Whale Ships and Whaling: A Pictorial History

Whale Ships and Whaling: A Pictorial History

by George Francis Dow

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The mystery, excitement, and romance of whaling have fired the human imagination since ancient times. And although many books have been written about whales and whaling, few have presented as comprehensive a pictorial survey of the whale ships of all periods as the present — and now rare — volume. Over 200 vintage engravings, drawings, and photographs depict a magnificent fleet of barks, brigs, cutters, and other whaling vessels, including interior views and interesting details.
You'll also find photographs and prints of actual whaling implements (blubber forks, harpoons, lances, cutting spades, etc.), whaling guns, boating implements, and other tools and equipment of the whalers of yesteryear. Additional pictorial highlights include a 1621 engraving of Mass being celebrated on the back of a whale; a wood engraving of the ship "Maria" of New Bedford built in 1782 (oldest whaler in the U.S. in 1853); a Currier and Ives lithograph of a sperm whale, "In A Flurry;" and a revealing series of prints documenting the whaler "Charles W. Morgan" of New Bedford.
Most of the prints have been culled from private sources, especially the celebrated Macpherson and Forbes collections, and are generally inaccessible. They have been painstakingly reproduced here, making them widely available to anyone interested in this fascinating chapter of maritime history. George Francis Dow, one of this century's foremost authorities on sailing vessels, selected the illustrations and contributed an expert, well-researched text outlining the history of whaling over three centuries, with special attention to the whaling industry of colonial New England.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486170305
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 01/24/2013
Series: Dover Maritime
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 190 MB
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Whale Ships and Whaling

A Pictorial Survey

By George Francis Dow

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1985 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17030-5



MANY years before the first settlements were made in New England, fishing vessels from overseas frequented the coast. It was fully a century before the "Mayflower" sailed into Plymouth harbor, when French fishermen from St. Malo, Dieppe and Honfleur were catching cod on the banks off Newfoundland. English whale ships went to Cape Breton in the year 1593 and although they returned without having made any captures, yet they discovered on an island some eight hundred whale fins left by a Biscay ship that had been there three years earlier.

Samuel de Champlain, the navigator and founder of the French settlements in North America, on returning to France from his second voyage, sailed from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River on August 18th, 1610, and when "about half way across, we encountered a whale, which was asleep. The vessel, passing over him, awakening him betimes, made a great hole in him near the tail, without damaging our vessel; but he threw out an abundance of blood.

"It has seemed to me not out of place to give here a brief description of the mode of catching whales, which many have not witnessed, and suppose that they are shot, owing to the false assertions about the matter made to them in their ignorance by impostors, and on account of which such ideas have often been obstinately maintained in my presence.

"Those, then, most skillful in this fishery are the Basques, who, for the purpose of engaging in it, take their vessels to a place of security, and near where they think whales are plenty. Then they equip several shallops manned by competent men and provided with hawsers, small ropes made of the best hemp to be found, at least a hundred and fifty fathoms long. They are also provided with many halberds of the length of a short pike, whose iron is six inches broad; others are from a foot and a half to two feet long, and very sharp. Each shallop has a harpooner, the most agile and adroit man they have, whose pay is next highest to that of the masters, his position being the most dangerous one. This shallop being outside of the port, the men look in all quarters for a whale, tacking about in all directions. But, if they see nothing, they return to shore and ascend the highest point they can find, and from which they can get the most extensive view. Here they station a man on the lookout. They are aided in catching sight of a whale by his size and the water he spouts through his blowholes, which is more than a puncheon at a time and two lances high. From the amount of this water, they estimate how much oil he will yield. From some they get as many as one hundred and twenty puncheons, and from others less. Having caught sight of this monstrous fish, they hasten to embark in their shallops, and by rowing or sailing they advance until they are upon him.

"Seeing him under water, the harpooner goes at once to the prow of the shallop with his harpoon, an iron two feet long and half a foot wide at the lower part, and attached to a stick as long as a small pike, in the middle of which is a hole to which the hawser is made fast. The harpooner, watching his time, throws his harpoon at the whale, which enters him well forward. As soon as he finds himself wounded, the whale goes down, and if by chance turning about, as he does sometimes, his tail strikes the shallop, it breaks it like glass. This is the only risk they run of being killed in harpooning. As soon as they have thrown the harpoon into him, they let the hawser run until the whale reaches the bottom; but sometimes he does not go straight to the bottom, when he drags the shallop eight or nine leagues or more, going as swiftly as a horse. Very often they are obliged to cut their hawser, for fear that the whale will take them under water. But, when he goes straight to the bottom, he rests there awhile, and then returns quietly to the surface, the men taking aboard again the hawser as he rises. When he comes to the top, two or three shallops are stationed around with halberds, with which they give him several blows. Finding himself struck, the whale goes down again, leaving a trail of blood and grows weak to such an extent that he has no longer any strength nor energy, and returning to the surface is finally killed. When dead he does not go down again. Fastening stout ropes to him, they drag him ashore to their headquarters, the place where they try out the fat of the whale to obtain his oil. This is the way whales are taken, and not by cannon-shots, which many suppose, as I have stated above."

The date of the coming of the first ship sent out on a whaling venture to New England is not known, but it may have been in April, 1614, when Capt. John Smith arrived at Monhegan, off the coast of Maine, with two ships from London.

"Our plot was there to take Whales, for which we had one Samuel Cramton, and divers others expert in the faculty.... We found this Whale-fishing a costly conclusion; we saw many and spent much time in chasing them, but could not kill any. They being a kind of Tubartes, and not the whale that yields Fins and Oils as we expected."

Elsewhere he mentions that whales were common off the New England coast and when he arrived in London on July 18, 1614, after an absence of less than six months, his ship brought back furs, train oil (whale oil) and cor-fish (dried cod fish) the best of which sold at £ 5. the hundred.

When the "Mayflower" came to anchor at Cape Cod, in December, 1620, the Pilgrims debated mightily whether they should remain there or find a settlement at Agawam, now Ipswich, and one of the arguments advanced for remaining at Cape Cod was that "it was a place of profitable fishing, for large whales of the best kind for oil and bone came daily alongside and played about the ship. The master and his mate, and others experienced in fishing, preferred it to the Greenland whale fishery and asserted that were they provided with the proper implements, £ 300, or £ 400, worth of oil might be obtained."

The Royal Charter under which the first settlements were made in the Massachusetts Bay, guaranteed to the colonists their rights to unrestricted fishing, in fact, it was a colony of fishermen that was at first contemplated. The Province Charter of 1691 also confirmed the rights of the colonists to "free Libertie of Fishing ... in the Seas thereunto adjoyning and of all Fishes Royall Fishes Whales Balene Sturgeon and other Fishes of what kind or nature soever."

At that time whales undoubtedly were very numerous along the New England coast and also in deep water. When the Rev. Francis Higginson, the first minister at Salem, published his New Englands Plantation (London, 1630), he wrote of seeing a "great store of Whales and Grampusse" while on the voyage over, and five years later, when Rev. Richard Mather came over and became the minister at Dorchester, he wrote of seeing near the coast "mighty whales spewing up water in the air, like the smoke of a chimney, and making the sea about them white and hoary, as is said in Job, of such incredible bigness that I will never wonder that the body of Jonas could be in the belly of a whale."

A still earlier voyager along the coast was Capt. George Waymouth, who sailed from Dartmouth, March 15, 1605, intending to visit the regions south of Cape Cod, but meeting with contrary winds after making his landfall, he bore away to the east ward and anchored on the north side of the island of Monhegan off the coast of Maine. After exploring the nearby coast he sailed for England taking with him five Indians from the region of the Kennebec river. His narrative was published the same year and in it he describes the manner in which the Kennebec Indians captured the whale.

"One especial thing is their manner of killing the whale, which they call powdawe; and will describe his form: how he bloweth up the water; and that he is twelve fathoms long; and that they go in company of their king with a multitude of boats, and strike him with a bone made in fashion of a harping iron fastened to a rope, which they make great and strong of the bark of trees, which they vear out after him; then all their boats come about him, and as he riseth above water, with their arrows they shoot him to death: when they have killed him and dragged him to shore, they call all their chief lords together and sing a song of joy; and those chief lords, whom they call Sagamores, divide the spoil, and give to every man a share, which pieces so distributed, they hang up about their houses for provision; and when they boil them, they blow off the fat, and put to their pease, maize, and other pulse which they eat."

Samuel Purchas in his Pilgrimage describes in some detail how the English whalers pursued the whale at this time. Writing in 1612 he remarks: "I might here recreate your wearied eyes with a hunting spectacle of the greatest chase which Nature yieldeth : I mean the killing of a whale. When they espy him on the top of the water (which he is forced to for to take breath), they row toward him in a shallop, in which the harpooner stands ready with both his hands to dart his harping iron, to which is fastened a line of such length that the whale (which suddenly feeling himself hurt, sinketh to the bottom) may carry it down with him, being before fitted that the shallop be not therewith endangered; coming up again, they strike him with lances made for that purpose, about twelve feet long, the iron eight thereof and the blade eighteen inches—the harping iron principally serving to fasten him to the shallop, and thus they hold him in such pursuit, till after streams of water, and next of blood, cast up into the air and water (as if angry with both elements, which have brought thither such weak hands for his destruction), he at length yieldeth up his slain carcass as meed to the conquerors."

Oils and fats were highly esteemed by our ancestors and occupied an important place in trade. Train oil, so-called, produced from the blubber of the whale, was used not only in the making of leather and for lighting, but also entered largely into the composition of the cargoes of vessels bound for London, Bristol and other English ports. Fish of various kinds were caught in such numbers that they were used as fertilizer in the corn fields, and fish oil became an article of export. In every household the animal fats were carefully preserved and used in the making of soap and candles. While candles made from tallow were in daily use in every home, all well-equipped kitchen fireplaces had their iron "betty lamps," used to light the inside of the pots and kettles in cooking, and other lamps of metal and even glass were used for lighting in prosperous homes. The streets in the larger towns were lighted but feebly. As late as the year 1668, the inhabitants of London, the first and largest city in the Kingdom, were ordered "to hang out candles duly to the accustomed hour, for the peace and safety of the city." It was not until 1716, that householders were directed to "hang out a lamp on every night between the second after the full-moon until the seventh after the new moon, from the hour of six in the evening until eleven."

Whale oil furnished the best light and whalebone, or baleen, the fringed plates through which the right whale sifted its food, was used in clothing and in the arts.

In the early days whaling was carried on in New England by means of boats from off shore, and most of the captures were made along the south shore of Massachusetts Bay and in the warmer waters south of Cape Cod. As early as 1641 the Great and General Court of Massachusetts "ordered and decreed, That if any ships or other vessels, be it friend or enemy, shall suffer ship-wreck upon our coasts, there shall be no violence or wrong offered to their persons, or goods, but their persons shall be Harboured and Releived, and their goods preserved in safety, till Authority may be certified, and shall take further Order Therein. Also any Whale, or such like great fish cast upon any shore, shall be safely kept or improved where it cannot be kept, by the town or other proprietor of the land, til the Generall Court shall set Order for the same."

The right whale probably was very common along-shore at that time for there are numerous references to drift whales in the seventeenth century records of New England shore towns. These drift whales were prizes for the lucky finders and disputes at once arose as to the relative rights of the Colony and the finder. In 1652, the town of Sandwich, Mass., appointed six men to secure and divide oil-bearing fish that the Indians might cut up within the town limits. They also were to act as agents to receive the oil for the country. Ten years later the town of Eastham voted that a part of every whale cast ashore should be apportioned for the support of the ministry. History fails to relate what may have taken place when a whale was sighted in the breakers during the public exercise on a Sunday morning. From all drift whales the Colony claimed one hogshead or two barrels of oil to be delivered in Boston.

In 1676, Edward Randolph, the British Agent in Boston, wrote home to the Lords of Trade, of the great quantity of whale oil made in the Plymouth Colony and again, in 1688, he wrote: "New Plimouth Colony have great profit by whale killing. I believe it will be one of our best returnes, now beaver and peltry fayles us." The same year a memorandum appears in the Colony Archives which embodies the universally recognized law of whalemen that "craft claims the whale." It specifies:

"Furst : if aney persons shall find a Dead Whael on the streem And have the opportunity to toss herr on shoure; then ye owners to alow them twenty shillings; 2ly: if thay cast hur out & secure ye blubber & bone then ye owners to pay them for it 30s. (that is if ye whael ware lickly to be loast;) 3ly, if it proves a floatesom not killed by men then ye Admirall to Doe Thaire in as he shall please;—4ly; that no persons shall presume to cut up any whael till she be vewed by toe persons not consarned; that so ye Right owners may not be Rongged of such whael or whaels ; 5ly, that no whael shall be needlessly or fouellishly lansed behind ye vitall to avoid stroy; 6ly, that each companys harping Iron & Lance be Distinckly marked on ye heads & socketts with a poblick mark: to ye prevention of strife; 7ly, that if a whael or whaells be found & no Iron in them; then thay that lay ye neerest claim to them by thaire strokes & ye natoral markes to have them; 81y, if 2 or 3 companyes lay equal claimes, then thay equally to shear."

In November, 1690, the Plymouth Colony enacted a law requiring towns to appoint inspectors of whales and the following rules were set forth to govern their work:

"1. All whales killed or wounded & left at sea the killers to repaire to the inspectors & give marks, time, place, which shall be recorded.

"2. All whales brought or cast ashore to be viewed by inspector or deputy before being cut & marks & wounds recorded with time & place.

"3. Any person cutting or defacing a whale before being viewed unless necessary shall lose right to it, & pay 10 £ to coun-ty, & fish to be seized by inspectors for owner's use. Inspectors to have power to make deputy and allow 6s. per whale.

"4. Those finding a whale a mile from shore not appearing to be killed by man shall be first to secure them, pay 1 hogshead of oyle to ye county for each whale."

An original return made by one of these inspectors of whales is now in the possession of Mr. Lawrence W. Jenkins of Salem, and reads as follows:—

"Decemr ye 3 1724 I was desired by Obediah Lamson to obsarve the marks of a whale cut up by him at Duxborough beach which ware as folleth. A short bone with 2 iarnholes one on her rite side about 6 feete abaft her spouts w'h iarn I gug mortal the other about 4 feete back of that & sumthing on the left side of her back boane not mortal and I gudg pricked with a lance one on the rite fin near the joynt. I suposed this fish to be killed 4 or 5 days be fore this date.

"Joshua Soule."

Whaling alongshore began early on Long Island and it is probable that the first organized whale fishing on the coast began there. The town of Southampton, at the eastern end of Long Island, was settled in 1640 by men from Lynn in the Massachusetts Colony, and four years later the town was divided into four wards, with eleven persons in each ward, to care for drift whales that might be cast ashore. Two persons from each ward (selected by lot) were charged with the duty of cutting up the whale, "and every Inhabitant with his child or servant that is above sixteen years of age shall have in the Division of the other part [i. e. the part that remained after the cutters had deducted the double share to which by vote they were entitled] an equall proportion provided that such person when yt falls into his ward a sufficient man to be imployed aboute yt." In 1645, the town voted that no man should take or carry away any whale cast ashore within the limits of the town without an order from a magistrate under a penalty of twenty shillings, and anyone finding a whale, on notifying a magistrate should be allowed five shillings. "And yt is further ordered that yf any shall finde a whale or any peece thereof upon the Lord's day then the aforesaid shillings shall not be due or payable." The historian of Southampton remarks "this last clause, appears to be a very shrewd thrust at 'mooning' on the beach on Sundays."


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