Part 5 – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

continued from part 4

We stopped there one night, then proceeded to Honolulu, lay off twenty four hours while the captain went ashore to finish his business, and mail our last batch of letters home. Then away again, down through the many islands of the Polynesian groups, touching at both Ocean and Pleasant Islands, making our spring port at Ascension, four years after we had been at the same, when your Uncle Seth was in command of the ship. Quite a number of changes had occurred among the inhabitants during the four years. The reigning chief was still alive, but we saw nothing of him. Nassopee (the war chief) had reached a higher grade, and no longer lived near the harbor. One of the young men that the big chief had left onboard as a guard (his English name was Billy Barlow) was now war chief in place of Nassopee; and that splendid young fellow, the leprosy had got in its work on him, and his leg was eaten away to a pointed stump half way between the ankle and knee. The toes and part of the other foot was gone, and also some of the fingers of one hand. Still he was the same jolly, good-natured fellow, making no complaint, only once he showed signs of feeling. It appeared that there were prospects of a war with a neighboring tribe: and in alluding to it he looked at his helpless hand and feet, and said “I can’t go.” Then his voice broke: but he recovered himself in a minute. It was fate, that was all. Of course conversation was limited to signs, and his few words of English.

We filled water, got wood, laid in a stock of fruits, then left and proceeded on our way to the Ochotsk Sea again, dropped anchor, and spent two days in the harbor of Guam, then belonging to Spain, and used as a convict island, now a possession of the United States – very much to the disadvantage of the natives, I am sure. Here near the harbor is – or was fifty years ago – one of those ancient works which are found in so many of the Pacific Islands, of which the present race of natives neither know who built them, or for what purpose they were built. It consists of an avenue some one hundred feet wide, and several hundred feet long, bordered on each side by a number of concrete pillars, made of some light gray material, very durable, some twelve meters in diameter and some twelve feet high. They were assembled in groups of four on a concrete base some six feet apart, the four forming a square. On top was bowl made of the same material, uniting the four pillars, and forming a capital of not less than ten feet in diameter, shaped like a saucer, but deeper. The groups were some fifty to seventy-five feet apart. Some were standing erect, and were in good condition. Others had toppled over, and lay in a broken mass, partially buried in the soil. As my memory serves me there were about thirty groups. The Spanish priest who looked after the spiritual welfare of the convicts told me that no one knew who built them, or for what purpose they were built: and that the natives had no tradition concerning them. Their origin is lost in the dim and misty past.

We left Guam after a forty-eight hour stay, and entered the Ochotsk Sea in due time. Nothing unusual occurred worthy of note during the season. We took enough oil to make a fair cargo, but not enough to fill the ship, then left the sea during September, and made our fall port at Hilo, remained the usual three weeks. This time we had a few cases of scurvy, two bad ones, whom we were compelled to carry ashore on stretchers: but they got over it, and all joined the ship again before sailing. We went to Taai and got a stock of potatoes, then sailed on our cruise, intending to use up some four months looking for whales, then stop at Manga Nui, as our last port before reaching home. It was while on this cruise that I had my premium tussle with a whale. We were off the north coast of New Zealand, and at daylight we were in the midst of a school of sperm whales. They proved to be a school of young males. Sixty barrel bulls – whalemen call them – such as the old bulls, who will tolerate no interlopers in their harem, had driven out of the herd: and being young, active, and full of fight are dangerous fellows to deal with. It was blowing half a gale, and the sea was so rough that it was a question as to whether it was safe to lower the boats. But we were after oil, and so decided to try for it. I struck, or rather your Uncle Bethuel, who steered my boat, struck a whale in a few minutes after we were clear of the ship, getting in one iron only. There is always two irons (Harpoons) ready, and the boat-steerer (harpooner) is expected to strike the whale with both; but, as in this case, is not always able to do so. The first iron is attached to the end of the line, the other to one end of a short warp, the other end having a hawline in it through which the main line passes and is only of use if the first iron pulls out of the whale. In striking, the boat got half full of water, and I dropped off a hundred fathoms in order to bail out the water, secure the sail, and get ready for the fight, which from the fact that the whale instead of running remained in the same place, was standing on his tail showing his head and part of his body out of water, pirouetting round and so bringing his eye to bear in all directions, making for his enemy. I was sure I had on my hands. We hauled up to within ten fathoms – the usual distance – got the second iron into the crotch, then took the oars ready for action: and just at that time the fellow got his eye on the boat. He did not hesitate a second but made his rush at once. Had the sea been smooth I might have dodged him, and perhaps killed him as he passed, but it was too rough for that, and he came quick, jaw dropped, head above water, at an angle of forty degrees, and over the boat he came. All I could do was to drive the second iron and the lance deep into his ugly head, for I didn’t want those sharp things in the water with us. He snapped his jaws together, cutting the boat into two pieces, rolled over on one side, smashing one half with his head, and threw the other half in the air with his jaw, making kindling wood of both. The first thing I discovered was that my feet were entangled in the line, or perhaps the lance warp, and that if he started to either run or sound it would be the last of me. You may be sure I doubled myself up, and with my hands cleared the line from my feet quick. Then I looked around for my men, and could see only three, Bethuel and the after oarsman (Martin) were not in sight. I gave an oar to each of the three men, and directed them to swim off to the mate’s boat which was lying five hundred yards distant: all the time the whale was thrashing about striking with his flukes snapping his jaws, sometimes underwater for a few seconds. After seeing the three men started towards the mate’s boat I looked again for Bethuel and Martin, and I saw Martin clinging to a piece of the boat’s bow still being enough to hang him up, and Bethuel (hardly able to keep afloat) with his feet within a few inches of the whale’s nose. I called him to swim off at right angles to the whale, but he did not seem to understand. So I looked around for another oar, and found two which I put under his arms. This gave him confidence, and he started after the other three men. Then I looked to see how Martin was faring. (The whale had settled under water, and it was more fearful) and found that he had climbed onto the piece of boat, and with a piece of wreckage was paddling off to leeward, submerged to the waist, but still making some headway. I learned afterwards that when the men left the boat Martin (Who could not swim or thought he couldn’t) had clinched Bethuel, and they had gone down together, and that Bethuel had a hard struggled to break away from him, which he finally did by getting his knees against Martin’s breast and then straightening out. Then both came to the surface. Martin found that he could swim, and reached that piece of boat. Bethuel so exhausted that he could hardly keep afloat until I gave him the oars. The men being safe, it was time for me to look out for myself. Just then I heard the whale blow close behind me, and he was so near that when I started to swim with the first stroke, the sole of my foot came in contact with the edge of his flukes. I naturally looked behind me, and there was that tail ten feet in the air, and apparently right on head, and it came down like a flash, and struck the water with a noise as a clap of thunder, and the spray and foam completely buried me. I overtook Bethuel and Martin, and kept with them until we reached the boat, all pretty well exhausted and all pretty sick from the effects of the saltwater we had in our stomachs. Poor Mr. Bunker, he was a timid sort of man, and the first words I heard him say were: “My God, Mr. Chatfield, I didn’t dare come any nearer. It would not do to get two boats stove and both crews drowned.” Which was true enough. We went to the ship, which was a short distance off, and after talking it over concluded it was too rough to risk any more boats. So we ran down with the ship, and tried to kill the whale from the bows: but he settled and let the ship go over him, and in a short time he started off to windward, and we soon lost sight of him for good and all.

We made port at Manga Nui, got water sufficient to last us home, and a small stock of vegetables, and then left bound for Cape Horn, and home. We had taken no oil during the cruise, and had no great expectations of taking any on the passage. The home run was made in fair time: and nothing worthy of notice occurred during the passage. We anchored at Edgartown sometime in June 1856. Uncle Horace and myself left for home as soon as we anchored, the rest remaining aboard until the ship reached the bar at Nantucket, where her cargo was taken out, and the ship towed in to refit for another voyage: and Millie, dear, you were twenty-seven months old when I first saw you.

Soon after reaching home I was, on the recommendation of Uncle Horace and Uncle Seth, offered the command of the ship for another voyage: and after spending a part of the summer with my parents, in Cornwall, sailed in the following September. My youngest brother Norman, then a lad of fourteen, going with me. I took the route by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and the south side of New Holland, making my first port at Manga Nui. On the way out I took the largest sperm whale I ever saw: a grey-headed old bull who had evidently been driven out of some herd by a younger and more vigorous rival. His teeth were worn down, and a portion of them were in elevated condition. Evidently he had made a fight for continued supremacy, for his jaw was twisted out of shape, and there were a number of scars, not long healed, about his old head. He made no trouble when struck, or on being killed. Perhaps he was tired of life, who knows? He made one hundred and nine barrels of oil. It was said that the largest sperm whale taken by a Nantucket ship made one hundred and forty barrels. It is a good one that makes eighty or ninety barrels. I spent the usual three weeks at Manga Nui, gave the men liberty, got water and vegetables, and then sailed direct for the Ochotsk Sea, which we entered at the usual time (April). The winter had evidently been a severe one, for the ice floes were exceptionally heavy, and very much more large in extent: and the snows were deeper on the shore. The ship got caught in the pack and lay several days with no water in sight. There was nothing to do but furl all the sails, and wait for the pack to separate, which we did. When the pack stacked up I worked the ship out of it and round it to the north shore of the sea, where in company with two or three other ships I found some open water and a few whales, two of which I got. In getting the first one I had an experience worth telling. There was plenty of ice about, single cakes, and packs of from one to twenty acres in size, with an equal area of open water. All four boats were down. I myself in one of them and the mate – I think it was – struck a whale. As usual the whale made for the pack. The third mate fastened to him before he reached it, and the inexperienced fellow kept his line tight, ran his boat against the ice, and damaged it so badly that he was barely able to keep afloat until he reached the ship. The whale ran into the middle of the pack, and then lay still in an open hole a few square rods in extent. I told the mate to hold on to his end of the line, while I traveled over the ice with a view of killing the whale where he lay. At first I took the hand gun, forty pound in weight: but I quickly gave that up, for I found it necessary to jump from one cake to another, and if I should happen to slip between them that forty pound gun would carry me to the bottom without fail. So I put the gun back into the boat, took my hand lance, and worked my way across the ice to where the whale still lay. I could not reach him: but a small loose cake, big enough to bear me, lay within reach. I was bound to make sure of killing him: so I got on that small cake of ice, pushed it close to him, and without letting the lance leave my hand, set it deep into his vitals. Of course the whale had his body up, and threw his tail into the air, and he sent that cake of ice up edgeways: but, fortunately, the side on which I was, tipped towards the pack, and so a moderate jump landed me … to part 6

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