- Historic Sites
So the lookout’s cry resounded while Yankee whalers roamed the seas. Their perilous, arduous trade spanned three centuries
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
On November 20, 1819, the Essex was out in the Pacific. A whale was sighted, and three boats went after it. The mate struck the animal and it knocked a hole in his boat; then, while the boat’s crew was making hasty repairs, the whale saw the Essex and apparently recognized this vessel as the source of its woes. It went straight for the ship and rammed it head on with a force that stove in the ship’s planking. Apparently dazed, the whale lay alongside and thrashed the water, while the people on the Essex hoisted the recall signal and the boats hurried back. Recovering, the whale rammed the ship again, inflicting further damage, and then sounded and was seen no more. The boats came up to find the Essex in a sinking condition.
There was just time to get food and water into the boats and to rig weather boards that would give the little craft a better chance to survive wind and wave. Then the Essex went to the bottom, and the crew set out for land—seven men in each of two boats, and six men in the third.
Nearest land was the Marquesas Islands, about 1,320 miles away, to the west. These islands contained cannibals, and it was thought better to steer for the coast of South America, 2,100 miles distant. The three boats headed east, toward the mainland.
The crews had a hideous time of it. They sailed east for weeks. Food and water were exhausted; a lonely island provided fresh water and a little food—some grass and a lew fish. Three men elected to remain on this island, from which ultimately they were rescued. The others resumed the voyage. The oldest boat presently vanished and was never heard of again. The other two kept on and sailed into unmitigated horror. Food was gone, the tropical sun burned them, and everyone seems to have gone a little mad. In one boat, a man died and was eaten; the boat kept on and was eventually picked up by the brig Indian , of London, and the survivors were taken to Valparaiso, in Chile. In the other boat three men died and were eaten; then the survivors drew lots, killed the unlucky ones who held the short straws, and ate them. In the end this boat was picked up by the whaler Dauphin with two men still alive and uneaten—Captain George Pollard and a seaman named Charles Ramsdell. News of what had happened got back to Nantucket ahead of them, and when the men were landed there a silent crowd lined the wharves and streets when the captain walked back to his house.
Fortunately, it was not often that bad. There were ships and captains that never lost a man, and some ships were afloat for a century. Possibly the most remarkable of all was the ship Lagoda , which had been built in 1826 as a merchantman. Jonathan Bourne, Jr., of New Bedford, bought her in 1841 and sold her in 1886; during this time she made twelve voyages and rolled up an estimated net profit of $651,958. The Lagoda ’s most successful single voyage was from 1864 to 1868, when she brought back a catch worth more than $200,000, which represented a profit of 363 per cent. The Maria , built in 1782, remained in service until 1866; the Rousseau was broken up in 1893 after ninety-two years of service; the Triton , built in 1818, was lost in the Arctic in 1895.
Nantucket was the first great whaling port, and New Bedford became the biggest; and there were other places like New London, Connecticut, or Sag Harbor, on Long Island, among the first towns to enter the business and among the last to leave it. Almost every seacoast town in New England pursued the enterprise at one time or another. There was, for instance, the fishing village of Wiscasset, in Maine. In 1833 some twenty citizens raised money, bought a vessel built in Bristol, Rhode Island, named it the Wiscasset , and sent it to sea the following spring under Captain Richard Macy, of Nantucket, with a crew of twenty. Forty months later the Wiscasset returned with 2,800 barrels of sperm oil and 3,200 barrels of beluga, or white whale, oil, the whole being worth perhaps $80,ooo—enough to pay the cost of the ship, her fitting-out and all other expenses. The Wiscasset sailed again, this time under Captain Seth Horton, and brought back a capacity load of whale oil and 86,517 in (ash derived from “idle trading” along the way—every dollar of it clear profit. In the next decade the vessel made two more voyages, getting a $48,000 cargo on the first and one worth $51,000 on the second.