Cannibalism? A Difference of Opinion.

Westport’s most gruesome catastrophe befell the crew of the Janet in 1849. While chasing a whale, the master and several members of her crew were separated from the ship and left to drift in their small whaleboat for 2 weeks. Two survivors wrote an account of their ordeal, one written by Captain Francis Hosmer and another, considerably more dramatic and gruesome, was written by one of the crew members. How did they manage to survive without food or water? Both accounts describe how straws were drawn to determine who would be sacrificed for the greater good of the crew. The number of victims and nature of their demise, however, differs according to each account.

Read each account here.

The Captains Account


NEW BEDFORD, OCT 17-18,1849

Dreadful Suffering At Sea- We have received a letter from Capt. Hosmer, later master of the whaling barque Janet, of Westport, furnishing an account of privations and sufferings of a boat’s crew belonging to the Janet comprising the captain and five others, which is almost without parallel in the annals of the whale fishery. It is substantially as follows:

On the Coast of Peru, 23d June, 1849, in latitude 3 degrees N., longitude 104 W., while cruising for whales, a shoal of sperm whales appeared in sight from the Janet, and three boats lowered in pursuit. Cpt. Hosmer’s boat’s crew consisted of himself, Francis Hawkins, 3d mate; Edward H. Charlez, Joseph Cortez, Daniel Thompson, and Jas. Fairman, seamen. It blowing fresh at the time the boats soon separated each having made fast to a whale. After Capt. Hosmer had succeeded in “turning up” his whale and was towing him to the ship, from some inadvertence on the part of the 3d mate in putting about, the boat capsized, with loss of boat keg, lantern-keg, boat bucket, compass, paddles, &c. The crew succeeded in righting the boat, and lashed the oars to the thwarts across the boat to prevent her from overturning, she being filled with water, and the sea continually breaking over her.

Two waifs, or flags, were immediately set as a signal of distress, the other boats being in sight at a distance of about one and half miles. Capt. H. saw the other two boats take their whales alongside of the barque which was then kept off in the direction for his boat, but to his surprise and horror, when within about one mile of him they kept off on another course until sundown. The crew of the captain’s boat then got on to the whale alongside and tried to bail the boat, but could not succeed. They then cut the line attached to the whale, and succeeded in setting some pieces of boat-sail and steered towards the barque, then about three miles distant. During the night they saw a light at intervals but in the morning the barque was at about the same distance off. Every expedient was resorted to by making signals to attract the attention of those on board the barque, but in vain. Saw them cutting in the whales and apparently indifferent to the fate of their comrades. In this perilous condition the unfortunate boat’s crew made another attempt to bail the water from the boat, but owing to their consternation they did not succeed. They then continued on their course as before hoping to regain the barque, but soon found that she receded from them, and it was then determined to put about to the wind and remain, whatever the consequences might be. On the second morning, the weather being more favorable, all the whale craft was thrown overboard and another attempt was made to bail the boat, which resulted in the loss of one man and without accomplishing the purpose. The effort was again renewed in the afternoon, the weather being yet more favorable and they finally succeeded in freeing the boat from water, but with the loss of another of her crew – all on board having been up to their arms in the water during the last 48 hours. Two of the survivors were seized with delirium; all of them having been without a morsel of food or drink and suffering painful from thirst. Thus disabled, no one on board being able to ply at the oars, and with only a small fragment of the boat’s sail remaining, it was determined to make for Cocus Island, on the Peruvian coast, a distance of about one thousand miles, as the nearer land. Accordingly the piece of the sail was used to best advantage and the ceiling of the boat was torn up and also employed as a wind propeller, and steering in a northerly-easterly direction, Capt. H,. writes nothing occurred worthy of remark until the seventh day, the crew having in the meantime being without a particle of food or drink, and not a drop of rain having fallen. In this dreadful state of suffering it was mutually agreed to cast lots as to which of the number should be sacrificed to prolong the lives of his companions, and the unfortunate victim upon whom the lot fell met his fate with perfect resignation and willingness. At the close of the day a shower of rain proved a very great additional relief. Being without compass or instruments of any kind, Capt. H. was compelled to rely entirely upon his judgment respecting the course, aided only by an occasional glimpse of the North Star and the rolling swell of the sea from the South. On the eighth day, another of the number died from exhaustion. It was found necessary to pursue a more northerly course in the hope of rain, none having fallen during the last four days. On the next day were favored with another shower, and this benefaction was followed by the remarkable circumstance of a dolphin leaping from among its finny companions directly into the boat. Several birds also approached so near to the boat as to fall a prey to the necessities of the crew, administering greatly to their relief. On the 13th of July, land was discovered in an easterly direction, which proved to be Cocus island (uninhabited), lying in lat 5 degrees 27 min. N., lon.87.15. Capt H. and the other survivors succeeding in reaching it, but in an almost helpless condition. They however secured a pig and drank its blood, which revived their exhausted strength and also obtained a plentiful supply of birds and fresh water. After remaining two days upon the island they were overjoyed by witnessing the approach of a boat, which proved to belong to the ship Leonidas, whaler, Capt. Swift, of this port, then lying in Chatham Bay, for the purpose of procuring wood and water, and were relieved from their dreadful sufferings by being taken on board the ship and treated with every possible attention and kindness. The names of those who perished on board the boat, are Francis Hawkins, 3d mate of August, Me., James Fairman, seaman of Ohio; Henry Thompson, seaman, of Philadelphia, Pa., Edward Henry Charlez, place of residence unknown.

Capt. Hosmer renders his grateful acknowledgements to Capt. Swift, of the Leonidas, and also the Capt. Cleaveland, of barque Valparaiso, of this port, for their prompt and generous efforts in administering to the relief of himself and his companion, Capt. H. arrived at Payta, August 21st from which place his letter to us is dated.

We have also been favored with an extract of letter from James A. Crowell, late first mate of theJanet to Henry Wilcox, owners’ agent, in Westport, dated at Paytam Aug. 1st. Mr. Crowell after mentioning the fact of the three boats putting off for whales as above stated, adds: “At 3 P.M. I had my whale alongside and soon the ship came to me, and when I got on board there was but one boat in sight, and that was five miles to the leeward of the ship. I went down to it with the ship and found that it was the 2d mate’s boat. He had seen Capt. H. two hours previously fast to a whale and went to the leeward of him when last seen from his boat. We proceeded in the direction in which the captain’s boat had been last seen and lay too all night with all sails set, and with all our lights fixed. In the morning saw nothing of the boat. We cruised three days, but unfortunately without meeting any trace of here.


The crew member’s account


In the winter of 1849, the northeastern coast of America was visited by one of the most destructive gales recorded in the history of that section. From Prince Edward’s Island to Montauk Point, the whole coast was strewn with wrecks. More than one hundred sail, large and small, went to pieces on the eastern and northern shores of Prince Edward’s Island alone, and the schooner of __________, to which I then belonged, was of the number. I was among those who were saved; and six weeks subsequently I shipped on board the bark Janet, of Westport, Capt. Hosmer, for a whaling voyage in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. The vessel was ready to sail when I joined; and on the twenty-second day of January, we put to sea with a full crew. The voyage out was pleasant; and as we coasted down past the Atlantic shores of South America, we succeeded in getting three sperm whales, which put us in practice, and raised our spirits to a hopeful pitch. We had reached the Indian Ocean, some where in the latitude of New Holland; but as I did not keep the ship’s reckoning, I cannot tell the exact location. The bark was under easy sail on a wind – the lookouts in the “crow’s nest” and the crew employed in the normal avocations of a whaler – when on the twenty-second day of July, just six months from the date of leaving Westport, the man on the main topmast cross trees, sung out: “There she blows”. A fine school of sperm whale was observed on our port quarter, about three miles off. The sea was smooth as glass; scarcely a ripple stirred its grand and solemn surface. The huge monsters were disporting themselves with the frolic of children, just let out of school; but with the majesty of power and intensified vitality. Here and there white, straight columns of water, curling gracefully forward, were ejected from their massive fronts; and every now and then one, more playful than the rest, leaped his whole enormous bulk from the foaming brine, to which it returned with a splash that sounded like the violent submerging of a promontory. The still greater animal-man-was watching these demonstrations with unfeigned delight; not with the relish of a naturalist, but with the intense gaze of the hunter – the glee of a miser who sees money within his grasp. In a moment the captain, mate, and second mate had their boats lowered, manned, equipped, and racing for the coveted prize. I belonged to Captain Hosmer’s boat; had the midship oar; and we were well in the lead: but the second mate’s boat overtook and passed us, and was first among the mammoth school. The officer stood forward – the harpoon ready in his practiced hands; he raised it, and with one powerful effort, fixed the barbed iron deep into the quivering sides of a huge “bull”. For a few seconds the warp flew around the “loggerhead” like lightning, and then stopped. “He has turned”, cried the second mate; “and will soon be upon us; so lookout!” Scarcely had the words been uttered, when the monster, with widely extended jaws, rushed upon the devoted boat, and seizing it between his massive teeth, reduced it to fragments – the men leaping far and wide each with his oar, to escape the dreadful gulf. Our boat pulled up rapidly, as did the other mate’s and each took half of the second mate’s crew – that officer going in the mate’s boat. Again the chase was prosecuted with even more zeal than before. It was an object to get the “bull” which had been struck, as our irons and all the warp were still fast to his bleeding body. Presently he was seen not far off, and we immediately pulled for him. Again, did the deadly iron find its way to his vitals, when hurled by the Captain’s hand, but the fellow’s courage had been signally cooled, and after a sharp run, he gave in, when we administered the lance and killed him.

“Good for ninety barrels, sure,” exclaimed Captain Hosmer, as he took a leisurely survey of this behemoth. We turned him, took him in tow and made for the bark, expecting that the mate would pursue another whale; but instead of so doing, he laid his boat for the Janet, which was about a mile leeward. Captain Hosmer could not understand this style of tactics, and expressed some surprise that Mr. Bennett had not followed and got another whale, several of which were not far off. We had got within a mile of the bark, when to our intense astonishment she squared away before the wind, which was now blowing a six-knot breeze, spread all canvas and rapidly disappeared from view. What could be the meaning of this astounding conduct? Why had Mr. Bennett left his captain and nine of his crew upon the friendless ocean? Captain Hosmer tried vainly to repress the fears and anguish which at that moment agitated his mind. He endeavored to account for Mr. Bennett’s course to a variety of ways, but that very variety was demoralizing. At length it became too evident that the mate had deserted us and gone off with the bark, leaving us to perish upon the broad bosom of the deep.

Three hours afterward the sun set and night fell, and with it the breeze, leaving a dead calm. “Men,” said the Captain “the Janet cannot be more than fourteen or fifteen miles away; she was steering east-southeast an hour before sun set, and cannot have altered her course in the calm; let us cut away the whale and pull for the bark, for I think we can catch her by midnight, unless the wind blows up, so cut away the whale, double bank the oars as much as possible, and give way with a will.” The monstrous carcass we had been towing was immediately sent adrift, and each one bent to his oar with firm resolve. It was a pull for life. The night was cloudless, but no moon “o’er the dark her silver mantle threw.” Bright and lustrous stars were reflected from the passive ocean; our boat rushed through the water, impelled by the strong arms of nine stalwart men, endeavoring to save themselves from agonizing death. Her bows were crested with silver foam and in her wake glowed livid sparks, while the rapidly dipping oars, with their long, stead sweep, turned up myriads of scintillations, as if a host of horse-ilies had suddenly been disturbed. On, on we pulled in the direction taken by the Janet until daylight broke upon us, when we stopped, laid upon our oars, and scanned the first coming horizon. In vain did we turn our anxious gaze in every direction. There was nothing framed by man in sight. Not a breath of air rippled over the boundless waste of waters; not a bird nor a fish broke the awful solitude. Up rose the sun, flaming, angry, merciless. A small beaker of water was in the boat, but it had been half emptied during the preceding night of trial and anxiety. Captain Hosmer immediately charged himself with the care of this desperately coveted beverage, to be doled out in regular rations to each man, no one receiving more than enough to moisten his parching lips and burning tongue. Then commenced that long sequence of unutterable horrors, compared to which all other human ills seem trivial. There were ten men in the boat, and the third day had come with the same lurid sun glaring upon us with relentless fury. At the Captain’s suggestion, each man soaked himself in sea water which seemed to afford some very slight relief; but our garments soon dried in that furnace-like heat, leaving a crust of salt all over our bodies so that the experiment had to be constantly repeated. It is needless to describe the increasing anguish and torment suffered by that wretched crew as day after day came and went, leaving still upon the glassy deep which had begun to look more like

molten lead than water. We were then so exhausted that all further effort to make way was out of the question. The pangs of hunger had become demonical, and men glared at each other with cannibal gaze and intent. Each felt what the other thought. We began to realize the one must die that the rest might live. Strange it was, that in the midst of this indescribable agony of mind and body, no one thought of committing suicide; no one contemplated self-sacrifice, but with insane despair, seemed to prefer being killed and eaten. Psychologists may explain this extraordinary fact; I cannot. The love of life was still the ruling principle and we clung to it with desperation.

“Oh, my God!: exclaimed the captain, “If we had not cut away that whale we might have been content.” These were terrible words. They at once imparted a renewed sense of hunger which could not be appeased without food – food of some kind, no matter what. Among the crew was a Malay; a wonderfully active and vigorous man, with the agility of a tiger-cat and the muscular power of an anaconda. His savage eyes glittered like those of a basilisk as he proposed that we should draw lots to determine who should be immolated. Every one at first recoiled with unfeigned horror; but in a few minutes the proposition familiarized itself to our minds and in one hour it was adopted. An express stipulation was made to except the captain, who resisted the motion, but finally consented as he was the only navigator among us and the greatest sufferer. Our commander cut small slivers of wood of different lengths from a harpoon-staff, and presenting their ends while concealing their length in his hand, bade each one draw, the one pulling the shortest sliver to die. We were paralyzed. Had it really come to this? Perhaps in ten minutes after the victim had been sacrificed a vessel might heave in sight, and rescue us from so horrible a condition. Perhaps a storm might arise and destroy all hands. Perhaps some stray porpoise or other fish might come with in the reach of our harpoons or grains. We hesitated and agreed to defer the ordeal until after nightfall, for the double reason of waiting until the last hope was gone, and of securing the sacrifice as cool as possible when no other resource was left. Eight o’clock PM., came full soon. The moon was riding in the heavens and reflected from the vast mirror of the ocean. Slowly, and with suffocating trepidation, we approached the captain to draw our lots. His hands and frame shook as with an ague. One by one with lank jaws, cavernous eyes and gaunt frames, we stretched forth our palsying fingers and selected our bits of wood. Not a word was spoken, but the commander with the index of doom pointed out the victim. Ten short minutes were given to prepare for the awful change from life to death, from this world, with its attendant horrors, to the “undiscovered bourne.” While engaged in commending himself to the throne of grace, and preparing to go where “the weary are at rest,” he was knocked on the head from behind, and quickly dispatched with repeated blows – care being taken to shed no drop of blood. This our first sacrifice to selfishness; but we were not in possession of rational faculty. The capacity to judge clearly and dispassionately had been lost. Our manhood had been taken from us, and we were but beasts of prey – the mere animal man. After two or three days, the same horrible ceremony was repeated, and again and again, until four of our number had succumbed.

Our fifth drawing was postponed longer than usual, for there seemed to be a re- awakened hope of rescue. It came not. Once more the Captain held forth the fatal slivers, and the Malay drew the shortest. This was at five o’clock in the afternoon, and the time of sacrifice would not arrive until eight o’clock P.M. My feeble powers of description can give you no adequate idea of how the Malay’s eyes glittered, of the foam that covered his lips; of the writhing of his frame underwent; of the manner in which he gnashed his teeth, and howled like a wolf. It was frightful. These extreme expressions of unmitigated agony were beginning to operate in his favor, and elicit some tokens of compassion: but they were soon turned to hate and loathing. The after, or stroke oar, was propelled by a lad not over seventeen years of age. He had been the most heroic and uncomplaining of the crew. He was a meek, active, intelligent boy, who had won the favor of all, and we had unanimously determined that his life should be save if in our power. Seven o’clock arrived. The Malay was at the forward oar. One of two “heavers,” short, heavy, thick were lying under his thwart, and the Captain saw him quickly reach down and arm himself with one. Suspecting some villainy, the commander quietly unshipped a lance, and placed it by his side, ready for use. Half an hour passed, when the Malay, with the bound of a tiger, leaped over the intervening thwarts, and made a desperate blow at the boy’s head. As he sprang aft, Captain Hosmer raised his foot and kick the boy off his thwart, causing the Malay’s aim to miss its mark, and at the same instant drove the lance deep into his chest. The would-be murderer fell, and was instantly killed and shared out among the survivors. Hunger had been somewhat appeased, and we killed each other, not so much for the flesh as to moisten our mouths with the blood, which, although hot at first, soon cooled upon the lips and tongue, especially as a refreshing breeze had sprung up a few days before the Malay’s death. The sky had become overcast and threatened a storm. Water! Water! anything for water. The dreadful, indescribable gnawings of hunger are feeble in comparison to the want of water. Oh! That the Majesty above would vouchsafe a rain storm that we might drink, and not perish of thirst.

It was not so ordained. The clouds passed away and left us once more under the glowing firmament. It was more than human nature could bear, and one of our number died under the affliction. His body as made fast to a rope and trolled for two days, in hope of calling up a shark; but no such good fortune awaited us; Those who still cling to the belief that sharks will instinctively follow a vessel, on board of which some member is soon to die, may rest assured of its fallacy. We would have given worlds to have seen one of those voracious monsters during our horrible sufferings. On the morning of the third day we cut our dead shipmate adrift, and again resigned ourselves to whatever fate might be in store. Only four of the original ten remained alive, viz: the captain, the lad, one messmate and myself. It had been my fortune to escape so far and only two of us were left to draw lots. Six days had passed since we shared the Malay and we had been two days without food. There we lay silently rocking upon the great deep. The moon had come and gone and was beginning to come again. Thirty-four days had been passed in this awful struggle for life. Not a drop of water had refreshed our systems after the second day; not a fish nor bird had been seen in all that terrible period. We had ceased to be human, and more resembled beasts of prey. Deep-sunk bloodless eyes; gaunt, shriveled, emaciated frames; lolling, swollen tongues, and trembling limbs; faces covered with thin, scraggy beards; nails like claws, and covered with human blood, may give a faint idea of how we looked, except that there was a fiendish, inexpressible glare about the eyes that spoke volumes. Our voices had been reduced to hoarse whispers; the power of utterance was nearly exhausted; men no longer spoke to each other, but conversed reluctantly by sluggish signs. Yet the desire to prolong life rose above all other considerations. It was for that we had killed and eaten our fellowmen. It was for that we had undergone indescribable torture of mind and body. It was for that we still hoped and struggled against an almost positive fate. As the next day dawned upon the cloudless ocean, although a gentle breeze faned the waters, Capt. Hosmer signaled us to come aft. In a hardly audible whisper he said: “Let us agree together like men. Let us have no more of this dreadful cannibalism. If we are to perish, it is God’s holy will, and we would submit without rebelliousness. All proper measure should be adopted to secure life, if possible; but we have been sinful and selfish beyond ordinary parallel. Should we escape, our lives will become one harrowing grief for the deeds we have done in this boat; and if we do not survive, to what end will have been all the evil we have done?

Freely each person reached out his hand, and grasping that of our noble commander, acquiesced in his views and solemnly pledged themselves to their fulfillment. The thirty-fifth day came, and we had resigned ourselves to die, either by the slow and ineffable torture of famine, or by a hasty plunge into the deep. At ten o’clock A.M. a sail was descried to the westward, standing directly toward us with a fair wind. With all the haste our Captain could command, he tore the ragged remnant of his shirt from his shoulders and made it fast to a lance-staff. This was stepped in the mast-hole, and required the united strength of two men to keep it steady and upright. On came the ship, until within a mile of us, she hoisted her ensign in token of having seen us.