Cotuit to Lahaina

Last night at the meeting of the Cotuit Santuit Civic Association a moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Maui wildfire which swept through Lahaina last week. As I stood with bowed head it occurred to me that for many Cotuit sailors in the 1850s, Lahaina was their winter port of call, a favored port for provisioning, repairing and finding new crew for their whaling ships.

I honeymooned in Lahaina in the early 1980s and poked around the old port looking for vestiges of the golden age of whaling in between the t-shirt and saltwater taffy shops, and the sidewalks thronged by weed sellers who carried their buds of Maui Wowie on overturned Frisbees which they would reveal with a discrete little “voila” and a whispered offer to purchase some “kind bud.” It was difficult to look out at the anchorage and imagine dozens of whaling barks anchored off the beach, but the connection to Cape Cod was still palpable more than century after the end of Pacific whaling. For many Cotuit whalers in the first half of the 19th century, Lahaina was more familiar to them than Boston.

My great-great-grandfather Thomas Chatfield first sailed into Lahaina in 1849 on his first whaling voyage as the cabin boy aboard the Massachusetts, an Edgartown whaler captained by Seth Nickerson, Jr. of Cotuit. The ship called at the port after escaping San Francisco at the peak of the Gold Rush, when many Nantucket whaling ships succumbed to gold fever and rotted at anchor off the shore of San Francisco, abandoned by their crews who were prospecting in the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Nickerson had his wife and children with him for that voyage, but his baby daughter died enroute to San Francisco from Callao, Peru when the captain decided to give passage to a mob of desperate prospectors trying to find passage to California, likely bringing aboard yellow fever which killed his daughter. Nickerson was able to rally enough crew to get the Massachusetts out of San Francisco Bay and back to sea to resume its original voyage. Chatfield wrote in his 1904 Reminiscences:

“We anchored at Lahaina the latter part of October. Uncle Seth, Aunt Rose and the children immediately went ashore to remain during our stay; and the following day every man jack of that crew had gone too, leaving the black cook Jordan and myself to take care of the ship, just as we did a year before when we arrived at the same port from San Francisco. It was while at Lahaina that Uncle Seth sent an undertaker on board with a zinc lined casket; and between us we took Baby Ella out of the cask, cleared the little box which the little lady lay in, and put it into the casket. A pane of glass had been placed over the face, which had become loosened and slipped from its place, so that its features were exposed to view. The rum had all leaked out and been absorbed by the lime. Still, the features were perfect in form and only slightly discolored, a very light brown, probably caused by the rum. The man sealed it up very carefully, using solder, and then went ashore again, and I made a strong box of boards, put the casket into it, and then replaced it on the topsail, where it remained until we arrived home some months later. Neither Uncle Seth or Aunt Rose saw their baby’s body: and he never alluded to it in my presence: and she only once, when she asked me in what condition it was. I was glad to be able to tell her; and she seemed gratified to be told that it was in good condition. I have always thought that Aunt Rose had a sort of mother love for me, big, awkward boy as I was that time: and she certainly trusted me entirely. Uncle Seth sent me some native sailors, and with them I filled water, rebent sails, replaced chopping gear, all of which had become badly worn during the cruise and the rough and tumble passage from the north. So I was kept busy all the time we were there. “

Rear View of Lahaina by Edward T. Perkins circa 1854.

From a history of Lahaina:

“According to Henry L. Sheldon, “the business of the entire population was the furnishing of supplies to whalers and entertaining the crews”. Sailors who had been hunting whales for months at a time went to Lahaina to drink grog and meet women. By 1825 a kapu prohibiting women from going out to ships for the purpose of prostitution was proclaimed by the Hawaiian chiefs (ali’i ). Enraged that they could not cajole, coax, or coerce Hawaiian women into violating the kapu, the sailors turned their frustrations on the American missionaries, whom they blamed for the emergence of this new unreasonably strict moral law. Whalers opposed any rules governing alcohol and prostitution, and blamed missionaries for influencing the Kingdom of Hawaii to enforce such rules. Riots broke out at least four times—in 1825, 1826, 1827, and 1843. In the 1827 riots, sailors on the John Palmer fired their cannons at the home of missionary William Richards and threatened the safety of the community.”

Chatfield avoided Lahaina when he was in command of the Massachusetts. Inflated prices for provisions, the temptations for the crew, and the slow decline of the port in the 1850s caused him to prefer San Francisco despite that port’s reputation as a graveyard for whalers. A bitter rivalry grew between San Francisco and Lahaina for the whaling fleet’s business, but for Chatfield and other Cotuit whalers, San Francisco was a better place to sell their whale oil and bone in between the summer season in Siberia’s Sea of Okhotsk.

My condolences to the people of Maui who lost family, friends, and their homes to the fires. Cotuit’s fire chief, Sean Brown, is in Lahaina now with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search & Rescue Task Force on the ground assisting with recovery efforts and the sad task of locating and identifying victims of the blaze.

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