Part 4 – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

We sailed on our second voyage in September 1851 for the North Pacific. This time going by way of Cape of Good Hope. Touched at the Western Island and also at the Cape de Verde Islands on the way out, sighted the island of Tristan Da Cunha (in mid-ocean) and some twelve hundred miles east of Cape of Good Hope fell in with a large school of sperm whales. (Cows and calves). We had got two, and Uncle Horace had killed a third – and under ordinary circumstances should have got two or three more, for Uncle Seth was fast to another – when we discovered that the ship was much farther away than she ought to have been, and increased the distance at the rate of some five or six miles an hour. (It seemed that we all discovered this at the same time). Uncle Horace, instead of trying for another whale, stuck a red flag on a ten foot pole into the one he had killed, and started with oars and sail in an effort to overtake the ship. A hopeless task unless the ship stopped, for she was going faster than the boat could row. Uncle Seth cut from his whale and started for the ship too: Uncle Horace a mile or more in the lead. Of course it was useless for me – a third mate – to chase the ship. If neither the captain or the mate could overhaul her certainly neither of us could. So I signaled the third mate (Mr Holmes) to tow his whale to me, when we tied the two together, then waifed them and hunted in a circle of a mile for the one Uncle Horace had killed. I presume that Uncle Horace in his haste had not properly secured the waife, and it had worked out with the action of the sea. At any rate we could not find it. By this time the whales were out of sight in one direction, and the ship and the two boats in the opposite. Mr Holes and myself made fast to the two dead whales, set out sails so as to be seen as far as possible, and awaited developments: and this was the situation: the Cape of Good Hope twelve hundred miles to the eastward (the nearest available land); each boat had from three to four gallons of water, and each boat a bag – say a bushel – of bread; and we might cut enough flesh from the whales to last us until it putrefied; and we were not far from the track of the ships bound to and from China and the East Indies, and might fall in with one. And this is what happened aboard the ship: the cooper (an Irishman, not much past middle age, a good man – he owned a small interest in the ship) was also ship-keeper; and of course when all the boats were away she was under his control: and it was his place to keep the ship within easy reach of the boats as long as possible; and in case the boats got out of sight to go to the point where they were last seen and then stop, leaving them to find their way back. Now, a whale ship is always hove too on the starboard tack when the boats are to be lowered to enable the three on the port side to get away with the least risk; and this was what was at that time – but it left the ship headed in the opposite direction from that which the whales were going. What the ship-keeper should have done was to ware ship and follow the boats. What he did do was to lose his head, brace forward the main yard, set the mainsail and stand away to the westward, getting more and more rattled all the time; and she must have gone at least twenty miles. Then, no one seemed to know how, the bend sails caught aback, threw the ship around, and there she lay, with all sail flat against the masts – and the whole gang lost in mid-ocean, and scared out of their senses; and so Uncle Horace boarded her the middle of the afternoon. He braced the yards around and started on the back track, picked up Uncle Seth, and reached us at dark. We took the whales alongside, hoisted up the boats, and were glad to get to the supper table. But the strain had told on Uncle Seth. He was terribly excited, and what a rating he gave me for not finding that third whale.

The next morning we cut in the whales, filled away on our course to the eastward, glad that all was well with us. We stopped one day at the island of St. Paul’s, midway between the Cape of Good Hope and Australia, where we caught several barrels of excellent fish. I think these fish are the fattest and finest flavored I ever ate, the larger about five pounds in weight. St. Paul’s, Amsterdam, the two composing the group, are solitary, the nearest land (the Bourbon Islands) being several hundred miles to the north. Amsterdam has no harbor, or anchorage near it. Both are in a sense mountainous, and about twenty miles apart. St. Paul’s had an excellent harbor for small vessels – evidently the mouth of an extinct submarine volcano – with an entrance for vessels drawing ten feet. There was at that time a few men (fishing gang) belonging to Mauritius, a small vessel coming twice a year to remove their catch. Close to the shore was a hot spring five feet in diameter, throwing a central jet some three feet high. Crow fish were abundant. You could take one from the water, boil him in the spring, and have a lunch all within a half hour. Off the east end of Australia, but some distance south of it, we took a large sperm whale. Uncle Horace struck him just before sundown, and he kept out of our reach until after dark. Then I got within reach of him. It was too dark to use ordinary precautions, so I struck, and then hauled right up alongside and killed him there and then. It was a risky thing to do; but he was a valuable prize, and so I took the risk; but glad as Uncle Seth was to get a big sperm whale, he gave me a sound rating for doing so.

The next day we cut the whale, and then kept away on our course to the eastward, reached Van Diemen’s Land (since re-named Tasmania), the point where ships turn to the north between Australia and New Zealand, three hundred miles to the eastward. There is a peculiarity about this part of the ocean. A triangle formed by Australia, New Zealand and the Auckland Islands – the latter a hundred miles south-westerly of New Zealand – is subject to frequent dry gales. Something in the formation of the land, I presume, causes them. We took another large sperm whale soon after passing Tasmania, got him alongside at dusk, and before morning were caught in one of those dry gales. Of course we couldn’t cut, and it is not easy to hold a big whale alongside ship in a heavy gale. What we did was to make two whale lines fast to his flukes, and ware out a hundred fathoms with the ships and port just forward of the fore-rigging. In that position the whale acted as a drag, and the oil made a slick that broke the seas, and we lay in that position drifting north forty-eight hours, when the gale blew itself out, and we cut the whale and continued our course. A week later we made our spring port at Waganui (Manga Nui), New Zealand. Waganui is a safe land-locked harbor, capable of accommodating some twelve or fifteen ships, with room to swing at the anchors. The settlement consisted, at that time, of perhaps twenty dwellings, an out-fitting establishment kept by one Capt. William Butler, and a big liquor place where the crew held high jinks, and obtained the where withall to create lots of trouble. But there was good water within easy reach, and Captain Butler furnished good, fresh beef and excellent onions and potatoes; and – aside from old Flavius’ rum shop – it was a good place to give the men the necessary three days’ run ashore. We remained here some ten days, perhaps a fortnight, then left, bound straight for the north Pacific, and passed between the Society and the Fiji Islands, and on through the numberless Islands of Polynesia, until we reached the latitude of 50º 00 north off the passage into the Okhostk Sea. As we had made a quick passage, we were too early for the Behring Sea fishing; so Uncle Seth concluded to enter the Okhostk, and spend a month or six weeks before going farther north. This was some time in April – we left the Okhostk – for we found whales in plenty, and by the middle of September the ship was full of oil and bone, and we were ready for the voyage home. Of course we had the usual amount of bad weather, and much sea to contend with; but we had our home crew, well trained, and under good discipline; and under such circumstances, though hard work is not unpleasant, instead of coming home by the way of the Sandwich Islands and Cape Horn, Uncle Seth concluded to come by way of the Indian Ocean and Cape of Good Hope, making our fall port at Hong Kong; and we brought as far as Hong Kong the captain and sailing master of a French ship wrecked in the Okhostk that season. We finished our business at Hong Kong, crossed the China Sea, passed through the Strait of Sunda, then across the Indian Ocean, straight for the Cape of Good Hope. It was midway of the Indian Ocean that we fell in with the largest school of sperm whales that anyone aboard had ever seen. The ocean was fairly alive with them in every direction. We took five cows. The taking of these would have scattered any school other than this one, that I ever saw, but they did not appear to notice it – a little commotion in the immediate vicinity, that was all. The whales were around us all day, and we heard them blowing during most of the night: but in the morning none were in sight. We managed to save about one hundred barrels of oil by using everything that would hold a few gallons, and starting some fifty barrels of water, which compelled us to stop at St. Helena to refill. There is no harbour at St. Helena, and the surf roars on the beach all round the island; but there is good anchorage on the north side directly in front of the town, which lies in a valley commencing at the water, and gradually ascending to the top, which is several hundred feet high. It does not exceed a half mile in width, and at the shore is enclosed by a precipitous bluff on each side, both bluffs strongly fortified; and in fact there seemed a gun on every spot where there was room which could be reached. Near the head of the valley is the famous Longwood, the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte, when he was a prisoner (in exile) after the Battle of Waterloo, and where he died. There being no harbour where ships might lay at wharfs, all cargo must be landed from lighters. This is effected by means of a moderately long mole (breakwater) which runs not quite parallel to the shore, and reaches deep water some two hundred feet from the beach, forming a canal where small boats may enter and land in safety: the lighters lying at mooring buoys, their cargoes being swung into the mole by means of large derricks. As this island could never be used as a naval station, unless a harbor was first built by means of breakwaters cut on the anchorage – the same as the harbor of Cherbourg, France, was built – the only use to which it seems likely ever to be put is as a sanitarium – and at that time there were two regiments stationed there for that purpose.

We lay at St. Helena four days – as I remember – filled our water casks, got a small amount of fresh food, and then left on our passage, straight away home, where we arrived in March 1853; just eighteen months after leaving Edgartown in September 1851. This time we left the ship at Wood Hole, where we were relieved by a gang from Nantucket, who discharged the cargo into small vessels that carried it to Nantucket, after which the ship was towed to the same place to be refitted for another voyage.

In engaged for another voyage in the same position of second mate, the owners not deeming it prudent to advance so young a man to the position of second in command with the possibility of some accident leaving the ship in his charge, with the responsibilities which a shipmaster, voyaging in the Pacific, was compelled to assume in those days. The following month, April 19th, 1853, your mother and myself were married. The ceremony being performed by Ferdinand G. Kelley, Justice of the Peace, at his home in Centerville: and after spending a part of the summer with my parents, in Cornwall, we returned to this place, which has been our home ever since, now fifty-two years the coming April. It was decided that your mother should live with her parents while I was gone, supposedly for three years. We sailed from Edgartown, where the ship’s fittings were put on board, this time early in the fall. Your Uncle Horace master, and a William Bunker mate, Charles C. Holmes third mate again, and your Uncle Bethuel G. Handy as one of the boat steerers. We took the route by way of Cape of Good Hope, and the south side of New Holland (Australia) touched at the Western Islands (Azores) and the Cape de Verde, lay off one day at St. Paul’s to catch a quantity of fish, took two wright whales off New Holland, and made our spring port at Manga Nui, New Zealand, probably in February or March 1854, where we remained the usual length of time, filled water, got a stack of potatoes and onions, fed the men on fresh beef, and gave them the usual three days’ liberty ashore, and with only the usual amount of trouble – the result of old Flavius’ strong whiskey, or whatever strong drink it was he kept. One incident connected with old Flavius’ bad whisky may amuse you. Among the crew were two New York Irishmen, Donely and Scanlan by name: both hard drinkers, and Scanlan something of a pugilist, who prided himself on his ability to take care of himself on any and all occasions. Both were in the mate’s watch, and consequently were on shore leave together. Of course when the mate’s watch were on liberty, and the second mate had charge of the ship, and it was my business to see that all liberty men were aboard before dark. One day, the boat steerers brought all on board except Donely and Scanlan, and reported that both were in Flavius’ establishment, and wouldn’t come aboard until they were good and ready. So there was one of two alternatives: either I must bring them on board, as the guard would scoop them into the Culahouse in the early evening, and the magistrate would fine each from five to fifteen dollars – the sum dependant on the amount of trouble they had given the guard. Then there was the chance that if I failed to bring them aboard the crew might come to the conclusion that it was from fear of Scanlan’s fighting powers, and that wouldn’t do at all. So ashore I went, left my two men with the boat, and walked some three hundred yards up the slope to old Flavius’. Now there was a general understanding that the hardened old sinners (some in every crew) would mob any office who attempted to take any man out of Flavius’ establishment against the man’s will: and I believe it had been done a few times. So I was not at all sure as to my reception: but I went in. There sat my two men among some dozen others belonging to the half dozen other ships then in the harbor. The first thing I noticed was that old Flavius looked frightened. Then he closed the port through which he passed the liquor to his guests, thus shutting himself out from the guests’ room, safe from disturbance that might take place. However I had no trouble. There was some black looks, and one fellow got on his feet, but sat down again immediately. My men hesitated a moment, then seeing no movement made by the others quietly walked out, and down to the boa. It was when we got to the ship that the fuss took place. Neither were in a condition to climb up the ship’s side, so I went to the open gangway, called for a rope which I put under Donely’s arms, and the men hauled him on board. Scanlan showed fight, said he wasn’t going to be hauled aboard by a rope, so I was obliged to handle him somewhat rough. While he was being hauled up Donely plunged headfirst overboard again: so he had to be hauled into the boat, and the process repeated. While I was roping Donely, Scanlan came to the gangway, and with a “There you go you old devil” tumbled the mate headfirst out of the gangway – a fall of about eight feet – Had the old mate reached the boat head-first it might have hurt him severely. As it was he fetched up on my back – or rather hips – rolled over, and landed on his feet, and was not hurt at all. But Oh, wasn’t he scared. All he could say was “My Got! He pitched me overboard!” By that time I’d had enough of drunken men for one day, so I followed Donely up the side quick, and had Scanlan’s hands and feet in irons and him in the ship’s run in a very few minutes. In the meantime the other men had got Donely below, and all was quiet for the night, and before the captain came aboard. It was at Manga Nui that I learned something of the capabilities of the Australian Boomerang when in the hands of a native Australian. One was employed by Captain Butler to assist in slaughtering hares, and he was always ready to show his skill for a piece of tobacco. The implement is made of hard wood, and is shaped much like a common pickaxe – not quite so much curve – with both ends flattened, and is about three feet long: and the wonder of it! That native, common savage, would place himself about seventy-five feet from a small building, and throw that boomerang at an angle of about some twenty degrees, and with a few degrees of elevation to overcome gravitation, and the thing would go squirming through the air, curve round that building, and reach the ground within a few feet of where the man stood. He would also throw it into the air, up, and it would curve over backwards, reaching the ground near his feet. He would also throw it straight away with a reasonable certainty of hitting a mark the size of a man: and I was told that he was no more expert than the average Australian native (not the New Zealander: they knew nothing about the boomerang.)

We finished our stay at Manga Nui, and then left straight away for the Ochotsk Sea, passed between the Society and the Fiji groups, most of the Carolinas, and the Mulgranes, and so on north towards the ice, snows and the summer whaling ground.

One whaling voyage differs little from another, except in occasional incidents. We entered the Ochotsk Sea at the usual time year (April), had the usual experiences with the spring gales, floating ice bergs, snow storms, and later in the season fogs: but the whaling was very different from what it had been two years before. Then whales were plenty. They had been disturbed but little, and were easily captured. But during the year 1853 there had been not far from three hundred ships in the sea, and allowing them twenty whales each – not a large average – there had been, at least, six thousand killed: and as whales certainly do not breed more than once a year – and seldom have more than one calf at a birth (I never saw more than two, or perhaps three, pair of twins in company with a cow), it is easy to understand what havoc had been done. Added to this, the fact that the whales had become shy and difficult of approach, it is easy to understand why we left the sea in September with only half a cargo, and why it was necessary to continue the voyage another year in order to complete it. We left the Ochotsk Sea during the month of September, having met with no incident worth recording, made the four thousand mile passage to the Sandwich Islands without accident, and reached the Port of Hilo, Island of Hawaii (formerly Owyhe) about the first of November, 1854. There we received our first letters from home, fourteen months after leaving home, and the news of your (Millie’s) birth on the twenty-first of the previous March.

The harbor of Hilo furnishes safe anchorage for from fifteen or twenty ships the size of whale ships: but it would need extensive protective works to make it safe for ships to live at wharves. The ocean swell created by the north east trade winds heaves round the projecting reef, and on to the beach in front of the town, so that it is at times unsafe to land boats. At those times we were obliged to land in a small lagoon at the head of the harbor, and some two miles from the town.

It was at this time that I witnessed the eruption of a volcano on Mauna Loa, said to be the seventh or ninth in size in the world – and a splendid sight it was, and one which I can find no language to describe except in very general terms. The eruption was not from the mouth of the old crater, that is from the top of the ridge (for Mauna Loa is not a cone) and is said by those who had made measurements to be one and a quarter mile in diameter, but the one I saw broke out from the side of the mountain, some distance from the top, and was a deep rent a half mile in length, out of which the hot lava poured in a continuous stream, which flowed in nearly a direct line toward the town and harbor. The people were almost sure that it would destroy both: but it proved otherwise. The edge nearest the town (the stream at that point was about one and one-quarter miles wide) passed about two miles back, doing no damage to either, and continued some seven miles further, where it reached the ocean at a point called East Cape, and plunged off from the bluff some two or four hundred feet directly into the ocean: and when it had stopped flowing, it had extended East Cape some hundred feet into the ocean. This lava stream was very interesting, the crust cooled the whole length, forming a tunnel through which the molten mass flowed, and in a short time became hard enough to walk over, and through the numberless cracks and holes one could see the liquid mass surging on towards the sea: and it was a common practice for people to dip an iron spoon full of the liquid, and allow it to cool in the spoon as a souvenir of their visit.

The ancient crater from which the eruptions usually came is situated on the top of the mountain, which at that point is a long ridge, with the trade winds blowing directly across it: and after an eruption quantities of lava are found in the form of finely spun glass (or what resembles spun glass), evidently blown into that form by the wind. Mr. Coan, the missionary located at Hilo showed me a number of tufts, some nearly black – and running through the different shades to silvery white, and in texture ranging from fine human hair to that of a horse. The natives call it Pele hair. Pele being, in their ancient mythology, the goddess of the volcano. It seems strange when we remember that the volcano which recently destroyed St. Pierre, Martinique was also called Pele, and it would be interesting to know whether the natives of the Sandwich Islands and the Caribs of the West Indies had a common origin, a common language, and a common mythology.

We finished our business at Hilo, then went to the leeside of the island to a place called Taai, for a stock of potatoes. There is anchorage at Taai, but no harbor, ships must get away whenever the wind shifts to the southwest, which it frequently does during the winter season.

Continued … 

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