The Adventures Of A Haunted Whaling Man

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The exacting, colorful, and often perilous career of a whaleman of the last century is known to most readers only through such fiction a Moby Dick . But many a real American went “down to the sea in ships” from East Coast whaling ports, experiencing the loneliness, exhilaration, and dangers that Herman Melville described. One of them was Robert Weir, a tormented nineteen-year-old, who in the summer of 1855 left his home in Cold Spring, New York, where he had worked in the local iron foundry. His father, Robert Walter Weir, was a noted painter who taught art at the military academy at West Point, across the Hudson River from Cold Spring.

Although without money, young Weir somehow made his way to the whaling seaport of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and there, using the name Wallace, he signed on board the bark Clara Bell . Unlike many of his contemporaries who ran away to sea simply for adventure, Weir was in debt and disgraced; his odyssey was a self-imposed punishment, prompted apparently by a gambling debt that had shamed his entire family.

On August 18, the Clara Bell left her berth and anchored in Buzzards Bay, waiting for a favorable tide to begin what would be a voyage of nearly three years across the South Atlantic, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, and into the Indian Ocean. During that time, Weir—a deeply religious young man —kept a journal, recording not only his anguished feelings of guilt and remorse, but the details of the voyage of the Clara Bell , the tedious and “sacriligeous” life aboard ship, the excitement of the whale hunt, and the exotic lands he visited. In the journal’s margin he jotted drawings of ships, whales, and the scenes around him.

His remarkably introspective diary—from the collection of the G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum, and submitted to AMERICAN HERITAGE with introductory material by Professor Tamara K. Hareven of Harvard University—has never been published, though some of Weir’s drawings have previously been reproduced. Accompanied by his illustrations, the following excerpts convey what life was like aboard a whaler more than 120 years ago. We begin as the Clara Bell prepares to set sail.

1855 [August] 19th Sunday

Oh ! if the folk at home knew what a field I am about to launch upon what would they say— What does dear father think—but I cannot turn back—I may just as well as not begin to cut my way in the world, now, rather than leave it till I am older. Spent this day sacriligeously in climbing about the rigging, didn’t venture much—but guess I’ll soon get used to it. Hurrah for hard times—at least I’d like to make myself feel so, but I scarcely dare look ahead—it seems rather dark. Have great anticipations of future independence. I shall never never call on father again—but I dare not speak his name. I have wronged him too much to be his son.

20th Monday

A day to be remembered. The Captain came aboard a little after 9 o’clock, and we weighed anchor and set sail. Then came the first touch of work, in hauling up the anchor—such a pondrous thing is only fit to be buried at the bottom of the sea. I sincerely hope we shall not have the pleasure of dropping it till we again reach home—the chains were soon stowed between decks or rather in the chain pens—and the anchor’s catted and lashed—and now we are on our way rejoicing. The first mate sent me aloft to slush the fore top gallant mast in the afternoon. The crew were divided into two watches, the Larboard and Starboard. I belong to the Mates or Larboard watch.

21st Tuesday

Beginning to get seasick and disgusted. Land out of sight—feel awful. We have to work like horses and live like pigs—eyes beginning to open—rather dearly bought independence—however, get on the sunny side shortly I hope.

22nd Wednesday

We are far very far out of sight of land— of sweet Ameriky. I was sent aloft on the lookout for whales and whatnots—And oh! how dreadfully sick I was. Saw two sharks, one about left, long and the other 5 or 6 ft. I felt very much tempted to throw myself to them for food. I can truly say I never was disgusted before in my life.… in the afternoon took my first trick at the helm—two weary, dreary, desolate hours—can a human being get toughened to all this—

23rd Thursday