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A Yankee Notebook

April 27, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – Most of us have seen the film Moby Dick, in which Gregory Peck, clomping around the deck of the Pequod on an ivory leg-stump, maniacally pursues the white whale that in an earlier encounter had so abbreviated him. Some of us, willingly or not, have read the book. And a few of us have visited the whaler Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport at the mouth of the Mystic River in Connecticut. But I dare say very few of us have ever appreciated the sheer number of whaling ships that hunted the seas from the South Pacific to over 70º north in the Chukchi Sea and Baffin Bay. Over 2700 whalers were abroad at one time, hailing mostly from New England ports and, with an average crew size of about 28, pretty effectively drawing down the population of young New Englanders disaffected by their agricultural or manufacturing prospects ashore.

There are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of books and articles about the 19th-century whaling industry. One of the most affecting is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which tells the story of the survivors of the Essex, rammed and sunk by an aggressive sperm whale 2000 miles off the coast of Chile. The incident inspired Melville’s Moby Dick; and the cannibalism to which the crew resorted in their extremity spawned the humorous 1866 poem, “The Yarn of the Nancy Bell” (by none other than William S. Gilbert), whose narrator describes the process of surviving the lifeboat lotteries and eating his shipmates one by one.

One of the joys of advanced age is that information – which in our youth we were more or less forced to absorb – becomes entertainment. We want to know more about Cromwell and the Protectorate; about Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal; about plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. The pleasure is enhanced by knowing there’ll be no quizzes, midterms, or finals.

Recently I read and recommended Ice Ship, a book by my neighbor Charles Johnson about Fridtjof Nansen’s famous vessel, Fram. Shortly afterward, I got a query from another author: Would I like to take a look at her latest book, Oil, Ice, and Bone: Arctic Whaler Nathaniel Ransom? You bet I would!

Helen Hiller Frink, the author, is Professor Emerita of Modern Languages at Keene State College, a New Hampshire native, and a descendant of whalers; Nathaniel Ransom was one of her great-grandfathers. It appears that in her genealogy research (a frequent pastime of recently retired folks to which I have not yet been attracted) she came across the preserved journals of her seagoing ancestor, in which he faithfully recorded both the humdrum and the extraordinary happenings of his fifteen years on various New England whaling ships. A methodical writer who preserved the same form on all his pages – he would have been a favorite of my old English masters – he noted the weather, the wind, and the ship’s course each day. Some of his writing (in pencil) has faded with time and use, but Professor Frink was able to recover almost all of it.

Nathaniel’s first voyage, on the bark Barnstable, Bedford, Massachusetts, began in May of 1860, when he was just fourteen. Astute students of history will note that a multiyear whaling voyage at that time would put the bark and its crew at sea during much of the Civil War, as well as half a world away, in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and finally the Okhotsk Sea and on through Bering Strait. The New England whaling fleet hardly escaped the war entirely; the Confederate raider Alabama sank 46 of them before she was herself sunk by Kearsarge in 1864 off Cherbourg. Shenandoah, operating in the Pacific in 1865, refused to believe the captains of its victims that the war had ended, and kept at it till the end of June, thus firing the last shot of the war.

The New England fleet had by then been reduced by half, and the whales probably by more than that, but the chase continued. The transcontinental railroad, completed by 1869, meant Nathaniel and his fellows (one of whom, Harvey Paige, had gone to sea from Hardwick, Vermont) could return to New England overland, instead of around Cape Horn. The ships refitted in San Francisco. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 depressed the price of whale oil and baleen, the two mainstays of the fleet’s profits; and, as the ships were forced to venture ever farther north for increasingly scarce bowhead whales, an unprecedented Arctic ice year trapped and crushed 33 of them off the north coast of Alaska. The whale fishery was clearly in an irreversible decline. The Panic of 1873, which caused a severe six-year-long depression, drove another nail into its coffin.

But through it all, Nathaniel, now in an almost bizarrely intermittent marital relationship, kept his journal and wrote faithfully to his “Darling Wife, Sarah.” He records the number of whales struck, the number killed, the number of walrus and dolphins killed for their oil – the whalers nearly extirpated the herds of Alaskan and Siberian walrus – the deaths of shipmates, stripping whales of blubber and trying out the oil, and scraping hundreds of pieces of baleen for shipping. His health, never good, is exacerbated by the filth and stuffy air below decks; he suffers from multiple ailments – arthritis, bowel and breathing problems, sore throat, heart palpitations that will kill him at sixty, and an almost unbearable itching that has him at times even scratching away patches of his skin.

He records the deaths of shipmates from falling from the rigging, being pulled underwater by fouled lines attached to whales, from typhoid. When he finally came ashore after his long voyages, he put his journal aside, to be discovered in a whaling museum many years later by his great-granddaughter. In a photograph taken near the end of his life, he sits at ease in a front-porch rocking chair reading a newspaper, with his “darling wife, Sarah,” standing by his side. How those old-timers managed, we can hardly imagine. The stories they left us are amazing enough.

Photo by Willem lange