Connecticut), a perfect time capsule of her time and purpose. These are extraordinary life spans for working woodenvessels, pointing not only to the duration of practical designs and techniques, but also to the economical habits of whaleship owners. Such ships paid for themselves many times over and made their owners rich.

They were as functional as spaceships. After Christopher Hussey and his crew had laboriously towed a single sperm whale back to Nantucket in 1712, prompting ships to voyage far out into “ye Deep,” whalers evolved the technique of cutting up a whale at sea and storing the chopped-up blubber in hogsheads. Until mid-century, these vessels displaced between thirty and fifty tons and remained at sea until their hogsheads were full before sailing home, where the blubber was boiled and the oil extracted in tryworks ashore. But as they ranged across the more distant waters of the South Atlantic, on the far side of the tropics, the limited shelf life of blubber became apparent. It turned rancid fast, spoiling the oil, curtailing voyages and the opportunity to explore more distant whaling grounds.

The major innovation affecting the design and service of whaleships was the development of shipboard tryworks. These were essentially furnaces, solidly built of bricks, designed to burn tons of matter in giant iron pots for days at a time—not an item that suggested itself to shipboard use. Apart from the inherent difficulty of keeping such fires going aboard a ship at sea in all weathers, the weight of such a construction on the deck of what was already a top-heavy vessel posed serious stability problems.

A modern sailor who has some idea of the singular difficulty of simply staying put, holding on, managing the gear of even a small yacht in bad weather—of just making a cup of coffee in such circumstances—can appreciate the difficulties of employing men to cut up tons of meat and tend to burning fires aboard a large, heavy, complicated square-rigger, as the ship’s entire deck and all its working gear become coated with a viscous, insoluble oil.

Small tryworks were first built on the decks of ships cruising the “southern fishery”—the waters of the Gulf Stream, the Western Islands, and across the tropics into the South Atlantic as far as the Brazil Banks—where blubber spoiled quickly. But these were ships of eighty to a hundred tons, and their tryworks were adequate only for small whales and small catches. The appearance in the late eighteenth century of shipboard tryworks big enough for the efficient processing of larger sperm whales, right whales, and arctic bowheads very quickly doubled the size of whaling vessels.

Aboard these bigger ships, men developed the rare abattoir skills of “cutting in” a whale at sea. For this, a large platform, called the cutting stage, was lowered on hinges until it extended horizontally far outboard of the ship’s deck, above a captured whale that had been brought alongside the hull. Men stood precariously on the cutting stage, leaning against an improvised rail, wielding twenty-foot-long, razor-sharp cutting spades to “flense” the blubber off the whale below them, while the ship rolled and lurched in the ocean swell. The carcass was turned slowly by men on deck with lines hooked into the jaw, tail, and flippers, while long, thick strips of flensed blubber were cut, hooked, unpeeled like orange skin, and hoisted aloft with block-and-chain tackles. The water around the ship became viscous with blood—ten tons of it from a large sperm whale, handily enough to flatten breaking wavetops—and densely clustered with sharks. A Hitchcockian cloud of screeching sea-birds filled the air around them, diving for scraps and offal. It was a scene that might have sprung from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, yet by the early nineteenth century it was being played out daily across the world’s oceans.

With this leap in size, the paradigm changed once again. A bigger ship carried its own carpenter, blacksmith, cooper, and sailmaker to sea, along with a dedicated cook and steward; more whaleboats, now totaling five, were carried on stout wooden davits; barrels were carried packed with “shooks”—barrel staves—and iron hoops, so the cooper could make more barrels at sea as needed. These first true factory ships were big and self-sufficient enough to remain at sea indefinitely, and as crews ate their way through hundreds of barrels of food and otherwise reduced the gear in the hold, this cargo space was refilled by oil. Shipmasters were instructed not to return home until their vessels were full, even when oil could be off-loaded at convenient shipping depots such as the Azores or, increasingly, South American ports. The classic era of Yankee whaling—depicted by scratchings on whales’ teeth, in paintings, and, most harrowingly and accurately, by Melville—had begun.

And “whalemen,” these avid butcher-sailors, began to sign on for voyages they knew would last for years. Being men, they were vastly more unalike than their ships; but being whalemen, their woes were common to all of them.

IN JANUARY 1841, Herman Melville sat, as he makes Ishmael sit (Moby-Dick , chapter 7), in the chapel at the Seamen’s Bethel, which still stands as it did then on Bethel Street, in New Bedford, prior to their departures aboard the Acushnet (Melville) and the Pequod (Ishmael). Naturally, both men were there at the same time of year: “It was cold as Iceland.”

Both sailors, about to head off on a whaling voyage around the world, gazed balefully at the inscriptions on the cenotaphs screwed to the chapel walls beside them.

“Three of them ran something like the following,” Ishmael tells us: “SACRED To the Memory of JOHN TALBOT, Who, at the age of eighteen, was lost overboard, Near the Isle of Desolation, off Patagonia, November 1st, 1836 . . . ROBERT LONG, WILLIS ELLERY, NATHAN COLEMAN . . . Who were towed out of sight by a Whale, On the Off-shore Ground in the Pacific, December 31st, 1839 . . . CAPTAIN EZEKIEL HARDY, Who, in the bows of his boat was killed by a Sperm Whale on the coast of Japan, August 3rd, 1833. . . .

Dreaming up his big book down in “the insular city of the Manhat toes,” Melville didn’t want to travel all the way from New York to New Bedford to copy the exact inscriptions, so he made them up, adding “but I do not pretend to quote.” Yet he caught exactly the flavor, the tragic untimeliness, and the exotic locations of so many whalemen’s deaths.

Three examples on the walls of the bethel today read:


By the Officers and crew of the

Bark A.R. Tucker of New Bedford

To the memory of


of Westport, Mass.

who died Dec. 14th, 1863,

in the 18th year of his age.

His death occurred in nine hours

after being bitten by a shark,

while bathing near the ship,

He was buried by his shipmates

on the Island of DeLoss, near

the Coast of Africa.

... In memory of


of Boston Mass. aged 25 y’rs,

who fell from aloft, off

Cape Horn, Feb 10, 1850.

and was drowned.

... to the memory of


Boat steerer of Fall River Mass.

Aged 24 y’rs


of Burlington Vt.

Aged 22 y’rs


Aged 19 y’rs.

all lost by the upsetting of their

Boat July 15, 1854.

In the Ochotsk Sea.

Whalers died far from home, in places most people had never heard of—though to New Bedforders in the mid-nineteenth century, the Sea of Okhotsk (in the western Arctic) was as familiar a name as Bagh dad in our own time. Others—from the cenotaphs in the Seamen’s Bethel—died in Calcutta, in Sumatra, and Wm. Googins, aged nineteen, was lost overboard in a nameless piece of ocean, but the place of his death was given a latitude and longitude—47.50 S, 173.20 W—and many in New Bedford would have known without looking at a map that this was in the remotest area of the South Pacific, on the New Zealand “grounds.”

The whaleman’s weekly newsletter, the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, of New Bedford, was filled with similar news: “carried out of sight by the whale . . . The ship cruised for two days for the missing boat, but could not find her”; “fell from the stern overboard and drowned”; “taken out of the boat by a foul line, and drowned.” Or: “Charles W. Warner of Springfield, Mass. killed by a fall from the foreyard of the ship Mary & Susan, August 9, 1851.” Such notices also routinely appeared in the Honolulu paper The Friend, published for whalemen and their families, who were increasingly spending time (many even took up residence) in what were then known as the Sandwich Islands.

These stark death notices were of enduring importance to the people of New Bedford and whaling communities everywhere. They were losing sons, husbands, and fathers as regularly as the losses in an endless war. If it didn’t seem like war to them, but the normal attrition of life, it was only because these losses occurred throughout the whole of their lives, part of the daily news that arrived with the docking of every ship. But they memorialized their men and the details of their lonely deaths.

Fishermen still had the most dangerous jobs in America in 2005, with a fatality rate of 118.4 per 100,000 (nearly 30 times higher than the rate of the average worker). But today’s fishermen are incalculably safer than the whalers of two hundred years ago. There were virtually no safety measures aboard whaleships. Half the men coming aboard at the start of a voyage were “green”—farmers’ sons, poor city boys, and, in a few cases, romantic dreamers who had never sailed before. They learned their way up, down, and around the deadly maze of a square-rigged whaleship by following the man in front of them up the rigging and into a whaleboat. Their hesitations were answered with the bellowing of the mate, who could make his voice heard above the eldritch howling of a gale, and, in the more brutal ships, by the laying on of clubs, belaying pins, or any handy piece of rope improvised as a whip. It was always a savage initiation. “John Prior . . . fell from the main top-galant cross trees . . . fracturing his jaw bone, and injuring him internally,” wrote boatsteerer Dean C. Wright (see below), who witnessed this accident; “he providentially fell upon a dog which was lying on deck, which no doubt saved his life.” Men fell in uncountable numbers from the masts, yardarms, and the cat’s cradle of rigging that wheeled, arced, lurched across the sky, developing centrifugal forces that would terrify circus acrobats, and there was seldom a dog to cushion the blow.

The deck and interior of the ship itself offered only marginally better odds. “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself in jail,” said Samuel Johnson, “for being in a ship is being in jail, with a chance of being drowned.” Ships often sank at sea in bad weather, or ran aground on poorly charted coasts, or collided with ice. A whaleship was hijacked by convicts in the Galápagos, and whalemen were attacked by natives from the Equator to the Arctic. Melville’s giant white sperm whale, Moby Dick, was based on the famous story (even then) of a great albino sperm whale, Mocha Dick, that repeatedly and intentionally rammed and eventually sank the whaleship Essex in 1820. Other whaleships were sunk, apparently purposely, by whales, while countless whaleboats were smashed by harpooned whales, intentionally and otherwise, and their crews were often dragged down to their deaths entangled in rope or simply drowned clinging to scraps of planking too thin to float a cat while waiting to be picked up—life preservers had yet to be thought of. All those Currier & Ives prints and magazine illustrations showing splintered boats and men being tossed rodeo-style into the air by a bucking sperm whale weren’t exaggerating anything: it was as dangerous as it looked, or as one easily imagined it to be.

The inside of a whaleship was no place to find solace from the terrors without. Whaling artist and historian Clifford Ashley described the fo’c’sle of the whaleship Sunbeam, which he shipped aboard as a common seaman:

On a clutter of chests and dunnage the boatsteerers sprawled, drinking, wrangling, smoking. . . . The floor was littered with rubbish, the walls hung deep with clothing; squalid, congested, filthy; even the glamor of novelty could not disguise the wretchedness of the scene. The floor was wet and slippery, the air smoky and foul; often a bottle was dropped in passing, or an empty one smashed to the floor. Through it all was an undertone of water bubbling at the ports and a rustle of oilskins swinging to and fro like pendulums from their hooks on the bulkhead. Roaches scurried about the walls. A chimneyless whale-oil lamp guttered in the draft from the booby-hatch.

For whalers who survived the chase and the accidents, a long whaling voyage could be as grim as a prison sentence. An early-nineteenth-century whaler, Dean C. Wright, found that, as in jail,

in a whaleship may be found men of all classes, from the lowest to the very first circle in society. The whaling business is, in fact, a general receptacle for every kind of adventurer on the ocean. The ships very frequently go to sea with men in them who have been educated in the first institutions in the country, and been in extensive and respectable businesses on shore, but have been reduced in their circumstances by intemperance, or met with some misfortune and, in a fit of despondency, have entered on board for a whaling voyage, with no specific object in view but a vague idea of something which they do not understand is continually before them, and they are kept along in a kind of delusion untill the ship sails, and then, when the vast ocean separates them from their friends they arouse themselves to the recollections of what and where they are, and what and where they might have been. They find themselves on board of a Cape Horn whaleman, and unless they run into disgrace by leaving the ship, they have got to spend three or four years of the prime of their life in a business which they do not understand, and from which they will not recover any thing commensurate to the time spent.

Like many whalemen, Wright came to hate whaling. In his seaman’s papers (official credentials, written by a ship’s agent), issued at New Bedford in 1835 for his first voyage, he gave Avon, New York, as his hometown, and his age as seventeen. Six years later, working his way up, he joined the whaleship Benjamin Rush as a boatsteerer or harpooner. By then he seemed unmoored between ambition and the status of his new job, as he wrote in his journal, on June 16, 1842:

A man who has been one voyage in the whaling business and then will ship again to do a boatsteerer’s duty must be either mad or drunk, or else a fool or a saint. . . . For he is not respected at all, he has more work to do than all hands besides, and he has no privileges whatever but to bear the blame for every thing which may go wrong in the ship. If the Capt finds a smoothing plain dull he immediately says that a boatsteerer has been planing his Iron pole [harpoon] and dulled it. If there is two quarts of tobacco juice found spit on the deck . . . it is lain directly to the poor boatsteerer . . . [who needs] to be a sailor, a whaler, a mechanic, a saint, a bully, a man of no kind feeling whatever, and very little sense. He ought to be a man who can be spoken to in any tone of voice and called by an epithet, and still give a fawning, sycophantic answer; one who is built of steel and hung on spring steel, and cannot tire, and does not require any sleep or bodily rest of any kind; one who can content himself without any place which he can call his own, or where he is not liable to be crowded out. And he ought to be a man who can be an officer and still be a tar, one who can walk to leeward and not be offended at having any one spit in his face . . . who can show himself worthy of confidence in all cases and not have any placed in him, & be contented to be called a good man, and used like a dog—and do all this for the sake of advancement of which he is not at all sure, when it is done. A Boatsteerer is placed between two fires, being neither man nor officer, yet required to be both. He is beneath the officers and not above the men. He has to obey every body and be obeyed by nobody, give no ungentlemanly language to any person but take it from every person, look cross at none but be frowned upon by all.

So why the repeated embrace of such humiliation and hardship? Why was he there? Why did young men from all over New England walk to New Bedford and other whaling ports and sign on as crew to seek a very uncertain, palpably dangerous fate that lay over the horizon? It was not, on their first or even second voyage—a total of four to eight years—for money. While some men became wealthy through whaling, working their way up to captain, able to build a captain’s house ashore, perhaps even becoming a shipowner and retiring on the proceeds from cargoes of oil and bone, the pay for the common seamen who “came up through the hawsepipe” was not enticing.

“Well, Captain Bildad,” asks Captain Peleg, when the two old Quaker captains, part owners of the Pequod, squint at Ishmael as a prospective crewmember. “What d’ye say, what lay shall we give this young man?”

“Thou knowest best,” was the sepulchral reply, “the seven hundred and seventy-seventh wouldn’t be too much would it? . . .”

It was an exceedingly long lay that, indeed; and though from the magnitude of the figure it might at first deceive a landsman, yet the slightest consideration will show that though seven hundred and seventy-seven is a pretty large number, yet, when you come to make a teenth of it, you will then see, I say, that the seven hundred and seventy-seventh part of a farthing is a good deal less than seven hundred and seventy-seven gold doubloons; and so I thought at the time.

Whalemen, from the captain down, worked for a “lay,” a fractional share of the ship’s net profit from a voyage, after all the expenses had been deducted. Though shipowners’ agents, who hired crews, might easily have befuddled green hands with such fractions, as Melville lampoons, most offered standard lays for recruits and positions. For a common unskilled seaman in the early to middle nineteenth century (when data sets become abundant), this averaged between 1/180th and 1/200th of the net profit, which might ultimately net a sailor six to eight dollars per month. This was about 60 percent of a laborer’s wages ashore. Out of this sum, a seaman’s food and new issues of clothing would be deducted. A whaleman returning home from three years at sea might collect little more than $100 at the end of the voyage. Skilled seamen, stewards, cooks, carpenters, coopers, sailmakers, and captains did better. A captain received, on average, one-fifteenth, or a “15 lay,” which worked out (between 1840 and 1866) to between $70 and $130 per month. But captains often received bonus payments over and above their lays, and even cooks made money on the sale of the ship’s slush (its refuse of grease and fat), and this could often substantially improve their earnings.

A first voyage was a whaler’s apprenticeship, and his low wage the price of entry into the profession, if he chose it. If he was young and not discouraged by his first voyage, a returning sailor might reasonably hope for advancement. More than half the crew aboard a ship might leave it—through death, dismissal, or desertion—before a voyage’s end. Men handy with oars and a harpoon, and those gifted with good eyesight who regularly spotted the spouting of whales, moved up fast, becoming boatsteerers and mates, and their lays bettered dramatically: an 85 lay for a boatsteerer, 55 for a third mate, 40 for a second mate, a 25 share for a first mate. After several good voyages, a captaincy lay in the offing for solid—and lucky, always a factor at sea—men in their early thirties.

Discipline aboard a whaleship was paramount to the success of the voyage; the safety of the ship and of the lives of all aboard her depended on it. As soon as a ship left port, its crew was assembled and addressed on the subject by its captain. He told them that all orders must be executed at once and without questioning their necessity. Punishment for lapses in discipline was usually immediate and brutal. Men were routinely knocked down by an officer’s, or a captain’s, fists. The men who administered such treatment had to be skilled, confident, self-reliant fighters. “In all my experience on a whaleship I never saw the Captain or an officer hit a man with anything but his bare fist,” remembered William Fish Williams.

I do not doubt that belaying pins and handspikes were used on some ships to enforce discipline but it did not happen on any of the five ships on which I spent my days at sea. . . . The captains and officers that I knew intimately were men who did not need such aids and would have looked upon their use as an admission of weakness. The sailors rarely harbored a grudge against an officer for enforcing discipline with his fists but the use of a belaying pin was rarely forgotten and never forgiven.

In the often terrifying environment of a whaleship, the threat of immediate physical punishment was the only persuasive authority. “It was the deduction of the captains of that day from their experiences, that . . . authority must be asserted instantly and effectively. Experience had shown them also that nothing is more effective than physical force.” Respect was equally demanded: “No sailor ever came aft with a pipe in his mouth; that is, not a second time. What happened the first time depended upon whether the officer of the deck decided it was simply ignorance or a dare. If the [former], he would be told by most officers not to let it happen again, but if the latter, he would be promptly and efficiently knocked down.” Insubordination or defiance were best handled with equal promptness and efficiency. Williams later recalled his father’s response to a large group of crewmen who were trying to desert the whaleship Florence in Guam:

My father came on deck and met the crew on the port side amidships and asked them where they were going. One of the men spoke up and said they had gone as far as they intended to and they were leaving the damned old hooker before she dropped from under them, also, he advised my father to step aside if he did not want to get hurt. That was the end of the conversation, my father went into action and ploughed through the front ranks of the group with both arms working like pistons of an engine and men going down like tenpins. The men in the rear took one look and bolted for the forecastle. One man stumbled and fell just as my father was about to hit him but, instead of waiting for the man to get up, he grabbed him with one hand around an ankle and the other in the seat of his pants and hove him down the forecastle scuttle in the rear of the last of those endeavoring to get below.

It was the dominance of whaling in New England society that drew men to it for a hundred years from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Whaling became to New England, and to New Bedford especially, what the automobile industry would become to the Midwest and to Detroit—what gold was to San Francisco, and the building of the pipeline was to Alaska in the 1970s. As the whale-oil business geared up along the shores of the Acushnet, with expanding boatyards, ironworks, and candle factories, as more and more ships headed off to sea and returned home with stories of the South Pacific, “the Brazils,” the “Japans,” and the China Seas, people looked to it as a part of the natural order of things, and naturally became a part of it. Men went whaling first before deciding that it wasn’t for them and opening a grocery store, which almost immediately could prove more profitable by selling goods to the expanding populations of New Bedford and surrounding towns. There was a sizable preexisting population in and close to coastal Massachusetts, and many a boy who lacked a clear opportunity ashore went to sea with a sense of inevitability.

As with soldiers who have been home on furlough and then return to war, the theme of unhappily finding oneself at sea once more, after having been safely home with loved ones and friends, is repeated over and over in the journal writings of whalers—a griping common to all professional seamen down to the present time. The fact that they are away more than they are home is central to the alienation that professional seamen feel from society, and through which they are seen. Sea men have always been marginalized characters, true satellites orbiting society, connected to it mainly by a thick cord of longing. Seamen are absent for much of what other people would consider the crucial episodes of family life—births, birthdays, anniversaries, children’s firsts, illnesses, and the bad times out of which a tempering strength and deeper love are forged. Many seamen never acquire the connection with their families and society that most of us carry around inside us, a connection that may be the most lasting measure of who we think we are.

Some whalers went to sea for one voyage—or less—and discovered that such an isolation was not for them, as it is not for most people, and subsequently took up trades and professions ashore. But others, who went back to sea again and again, and made a life of being away, found that this segregation suited them. And—no small consideration—it supplied years of steady work.

On board a ship, sailors, like men in prisons, knew precisely who and where they were in the scheme of things. They were the second or third mate, or the carpenter or cook or boatsteerer, or a plain seaman, and their lives ran—and were run for them—like clockwork. Their realest everyday world, the entirety of it, was what physically lay within the circumscribing horizon, a distance of about eight to ten miles from the observer’s eye. There was no existential confusion aboard a whaleship, and (unlike in prisons) no real disharmony among the crew—for that couldn’t last. Men could dislike or hate one another, but they made peace with themselves and their demons within the confines of their cloistering enclosure, as hermetically sealed as a spaceship. Men grew a thick carapace of self-sufficiency and burrowed deep into themselves.

A whaleman departing from New Bedford in the nineteenth century was setting out on a voyage that often lasted three to four years. In all that time he might receive two or three letters from home, sent aboard other ships that might encounter his, or were “posted” by a sailor at designated places such as the barrel used by whalers as a mail drop on Floreana Island, in the Galápagos. By the time he saw them again, his loved ones might have sickened, died, married someone else, or lost the bloom of youth and grown fat. Much of the physical world he had known at home, too, changed and often passed away between trips home: buildings demolished and erected, political regimes come and gone, presidents assassinated, people and communities grown and realigned. But also the converse: while so much had happened to sailors in the meantime, it could seem unbelievable, as if in a dream, that home could be so little changed. They came back as if to Earth from years on a penal colony on the moon. These sailors, with seasons piling up into years in which to nurse their longings and anxieties, wrote much and fulsomely of what they felt.

The dilemma of longing for those at home yet needing to leave them—and stay away for years on end, for the purpose of earning a living—is perfectly caught in New Bedford captain Samuel T. Braley’s journal entry for the last day of 1849:

On the first of January last I was off the Island of Ceylon looking for whales, and soon after was obliged to leave for home, having tryed in vain to get more provision in order to lengthen my voyage and I started with a heavy heart expecting to meet nothing but cold looks from my owners [the 1,800 barrels of sperm oil he was bringing home pleased the owners] and to find her whome I had long cherrished as the Idol of my heart numbered with the dead; not having heard a word from her during the whole time of my long stay. . . . [ The] long looked for, though dreded moment at lengt arrived we cast our anchor in the harbour of New Bedford, and although it was mid-night I hastened on shore, determined to know the worst as soon as possible. . . . I found my way to a livery stable and after much ado I got the hostler up and . . . he harnesed me a horse. . . . It was a fine summers morning and I enjoyed the ride very much everything was quiet, and as I past objects that were familiar to me, I thought how little they had changed in the course of three years and a half. At lengt . . . I reached the dwelling of that being most dear to me on earth I drove up to the gate, quietly hitched my horse, and went to the doar how my heart beet but as I knocked, and knocked again before I awoke any one of the household, at last I heard a moove within and a voice . . . which I knew to belong to the Father of my wife . . . I entered and seated myself without serrimony while he went to get a light and to call Marry [sic] Ann. . . . then he came back with a light, and sat down to have a yarn, but what he said I know not for my eyes were fixed on her chair . . . and my thoughts were with her that I heard in another room; how I wished that he would go but he seamed not to notice my uneasiness and sat still, for how long I know not but it seamed to me an age and I was on the point of asking for Mary Ann a second time, whin he took the hint and started, then my heart jumped up in my throat and I could hardly breath but the long looked for moment came at last and she entered the room and [c]losed the door, I flew to her caught her in my arms, I ga[z]ed into her face and insted of finding the raviges of the iron hand of disease I beheld the smile of health and youthfull beauty which excelled any thing I had ever seen in that face before, and above all it was lit up with the blush of maiden modisty that would hardly permit her to wellcom her wanderer back; but oh that kiss! from those sweet lips that were pressed in fondness to mine; it went to my fingersends, and told me in plainest turms how much I was beloved by that little heart that I felt flutter so plainly shall I ever forget it? yes, when I forget to breath It was the happiest moment of my life. . . .

But the end came as must allways be with human happiness. . . . I am now farely started on a long and tedious voyage and whin I look forward upon it my heart sinks to think of the tryals that mist be contended with and obstickles that must be overcome . . . and if I am spared to meet her again nothing shall part us but the fear of starving so has passed the year, how the next one will pass is unknown but at all events I shall not see my wife, nor the next, nor the next but I hope the time will come that I shall again be happy.

Captain Braley went back to sea because it was the only way of life many men knew, the only industry that offered the possibility of steady work.

The modern seaman’s homecoming may not be so freighted with emotion: arriving home by car or cab, carrying a duffel bag, glancing at the yard, the scattered toys, it appears almost as mundane as a daily return from the office; modern professional seamen have blunted loneliness and isolation down to a very tolerable inconvenience, managed with cell phones, conjugal visits aboard, and regular trips home. But these periodic visits between lengthy absences have the same effect on these seamen and their families as they did 150 years ago. Being away from home is surely the reason many modern sailors’ marriages continue to work. They can stay away and gaze at their loved ones in picture frames in their cabins, and leave the exhausting work of raising a family to their wives and the children’s coaches and schoolteachers. When they do go home their guest appearance seldom lasts long enough to upset the status quo there; soon they’ll be gone, and everyone knows when, and they hang on, waiting for them to go. Families become used to the long absences, and the spells at home, and the continuity of his schedule, on which the seaman, his wife, and his children come to depend as routine. But he is still away for at least eight months a year, a familiar stranger in his own home. Like the absent whaler, his most constant reality is his ship. It’s the only place where he really belongs.

The absences endured by whalers and their families now seem otherworldly. Whalers led lives resembling nothing so much as science fiction. Contained in a small, world-girdling capsule, they matter-of factly went where few if any had gone before them, and they remained away for years at a time. One whaling captain calculated that at an average rate of four miles per hour while at sea over a period of forty-one years, he had sailed more than 1,191,000 miles, and during all that time had spent four years and eight months at home.

And there was the otherworldly nature of the work itself. Only in the literature of myth, the Homeric monsters of Scylla and Charyb dis, tales of the Hydra, the Kraken, and in movies like Godzilla, can a comparison be found for the physical scale of man to monster, for the whalers’ puny, archaic, pitchfork weaponry, and for the fear men felt when they got the full measure of what they were up against: “Don’t ye look ahead an’ get gallied, ’r I’ll knock ye stiff wi’ the’ tiller,” the mate tells Frank Bullen, an English whaler who sailed aboard the New Bedford whaleship Cachalot. The men who rowed the dainty whaleboats right up to the broad backs of cruising whales were forbidden to look over their shoulders at what they were approaching for fear the sight would “gally” (frighten) them. They sat pulling with their backs to the bow and the whale ahead, instructed to keep their head and eyes facing straight aft. Only the experience-tempered mate steering the boat and the harpooner readying his “iron” could see what was coming.

Of the many memoirs written by common sailors, some published more than a century ago, and others that continue to be found in old attics, Bullen’s The Cruise of the Cachalot, despite the dime-novel clichés, is perhaps the most authentic and detailed description by a whaleman of what exactly that work entailed.

Silently we lay, rocking lazily upon the gentle swell, no other word being spoken by anyone. At last Louis, the harpooner, gently breathed “blo-o-o-w;” and there, sure enough, not half a mile away on the lee beam, was a bushy cloud of steam apparently rising from the sea. . . .

“Stand up, Louey,” the mate murmured softly. I only just stopped myself in time from turning my head to see why the order was given. Suddenly there was a bump, at the same moment the mate yelled, “Give’t to him, Louey, give’t to him!” and to me, “Haul that main sheet naow, why don’t ye?” [Most whaleboats carried collapsible sailing rigs.] I hauled it flat aft, and the boat shot up into the wind, rubbing sides as she did with what to my troubled sight seemed an enormous mass of black india-rubber floating. As we crawled up into the wind, the whale went into convulsions befitting his size and energy. He raised a gigantic tail on high, threshing the water from side to side until the surrounding sea was white with froth. I felt in an agony lest we should be crushed under one of those fearful strokes. . . .

By the time the oars were handled, and the mate had exchanged places with the harpooner, our friend the enemy had “sounded,” that is, he had gone below for a change of scene, marvelling no doubt what strange thing had befallen him .. . .

[While line was paid out as the whale pulled the boat] I had ample leisure for observing the little game that was being played about a quarter of a mile away. Mr Cruce, the second mate, had got a whale and was doing his best to kill it; but he was severely handicapped by his crew . . . for two of them . . . had gone quite “batchy” with fright, requiring a not too gentle application of the tiller to their heads in order to keep them quiet. . . . [Mr. Cruce’s] energy in lancing that whale was something to admire and remember. Hatless, his shirt tail out of the waist of his trousers streaming behind him like a banner, he lunged and thrust at the whale alongside of him, as if possessed of a destroying devil, while his half articulate yells of rage and blasphemy were audible even to us.

Suddenly our boat fell backward from her “slantindicular” position with a jerk, and the mate immediately shouted, “Haul line, there!” . . . After what seemed a terribly long chase, we found his speed slackening, and we redoubled our efforts. Now we were close upon him . . . abreast of his laboring flukes; now the mate hurls his quivering lance with such hearty goodwill that every inch of its slender shaft disappears within the huge body. “Lay off! Off with her, Louey!” screamed the mate; and she gave a wide sheer away from the whale, not a second too soon. Up flew that awful tail, descending with a crash upon the water not two feet from us. “Out oars! Pull, two! starn, three!” shouted the mate; and we obeyed as our foe turned to fight. . . .

The whale’s great length made it no easy job for him to turn, while our boat, with two oars a-side, and the great leverage at the stern supplied by the nineteen-foot steering oar, circled, backed, and darted ahead like a living thing. . . . When the leviathan settled, we gave a wide berth to his probable place of ascent; when he rushed at us, we dodged him; when he paused, if only momentarily, in we flew, and got home a fearful thrust of the deadly lance.

All fear was forgotten now—I panted, thirsted for his life. Once, indeed, in a sort of frenzy, when for an instant we lay side by side with him, I drew my sheath-knife, and plunged it repeatedly into the blubber, as if I were assisting in his destruction. Suddenly the mate gave a howl: “Starn all—starn all! oh, starn!” and the oars bent like canes as we obeyed. There was an upheaval of the sea just ahead; then slowly, majestically, the vast body of our foe rose into the air. Up, up it went, while my heart stood still, until the whole of that immense creature hung on high, apparently motionless, and then fell—a hundred tons of solid flesh—back into the sea. . . .

Blinded by the flying spray, baling for the very life to free the boat from the water with which she was nearly full, it was some minutes before I was able to decide whether we were still uninjured or not. Then I saw, at a little distance, the whale lying quietly. As I looked he spouted, and the vapour was red with his blood. “Starn all!” again cried our chief [whose] practiced eye had detected the coming climax of our efforts, the dying agony or “flurry” of the great mammal. Turning upon his side, he began to move in a circular direction, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until he was rushing round at tremendous speed, his great head raised quite out of the water at times, clashing his enormous jaws. Torrents of blood poured from his spout-hole, accompanied by hoarse bellowings, as of some gigantic bull, but really caused by the labouring breath trying to pass through the clogged air passages. . . . In a few minutes he subsided slowly in death, his mighty body reclined on one side, the fin uppermost waving limply as he rolled to the swell, while the small waves broke gently over the carcass.

Bullen called this “Abner’s whale,” because it had been sighted by a Vermonter named Abner Cushing. After a long spell without a catch, the captain had promised twenty pounds of tobacco, instead of the usual ten, to the man who first spotted the next whale taken and brought successfully to the ship. (Most whalemen were addicted chewers of tobacco; “plugs” and cut cubes of black Navy brand tobacco made good trading currency aboard ship and ashore, and were used as poker chips by sailors.) Abner had been the man aloft on lookout when he saw the spouts of this large sperm whale. “He brought his bounty forrard, and shared it out as far as it would go with the greatest delight and good nature possible.”

Only a few weeks earlier Abner had been disciplined for the theft of a few potatoes:

By means of two small pieces of fishing line he was suspended by his thumbs in the weather rigging, in such a manner that when the ship was upright his toes touched the deck, but when she rolled his whole weight hung from his thumbs. This of itself one would have thought sufficient torture for almost any offence, but in addition to it he received two dozen lashes with an improvised cat-o’nine-tails, laid on by the brawny arm of one of the harpooners.

Bullen was sailing in the 1890s, far past whaling’s peak years, yet conditions aboard whaleships even then were unchanged from a hundred years earlier.

To understand that the sailors who did this work were not prisoners or galley slaves, or involuntary victims nabbed by press gangs, but employees who did it routinely, generally cheerfully, often (for those who didn’t jump ship, like Melville) for years at a time, is to know that such men, like their ships, were peculiar adaptations of their time, and they will not be seen again.

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