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Charles Wilkes describes life aboard a whaling ship.

U.S. Navy officer Charles Wilkes is notorious for his impulsive seizure of Confederate agents James Mason and John Slidell on a British steamer headed for England in 1861, an incident that nearly provoked Britain into declaring war. Wilkes’ far more enduring service was as explorer, circling the globe on scientific expeditions between 1838-42. An even greater contribution was the 30 years he spent overseeing the publication of the scientific reports and atlases stemming from these voyages. In this excerpt from Wilkes’ personal account, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, he outlines the hazards of life on a whaling vessel. In the mid-19th century, when the industry was at its peak, well over half of all whaling ships sailed from American ports. Herman Melville is said to have borrowed details from Wilkes’ report for Moby Dick and even shaped the character of Captain Ahab based on Wilkes’ reputation for harsh discipline.

It is impossible to meet a whale-ship in the ocean without being struck by her mere appearance. The vessel under short sail, with look-outs at the mast- head, eagerly scanning the wide expanse around them, has a totally different air from those engaged in a regular voyage.

But admiration is excited on becoming a looker-on at the chase and capture. When the cry from aloft of “There she spouts!” and the quick response of “Where away?” are heard, the bustle on the deck shows a state of animation that would scarcely be supposed possible among such men. The boats are immediately put in requisition, lowered and manned, and within minutes the pursuit is begun. The boats dash on until the boat-steerer comes within sight of his object; the whale is soon reconnoitered, and endeavors are made to approach him unobserved, and plunge the harpoon as near the fin as possible; a wound in this place is sometimes fatal, and no further injury is necessary to secure the animal’s capture.

On being struck, the whale at once dives, carrying out the line (which is kept coiled up in tubs) with great velocity, through a notch in the stem of the boat. The velocity of the line is at times so great, that in order to prevent the boat from being set on fire by the friction, water is applied. After the whale dives, some fifteen or twenty minutes pass, during which time the “fast” boat is often carried a great distance from the others, for the whale in descending generally takes an oblique course. The boat is so much buried in her rapid flight, that I have at times only been able to see the persons in her, for the water on each side was thrown so high as to conceal the hull from a distant observer, although the sea was otherwise quite smooth.

As the whale rises, a skillful boat-steerer will be ready at hand, and the moment the animal makes his appearance, lances are plunged in quick succession into his vital parts; when off he again bounds with the life-blood streaming from him, and shortly after, this huge monster is seen to turn over lifeless on his back. The shortness of time that elapses from the first onset to the capture and death of so large an animal, is almost inconceivable; and the apparently insufficient means that are employed to accomplish it, are likewise remarkable.

The whale being slain, signal is made for the ship, if to windward, to come down, or if to leeward, the monster is taken in tow by the boats and brought alongside, when the “fluke hooks” and chains are used to secure him; the operation of baling out the head-matter then begins, which is followed by stripping of the blubber in large pieces, called “blankets,” from four to six feet wide, to which tackles are applied to draw it up as it is separated from the carcass. After being taken on board, the blankets are cut up. The next operation is “trying out”: this is done by melting the blubber in large pots set in a fireplace of brick-work, which is carefully secured on the upper deck, with a trough around it, in which water is put to prevent accidents from fire. The fuel used is blubber from which the oil has been extracted, which produces a strong heat, and is a very economical fire. To prevent accidents great caution is necessary, and the readiest mode that has been found to extinguish the burning oil, is by throwing sand on it; a quantity of sand is, therefore, generally kept in the “try-works.” In well-regulated ships, the oil after boiling is put into reservoirs until it cools, after which it is drawn off and placed in the proper casks; of each of these a sample is kept, properly marked and labeled, and these are often shown with much pride by the master of the ship to his visitors, as indication of his success and the quality of his oil.

The profits of the whaling fishery have been great, and show what industry and perseverance can yield when well directed. The small number of accidents in this large fleet is surprising; for the total losses for which underwriters have to pay seldom exceed one per cent, and those from other accidents are not more than one half per cent. The insurance seldom exceeds two and a half per cent by the year, and at this low premium the underwriters have derived good dividends.

Of late years there has been much fluctuation in the price of oil, which has caused those to make losing voyages who returned at the times of its depression; but at the steady prices of eighty-five cents per gallon for sperm oil, and thirty-five cents for whale oil, voyages would generally yield a handsome return.

It is estimated that about ten per cent of the ships make losing voyages, as well from the incompetency of the masters as from accident and ill luck.

The greater proportion of the oil finds a market in Germany, Holland, and Prussia; consequently the prices abroad control those at home.

I have stated the number of sperm whales taken at five thousand, and this may in some years be beyond the truth. From the best authorities, the whole of both species annually taken is about ten thousand, including those lost from accident, and those cut adrift, in consequence of bad weather or night. These losses may amount to eight or ten per cent of those mortally wounded.

It is said that an equal proportion of bull and cow whales are taken. It is, however, admitted that the latter are the most numerous; and the probable reason for the equality in the number taken may be that the bull whale being the largest, is most sought after. The bull whales yield, on an average, from thirty to one hundred barrels of oil, while the cows seldom exceed forty-five barrels, and at times yield no more than five barrels. Bull whales are never found together, but in small numbers, while the cows are seen in large herds.

The right whale fisheries occupy the higher latitudes in both hemispheres, which are their feeding-grounds. As the winter is setting in, the cows resort to the bays to bring forth their young, where they remain until the spring, when they again resort to the feeding-grounds, to meet the bulls. It is not known where the latter go during the interval, but it is generally supposed to the high latitudes, where they find their food in greater plenty.

While visiting the ports for the purpose of recruiting, the crews of whale-ships are often found in a state of lax discipline; both captains and crew take this opportunity to lay their complaints before the consuls, who are much troubled with them, and frequently at a loss to understand and pass upon the merits of the case. The crews complain of bad provision, short allowance, and bad usage; in some cases I have heard them assert that they felt their lives in danger from the outrageous conduct of the captain, and in one instance, even the officers joined in the complaint. The captain, on the other hand, believed that there was a conspiracy on foot to poison him.

Many Americans are found on the different islands, who have been turned ashore from the whale-ships, or left because they have broken their liberty a single time, near the end of a voyage. Such treatment leaves too much ground to believe that they are purposely left, in order to increase the profits of the ship-master or owners. Several of these men were received, in a perfectly destitute condition, on board the Vincennes; others were taken out of prison, and all related many of the difficulties and troubles they had to encounter on board the ship to which they were attached; although I am not generally disposed to place much reliance on their statements, yet it cannot but happen that out of so many cases there must be some in which the seamen were in the right.

It is difficult to suggest any remedy for this state of things by legislation. The law passed in 1837 has had a beneficial effect in protecting the crews against a short supply of provisions, and in causing them to be furnished with wholesome food. But the quantity as well as the quality of the rations ought to be fixed by law, that every one who is restricted in food by his commander may receive an equivalent in money.

Another cause of complaint arises from the practice of issuing slops to the crews instead of money, and giving the supply of these to the master as a perquisite. I was not a little surprised when I learned that this perquisite had amounted to eighteen hundred dollars with a crew of about thirty men. It, in fact, sometimes reaches the amount of between two and three thousand dollars; and it will naturally excite some curiosity to know how so large a net gain could accrue from sailors whose ordinary dress is about a pair of coarse blue trousers and red flannel shirt. There is, however, no difficulty in the explanation. The crew, in the first place, get an outfit in clothing as an advance, which is charged to them at a profit of one hundred per cent; they then when allowed liberty on shore are obliged to draw these goods or clothing in lieu of money, and cannot exchange them on shore for more than one-fourth of what they are charged for them. In this way a debt is accumulated against the “lay” of the seaman, until he finds before the end of the voyages that the whole amount that ought to accrue to him is dissipated. This naturally leads to discontent against the persons whom he knows or believes to be the authors of his loss, and for whose gain all his labours have gone.

The crews of whale-ships are much more prone to scurvy than I had any idea of: during our stay at Oahu, several ships arrived, more or less affected with this horrible disorder, which arose from various causes; my inquiries satisfied me it was in most cases to be imputed to the long period passed at sea, aggravated by the despondency arising from want of success. In one case in particular, the captain had stopped at some islands for fruit and provisions, of which he had received an ample supply, and, concluding that his crew would recover, he continued to cruise until he finally reached Oahu with no more than three men fit for duty. Several of his men had died, and the rest were in a very precarious state. This, in my mind, is a sufficient proof that it is absolutely necessary, not only to give the crew occasional relaxation, but a change of employment, and additional hours of rest; it also shows that fresh provisions are not alone a sufficient preventive against, or cure for the scurvy. A change of diet must be accompanied by a change of scene, and cleanliness.

I would strongly urge upon the owners of whale-ships the necessity of the assignment of a larger and more airy apartment to the crew. The usual accommodation in the forecastle of a ship is in every respect unfitted to preserve either cleanliness or comfort. There is, perhaps, more room for improvement in this respect than in any other that can engage the attention of the owners of the ships. While they are lavishing every sort of expense on the cabins and saloons, and receiving the meed of praise from the civilized world for the costliness and beauty of the decorations, I would ask them to bestow some small attention and expenditure to increase the comforts of the common sailor, by whose aid alone their business can be carried on.

There is one entreaty I would urge upon all those who are engaged in the whale and biche de mar fishery, namely that in their intercourse with the natives of the South Seas they would treat them with justice and honesty. By so doing, I am satisfied that however much they may be exposed to dangers, they will escape without harm. I would not, however, be understood to say, that they should relax any thing in watchfulness against treachery; but while this is attended to, all harsh treatment to the natives should be avoided.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.