A general history of New Bedford and its whalers. The book is both a useful compendium of knowledge about New Bedford, and a sentimental threnody for its whalers and whalemen.
p. 5-7, on memorials to whalemen of New Bedford: The famous seamen’s Bethel and sailors’ home stands high above the neighboring buildings upon a little knoll, and in the Bethel one may read many cenotaphs erected to the memory of whalemen who met death during their long and dangerous cruises. Some of these are very quaint, and in stilted, old- fashioned phraseology relate thrilling tragedies of the sea in a few terse sentences as, for example, the following, which are two of the most noteworthy:
ERECTED BY THE OFFICERS AND CREW OF THE BARK
A. R. TUCKER OF NEW BEDFORD
TO THE MEMORY OF
CHAS. H. PETTY
OF WESTPORT, MASS.
WHO DIED DEC. 14TH, 1863 IN THE 18TH YR. OF HIS
HIS DEATH OCCURRED IN 9 HRS. AFTER BEING BITTEN
BY A SHARK WHILE BATHING NEAR THE SHIP
HE WAS BURIED BY HIS SHIPMATES ON THE ISLAND
OF DE LOSS, NEAR THE COAST OF AFRICA
IN MEMORY OF
CAPT. WM. SWAIN
MASTER OF THE CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL OF NAN-
THIS WORTHY MAN AFTER FASTENING TO A WHALE
WAS CARRIED OVERBOARD BY THE LINE AND
MAY I9TH, 1844
IN THE 49TH YR. OF HIS AGE
BE YE ALSO READY, FOR IN SUCH AN HOUR AS YE
THINK NOT THE SON OF MAN COMETH
p. 8: Only captains and officers were so honored, the common whale man, the men who toiled and slaved and endured, were not worth recording; a bit of old sail was their winding sheet and coffin, the deep sea was their grave, and a line in a log-book their only epitaph. They died as they lived; unknown, unhonored and unsung, mere units in the vast army of whalemen whose duty was to obey, who faced death unflinchingly and with a laugh or a curse; rough, vicious, brutal perhaps, but as brave as any men who ever trod a ship’s deck.
p. 164, on the importance of the whaling captain’s logs: To the whaling captains the logs were of vast importance and upon the margins of the pages and on the blank leaves they jotted memoranda, did sums in arithmetic, wrote letters and made comments which are often as interesting as the true contents of the log itself. There was no rush and hurry about writing the log on a whaleship—time was the most abundant of all things—and the mates and captains often wrote their logs as they would a letter or a story. Often, too, they illustrated the entries in the log-books with pen-and-ink sketches, and if an officer had talent and an
artistic temperament, as often happened, the books were decorated with full-page colored drawings and paintings.
p. 167-68, further on log books: In addition to the log-books there were the journals and diaries kept by the officers and even by members of the crew, and these often contained matters of far more interest to the world at large than the real logs.
Of course many of the old logs and journals were destroyed, many were tucked away in chests and garrets never again to be brought forth, while still others were preserved either by the whalemen or their families or by individuals interested in the whaling industry. The Old Dartmouth Historical Society has a wonderful collection of old, rare and interesting logs and journals; there are still others in the New Bedford Public Library—among them that of the Junior of mutiny fame—and many- private collectors in and near the old whaling ports also have valuable and interesting log books and journals in their libraries. Of course many of the old logs and journals were destroyed, many were tucked away in chests and garrets never again to be brought forth, while still others were preserved either by the whalemen or their families or by individuals interested in the whaling industry. The Old Dartmouth Historical Society has a wonderful collection of old, rare and interesting logs and journals; there are still others in the New Bedford Public Library—among them that of the Junior of mutiny fame—and many private collectors in and near the old whaling ports also have valuable and interesting log-books and journals in their libraries.
By a perusal of these old ships’ books one may get a better insight of the whalemen’s lives than by any other means, for the entries often reflected the hopes, sorrows, joys and sentiments of the whalemen to a wonderful degree. Sometimes the story of a burial at sea will be recorded; again the birthday of the captain, the anniversary of his wedding or other family events will be set down in heavy underscored lines, while not infrequently some trivial event—such as the killing of a chicken for dinner or the fact that the “old sow had six pigs” will be duly entered and illustrated with as much care and seriousness as the staving
of a boat or the taking of a hundred-barrel whale.
p. 170: “July 1, 1868. No signs of life here, nothing for us. June has passed and we get no where, no chance for us this season I fear, three seasons in the North Atlantic too get one whale in this unfortunate vessel.
“July 4th, Wind E. S. E. Will the wind never change? This is the Fourth of July a day of rejoicing with People at Home. But a sad day for us. No whales in The Ocean that we can Find. A Head Wind. No chance to do anything or to ever get one whale.
“The Lord’s Hand appears to be against the Poor Old Minnesota and all concerned in her. Will the Lord in his infinite Mercy ever suffer us to get one Whale? Employed sheathing the deck. Many are rejoicing today but our hearts are filled with sadness that this Poor Vessel cannot get a whale.” [Verrill goes on in this lugubrious and pious way for several paragraphs.]
p. 171-72: One really pities this man after reading over the log he wrote so many years ago and it brings a sigh of relief to learn that despite his forebodings he succeeded in taking some whales before his voyage was over.
Some of the old skippers and their mates imagined they possessed literary talent and quite often varied the monotony of their log book entries by scraps of impromptu verse. Most of this was mere doggerel, but now and then some man left evidences of real talent and at times wrote parodies on well-known poems or songs which were quite amusing. Such a man was the steward of the Emmeline, one Washington Foster, who kept the log of the schooner on a voyage from Mystic, Connecticut to the Croisettes, on a cruise for sea-elephant oil. His parody on “The Old Oaken Bucket” was not bad for a whaleman and his entry for Christmas day was quite a literary masterpiece for a whaleship’s log book. I quote both verbatim as follows:
“How dear to this heart are the scenes of past days.
“When fond recollection recalls them to mind.
“The schooner so taut and so trim like a miss in her stays.
“And all her light rigging which swayed to the wind.
“The old-fashioned galley, the try-works close by it.
“The old blubber boat with six oars to pull it.
“The bunk of my messmate, the wooden chest nigh it.
“The old Monkey Jacket, the often-patched jacket.
“The greasy old jacket which hung up beside it.”
p. 192, on scrimshaw: In decorating the teeth the design was scratched upon the smooth, hard surface and colors, such as India ink, paint, or even soot from the try-works, was rubbed into the incised lines.
By this laborious and crude method results equaling the finest steel engravings were often produced, although the majority of scrimshawed teeth showed little artistic talent on the part of the men. Many of the designs were original, such as ships under full sail, incidents of the chase and capture of whales and other maritime scenes, but the best and most
elaborate were traced or transferred from the books, magazines or illustrated papers which found their way to the forecastles of the whaling ships.
p. 246-47: To-day, one may travel the length and breadth of New Bedford’s waterfront without seeing a crossed yard and one may search in vain in New London, Nantucket, Sag Harbor, Provincetown, Bristol or Falmouth for a whale- ship. By the sides of Merrill’s Wharf one may find a few ramshackle, prosaic schooners whose vocation is evident by the greasy decks, the lookout’s hoops at the mastheads and the oil casks lying near at hand, and in out-of-the-way slips at Fairhaven one may still find a few picturesque, old, square-rigged vessels, dismantled, weather-beaten and abandoned.
There is something sad and pitiful about these sturdy old ships now out of commission. Through years and years they plowed the wide oceans of the globe; they crunched amid the ice-floes of the Arctic; Antarctic gales howled through their frayed and rotten rigging and their masts and yards bleached under the rays of tropic suns. Above their trucks have loomed the desolate mountains of Kerguelan and the castellated pinnacles of mighty ice bergs. About them have gathered fur-clad Eskimos in kyaks of skin and around them have swarmed swift proas loaded with laughing, copper-skinned beauties of the South Seas. Through their broad gangways have been hoisted untold tons of reeking blubber and their upper masts are black as ebony from the smoke of countless boilings. Within their kennel like forecastles have echoed the sea-songs of generations of hairy-chested whalemen and on many of their decks has been spilled the life-blood of human beings.
What stories they could tell if they could but speak! What tales of marvelous adventures, of grim tragedy and human sufferings, what narratives of license, debauchery and unbridled passion! But the wonderful scenes their lofty masts have looked upon, the terrific tempests their broad bows have breasted and the marvels of strange waters in which their anchors have been dropped, will never be known. They are but mute testimonials of whaling’s Golden Age, relics that link the present with the past and soon even they will be gone, broken up for junk and torn to pieces for the metal and the rigging—surely an ignominious ending for such gallant craft. One cannot help wishing that they might find a better fate—given to the “god of winds, the lightning and the gale” which they have so long defied.
p. 250: Erelong, the last old-school Yankee whaleman will have passed into the great beyond and as he sights the harbor lights of that port from which none return, his mind will turn to days long gone and with his last breath he will murmur the final stanza of the whalers’ song :
Did you ever join in with heart-ringing cheers,
And your face turned to Heaven’s blue dome,
As laden with riches you purchased so dear,
You hoisted your topsails, bound home?