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

Sick as ever if not more so—but for all that have to work like a dog.… I must not forget to mention we were all called aft by the Captain before the Pilot left us—at the same time the 1st and 2nd mates picked their watches. Captain Robbing gave us a short harangue of which I noticed these few words—he’d give us plenty to eat and plenty to do—if we acted like men he’d treat us like men—no swearing etc. etc. etc.… I turn in … disgusted and thinking of home.

24th Friday

Day commenced with a very stiff breeze, increased so much that we had to take in most of the sails; rained pretty hard in the evening—and I got wet and tired out tending the rigging and sails. Tumbled into my bunk with exhausted body and blistered hands—Romantic.

25th Saturday

The wind still blows pretty hard and the decks are constantly washed by the waves—not quite recovered from sickness yet, but think lam getting better. I am absolutely sick and disgusted with the living and everything.

26th Sunday

Commenced the day at the masthead feeling quite well; while looking about for whales or rather nothing (for I did not search the seas much as it was the Sabbath) I had pleasant thoughts of those I left so unkindly and abruptly but I console myself that it will be some relief to dear father, for me to be off his hands. I also amused myself by singing all the psalms and hymns, chants, etc., that dear Emma [his sister] and myself used to sing in our little Church—by that time my patience was pretty well exhausted and seasickness beginning to come on. My relief came very leisurely up the rigging—and now once more I find myself on deck, but am so sick from the rocking of the mast that I cannot read much in my bible as I intended, and can scarcely write.…

27th Monday

Good breeze blowing—another week of toil before one—cheer up—we ‘ll soon get used to hard work and look at it as play; but the feed—awful. The waters have not been quiet enough to allow writing with ease since we started. Often a big lurch of the ship will knock half the ideas out of ones head. I must give up now anyhow—

My lookout at the masthead from 1 o’clock till 2. While there saw a school of cowfish and they appeared somewhat like the bodies of cows tumbling about in the water—saw plenty of flying fish—never imagined there were half so many in the sea—saw some land swallows one or two of which lit in the rigging—they did not remain long—rested an hour or more and then went home—happy creatures. By 4 p.m.. blowing quite a gale, plenty of rain—wind still increasing—both watches were sent aloft to take in sail—it must have been a rich sight to see us all scrambling up the shrouds, the ship was almost on her beam ends by the wind, and the spray dashing nearly to the fore-top.…

30th Thursday

For 9 days we have been out of the sight of land—and for the last four days nothing has broken the line of the horizon—haven’t heard the cry “there she blows” yet—but we are not left idle. Every day since we left home the hold has been overhauled or something otherwise done about the ship —… innumerable jobs .…

31st Friday

Yesterday we had a half hours practice with the boats—I heard the call “man the boats"while at the mast head and down I had to scramble to be at my post for the Larboard boats. All four boats were lowered, and after maneuvering about for practice within a mile of the vessel—going through all the motions of harpooning and avoiding the struck whale, we raced to the ship and our boat beat. The crew of each boat amounts to six men—the mate, first, second or third, harpooner or boatsteerer, and 4 men. After the harpooner has fastened to a whale, he changes places with the mate, taking the steering oar while the mate goes in the bows of the boat and uses the lance to kill the leviathan.… So far the crew have deported themselves very peacefully—nearly half of them are Portuguese— don’t like them—though I can make out to live peaceably. Our mate is a villain. lean see it but too plain … —the second mate is a boy—3rd mate a Gee [Portuguese] .…

[September] 2nd Sunday

Our Larboard watch commenced again at 3 o’clock this morning—the sea was in glorious commotion. We would see an enormous wave come rolling toward us—with every prospect of being overwhelmed—but no—God is there— our vessel would glide gently over it—through a brilliant dash of spray and foam. By 9 p.m. the moon broke through the clouds and showed the scene in all its grandeur. Oh—how wonderful art thou. Oh! most merciful Father in all thy works who can appreciate the beauties of Thy land.…

17th Monday

Two short weeks have elapsed since I last got a chance to jot any items—it has been all work & no play—and !have not till now felt able to do anything in the writing line—… A great deal has happened during the first night above mentioned. We have laid off two ports—in the Azores—Flores & Fayal.

At Flores we recruited ship—took on board any quantity of potatoes, pumpkins, onions, fowl, &c. Plenty of grapes—but to obtain them it is necessary to have plenty of money, but with tobacco we made pretty good trades—for apples, peaches, figs, and cheeses—donkey cheese at that—and right good & wholesome they were. I don’t know that I ever enjoyed fruit and cheese so much—it seemed as though we had been deprived of them for years instead of a few weeks, it, was long enough to make me long for something fresh—as I was so totally disgusted with ship/are—lam now getting more used to saltjunk, coffee & tea. I can’t say what the coffee is made of, but it resembles that delicious beverage as much as ink resembles water—… As for the tea—if I only had some of the currant leaves off the bushes in our front yard, I’d feel grateful—hut there is no use crying over spilt milk— get case hardened & go ahead—but I would like some one at home to have a sip of this same tea or coffee.

23rd Sunday

I am getting quite used to work now—and my hands can testify to that quite plainly—for they are as hard as horn inside—pulling & hauling on hard ropes—and the outside have a most beautiful … brown color—.…

The manner in which the Sabbath is spent on board by nearly all—is truly deplorable, there is very little regard paid for the day—if we are not making & taking in sail all the while—and the weather is pleasant—most of the men will be seen squatting about the fore hatch smoking—dozing or growling—some read or wash—sew &c &c— but no thought is given to the welfare of the soul—And our noble 1st mate sets a most beautiful example by lounging on the quarter deck, the picture of idleness & misery—if he could he would like nothing better than to keep the crew hard at work Sundays as well as week days—

I shall indeed be thankful to get settled somewhere on land, where we can have a chance of improving the mind & choice of good companions. N’il desperandum.

September 24th Monday

Had a very pleasant day; in the afternoon lowered three boats for black-fish—a species of small whale—average length 20 ft. Our Larboard boat struck one and the waist boat fastened too—but both boat s got loose. It seems quite natural to be rowing about. It is a sport I always liked—though I never rowed in such seas before—for, though it was a calm day—the waves were higher than I ever pulled over before—We chased the fish some four miles from the ship—and when we lost sight of them set sail with a good breeze for the ship—Our boat as usual was first & foremost—and we already pride ourselves on being a pretty smart crew, and a heavy one. I must not forget to mention about our scrubbing decks; every evening between four & five oc’k All hands muster on deck—Make a rush for the deck pot in which are kept the scrubbrooms. [They] weigh about 20 lbs. more or less with a handle between 3 & 4 feet long—. …

For some time past we have been overhauling the ships rigging—as to whales—not more than a dozen have been seen from the mastheads and none of the right sort.… From what Mr. Barker the Mate says—I think it must be the intention of the Captain to go after right whales—and leave Sperm whaling till the season is better. Wherever the Skipper chooses to go, all must follow.…

November 9th Friday

A little before 6 o’clock this morning heard the cheering cry from mast head “there blows” “there blows”—“there goes flukes”—the Captain was on deck in a moment—and after singing out Where away & how far off—jumped into the rigging with his glass—presently the lookout cries again there blows half a dozen times—all is now excitement; a general rush is made to get a sight; when’the old man sings out get the boats ready—then there is a confusion; each boats crew rushes to their respective boats, and assist the Boat steerers in preparing the boats for dropping.…

Presently the old skipper sings out haul aback the main yard & lower away—this was done in a twinkling—the boats dropped into the water and manned as quick—the sail is set oars shipped and off we go after the Captain’s directions—the whale is down now and we are about half a mile from the ship—presently we see a flag floating from the mainmast truck. The whales are up. We see them from the boat—off we put—gain on them fast—get about three ships length when they lift their flukes and sound again—After having an exciting chase of three, four, or more hours we turn about and go on board disheartened—tired & disgusted—such is the sad history of the first whale we saw, chased & didn ‘t get.

The Clara Bell continued to track whales for a month without success, Weir complaining that “With our usual luck, if we keep on this fashion will be obliged to remain out 3 times 3 years to fill ship.” But then their fortune changed.

[December] 9th Sunday

…at 9 A.M. lowered the quarter boats again for a right whale. And Mr. Perry got fast to a noble fellow. We had not much difficulty in working around him but he did throw his flukes about most unmercifully: by noon he was fin up and by 7-1/2 P.M. that monstrous Leviathan could only be remembered by the pieces of blubber about deck and in the blubber room. This was a big whale—the thinnest part of a blanket piece measured about 8 inches. Some of the blubber was two feet deep.

The right whale is a very dirty mamal compared to others of the same tribe—I have noticed they are covered with small insects very much resembling crabs—about half an inch in diameter. On the end of their nose is a bunch of barnacles about 18 inches wide. This the whalemen call his bonnet—and when you see a whale just rising out of water it has the appearance of a rock—the barnacles are enormous—as much as two inches deep—the boys often roast them and eat them the same as oysters. And many other tid bits do they have when a whale is “trying out”: cooking whale lean &c &c &c &c. …

30th Sunday

… it happened to be my midnight trick at the wheel Christmas eve—and if I did not feel bad then I never did and never shall—hard life this, but may get used to it—.…

1856 Jan, 1st Tuesday

What gay times they will have at home today—I wonder if they’ll think of me. I must console myself by imagining they will. Last Tuesday, Christmas Day—was scarcely noticed, in the afternoon we gammed [visited] with the bark Helen Augusta—of Tisbury—Capt. West—19 Mos out—1050 bbls right & sperm—sent a letter home by her.

2nd Wednesday

. …Raised whales this morning and lowered the quarter boats by 6 oclock—returned with our usual good luck—Caught a “Waugin” a species of sea bird that very much resembles the penguin—This was about the size of a drake. We are now bound for a cruise off the Congo River and St Helena ground [in the South Atlantic] for Sperm Whales—.…

March 1st Saturday

—Been racing all day with the bark Sacramento and gammed this evening—she is 16 Mos out—500 bbl Sperm—She is a match for us— though if the breeze had been a little stiffer she could scarcely have kept up so well. The rumor afloat is that we are bound direct for St. Helena. It seems we are far enough out of the world now—and for my part I wish I was home again—but we may yet make a good voyage. Cheer up—

12th Wednesday

At daylight this morning raised St Helena a little on our lee—dropped the mud hook a little before 10 oclock—among about 20 sails—Merchantmen & Whalers—.… It seems strange to have the sails furled again and have the vessel be so still upon the water.

25th Tuesday

—Weighed anchor between 9 & 10 A.M. Strong S.E.ly breeze blowing with occasional squalls. I have sent two letters home from here—… one to Emma in the Ship “Lancer”—.… The water boat came alongside and pumped water through a hose into our hold—Painted the ship outside & I do not expect to have any more chances to send letters home, as we are bound direct for the Indian Ocean—to cruise off Fort Dauphin, Madaga sr

27th Thursday

—… While at St Helena each watch had four days liberty—three days of which we each received one dollar from the Captain—upon which large sum we could spree out 24 hours.… There was considerable grumbling about the Captain’s generosity? Though we must certainly know it is for our benefit to draw lightly during the voyage for a better pocket full on returning home.

I visited Napoleon ‘s tomb—it is about 8 ft by 5 by 10 deep. Merely a walled hole in the earth with a dozen steps to descend to the bottom—it is in a beautiful spot and near by is a delicious spring by which !wish I could at this moment sit down—!have come to the conclusion that the land is the best after all—for at sea you never can be quiet and must put up with all sorts of characters. Give one a home on the solid land—with a fairy to love me—and other dear ones that care for me—that would be happiness—. … Ah! The die is cast—and for two weary years & more must I be knocked about at the mercy of wind & wave, before I can think of going home. Then when our vessel does go to that dear land who can tell what happy mortals we shall be—but I am looking too far ahead—we know nothing beyond this minute. God only knows what the future may unfold. He is merciful.…

30th Sunday

—Five days from St Helena—Had very stormy weather all the while—.…

I am again getting used to sea life—and do not care to go on shore again till we reach our own dear native land—so I think now but may alter my opinion—I dare not anticipate too much, for the time is too far off—I wish we could fill up ship and start for home in the shortest possible time.

I had a strange dream of home last night—and of Plancks funeral taking place, at the same time great festivities going on— … it is sadly unpleasant for me to have such dreams of home—though it is the second of the kind I have dreamed since leaving—It is seldom I dream unless unwell as I was last night—for all the sleep we can get is too much needed to be frittered away in dreams—Oh! how I wish I could hear from home, what a weight would be lifted from my mind—what joy it would be to see all the dear ones again just as I left them seven months ago—is such a meeting in store for me? My dear father—does he think of me as his son? Oh! how deeply I have wronged you my father—can lever be forgiven. Oh how I wish I had always spoken with the freedom of a son to you—I might not have been here—but under such circumstances this may all be for the best—

While in St Helena I attended church— and O what happiness it was to be again in the house of God—after so long a separation from religious service—Those moments I think were the happiest !have had since we sailed—Our dear little Church is often before me in my day dreams of home & the Hudson—many a wondering thought do I give as to who is there and who not—but my thoughts are not enough to satisfy the craving desire to know something of those at West Point—I anxiously await more substantial intelligence and hope but a few months will bring relief—.…

[April] 2nd Wednesday

…All my spare time in a watch below is employed in sewing patches upon my clothes—for there is no disgrace in wearing patches at sea—I wish my sisters could see me in my whaling rig—they’d laugh some, I’ll wager—In the course of a few months, I presume my garments will be a mass of rags & patches, and I don’t know but it would pay to keep one pair of pants to present to Barnum or some such notorious humbug—.…

4th Friday

…The old man cracks on all sail, in order to loose no time—.…

This morning (being my watch below) I am engaged in making a bed quilt of calico and strips of blanket—in preparation for cold & comfortless times that we expect off the Cape [Of Good Hope]—. …In the evening the Captain dealt out some tobacco, the best Albany oak-leaf can’t compare with it—I got four pounds.…

9th Wednesday

Set taught the Main, Main to gall’t, main topmast & royal stays—steering full & by with a stiff breeze and all sail set—I know what a beautiful sight it is to see a vessel skimming the water with all sail set; often have !watched them (years gone by) from our parlour windows; it was a great pleasure for me then,—and what would I not give to be in sight of those scenes of my childhood.…

10th Thursday

Started the sewing society again, stitch, stitch—patch on patch is all the rage—here are half the ships crew below, going it hammer & tongs with their needles—Here is where I am learning famous lessons in economy; with all sorts of trades, coblering, barberizing, washing, tailoring—with probably many others that do not occur to my mind at present—a whaler might well be called—Jack at all trades—for there is a little of every imaginable thing done on board a whale-ship.

It was Friday the 3rd day of August 1855 that I left Cold Spring for the last time. To go to sea was the last thought that entered my head that morning, but how little did I know myself—I think I & Myself shall be better acquainted on my return—should God see fit to allow it.

11th Friday

—…I amused myself while pacing the deck last night in thinking over all my lady friends—I wonder if that one whom I looked upon as my star still shines for me.…

16th Wednesday

Last Monday … Mr. Barker the Mate struck a large porpoise, from the Martingale guys—which we hauled on deck, stripped [off] his blubber and hung upon the main stay in a short time—Porpoise flesh is considered by some a delicacy—we eat it for a change—it tastes very much like veal, but is not so firm and is of a dark color—the oil tried from the blubber is used in the binnacle lamps, as it gives a remarkably clear light while burning. …

17th Thursday

Mr. Barker lowered for [a] Sun-fish—but we lost sight of him shortly after the boat left the ship, I would like very much if we could get one—the oil from the liver is said to be excellent for rheumatism and is used for many medicinal purposes.

18th Friday

Scudding like a sea bird before the wind—with all the square sails set—.

… At our present rate of sailing we ‘ll soon be right off the South point of the Cape—

It is now 4 P.M.. The wind has increased so much that the fore-top-sail was double reefed—and when a huge sea lifts us—our good bark seems fairly to fly—so lightly does she float—anyway if she don’t fly the spray does—.… Clara staggers like a drunken man, you are tossed here, there & everywhere, like a ball in a box; with the pots, pans, spoons, chests &c &c—you cannot resist dancing a jig—on deck it is touch & go—the seas washing over continually keep the decks so slippery that it is dangerous moving about, for they are inclined nearly fourty degrees every few seconds—

Life lines have been rigged aft and the watch on deck is obliged to stop there and keep out of danger—.…

20th Sunday

Eight months from home today—. … Just past the extreme point of the Cape—and upon the verge between the Indian & Atlantic Oceans—We are fast moving to the scene of operation; the whaling ground—with wonderful expectations as to filling the ship in one season.

One sail in sight this afternoon, bound for Atlantic shores—Another sail this morning off our weather bow—on the same tack as we.

21st Monday

… Many and many a weary league am I now from those I love—and O what a life for me to lead, among an ungodly set of men—where there is nothing but coarse & immoral language used—It is something I can never get accustomed to—And yet I have to put up with it for at least two years more—

But I am undergoing a rather rigid schooling, which cannot soon be forgotten. I regret being secluded from society, and such refinement as I have formerly been accustomed to—far beyond everything— I must improve my time in every possible way—Mentally, Morally & physically—.…

22nd Tuesday

… At noon running under double-reefed topsails—Wind increased to a gale—by sunset we were staggering under a foresail & close reef’d Main topsail. The seas were pretty heavy, and continually washed our decks—Everything, fore & aft was well soaked & washed with salt water—several seas pitched over us scarcely sprinkling the decks. The order of the day at such times is turn in wet & turn out smoking—.…

 
 
 
 
 
 

24th Thursday

—…By 7 P.M. we were scudding along with incredible speed, full 14 knots—amidst a sheet of foam and a deluge of rain; It seems madness to rush along so—but there was no alternative. We were now under close reefed Main top sail—and a bellying foresail—What would a landsman think to see us now—the sea running awfully high—

For a moment we would be lifted upon the summit of a great sea, amidst a cloud of spray—anon we were dropped between two mountain heaps—where it was almost a calm—and all our headway apparently gone. Look up—see that towering billow astern—we shall be engulfed—but no—the Mass of water would rush on—our good bark would mount high upon its top—and again give a plunge, and start ahead like a frightened deer—

Occasionally during the night the gale would lull a little and our good barque would then be plunging and rolling at a fearful rate—The seas rushing by tons over our decks—It was worth ones life to let go a hands grasp from the rigging for a moment—Again the gale would come upon us with redoubled fury—Making the sea look like driven snow—and lifting showers of water from the crests of the waves—which fell upon us like heavy rain. One may imagine a sailors life is a cheerless one in such times, and so it is to some—but not so to me—for I love to be on deck and watch the sea & sky and hear the Almighties voice in the storm—it makes us feel that we are actually in the Great Presence of the Omnipotent. It serves to remind all that God is still there and watching over them. The sea is His and He made it. How little we think so—And yet we know that His slightest thought could send us all to destruction—could send the Whole Universe—I should think sailors above all men should be Christians—because they seem to live in the depths of dangers—and God is eternally saving them from destruction—It is trying to be seperated from the rest of the World—a mere speck upon the bosom of the Ocean. Nothing to be seen around but sea & sky—What an atom is a ship at sea compared with the Universe— And yet God is there.…

May 1st Thursday

—This month will be a memorable one at home on account of Emma’s Marriage which was set for this time—And a right gay time they were to have—But here am I—far-far away in the Indian Ocean.…

4th Sunday

Yesterday (3rd) spoke & gammed with the bark Isabella [ of ] N. Bedford. 8 mos from home been in port about 6 weeks ago—in Toula Bay, Madagascar—They sent about 2 dozen terrapins on board of us—and now every turn one takes about the deck he is afoul of them.

This Morning we raised what the whalemen call a stinker—a large dead whale—bore down for it and found it to be a Finback whale—too long dead to be of good—the sharks appeared to hold a meeting of some kind over the carcass—doubtless in regard to its removal. The birds were not more backward in their addresses. Commenced standing boats-crew watches last, night; a sure sign that we are on the whaling ground—For the past 2 days we have been cruising in sight of Mad gs This is that far famed sperm whale ground Fort Dauphin—The weather is boisterous—and the coming 3 months are said to be Typhoon season off here—where we shall go now I cannot say—I would not grumble to go home—.…

18th Sunday

… For the past fortnight we have had very disagreeable weather— and for the past two days we have had a great many heavy rain squalls—accompanied with thunder and lightening—It rained in torrents all this morning watch from 2 till 7 oc’k. My expectations that were once so exalted, are now fast falling below Zero—here have we been 8 months—aye—9 months from home—and have not even seen a sperm whale blow.…

25th Sunday

… A few Minutes before 8 oclock Thursday morning we discovered a school of cows & calves off our bow—about 3 miles distant—We are then steering North—We immediately bore off and ran almost due E—head on for the square heads—gradually we neared them, and new life seemed to possess us all by this time—The anticipation of capturing some of those mamals and having glorious sport. The boats were quickly in readiness. And no sooner had the captain given the order to “lower away the boats” than all three boats with their respective crews were in the water quicker’n Jarvis—And now our sail is set and as we are to the windward of the whales it is necessary to observe the strictest silence—each one has peaked his oar & grasped the paddle—and we all tug away with a hearty good will—but the whales seem to anticipate danger and have quickened their speed—

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

After chasing for nearly two hours Mr. Perry’s boat got fast—and a few minutes after Mr. Welsh’s boat was fast securely to a cow—Our boat was a half a mile off at this time but we shortly pulled up—so soon as the other boats got fast we took in our sail—stowed away the paddles and bent to our oars with desperation—soon we were close by the waist boats whale —and now the Mate sung out to Johnson our boatsteerer— “stand up and give it to him” and he did give it to solid—an instant and the water is white with foam, but the whale dont stop to fight—off he darts—dragging our two boats humming through the water—shortly he slackens his speed—

The Mate is now in the bows—lance in hand— “haul line “he shouts—We soon haul close, and the Mate has darted the lance chock to the socket in leviathan’s very vitals—again the water foams—but this time it is red with the blood of the whale— and off he starts, swifter than ever— The line hums around the loggerhead—and the water has to be freely hove upon it—the sparks fly—look out there! Foul line—the tub man cries out—and quicker than thought a whole bunch of line is whisked past every one in the boat—Another bunch flies out this time dislodging several of the crew from their places—The line is now displaced from the chock—and drags across the mates body—soon the whale slackens again and we reset the line—we again haul up and keep close to the whale—the Mate lances him three or four times more—Oh! look out—he is moving his circle—he’ll be fin up shortly—look to your oars, men—keep clear of him while he’s in his flurry—Now the water foams and flies—steam off for your lives—we quickly steam off & look again—the whale is dead—he is fin up— If all Sperm Whales are as easily captured as this, we won’t have much difficulty—it is far different from right whaling for they fight like mad with their enormous flukes—but a square head don’t lift his flukes so threateningly—

When this whale lay alongside before cutting in, I had some leisure to survey him—My first impression was that it was a half-formed work of the creator—but when I thought who made that creature, I could see beauty in every inch of’it —Oh how wonderful and curious are all thy works oh thou Creator. …

On June 6 the Clara Bell dropped anchor off Port Victoria on Mahé Island, one of the Seychelles group of islands northeast of Madagascar. After a stay of eleven days, during which fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat were taken aboard, she departed to renew the search for sperm whales.

[July] 4th Friday

—… This day has been one of a little enjoyment with us— cocoanuts, roast pig—minced pies, soft tack, ginger cake, pepper sauce, Molasses, pepper, rice and pickles, was our bill of fare—quite extensive for sailors—wound up the day by firing salutes with a couple of packs of fire crackers—and a grand consertino given by the Steward and Myself on an old tin pan and a cracked flute—. …

26th Friday

—Bird Island in sight—lying off and on this afternoon—the jolly boat & bow-boat went ashore after eggs—at noon—brought a full boat load on board—as we could obtain them without the slightest difficulty—the island has an area of about a square mile—it is almost barren, a few bushes & many weeds constitute all the verdure—but the great feature is the Myriad of birds & eggs that are upon it— the birds hover about the island like a dense cloud—and it is necessary to walk carefully else you will crush eggs at every step: and it was something of a job to drive the birds out of the way, in order to get their eggs—.…

August 1st Friday

—… Saw a very large sword fish this morning, that deadly enemy of the Sperm Whale. That is excepting ourselves and other whalemen—We often see “devil fish” or diamond fish as they call them on board here—they put one very much in mind of a mamoth bat or vampure with horns and tusks which look very white—.… The shovel-nosed shark is another curious fish—said to be perfectly harmless—though it has a loathsome appearance. The largest kind of shark is the bone shark—he lives upon the same kind of food as the right whale—.…

Cruising near the Equator, in sight of the east coast of Africa, the Clara Bell was so beset by foul weather, dead calm, currents, and winds that for more than seven weeks she was unable to make port. Bread and molasses became the food staple for all on board. Finally, on September 26, the whaling ship got close enough to Saddle Island, of the Comoro group, to be towed in. The stay was brief— there was sickness among the Arab residents—but time enough to take on provisions before heading out to the hunting grounds again. Tragedy struck soon afterward.

[October] 26th Sunday

—… This afternoon at 1 1/4 o’clock—Johnson a noble young man and friend of all was lost—There was a heavy sea on—at 2 P.M. the martingale guys gave way—and had to be immediately repaired or the loss of our bowsprit & foretop-mast would have followed—A little after four o’clock Johnson was sewing the guys together just abaft the martingale—When the Mate sung out to the Captain telling him all was right—we braced forward the main yards and as the ships head came to the wind—she met three heavy seas, causing her to pitch heavily—twice Johnson was dashed several feet beneath the water—but he still kept his hold against the awful pressure—the third time he was madly forced under & the great power of the waters was too much for him—he was dragged from his hold—ropes, and every available thing were hove to him—a boat was cut away & manned but all too late—The startling cry of man overboard thrilled all to their very hearts core—what could be done in such weather—the seas running so high—the ship dashing madly through the water—

 
 
 
 
 
 

Oh! what feeling filled my breast—as I rushed to clear the boat and help save him who was overboard in such a gale; I thought of my wronged parent—of my present situation—the many sins upon my heart—Oh! What happiness it must be to be a Christian—and always be ready to die—I have taken this event in its true light as a warning for us all. O! that I could think more of God; so merciful to all sinful mortals—Oh! God give me that strength to love &fear Thee eternally—.…

Weir was appointed by the captain to take Johnson’s place as boatsteerer (harpooner) of his small whaleboat. He assumed the new assignment, vowing to “strive to do my best for the voyage.”

November 16th Sunday

Sail in sight, proved to be the J. Dawson 13 mos out 100 bbls Sperm—gammed all the afternoon. At dark luffed to the wind heading NNE—wind E & N—at 6 1/2 A.M. Land in sight. Madagascar—tacked ship—heading E.S.E.—Raised Sperm whales at 10 o’clock this Morning—lowered in company with the John Dawson—boats returned without success—

23rd Sunday

—At 3 1/2 P/M gammed with the bark Massasoit 31 mos out 700 Sperm

24th Monday

—Stiff breeze & rugged sea—3 sails in sight. At 6 1/4 A.M. raised Sperm whales—lowered about 9 A.M. Waist-boat got fast & was taken to wind ‘rd smoking—by noon quarter boats came aboard—bearing with the ship—all sail set—at 1 p.m. lowered the quarter boats and chased whales to leeward—Waist boat set signals of distress—Ship also—pulled hard to the rescue & found her stove—Larboard boat got fast & settled the business—by 4 P.M. whale alongside—and a big fellow he is too—

25th

Commenced cutting in at daybreak—by noon had all in but the head—2 sails seen—

November 26th Wednesday

Spoke the ship “Martha”—no letters for me—and she is but 6 months from home, but soon we hope to see other & later sails.

Dec—24th Wednesday

Chasing whales all day—lowered the boats 4 times—before breakfast—after breakfast—after dinner & supper—no success attended our movements—the weather was too good.

29th Monday

—Gammed with the “H.H. Crapo” chock a block— bound for home shortly. I sent four letters on board—One to … Father.…

1857 January 6th Tuesday

—Gammed with the small bark “Acorn” 5 mos from home—No letters, not even for the Captain— What is the Matter?

7th Wednesday

—Gammed with the United States six months out—as unfortunate as usual—have they forgotten me—I think not.

11th Sunday

—I’ve struck my whale—lowered 11 A.M. by 12 o’clock Mr. Barker put me on a noble whale—took him head & head—I got up and gave it to him solid—Whiz—whiz—whiz—it seemed but a moment & all the line was out of one of our tubs—160 fathoms—I hold the turn—he shortly slacks—and again comes up to blow—The Starboard gets fast & within an hour he is fin up—the Waist boat was there with the bomb-lance—but did not have an opportunity to use it.…

12th Monday

—This morning got the case &junk on deck—enormous—talk about your elephants—Mastodons—and Mamoth Monsters of the earth—what are they compared to a Noble Whale—how the land folk would open their eyes to see such a head as this—

I am 21 years old this day—oh! how the time flies—and these moments can never be recalled—I wish I was somewhere near civilization—I’d feel better satisfied—

To remain here 18 mos more seems awful—but I’ve battled it so far—why not finish with Gods help—if father could see me now—.…

For the next eleven months the Clara Bell ranged back and forth across the Indian Ocean hunting whales, sometimes in company with another whaling ship, the Eugenia . There was little time for anything but work—hunting whales during daylight ‘hours and often working through the night to render the blubber into oil The two vessels put into port only when provisions gave out. For Weir, there was scarcely time to record entries in his journal, much less ruminate about his state of mind—or engage in, as he put it, “schrimschawing, or whatever these intolerable whalemen call it.” By December, 1857, the Clara Bell had been at sea for more than two years without Weir having received a letter from any member of his family, and he was resigned now never to hear from home.

December 9th Wednesday

—… We succeeded in sailing upon a noble fellow … our good boat fairly flew before the wind—When Barker the Mate sang out ‘look out for him Wallace” I was up in a moment,… picked up mi/first, iron and darted with Might and Main right in the center of Leviathans side—the second harpoon was hurried in the hunch of his neck, in an instant he darted about three ship lengths ahead of our boat rolled over on his back, and worked his old jaw like the lever of a steam engine—at the same time lashing the sea with fury. The Starboard, boat now ventured up, and. with some difficulty succeeded in getting an iron in to him. When Mr. Whale politely poked his jaw through the boat—making a hole as big as the head of a barrel—

Never mind says Barker, from our boat, unbend your boats sail &plug it up.

We had to work warily about this customer. After considerable manouvering Mr. Barker darted his lance, and in a moment the whale had our boat in his ponderous jaw and raised high out of water—Crack, crash, crack—we were all tumbled pell-mell into the water—and our boat left a total wreck, bitten to pieces— happily no one was injured. It was now time to look about for the ship—Mr. Perry could give us no help for he was already badly stoven, and could with difficulty keep afloat. There was the Clara Bell a mile off dead to leeward—Beating up, under a stiff topgallant breeze—the men trimmed the sails with a will that day and our noble bark beat up gloriously—soon we saw the Captain lower in the waist boat—but so soon as he came near the whale—who was scribing a circle about us all the time, Mr. Whale put towards him, this was a fix—however Mr. Perry pulled up with his stoven boat—and whilst he attracted the whales notice the captain took us all safely on board and off we started for the ship—leaving Perry alone with the whale; it. took but a few minutes to unlash a spare boat from the hurricane house & launch it—oars, shot pins and a spare lance were put into it, and off we started for the fight. Mr. Barker took Mr. Welsh & his bomb battery up on the Starboard side of the whale while the Captain took Mr. Perry up on his Larboard quarter—Perry darted his lance with good effect and at the same moment Welsh fired a bomb lance into him—which performances made his whaleship furious—the flap of his flukes upon the water sounded like artilery—and his jaw came down like a trip hammer. The second lance Mr. Perry threw brought the blood from his spouthole—Mr. Welsh fired three bomb lances into him—when Mr. Whale knocked off the head of his boat, and tossed our notable man with the bomb-gun into the water. His whaleship expired with the day—and by 6 1/2 P.M. we had him tied by the tail.

At sunrise we commenced cutting in. 10 A.M. body in. 11 3/4—junk safe on deck & now for dinner; with a desert of yarns about Taber Tom as the boys call our whale.

10th Thursday

3 p.m. case safe on deck—and a couple of men hurried to their necks in the centre of it, bailing out the spermacetti as though a human life depended upon their exertions—Wouldn’t this be a rich scene for the dear ones at home to see—a couple of men hurried in a whale head—a delightful situation surely—

Started the works between 4 & 5 P.M. trying out the head first—6 P.M. sail in sight chasing whales—too late in the evening for us to lower—though the whales could be seen plainly from deck—Hard at work with the fires all night—This morning the barque “Montgomery”close to chasing whales—8 A.M. her boats fast—we lowered & chased for a couple of hours, without success—All hands on deck from sunrise to sunset. 5 1/2 hours rest out of the 24—pleasant and no mistake—the old skipper takes it comfortably & gets well paid for it—but the officers suffer with the sailors—good.…

1858 January 1st Friday

… Made all sail this morning, a splendid day—the dawning of the New Year; and here we are hard at work coopering on the decks of Clara. Precious few casks I make this day.… raised sperm whales—and chased with all sail set till near noon when we lowered away the boats—the whales had gone down, and we were pulling industriously towards a spot where we thought they would rise—when to our surprise a pod of them rose directly under our boat—I grasped the harpoon to heave into the side of a noble big fellow—when !heard the mate crying out in a rather loud whisper “Are you mad man, you’ll kill us all,” I looked around & here we were almost resting on the flukes of one and the head of another— the slightest prick to any one of a half dozen of whales about us would certainly have been our ruin. I momentarily expected the boat would have been dashed to atoms—there !stood harpoon in hand, and the crew with oars suspended in the air, like so many statues, did not dare move a muscle, when the whales became aware of some danger… and all sunk like so many tons of lead: We now breathed freely—.…

The next month seemed the busiest of all. Whale boats were out almost every day, the try works, or rendering furnaces, on deck blazed away during the night, and barrel upon barrel was stowed below. As the month ended, preparations were at last under way for the passage home. But first the Clara Bell made port, at St. Augustine Bay, which is situated on the southwest coast of Madagascar.

[February] 2nd Tuesday

…found ourselves in company with three French brigs—two of which are slavers—had to turn to immediately and break out paint &c. Our decks are swarming with natives. This morning set up the bobstays and painted ship outside—rafted 14 casks for water—and now we only await order s from the Prince before we dare to go ashore for anything.…

4th Thursday

… hoisted the water on deck and rolled it forward—in order to bury the ships head & lift the stern to get at [a] leak—Chips [the ship’s carpenter] has been up to his armpits in the water working at the leak all the morning. A sail in sight coming in—Went ashore with the captain to get a bullock —and a time we had too. Two tribes of the natives were fighting, popping away at one another with their shooting things. When they had popped off about a keg of powder one party retreated to the hills leaving one dead man upon the field.

The Clara Bell weighed anchor and began her voyage home around the Cape of Good Hope on February 8. The crewmen grumbled now when the wind either turned against them or died down completely, and complained when the captain hove to in order to track down yet another school of whales. By March 11, however, the ship had reached St. Helena, and nine days later the final leg of the journey was begun. As the prospect of returning to his family grew closer to reality, Weir once again became anxious. He was determined now to try to make amends for his behavior at home.

[April] 9th Friday

… Had a long gaze at the North Star last night the sky being clear in that quarter; and what vivid recollections of by gone days it brought before me; how often have I looked upon that star while Grafting the noble Hudson between West Point and Cold Spring, or while any where about home and at night, Can I look at that star from that loved place again. I trust it may be so, but I can’t anticipate. …

18th Sunday

… Dreaming of home by night & thinking and talking of home by day—and so it is with all the crew.

But will they—can they ever love me as formerly? If not—no one is to blame but my most willful self—deeds, not words must hereafter mark my life—how shall I face my honored & good father—to obtain his forgiveness is all I shall seek—and my future life must show my gratitude.…

19th Monday

… how I should like to walk to Church this afternoon with Em—I wonder if they will think of me this day— well! there is some satisfaction in imagining they will—flattering thought—.…

21st Wednesday

Still steering NW—have not made any more sail yet—3 sails in sight—3 P.M., a schooner running across our bows—we hauled aback, and lowered a boat for news—proved to be the “Charm” from Phila. 10 days out—they tossed us a package of papers, which proved a grand treat—and serves to make us realize that we are actually drawing near home—.…

22nd Thursday

Steering NW with light SEly breeze— Under top gallant sails—Oh! dear! how can the Old Man [ the captain ] keep us reduced to this short sail with so light a wind.…

24th Saturday

Steering NNW. With a Villanous 3 knot breeze. Sailors muttering & growling. Painted the Larboard side of the ship … touched up scientifically here & there on the inside of the bulwarks. … Scraped & varnished the lash rail & spanker boom—scraped all the masts—Clara begins to look new indeed. Barstow the owner will congratulate himself on having left his petted craft in the hands of such a skipper.…

27th Tuesday

—…Hurrah we have a smacking breeze—and it is still on the increase—as it has been all night—Made a new spanker-out haul-block for the heel of the spanker boom, the last job I hope to do this voyage—.…

May 2nd Sunday

Wind from SW. Excellent weather. Head WNW fresh breeze—but not fair enough.… Our passage through the waters is like a comet—there is such a brilliant train of phosphorescent light behind us—it contrasts brilliantly with the surrounding darkness, this illumination does not appear like the general lights of the waters—it has a ghostly look—a bluish white—while elsewhere there is a warm pink or yellow tinge—

Between 10 P.M. & 1 A.M. the water around the ship was splendid to look at—it flashed & sparkled far beneath the surface, looking like so many twinkling stars in the heavens—

About 2 hours before the Moon rose—we had a sight which brought many home recollections to our minds—it was the Aurora Boreallis—Everything now indicates our close proximity to our native land—to our glorious home—We see the North Star almost as high in the heavens as they do at home—And there is not more than 6 or 8 minutes variations in the time compared with home—hurrah—we are blessed indeed.…

3rd Monday

… This morning took all the whaling craft from the boats and stowed it below—stripped all the chafing gear from the rigging &c—2 schooners in sight but where is the land. We suffer with the cold—that thermometer stands 50°— they’ll laugh at us at home—but if we can actually get there, let them laugh & we will join in with a hearty good will.…

May 4th Tuesday

Steering NE. Moderate breeze—fine weather, clear and cold—set the main royal at 1 P.M. 2 P.M. set the fore royal—3 P.M. set the fore top mast & lower studding sails—4 P.M. set the main top gallant studding s’ls. Breeze dying away—what shall we do? The land ought to be in sight by our reconing—curious navigation this—The Old Man seems to be perfectly indifferent as regards getting home—he must be case hardened or else he is putting these contrary actions upon himself to tantalize us.

5 1/2 P.M. Joyful news the reviving cry of Land ho! has been uttered—and three hearty cheers made the welkin ring again—My pulse beats warmer, and though I have 8 hours to watch on deck this night—it will be done cheerfully, for I feel it to be the last weary watch for me to hold—The wind is quite light but fair, and increasing somewhat

7 1/2 p.m. dark, raised Montauk light—

8 P.M. Took soundings—Made 35 fathoms—tacked ship&kept lookouts at the mast head all night—in order to keep the light in sight—I had one dreary cold hour to spend there myself with the second mate continually disturbing me while thinking of home—he talked about his wife & child—but I couldn’t listen to him—for I had my own thoughts for better company—.… At Midnight the ship Huntsville was close to— they sent a boat alongside for a short gam and comparison of reckoning—

The weather is villanously cold—enough so to keep up all in an uncomfortable state— 4 A.M. daybreak—Made all sail—6 A.M. 6 sails in sight. Mostly schooners. 61/2 Pilot boat Relief bearing down to us—hove too with main yard aback—and received the Pilot—braced forward and steered N! Wind light from W. several islands in sight—Martha’s Vinyard, Gayhead— right ahead—Rhode I off Larboard beam—

7 P.M. We touched the wharf and I touched the shore—pure bona fide American land hurrah—

We are now safely moored at one of the N. Bedford wharves—it is glorious to think of. But I am thankful— We had a favorable breeze to come in with, and the pilot took us chock into the wharf—

9 P.M. I have just returned from a stroll on solid Yankee land.

How shall I face my dear father. I shall g o directly to him—and tell him all—I trust God will yet give me strength of resolution to reform.—

 

Epilogue

Did Weir’s father forgive him? We can only guess, because Weir’s journal ends without telling us. However, it appears likely that all turned out well. He returned to the sea during the Civil War, serving under Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay. He also was a war correspondent and illustrator for Harper’s . A construction engineer by profession, he worked at one time for the Croton Water Works in New York and later as a consultant to the Union Subway Construction Company, dying finally in Montclair, New Jersey, shortly after his sixty-ninth birthday, in 1905.