Stove Boats, Shipwrecks, and Cannibalism: The Perils of Westport Whaling Voyages
Whaling was a dangerous business. On long voyages so many things could go wrong. Men got sick far from land. They fell overboard. Boats were stove by whales. Ships were wrecked, or simply never heard from again. And sometimes, men went to great extremes to survive. The following stories are all true, and all happened to Westport people or ships.
Westport was an active whaling port for about 75 years. Whaling began in earnest about 1803, and the last whaler, the Andrew Hicks, left Westport in 1879. If we rank all 72 U. S. ports engaged in whaling by number of voyages, Westport ranks 8th – a very respectable position for a small harbor.
In the early days of whaling in Westport, voyages typically lasted only six months. This limited the exposure to danger, and allowed crew members to have some semblance of home life. But as the whaling industry expanded, and whales became more scarce in the Atlantic, voyages increased, with two to three years a common duration. The longest Westport voyage was on the Greyhound which went out in 1857 and returned four and a half years later. Imagine how hard it would be to hold an engagement, or not to see a child born just after departure until the child was four years old. More relevant to our story, the longer a ship was at sea, the more likelihood of something going wrong. And things did go wrong—some ended well, some badly.
Under the best of circumstances, whaling was perilous, and the most dangerous moments were when whaling boats were lowered to approach a whale. A whale boat was typically 30 feet long—half the length of an average sperm whale, which might weigh 40 tons. And the whale, just speared with a harpoon, would be very angry. Here are three very different accounts of close encounters with whales.
Henry Pettey, writing to his sister Nancy from the Azores in 1854:
“I got baptized handsome in the following manner without ceremony. We raised whales and lowered away and the boat that I was in soon got fast and as soon as Tripp struck the whale he struck our boat and stove her and then by way of proving his regard for us beyond a doubt he gave us a parting kiss with his flukes that demolished our boat entirely and spilled us in the drink …being in some degree amphibious we managed to keep bung up and bilge free till the nearest boat which was about a mile off came and picked us up.”
Note how Henry makes light of his near-death experience. This is very much in line with mariners’ behavior that Richard Henry Dana described in Two Years Before the Mast: if a sailor survived an accident, such as falling overboard or dropping from the rigging, everyone treated it as a joke—despite the fact that at the time, the terrified sailor thought he was going to die. Note also that the boat that would rescue Henry was a mile off—a far distance considering that most whalemen could not swim!
A very different point of view comes from an unnamed sailor who honestly recalled his first voyage on the Westport whaler Leonidas in 1857:
“I remember seeing a black shape beside the boat and a great commotion in the water. . . . One man was frightened and panic-stricken and the mate had to attend to him, . . . or he might have gone over-board. A Kanaka [South Sea Islander] said to him ‘You look at me. Me no ‘fraid. You see this little feller. He no ‘fraid.’ That was myself and it almost made me smile. I thought ‘If you only knew how I felt you wouldn’t say ‘This little feller no ‘fraid.’ But I attended to my work and did not look at the whale if I could help it.”
Finally, in the log kept by Albert Gifford aboard the Westport ship President in 1849, we have a very terse description of a deadly encounter with a whale.
“lored [lowered] wast [waist] boat Struck starboard boat went on to him [whale] got stove whale took one Ansel Juel in his Jaw never saw him after”
Sickness was a constant worry aboard ship, especially contagious diseases where quarantine was difficult. An example is an 1851 voyage of the Cornelia, under the command of Captain Edward Davoll of Westport. Ten days out to sea, Davoll discovered that a passenger he was carrying to the Azores had smallpox. Soon Davoll himself became ill, and at one point 11 crew members were sick at the same time. They were lucky – all survived.
Another tale of sickness comes from Captain William Bearns of the bark Hero, built in Westport by Paul Cuffe, and co-owned by Cuffe and Isaac Cory of Westport Point. The captain wrote to the owners in June 1812 from Chile:
“I was 73 days in North Latitude and my men getting very Bad with the Scurvy. When I reached this Port, there was but Four men that could come on deck . . . and they was sick.”
“I had been confined to my Cabin 12 days before I got to this Port. . . . I got the Sick men all in the boat, one died getting him in the boat, which was a Spanish man. I carried all on shore & sent off 18 men to tow the Bark. The Spaniards [authorities of Chile] kept us all out of Doors one Day & one Night in the fog and cold which was very bad for us. Isaac Harte departed this life in four hours after he got on Shore, but the Rest have got well & I am much better.”
The captain writes that the bark was “very rotten” and had to be condemned. “It is very hurtful to my eye to Write or I Should Write more particulars,” he adds. “I cannot see with one eye & the other is very weak & in much Pain in my eye and temple.” Scurvy, death far from home, a condemned ship, blindness – this is a letter of unrelenting bad news.
While not exactly sickness, a medical issue that occasionally arose was the pregnancy of a captain’s wife at sea. Westport native Abbie Dexter Hicks accompanied her husband Edward on the bark Mermaid which sailed in 1873 and was gone for two and a half years. As she approached her delivery date they rented at house in the Seychelle Islands, about 1,000 miles east of Kenya. When the baby was born, her husband was out to sea. Her diary entry for that day was
Baby born about 12 – caught two rats.
This was not a disaster, but hardly ideal conditions for childbirth!
When sailors died at sea, there was usually a sea burial, unless they were close to land. One Westport whaleman, Charles H. Petty of the bark A. R. Tucker, was attacked by a shark in 1863 and buried on the coast of Africa. This may seem preferable to burial at sea, but it was terrible for the parents who could not properly bury their son. He was just a boy, only 15 when he went to sea, and dead at 17.
Another peril was war. Westport’s most famous whaler, the Kate Cory, sailed during the Civil War. In 1863, off the coast of Brazil, she was captured by the Confederate commerce raider Alabama, which had been built in England The crew were removed and the ship burned. The men eventually made it back, but there were no profits to share – until 1870 when the US government won an international law case for $15 million against Great Britain for having broken its neutrality agreement.
While war was a bad time to be at sea (the Kate Cory was one of over 60 vessels taken by the Alabama) in fact during the Civil War it was safer to be at sea than in the army.
In the days before radio, radar, and GPS, ships could more easily run aground or get caught in bad weather. One example of a Westport shipwreck is the Catherwood, as told in the Boston Daily Courier, February 19, 1856.
Whaling bark Catherwood of Westport was totally lost on the Island of Narbio, one of the Galapagos group. Capt. Oliver states that she went ashore about 1AM in thick fog and dead calm. They commenced towing the vessel offshore but the swell was so heavy that in less than half an hour she struck and immediately went to pieces and they were compelled to abandon her, saving only the ship’s papers, the crew were obliged to leave without water or provisions, they were 5 days without food, subsisting only upon crabs. The only thing saved from the wreck was a cask of bread. The Catherwood had on board when lost 500 bbls sperm oil.
Fortunately the men were rescued by a passing ship.
In March 1860, the bark United States, owned by Westport whaling agent Andrew Hicks, under the command of Captain Warren Woodward, left St Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. Four weeks later, about 800 miles from New Bedford she began taking on water in heavy seas. For the next three weeks them men pumped every day, just barely keeping up with the severe leak. By April 28 a hurricane was blowing. There were eight passengers on board, John Bagley, his wife, and six children, who were moving from St. Helena to New Bedford.
On May 1, as the captain later reported, they “lost the rudder and the ship became unmanageable, rolling heavily and the leak increasing.” Fortunately, a ship, the Moses Wheeler of New York, saw their distress signal, and despite heavy seas, they got the passengers to the ship. Captain Woodward then called all hands and asked who would stay with the United States. No one volunteered! and the ship was abandoned. The crew and passengers lost all their belongings. Also lost were 550 barrels of sperm oil, worth over $20,000. This was a happy ending, but a big financial and personal loss, and a scary beginning to the Bagley family’s new life in Massachusetts.
In these two cases, the ships were lost but the crew returned safely. Sometimes ships returned but lost crew members. This was the fate of Captain William Cuffe, the son of Westport’s esteemed mariner, philanthropist, and civil rights advocate Paul Cuffe. William and three of his crew aboard the Rising States died when the ship was badly damaged in a gale in 1837. Other ships simply disappeared with no news, such as the Theophilus Chase in 1849. This had a devastating effect on families: holding out hope for months, and never knowing what happened.
The Whalemen’s Shipping List, the New Bedford newspaper of the whaling industry, gave a bleak assessment of death and destruction at sea in 1855: 336 wrecks and 480 lives lost or missing. And the previous year had been much worse! The editors noted that it will be “a heart-sickening duty to perform” the next years report. “Almost every mail brings additions to the disastrous catalogue.”
Finally, there is the strange and rather grim story of the Janet, under the command of Captain Charles B. Hosmer, and owned by Henry Wilcox of Westport. In 1849, on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land, whales were spotted and three boats were lowered, commanded by the captain, the first mate and the second mate. What happened next depends on which account is closest to the truth.
According to a seaman who survived the ordeal, the second mate’s boat was destroyed in the jaws of a sperm whale. The boat’s crew were all saved and brought into the other two boats. The captain’s boat then went after the whale, while the mate’s boat returned to the Janet. After capturing the whale, Captain Hosmer looked up to see the Janet sailing away. They rowed all night in the direction of the ship, but at dawn it was nowhere in sight. After three days with no food, a “Malay” (apparently from Malaysia) suggested they draw lots to see who should be killed to provide food for the others. (The captain was excepted—he was the only navigator.) The victim was hit on the head, and devoured by his shipmates.
Every few days this pattern repeated, until four crew members were dead. The fifth victim was the Malay who had become violent and was killed by the captain. When a sixth man died of exhaustion, his body was used (unsuccessfully) to troll for sharks. After 36 days with no rain and no fish they were spotted by a passing ship, and the four remaining men were saved.
The captain told a very different story. In his version the mate’s whaleboat was not destroyed by a whale; in fact all three boats got whales and two made it back to the Janet. The captain’s boat capsized when it was only a mile and a half from the ship. The Janet, under the command of the first mate, sailed away. While bailing the boat, one man was lost, and another died the next day (Hosmer didn’t explain how). The captain headed for Cocos Island, about 1,000 miles distant.
On the seventh day, they decided to draw lots, but there is no description of the victim’s death. The following day a fourth man died of exhaustion, leaving only the captain and a seaman. But in this story there is some fresh water from rain and food in the form of a dolphin that lands in the boat. A final difference is that the boat makes it to Cocos Island which, though uninhabited, has pigs and fresh water. Two days later the New Bedford whaler Leonidas stops at the island for wood and water, and the two survivors are rescued.
Both versions imply that the first mate intentionally sailed away from the captain’s whaleboat. The mate wrote to owner Henry Wilcox that after bringing his whale to the ship, he sailed to the second mate’s boat and brought the crew in. He then sailed for three days in search of the captain’s boat before leaving the area.
So which is the true story? Was one of the whaleboats stove by a whale? Did they capture fresh water from rain and a dolphin for food? Did they make it to Cocos Island before being rescued? How many men were killed? Did they use a body to try to catch a shark? These are important details, with no agreement. All we know is that there was cannibalism among the crew of the Janet. But how that actually happened we’ll never know.
Westport is still a maritime port, and going to sea is dangerous. The mariners’ memorial at Westport Point attests to the perilous life of mariners. But today’s fishermen do not stay out for four years or chase after 40-ton leviathans, which is good for the families of Westport—and for the whales.