The Whaling Industry—Its Early Development in New England—Known To The Ancients—Shore Whaling—Beginnings of the Deep-Sea Fisheries—The Prizes of Whaling—Piety of Its Early Promoters—The Right Whale and the Cachalot—A Flurry—Some Fighting Whales—The "Essex" and the "Ann Alexander"—Types of Whalers—Decadence of the Industry—Effect of Our National Wars—The Embargo—Some Stories of Whaling Life.

In the old "New England Primer," on which the growing minds of Yankee infants in the early days of the eighteenth century were regaled, appears a clumsy woodcut of a spouting whale, with these lines of excellent piety but doubtful rhyme:

Whales in the sea
Their Lord obey.

It is significant of the part which the whale then played in domestic economy that his familiar bulk should be utilized to "point a moral and adorn a tale" in the most elementary of books for the instruction of children. And indeed by the time the "New England Primer" was published, with its quaint lettering and rude illustrations, the whale fishery had come to be one of the chief occupations of the seafaring men of the North Atlantic States. The pursuit of this "royal fish"—as the ancient chroniclers call him in contented ignorance of the fact that he is not a fish at all—had not, indeed, originated in New England, but had been practised by all maritime peoples of whom history has knowledge, while the researches of archeologists have shown that prehistoric peoples were accustomed to chase the gigantic cetacean for his blubber, his oil, and his bone. The American Indians, in their frail canoes, the Esquimaux, in their crank kayaks, braved the fury of this aquatic monster, whose size was to that of one of his enemies as the bulk of a battle-ship is to that of a pigmy torpedo launch. But the whale fishery in vessels fitted for cruises of moderate length had its origin in Europe, where the Basques during the Middle Ages fairly drove the animals from the Bay of Biscay, which had long swarmed with them. Not a prolific breeder, the whales soon showed the effect of Europe's eagerness for oil, whalebone and ambergris, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century the industry was on the verge of extinction. Then began that search for a sea passage to India north of the continents of Europe and America, which I have described in another chapter. The passage was not discovered, but in the icy waters great schools of right whales were found, and the chase of the "royal fish" took on new vigor. Of course there was effort on the part of one nation to acquire by violence a monopoly of this profitable business, and the Dutch, who have done much in the cause of liberty, defeated the British in a naval battle at the edge of the ice before the principle of the freedom of the fisheries was accepted. To-day science has discovered substitutes for almost all of worth that the whales once supplied, and the substitutes are in the main marked improvements on the original. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the clear whale oil for illuminating purposes, the tough and supple whalebone, the spermaceti which filled the great case in the sperm-whale's head, the precious ambergris—prized even among the early Hebrews, and chronicled in the Scriptures as a thing of great price—were prizes, in pursuit of which men braved every terror of the deep, threaded the ice-floes of the Arctic, fought against the currents about Cape Horn, and steered to every corner of the Seven Seas the small, stout brigs and barks of New England make.

The whale came to the New Englander long before the New Englanders went after him. In the earliest colonial days the carcasses of whales were frequently found stranded on the beaches of Cape Cod and Long Island. Old colonial records are full of the lawsuits growing out of these pieces of treasure-trove, the finder, the owner of the land where the gigantic carrion lay stranded, and the colony all claiming ownership, or at least shares. By 1650 all the northern colonies had begun to pursue the business of shore whaling to some extent. Crews were organized, boats kept in readiness on the beach, and whenever a whale was sighted they would put off with harpoons and lances after the huge game, which, when slain, would be towed ashore, and there cut up and tried out, to the accompaniment of a prodigious clacking of gulls and a widely diffused bad smell. This method of whaling is still followed at Amagansett and Southampton, on the shore of Long Island, though the growing scarcity of whales makes catches infrequent. In the colonial days, however, it was a source of profit assiduously cultivated by coastwise communities, and both on Long Island and Cape Cod citizens were officially enjoined to watch for whales off shore. Whales were then seen daily in New York harbor, and in 1669 one Samuel Maverick recorded in a letter that thirteen whales had been taken along the south shore during the winter, and twenty in the spring.

Little by little the boat voyages after the leviathans extended further into the sea as the industry grew and the game became scarce and shy. The people of Cape Cod were the first to begin the fishery, and earliest perfected the art of "saving" the whale—that is, of securing all of value in the carcass. But the people of the little island of Nantucket brought the industry to its highest development, and spread most widely the fame of the American whaleman. Indeed, a Nantucket whaler laden with oil was the first vessel flying the Stars and Stripes that entered a British port. It is of a sailor on this craft that a patriotic anecdote, now almost classic, is told. He was unhappily deformed, and while passing along a Liverpool street was greeted by a British tar with a blow on his "humpback" and the salutation: "Hello, Jack! What you got there?" "Bunker Hill, d——n ye!" responded the Yankee. "Think you can climb it?" Far out at sea, swept ever by the Atlantic gales, a mere sand-bank, with scant surface soil to support vegetation, this island soon proved to its settlers its unfitness to maintain an agricultural people. There is a legend that an islander, weary perhaps with the effort of trying to wrest a livelihood from the unwilling soil, looked from a hilltop at the whales tumbling and spouting in the ocean. "There," he said, "is a green pasture where our children's grandchildren will go for bread." Whether the prophecy was made or not, the event occurred, for before the Revolution the American whaling fleet numbered 360 vessels, and in the banner year of the industry, 1846, 735 ships engaged in it, the major part of the fleet hailing from Nantucket. The cruises at first were toward Greenland after the so-called right whales, a variety of the cetaceans which has an added commercial value because of the baleen, or whalebone, which hangs in great strips from the roof of its mouth to its lower jaw, forming a sort of screen or sieve by which it sifts its food out of prodigious mouthfuls of sea water. This most enormous of known living creatures feeds upon very small shell-fish, swarm in the waters it frequents. Opening wide its colossal mouth, a cavity often more than fifteen feet in length, and so deep from upper to lower jaw that the flexible sheets of whalebone, sometimes ten feet long, hang straight without touching its floor, it takes a great gulp of water. Then the cavernous jaws slowly close, expelling the water through the whalebone sieve, somewhat as a Chinese laundryman sprinkles clothes, and the small marine animals which go to feed that prodigious bulk are caught in the strainer. The right whale is from 45 to 60 feet long in its maturity, and will yield about 15 tons of oil and 1500 weight of whalebone, though individuals have been known to give double this amount.

Most of the vessels which put out of Nantucket and New Bedford, in the earliest days of the industry, after whales of this sort, were not fitted with kettles and furnaces for trying out the oil at the time of the catch, as was always the custom in the sperm-whale fishery. Their prey was near at hand, their voyages comparatively short. So the fat, dripping, reeking blubber was crammed into casks, or some cases merely thrown into the ship's hold, just as it was cut from the carcass, and so brought back weeks later to the home port—a shipload of malodorous putrefaction. Old sailors who have cruised with cargoes of cattle, of green hides, and of guano, say that nothing that ever offended the olfactories of man equals the stench of a right-whaler on her homeward voyage. Scarcely even could the slave-ships compare with it. Brought ashore, this noisome mass was boiled in huge kettles, and the resulting oil sent to lighten the night in all civilized lands. England was a good customer of the colonies, and Boston shipowners did a thriving trade with oil from New Bedford or Nantucket to London. The sloops and ketches engaged in this commerce brought back, as an old letter of directions from shipowner to skipper shows, "course wicker flasketts, Allom, Copress, drum rims, head snares, shod shovells, window-glass." The trade was conducted with the same piety that we find manifested in the direction of slave-ships and privateers. In order that the oil may fetch a good price, and the voyage be speedy, the captain is commended to God, and "That hee may please to take the Conduct of you, we pray you look carefully that hee bee worshipped dayly in yor shippe, his Sabbaths Sanctifiede, and all sinne and prophainesse let bee Surpressed." In the Revolution the fisheries suffered severely from the British cruisers, and when, after peace was declared, the whalemen began coming back from the privateers, in which they had sought service, and the wharves of Nantucket, New Bedford, and New London began again to show signs of life, the Americans were confronted by the closing of their English markets. "The whale fisheries and the Newfoundland fisheries were the nurseries of British seamen," said the British ministry to John Adams, who went to London to remonstrate. "If we let Americans bring oil to London, and sell fish to our West India colonies, the British marine will decline." For a long time, therefore, the whalers had to look elsewhere than to England for a market. Nevertheless the trade grew. New Bedford, which by the middle of the nineteenth century held three-fourths of the business, took it up with great vigor. For a time Massachusetts gave bounties to encourage the industry, but it was soon strong enough to dispense with them. By 1789 the whalers found their way to the Pacific—destined in later years to be their chief fishing-ground. In that year the total whaling tonnage of Massachusetts was 10,210, with 1611 men and an annual product of 7880 barrels sperm and 13,130 barrels whale oil. Fifteen years earlier—before the war—the figures were thrice as great.


Before this period, however, whaling had taken on a new form. Deep-sea whaling, as it was called, to distinguish it from the shore fisheries, had begun long ago. Capt. Christopher Hursey, a stout Nantucket whaleman, cruising about after right whales, ran into a stiff northwest gale and was carried far out to sea. He struck a school of sperm-whales, killed one, and brought blubber home. It was not a new discovery, for the sperm-whale or cachalot, had been known for years, but the great numbers of right whales and the ease with which they were taken, had made pursuit of this nobler game uncommon. But now the fact, growing yearly more apparent, that right whales were being driven to more inaccessible haunts, made whalers turn readily to this new prey. Moreover, the sperm-whale had in him qualities of value that made him a richer prize than his Greenland cousin. True, he lacked the useful bone. His feeding habits did not necessitate a sieve, for, as beseems a giant, he devoured stout victuals, pieces of great squids—the fabled devil-fish—as big as a man's body being found in his stomach. Such a diet develops his fighting qualities, and while the right whale usually takes the steel sullenly, and dies like an overgrown seal, the cachalot fights fiercely, now diving with such a rush that he has been known to break his jaw by the fury with which he strikes the bottom at the depth of 200 fathoms; now raising his enormous bulk in air, to fall with an all-obliterating crash upon the boat which holds his tormentors, or sending boat and men flying into the air with a furious blow of his gristly flukes, or turning on his back and crunching his assailants between his cavernous jaws. Descriptions of the dying flurry of the sperm-whale are plentiful in whaling literature, many of the best of them being in that ideal whaleman's log "The Cruise of the Cachalot," by Frank T. Bullen. I quote one of these:

"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. On either side of that mountainous mass the waters rose in shining towers of snowy foam, which fell in their turn, whirling and eddying around us as we tossed and fell like a chip in a whirlpool. Blinded by the flying spray, baling for 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 vapor was red with his blood. 'Starn all!' again cried our chief, and we retreated to a considerable distance. The old warrior's practised 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 water at times, slashing 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 laboring breath trying to pass through the clogged air-passages. The utmost caution and rapidity of manipulation of the boat was necessary to avoid his maddened rush, but this gigantic energy was short-lived. 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 in a low, monotonous surf, intensifying the profound silence that had succeeded the tumult of our conflict with the late monarch of the deep."


Not infrequently the sperm-whale, breaking loose from the harpoon, would ignore the boats and make war upon his chief enemy—the ship. The history of the whale fishery is full of such occurrences. The ship "Essex," of Nantucket, was attacked and sunk by a whale, which planned its campaign of destruction as though guided by human intelligence. He was first seen at a distance of several hundred yards, coming full speed for the ship. Diving, he rose again to the surface about a ship's length away, and then surged forward on the surface, striking the vessel just forward of the fore-chains. "The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock," said the mate afterward, "and trembled for few seconds like a leaf." Then she began to settle, but not fast enough to satisfy the ire of the whale. Circling around, he doubled his speed, and bore down upon the "Essex" again. This time his head fairly stove in the bows, and the ship sank so fast that the men were barely able to provision and launch the boats. Curiously enough, the monster that had thus destroyed a stout ship paid no attention whatsoever to the little boats, which would have been like nutshells before his bulk and power. But many of the men who thus escaped only went to a fate more terrible than to have gone down with their stout ship. Adrift on a trackless sea, 1000 miles from land, in open boats, with scant provision of food or water, they faced a frightful ordeal. After twenty-eight days they found an island, but it proved a desert. After leaving it the boats became separated—one being never again heard of. In the others men died fast, and at last the living were driven by hunger actually to eat the dead. Out of the captain's boat two only were rescued; out of the mate's, three. In all twelve men were sacrificed to the whale's rage.

Mere lust for combat seemed to animate this whale, for he had not been pursued by the men of the "Essex," though perhaps in some earlier meeting with men he had felt the sting of the harpoon and the searching thrust of the lance. So great is the vitality of the cachalot that it not infrequently breaks away from its pursuers, and with two or three harpoon-heads in its body lives to a ripe, if not a placid, old age. The whale that sunk the New Bedford ship "Ann Alexander" was one of these fighting veterans. With a harpoon deep in his side he turned and deliberately ran over and sunk the boat that was fast to him; then with equal deliberation sent a second boat to the bottom. This was before noon, and occurred about six miles from the ship, which bore down as fast as could be to pick up the struggling men. The whale, apparently contented with his escape, made off. But about sunset Captain Delois, iron in hand, watching from the knight-heads of the "Ann Alexander" for other whales to repair his ill-luck, saw the redoubtable fighter not far away, swimming at about a speed of five knots. At the same time the whale spied the ship. Increasing his speed to fifteen knots, he bore down upon her, and with the full force of his more than 100 tons bulk struck her "a terrible blow about two feet from the keel and just abreast of the foremast, breaking a large hole in her bottom, through which the water poured in a rushing stream." The crew had scarce time to get out the boats, with one day's provisions, but were happily picked up by a passing vessel two days later. The whale itself met retribution five months later, when it was taken by another American ship. Two of the "Ann Alexander's" harpoons were in him, his head bore deep scars, and in it were imbedded pieces of the ill-fated ship's timbers.

Instances of the combativeness of the sperm-whale are not confined to the records of the whale fishery. Even as I write I find in a current San Francisco newspaper the story of the pilot-boat "Bonita," sunk near the Farallon Islands by a whale that attacked her out of sheer wantonness and lust for fight. The "Bonita" was lying hove-to, lazily riding the swells, when in the dark—it was 10 o'clock at night—there came a prodigious shock, that threw all standing to the deck and made the pots and pans of the cook's galley jingle like a chime out of tune. From the deck the prodigious black bulk of a whale, about eighty feet long, could be made out, lying lazily half out of water near the vessel. The timbers of the "Bonita" must have been crushed by his impact, for she began to fill, and soon sank.

In this case the disaster was probably not due to any rage or malicious intent on the part of the whale. Indeed, in the days when the ocean was more densely populated with these huge animals, collision with a whale was a well-recognized maritime peril. How many of the stout vessels against whose names on the shipping list stands the fatal word "missing," came to their ends in this way can never be known; but maritime annals are full of the reports of captains who ran "bows on" into a mysterious reef where the chart showed no obstruction, but which proved to be a whale, reddening the sea with his blood, and sending the ship—not less sorely wounded—into some neighboring port to refit.

The tools with which the business of hunting the whale is pursued are simple, even rude. Steam, it is true, has succeeded to sails, and explosives have displaced the sinewy arm of the harpooner for launching the deadly shafts; but in the main the pursuit of the monsters is conducted now as it was sixty years ago, when to command a whaler was the dearest ambition of a New England coastboy. The vessels were usually brigs or barks, occasionally schooners, ranging from 100 to 500 tons. They had a characteristic architecture, due in part to the subordination of speed to carrying capacity, and further to the specially heavy timbering about the bows to withstand the crushing of the Arctic ice-pack. The bow was scarce distinguishable from the stern by its lines, and the masts stuck up straight, without that rake, which adds so much to the trim appearance of a clipper. Three peculiarities chiefly distinguished the whalers from other ships of the same general character. At the main royal-mast head was fixed the "crow's nest"—in some vessels a heavy barrel lashed to the mast, in others merely a small platform laid on the cross-trees, with two hoops fixed to the mast above, within which the lookout could stand in safety. On the deck, amidships, stood the "try-works," brick furnaces, holding two or three great kettles, in which the blubber was reduced to odorless oil. Along each rail were heavy, clumsy wooden cranes, or davits, from which hung the whale-boats—never less than five, sometimes more, while still others were lashed to the deck, for boats were the whale's sport and playthings, and seldom was a big "fish" made fast that there was not work for the ship's carpenter.

The whale-boat, evolved from the needs of this fishery, is one of the most perfect pieces of marine architecture afloat—a true adaptation of means to an end. It is clinker-built, about 27 feet long, by 6 feet beam, with a depth of about 2 feet 6 inches; sharp at both ends and clean-sided as a mackerel. Each boat carried five oarsmen, who wielded oars of from nine to sixteen feet in length, while the mate steers with a prodigious oar ten feet long. The bow oarsman is the harpooner, but when he has made fast to the whale he goes aft and takes the mate's place at the steering oar, while the latter goes forward with the lances to deal the final murderous strokes. This curious and dangerous change of position in the boat, often with a heavy sea running, and with a 100-ton whale tugging at the tug-line seems to have grown out of nothing more sensible than the insistence of mates on recognition of their rank. But a whale-boat is not the only place where a spill is threatened because some one in power insists on doing something at once useless and dangerous.

The whale-boat also carried a stout mast, rigging two sprit sails. The mast was instantly unshipped when the whale was struck. The American boats also carried centerboards, lifting into a framework extending through the center of the craft, but the English whalemen omitted these appendages. A rudder was hung over the side, for use in emergencies. Into this boat were packed, with the utmost care and system, two line-tubs, each holding from 100 to 200 fathoms of fine manila rope, one and one-half inches round, and of a texture like yellow silk; three harpoons, wood and iron, measuring about eight feet over all, and weighing about ten pounds; three lances of the finest steel, with wooden handles, in all about eight feet long; a keg of drinking water and one of biscuits; a bucket and piggin for bailing, a small spade, knives, axes, and a shoulder bomb-gun. It can be understood easily that six men, maneuvering in so crowded a boat, with a huge whale flouncing about within a few feet, a line whizzing down the center, to be caught in which meant instant death, and the sea often running high, had need to keep their wits about them.

Harpoons and lances are kept ground to a razor edge, and, propelled by the vigorous muscles of brawny whalemen, often sunk out of sight through the papery skin and soft blubber of the whale. Beyond these primitive appliances the whale fishery never progressed very far. It is true that in later days a shoulder-gun hurled the harpoon, explosive bombs replaced the lances, the ships were in some cases fitted with auxiliary steam-power, and in a few infrequent instances steam launches were employed for whale-boats. But progress was not general. The old-fashioned whaling tubs kept the seas, while the growing scarcity of the whales and the blow to the demand for oil dealt by the discovery of petroleum, checked the development of the industry. Now the rows of whalers rotting at New Bedford's wharves, and the somnolence of Nantucket, tell of its virtual demise.

These two towns were built upon the prosperity of the whale fishery. When it languished their fortunes sunk, never to rise to their earlier heights, though cotton-spinning came to occupy the attention of the people of New Bedford, while Nantucket found a placid prosperity in entertaining summer boarders. And even during the years when whales were plentiful, and their oil still in good demand, there came periods of interruption to the trade and poverty to its followers. The Revolution first closed the seas to American ships for seven long years, and at its close the whalers found their best market—England—still shut against them. Moreover, the high seas during the closing years of the eighteenth and the opening of the nineteenth centuries were not as to-day, when a pirate is as scarce a beast of prey as a highwayman on Hounslow Heath. The Napoleonic wars had broken down men's natural sense of order and of right, and the seas swarmed with privateers, who on occasion were ready enough to turn pirates. Many whalers fell a prey to these marauders, whose operations were rather encouraged than condemned by the European nations. Both England and France were at this period endeavoring to lure the whalemen from the United Colonies by promise of special concessions in trade, or more effective protection on the high seas than their own weakling governments could assure them. Some Nantucket whalemen were indeed enticed to the new English whaling town at Dartmouth, near Halifax, or to the French town of Dunkirk. But the effort to transplant the industry did not succeed, and the years that followed, until the fateful embargo of 1807, were a period of rapid growth for the whale fishery and increasing wealth for those who pursued it. In the form of its business organization the business of whaling was the purest form of profit-sharing we have ever seen in the United States. Everybody on the ship, from captain to cabin-boy, was a partner, vitally interested in the success of the voyage. Each had his "lay"—that is to say, his proportionate share of the proceeds of the catch. Obed Macy, in his "History of Nantucket," says: "The captain's lay is generally one-seventeenth part of all obtained; the first officer's one-twenty-eighth part; the second officer's, one-forty-fifth; the third officer's, one-sixtieth; a boat-steerer's from an eightieth to a hundred-and-twentieth, and a foremast hand's, from a hundred-and-twentieth to a hundred-and-eighty-fifth each." These proportions, of course, varied—those of the men according to the ruling wages in other branches of the merchant service; those of the officers to correspond with special qualities of efficiency. All the remainder of the catch went to the owners, who put into the enterprise the ship and outfitted her for a cruise, which usually occupied three years. Their investment was therefore a heavy one, a suitable vessel of 300-tons burden costing in the neighborhood of $22,000, and her outfit $18,000 to $20,000. Not infrequently the artisans engaged in fitting out a ship were paid by being given "lays," like the sailor. In such a case the boatmaker who built the whale-boats, the ropemaker who twisted the stout, flexible manila cord to hold the whale, the sailmaker and the cooper were all interested with the crew and the owners in the success of the voyage. It was the most practical communism that industry has ever seen, and it worked to the satisfaction of all concerned as long as the whaling trade continued profitable.

The wars in which the American people engaged during the active days of the whale fishery—the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War—were disastrous to that industry, and from the depredations committed by the Confederate cruisers in the last conflict it never fully recovered. The nature of their calling made the whalemen peculiarly vulnerable to the evils of war. Cruising in distant seas, always away from home for many months, often for years, a war might be declared and fought to a finish before they knew of it. In the disordered Napoleonic days they never could tell whether the flag floating at the peak of some armed vessel encountered at the antipodes was that of friend or foe. During both the wars with England they were the special objects of the enemy's malignant attention. From the earliest days American progress in maritime enterprise was viewed by the British with apprehension and dislike. Particularly did the growth of the cod fisheries and the chase of the whale arouse transatlantic jealousy, the value of these callings as nurseries for seamen being only too plainly apparent. Accordingly the most was made of the opportunities afforded by war for crushing the whaling industry. Whalers were chased to their favorite fishing-grounds, captured, and burned. With cynical disregard of all the rules of civilized warfare—supposing war ever to be civilized—the British gave to the captured whalers only the choice of serving in British men-of-war against their own countrymen, or re-entering the whaling trade on British ships, thus building up the British whale fishery at the expense of the American. The American response to these tactics was to abandon the business during war time. In 1775 Nantucket alone had had 150 vessels, aggregating 15,000 tons, afloat in pursuit of the whale. The trade was pushed with such daring and enterprise that Edmund Burke was moved to eulogize its followers in an eloquent speech in the British House of Commons. "Neither the perseverance of Holland," he said, "nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this most recent people." But the eloquence of Burke could not halt the British ministry in its purpose to tax the colonies despite their protests. The Revolution followed, and the whalemen of Nantucket and New Bedford stripped their vessels, sent down yards and all running rigging, stowed the sails, tied their barks and brigs to the deserted wharves and went out of business. The trade thus rudely checked had for the year preceding the outbreak of the war handled 45,000 barrels of sperm oil, 8500 barrels of right-whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of bone.

The enforced idleness of the Revolutionary days was not easily forgotten by the whalemen, and their discontent and complainings were great when the nation was again embroiled in war with Great Britain in 1812. It can not be said that their attitude in the early days of that conflict was patriotic. They had suffered—both at the hands of France and England—wrongs which might well rouse their resentment. They had been continually impressed by England, and the warships of both nations had seized American whalers for real or alleged violations of the Orders in Council or the Ostend Manifesto; but the whalemen were more eager for peace, even with the incidental perils due to war in Europe, than for war, with its enforced idleness. When Congress ordered the embargo the whalers were at first explicitly freed from its operations; but this provision being seized upon to cover evasions of the embargo, they were ultimately included. When war was finally declared, the protests of the Nantucket people almost reached the point of threatening secession. A solemn memorial was first addressed to Congress, relating the exceedingly exposed condition of the island and its favorite calling to the perils of war, and begging that the actual declaration of war might be averted. When this had availed nothing, and the young nation had rushed into battle with a courage that must seem to us now foolhardy, the Nantucketers adopted the doubtful expedient of seeking special favor from the enemy. An appeal for immunity from the ordinary acts of war was addressed to the British Admiral Cochrane, and a special envoy was sent to the British naval officer commanding the North American station, to announce the neutrality of the island and to beg immunity from assault and pillage, and assurance that one vessel would be permitted to ply unmolested between the island and the mainland. As a result of these negotiations, Nantucket formally declared her neutrality, and by town meeting voted to accede to the British demand that her people pay no taxes for the support of the United States. In all essential things the island ceased to be a part of the United States, its people neither rendering military service nor contributing to the revenues. But their submission to the British demands did not save the whale-trade, for repeated efforts to get the whalers declared neutral and exempt from capture failed.

Half a century of peace followed, during which the whaling industry rose to its highest point; but was again on the wane when the Civil War let loose upon the remaining whalemen the Confederate cruisers, the "Shenandoah" alone burning thirty-four of them. From this last stroke the industry, enfeebled by the lessened demand for its chief product, and by the greater cost and length of voyages resulting from the growing scarcity of whales, never recovered. To-day its old-time ports are deserted by traffic. Stripped of all that had salable value, its ships rot on mud-banks or at moldering wharves. The New England boy, whose ambition half a century ago was to ship on a whaler, with a boy's lay and a straight path to the quarter-deck, now goes into a city office, or makes for the West as a miner or a railroad man. The whale bids fair to become as extinct as the dodo, and the whaleman is already as rare as the buffalo.


With the extension of the fishing-grounds to the Pacific began the really great days of the whale fishery. Then, from such a port as Nantucket or New Bedford a vessel would set out, to be gone three years, carrying with her the dearest hopes and ambitions of all the inhabitants. Perhaps there would be no house without some special interest in her cruise. Tradesmen of a dozen sorts supplied stores on shares. Ambitious boys of the best families sought places before the mast, for there was then no higher goal for youthful ambition than command of a whaler. Not infrequently a captain would go direct from the marriage altar to his ship, taking a young bride off on a honeymoon of three years at sea. Of course the home conditions created by this almost universal masculine employment were curious. The whaling towns were populated by women, children, and old men. The talk of the street was of big catches and the prices of oil and bone. The conversation in the shaded parlors, where sea-shells, coral, and the trophies of Pacific cruises were the chief ornaments, was of the distant husbands and sons, the perils they braved, and when they might be expected home. The solid, square houses the whalemen built, stoutly timbered as though themselves ships, faced the ocean, and bore on their ridge-pole a railed platform called the bridge, whence the watchers could look far out to sea, scanning the horizon for the expected ship. Lucky were they if she came into the harbor without half-masted flag or other sign of disaster. The profits of the calling in its best days were great. The best New London record is that of the "Pioneer," made in an eighteen-months' cruise in 1864-5. She brought back 1391 barrels of oil and 22,650 pounds of bone, all valued at $150,060. The "Envoy," of New Bedford, after being condemned as unseaworthy, was fitted out in 1847 at a cost of $8000, and sent out on a final cruise. She found oil and bone to the value of $132,450; and reaching San Francisco in the flush times, was sold for $6000. As an offset to these records, is the legend of the Nantucket captain who appeared off the harbor's mouth after a cruise of three years. "What luck, cap'n?" asked the first to board. "Well, I got nary a barrel of oil and nary a pound of bone; but I had a mighty good sail."

When the bar was crossed and the ship fairly in blue water, work began. Rudyard Kipling has a characteristic story, "How the Ship Found Herself," telling how each bolt and plate, each nut, screw-thread, brace, and rivet in one of those iron tanks we now call ships adjusts itself to its work on the first voyage. On the whaler the crew had to find itself, to readjust its relations, come to know its constituent parts, and learn the ways of its superiors. Sometimes a ship was manned by men who had grown up together and who had served often on the same craft; but as a rule the men of the forecastle were a rough and vagrant lot; capable seamen, indeed, but of the adventurous and irresponsible sort, for service before the mast on a whaler was not eagerly sought by the men of the merchant service. For a time Indians were plenty, and their fine physique and racial traits made them skillful harpooners. As they became scarce, negroes began to appear among the whalemen, with now and then a Lascar, a South Sea Islander, Portuguese, and Hawaiians. The alert New Englanders, trained to the life of the sea, seldom lingered long in the forecastle, but quickly made their way to the posts of command. There they were despots, for nowhere was the discipline more severe than on whalemen. The rule was a word and a blow—and the word was commonly a curse. The ship was out for a five-years' cruise, perhaps, and the captain knew that the safety of all depended upon unquestioning obedience to his authority. Once in a while even the cowed crew would revolt, and infrequent stories of mutiny and murder appear in the record of the whale trade. The whaler, like a man-of-war, carried a larger crew than was necessary for the work of navigation, and it was necessary to devise work to keep the men employed. As a result, the ships were kept cleaner than any others in the merchant service, even though the work of trying out the blubber was necessarily productive of smoke, soot, and grease.

As a rule the voyage to the Pacific whaling waters was round Cape Horn, though occasionally a vessel made its way to the eastward and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Almost always the world was circumnavigated before return. In early days the Pacific whalers found their game in plenty along the coast of Chili; but in time they were forced to push further and further north until the Japan Sea and Bering Sea became the favorite fishing places.

The whale was usually first sighted by the lookout in the crow's nest. A warm-blooded animal, breathing with lungs, and not with gills, like a fish, the whale is obliged to come to the surface of the water periodically to breathe. As he does so he exhales the air from his lungs through blow-holes or spiracles at the top of his head; and this warm, moist air, coming thus from his lungs into the cool air, condenses, forming a jet of vapor looking like a fountain, though there is, in fact, no spout of water. "There she blows! B-l-o-o-o-ws! Blo-o-ows!" cries the lookout at this spectacle. All is activity at once on deck, the captain calling to the lookout for the direction and character of the "pod" or school. The sperm whale throws his spout forward at an angle, instead of perpendicularly into the air, and hence is easily distinguished from right whales at a distance. The ship is then headed toward the game, coming to about a mile away. As the whale, unless alarmed, seldom swims more than two and a half miles an hour, and usually stays below only about forty-five minutes at a time, there is little difficulty in overhauling him. Then the boats are launched, the captain and a sufficient number of men staying with the ship.


In approaching the whale, every effort is made to come up to him at the point of least danger. This point is determined partly by the lines of the whale's vision, partly by his methods of defense. The right whale can only see dead ahead, and his one weapon is his tail, which gigantic fin, weighing several tons and measuring sometimes twenty feet across the tips of the flukes, he swings with irresistible force and all the agility of a fencer at sword-play. He, therefore, is attacked from the side, well toward his jaws. The sperm whale, however, is dangerous at both ends. His tail, though less elastic than that of the right whale, can deal a prodigious up-and-down blow, while his gigantic jaws, well garnished with sharp teeth, and capacious gullet, that readily could gulp down a man, are his chief terrors. His eyes, too, set obliquely, enable him to command the sea at all points save dead ahead, and it is accordingly from this point that the fishermen approach him. But however stealthily they move, the opportunities for disappointment are many. Big as he is, the whale is not sluggish. In an instant he may sink bodily from sight; or, throwing his flukes high in air, "sound," to be seen no more; or, casting himself bodily on the boat, blot it out of existence; or, taking it in his jaws, carry it down with him. But supposing the whale to be oblivious of its approach, the boat comes as near as seems safe, and the harpooner, poised in the bow, his knee against the bracket that steadies him, lets fly his weapon; and, hit or miss, follows it up at once with a second bent onto the same line. Some harpooners were of such strength and skill that they could hurl their irons as far as four or five fathoms. In one famous case boats from an American and British ship were in pursuit of the same whale, the British boat on the inside. It is the law of the fishery that the whale belongs to the boat that first makes fast—and many a pretty quarrel has grown out of this rule. So in this instance—seeing the danger that his rival might win the game—the American harpooner, with a prodigious effort, darted his iron clear over the rival boat and deep into the mass of blubber.


What a whale will do when struck no man can tell before the event. The boat-load of puffing, perspiring men who have pulled at full speed up to the monster may suddenly find themselves confronted with a furious, vindictive, aggressive beast weighing eighty tons, and bent on grinding their boat and themselves to powder; or he may simply turn tail and run. Sometimes he sounds, going down, down, down, until all the line in the boat is exhausted, and all that other boats can bend on is gone too. Then the end is thrown over with a drag, and his reappearance awaited. Sometimes he dashes off over the surface of the water at a speed of fifteen knots an hour, towing the boat, while the crew hope that their "Nantucket sleigh-ride" will end before they lose the ship for good. But once fast, the whalemen try to pull close alongside the monster. Then the mate takes the long, keen lance and plunges it deep into the great shuddering carcass, "churning" it up and down and seeking to pierce the heart or lungs. This is the moment of danger; for, driven mad with pain, the great beast rolls and thrashes about convulsively. If the boat clings fast to his side, it is in danger of being crushed or engulfed at any moment; if it retreats, he may recover himself and be off before the death-stroke can be delivered. In later days the explosive bomb, discharged from a distance, has done away with this peril; but in the palmy days of the whale fishery the men would rush into the circle of sea lashed into foam by those mighty fins, get close to the whale, as the boxer gets under the guard of his foe, smite him with lance and razor-edged spade until his spouts ran red, and to his fury there should succeed the calm of approaching death. Then the boats, pulled off. The command was "Pipes all"; and, placidly smoking in the presence of that mighty death, the whalers awaited their ship.

Stories of "fighting whales" fill the chronicles of our old whaling ports. There was the old bull sperm encountered by Captain Huntling off the River De La Plata, which is told us in a fascinating old book, "The Nimrod of the Sea." The first boat that made fast to this tough old warrior he speedily bit in two; and while her crew were swimming away from the wreck with all possible speed, the whale thrashed away at the pieces until all were reduced to small bits. Two other boats meanwhile made fast to the furious animal. Wheeling about in the foam, reddened with his blood, he crushed them as a tiger would crunch its prey. All about him were men struggling in the water—twelve of them, the crews of the two demolished boats. Of the boats themselves nothing was left big enough to float a man. The ship was miles away. Three of the sailors climbed on the back of their enemy, clinging by the harpoons and ropes still fast to him, while the others swam away for dear life, thinking only of escaping that all-engulfing jaw or the blows of that murderous tail. Now came another boat from the ship, picked up the swimmers, and cautiously rescued those perched on the whale's back from their island of shuddering flesh. The spirit of the monster was still undaunted. Though six harpoons were sunk into his body and he was dragging 300 fathoms of line, he was still in fighting mood, crunching oars, kegs, and bits of boat for more enemies to demolish. All hands made for the ship, where Captain Hunting, quite as dogged and determined as his adversary, was preparing to renew the combat. Two spare boats were fitted for use, and again the whalemen started after their foe. He, for his part, remained on the battle-ground, amid the débris of his hunters' property, and awaited attack. Nay, more; he churned the water with his mighty tail and moved forward to meet his enemy, with ready jaw to grind them to bits. The captain at the boat-oar, or steering-oar, made a mighty effort and escaped the rush; then sent an explosive bomb into the whale's vitals as he surged past. Struck unto death, the great bull went into his flurry; but in dying he rolled over the captain's boat like an avalanche, destroying it as completely as he had the three others. So man won the battle, but at a heavy cost. The whaleman who chronicled this fight says significantly: "The captain proceeded to Buenos Ayres, as much to allow his men, who were mostly green, to run away, as for the purpose of refitting, as he knew they would be useless thereafter." It was well recognized in the whaling service that men once thoroughly "gallied," or frightened, were seldom useful again; and, indeed, most of the participants in this battle did, as the captain anticipated, desert at the first port.

Curiously enough, there did not begin to be a literature of whaling until the industry went into its decadence. The old-time whalers, leading lives of continual romance and adventure, found their calling so commonplace that they noted shipwrecks, mutinies, and disaster in the struggles of the whale baldly in their logbooks, without attempt at graphic description. It is true the piety of Nantucket did result in incorporating the whale in the local hymn-book, but with what doubtful literary success these verses from the pen of Peleg Folger—himself a whaleman—will too painfully attest:

Thou didst, O Lord, create the mighty whale,
That wondrous monster of a mighty length;
Vast is his head and body, vast his tail,
Beyond conception his unmeasured strength.

When the surface of the sea hath broke
Arising from the dark abyss below,
His breath appears a lofty stream of smoke,
The circling waves like glittering banks of snow.

And though he furiously doth us assail,
Thou dost preserve us from all dangers free;
He cuts our boats in pieces with his tail,
And spills us all at once into the sea.

Stories of the whale fishery are plentiful, and of late years there has been some effort made to gather these into a kind of popular history of the industry. The following incidents are gathered from a pamphlet, published in the early days of the nineteenth century, by Thomas Nevins, a New England whaler:

"A remarkable instance of the power which the whale possesses in its tail was exhibited within my own observation in the year 1807. On the 29th of May a whale was harpooned by an officer belonging to the 'Resolution.' It descended a considerable depth, and on its reappearance evinced an uncommon degree of irritation. It made such a display of its fins and tail that few of the crew were hardy enough to approach it. The captain, observing their timidity, called a boat and himself struck a second harpoon. Another boat immediately followed, and unfortunately advanced too far. The tail was again reared into the air in a terrific attitude. The impending blow was evident. The harpooner, who was directly underneath, leaped overboard, and the next moment the threatened stroke was impressed on the center of the boat, which it buried in the water. Happily no one was injured. The harpooner who leaped overboard escaped death by the act, the tail having struck the very spot on which he stood. The effects of the blow were astonishing—the keel was broken, the gunwales and every plank excepting two were cut through, and it was evident that the boat would have been completely divided, had not the tail struck directly upon a coil of lines. The boat was rendered useless.

"The Dutch ship 'Gort-Moolen,' commanded by Cornelius Gerard Ouwekaas, with a cargo of seven fish, was anchored in Greenland, in the year 1660. The captain, perceiving a whale ahead of his ship, beckoned his attendants and threw himself into a boat. He was the first to approach the whale, and was fortunate enough to harpoon it before the arrival of the second boat, which was on the advance. Jacques Vienkes, who had the direction of it, joined his captain immediately afterward, and prepared to make a second attack on the fish when it should remount to the surface. At the moment of its ascension, the boat of Vienkes, happening, unfortunately, to be perpendicularly above it, was so suddenly and forcibly lifted up by a stroke of the head of the whale that it was dashed to pieces before the harpooner could discharge his weapon. Vienkes flew along with the pieces of the boat, and fell upon the back of the animal. This intrepid seaman, who still retained his weapon in his grasp, harpooned the whale on which he stood; and by means of the harpoon and the line, which he never abandoned, he steadied himself firmly upon the fish, notwithstanding his hazardous situation, and regardless of a considerable wound that he received in his leg in his fall along with the fragments of the boat. All the efforts of the other boats to approach the whale and deliver the harpooner were futile. The captain, not seeing any other method of saving his unfortunate companion, who was in some way entangled with the line, called him to cut it with his knife and betake himself to swimming. Vienkes, embarrassed and disconcerted as he was, tried in vain to follow this council. His knife was in the pocket of his drawers, and being unable to support himself with one hand, he could not get it out. The whale, meanwhile, continued advancing along the surface of the water with great rapidity, but fortunately never attempted to dive. While his comrades despaired of his life, the harpoon by which he held at length disengaged itself from the body of the whale. Vienkes, being thus liberated, did not fail to take advantage of this circumstance. He cast himself into the sea, and by swimming endeavored to regain the boats, which continued the pursuit of the whale. When his shipmates perceived him struggling with the waves, they redoubled their exertions. They reached him just as his strength was exhausted, and had the happiness of rescuing this adventurous harpooner from his perilous situation.

"Captain Lyons, of the 'Raith,' of Leith, while prosecuting the whale fishery on the Labrador coast, in the season of 1802, discovered a large whale at a short distance from the ship. Four boats were dispatched in pursuit, and two of them succeeded in approaching it so closely together that two harpoons were struck at the same moment. The fish descended a few fathoms in the direction of another of the boats, which was on the advance, rose accidentally beneath it, struck it with his head, and threw the boat, men, and apparatus about fifteen feet in the air. It was inverted by the stroke, and fell into the water with its keel upward. All the people were picked up alive by the fourth boat, which was just at hand, excepting one man, who, having got entangled in the boat, fell beneath it and was unfortunately drowned. The fish was soon afterward killed.

"In 1822 two boats belonging to the ship 'Baffin' went in pursuit of a whale. John Carr was harpooner and commander of them. The whale they pursued led them into a vast shoal of his own species. They were so numerous that their blowing was incessant, and they believed that they did not see fewer than a hundred. Fearful of alarming them without striking any, they remained a while motionless. At last one rose near Carr's boat, and he approached and, fatally for himself, harpooned it. When he struck, the fish was approaching the boat; and, passing very rapidly, jerked the line out of its place over the stern and threw it upon the gunwale. Its pressure in this unfavorable position so careened the boat that the side was pulled under water and it began to fill. In this emergency Carr, who was a brave, active man, seized the line, and endeavored to release the boat by restoring it to its place; but by some circumstance which was never accounted for, a turn of the line flew over his arm, dragged him overboard in an instant, and drew him under the water, never more to rise. So sudden was the accident that only one man, who was watching him, saw what had happened; so that when the boat righted, which it immediately did, though half full of water, the whole crew, on looking round, inquired what had become of Carr. It is impossible to imagine a death more awfully sudden and unexpected. The invisible bullet could not have effected more instantaneous destruction. The velocity of the whale at its first descent is from thirteen to fifteen feet per second. Now, as this unfortunate man was adjusting the line at the water's very edge, where it must have been perfectly tight, owing to its obstruction in 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 ten or twelve feet deep. Indeed, he had not time for the least exclamation; and the person who saw his removal observed that it was so exceeding quick that, though his eye was upon him at the moment, he could scarcely distinguish his figure as he disappeared.

"As soon as the crew recovered from their consternation, they applied themselves to the needful attention which the lines required. A second harpoon was struck from the accompanying boat, on the rising of the whale to the surface, and some lances were applied; but this melancholy occurrence had cast such a damp on all present that they became timid and inactive in their subsequent duties. The whale, when nearly exhausted, was allowed to remain some minutes unmolested, till, having recovered some degree of energy, it made a violent effort and tore itself away from the harpoons. The exertions of the crews thus proved fruitless, and were attended with serious loss.

"A harpooner belonging to the 'Henrietta,' of Whitby, when engaged in lancing a whale into which he had previously struck a harpoon, incautiously cast a little line under his feet that he had just hauled into the boat, after it had been drawn out by the fish. A painful stroke of his lance induced the whale to dart suddenly downward. His line began to run out from under his feet, and in an instant caught him by a turn round his body. He had but just time to cry out, 'Clear away the line! Oh, dear!' when he was almost cut asunder, dragged overboard, and never seen afterward. The line was cut at that moment, but without avail. The fish descended to a considerable depth and died, from whence it was drawn to the surface by the lines connected with it and secured."

Whaling has almost ceased to have a place in the long list of our national industries. Its implements and the relics of old-time cruises fill niches in museums as memorials of a practically extinct calling. Along the wharves of New Bedford and New London a few old brigs lie rotting, but so effective have been the ravages of time that scarcely any of the once great fleet survive even in this invalid condition. The whales have been driven far into the Arctic regions, whither a few whalers employing the modern and unsportsmanlike devices of steam and explosives, follow them for a scanty profit. But the glory of the whale fishery is gone, leaving hardly a record behind it. In its time it employed thousands of stout sailors; it furnished the navy with the material that made that branch of our armed service the pride and glory of the nation. It explored unknown seas and carried the flag to undiscovered lands. Was not an Austrian exploring expedition, interrupted as it was about to take possession of land in the Antarctic in the name of Austria by encountering an American whaler, trim and trig, lying placidly at anchor in a harbor where the Austrian thought no man had ever been? It built up towns in New England that half a century of lethargy has been unable to kill. And so if its brigs—and its men—now molder, if its records are scanty and its history unwritten, still Americans must ever regard the whale fishery as one of the chief factors in the building of the nation—one of the most admirable chapters in our national story.