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Whalers in the Pacific

Maritime archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a whaling ship on a reef near the French Frigate Shoals, nearly 600 miles northwest of Honolulu.  And not just any ship either.

The captain of the Two Brothers was George Pollard Jr, the Nantucket captain who had lost his previous ship, the Essex, in dramatic circumstances, when it sank after it was rammed by a sperm whale, while most of the crew were in small whaleboats, away from the mother ship.  Pollard and the cabin boy were eventually rescued, but by then they had resorted to cannibalism.

The Sydney Gazette reported the details:

‘They had been 90 days at sea before they were fallen in with [by the Hope, which rescued them], and had experienced the most dreadful of all human vicissitudes; from the extremity of hunger they had been reduced to the painful necessity of killing and devouring each other, in order to sustain a wretched life, that was hourly expected to be terminated.  Eight times had lots been drawn, and eight human beings had been sacrificed to afford sustenance to those that remained; and, on the day the ship encountered them, the Captain and the boy had also drawn lots, and it had been thus determined that the poor boy should die!  Providentially, a ship hove in sight and took them in, and they were restored to existence.’

Cannibalism in these extreme circumstances was known as ‘the custom of the sea’.  Not surprisingly, it aroused fascination (it still does!), but was hedged about by certain conventions. Whatever the hierarchy within the crew, everyone, from captain to cabin boy, went in the draw. Drawing lots was morally important; it wasn’t done to pick on the weakest member of the crew.

Surprisingly, given this background, George Pollard went back to sea in another whaler, Two Brothers, the ship that has just been discovered where it was wrecked, 3 years later, in 1823.

Colonial Australia was a maritime nation, and our first contacts with America were based on common seafaring enterprises, in particular the whaling industry.  In America, the industry was based in a few New England ports, especially Nantucket.  These whalers were often reluctant revolutionaries, since they lost their markets, and their contacts with the big British whaling firms.  A few, such as the famous Ebor Bunker, even relocated to the new British colony of New South Wales.

Herman Melville recognised the Australian connection, when he wrote in Moby Dick in 1851:

‘That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman.  After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale ship touched there.  The whale ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony.’

As Melville knew, American ships rounding the Horn into the Pacific in pursuit of whales often stopped off in the ports of Sydney and Hobart. In June 1805, for instance, The Brothers from Nantucket arrived in Sydney, heading for the southern fishery.  They sailed south to fish during the short summer months, and were back in Sydney by April 1806.  (Was The Brothers related in some way to Two Brothers?  I don’t know – I’ve also found other American ships named Three Brothers and The Sisters visiting Sydney during these decades.)

The whalers were away from their home ports for years on end, so they often sailed into the Pacific with a skeleton crew, picking up replacements in Sydney and Hobart (including convicts, which could get them into trouble with the authorities).  And American sailors deserted in these ports too.

Like all hunters, the whalers followed the migration patterns of their prey. There are northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks and right whales, which rarely overlap.  They spend the summer months near the north or south poles where they fatten on krill, then travel south or north towards the equator to breeding grounds to calve and mate.   This is when they are at their most vulnerable – but also when their stores of blubber have been depleted.  The trick for the whalers was to find the breeding grounds just as the whales arrived, still plump from their summer feed.  One such place is north of Hawaii, where Two Brothers was wrecked.

Alternatively they could try their luck for the greater prize, the sperm whale.  Whale oil from the baleen whales (filter feeders) was used for general purposes, such as street lighting – but was too smelly to be burnt indoors.  Baleen, the sheets of cartilage they use to filter food, was also valuable – it is the ‘whalebone’ of corsets, for instance, and was used where we would use plastics today.

Spermaceti oil, from sperm whales, was much more valuable.  It made the best quality candles (one candle watt equals the light of one spermaceti candle), and it lubricated the machinery of the industrial revolution.  Jet engines were still using spermaceti oil in the 1950s.  Sperm whales are carnivores, more intelligent, and much more dangerous, to whalers or giant squid alike.

Moby Dick was a sperm whale.  The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville’s novel, as well as a recent non-fiction best seller, In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The Sydney Gazette reported on that fierce tussle between whale and whalers:

And so on.  These days, for most of us, our sympathies lie with the whale, not the whaler.  But it was a cruel trade for both.

References:

BBC News report

Granville Allen Mawer, Ahab’s Trade: the saga of south seas whaling (1999) – great title, great book!

Sydney Gazette, 9 June 1821 extracts from the National Library of Australia’s site Trove: Digitised newspapers and more