Chapter 18




"Burke has described them," remarked my friend on another evening, recurring to his favorite topic, the sea. "The men I have been thinking of all day the sea captains of Nantucket. You remember that famous speech of his before Parliament one of his best in which he pleaded the cause of the American Colonies.

"Pass by the other parts," he says, "and look at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the whale fishery. While we folks them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson Bay and Davis Straits while we are looking for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold that they are at the Antipodes, and engaged under the frozen serpent of the South. Falkland Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry. Nor is the equinoctial heat more discouraging to them than the



accumulated winter of both the poles. We know that while some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. No sea but is vexed by their fisheries; no climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood."

That refers exclusively to Nantucket men, for they were the only ones who at that day had shown such enterprise in the whale fishery.

"There were a lot of splendid shipmasters just passing off the stage when I was a boy, and I must say they seemed to me in character, enterprise, and lofty demeanor fully equal to all I had heard related of their daring and enterprise. Knights-errant of the world they were, roaming from zone to zone and pole to pole, discovering new islands, mapping out unknown seas, grappling the hugest game, meeting and mingling with all peoples, you can imagine the stories they told, and of their fascination for a boy of twelve. I never forgot any, but the China and India voyages interested me most, especially those to Pondicherry, a remote port in India belonging to the French. I suppose because



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they recalled the exploits of Hastings and the great Clive. I am in the mood for speaking briefly of a few.

"The greatest family of island shipmasters was the Wests. They were descended in part from the noble Ichabod Paddock, who removed to Nantucket late in 1600, by invitation, to teach the people how to catch whales. Charles West married a descendant of this great whaleman. They had a son Stephen, who was master of a ship. as early as 18O2. Stephen was one of the most successful of our shipmasters. He was a bosom friend of the great merchant Jacob Barker; they were boys together; in fact, Jacob has told me that Captain West gave him his first start in life. I saw the former in 1850, in his eighty-fifth year, at the Captain’s death-bed, asking him what he could do for him in such a tender, pathetic spirit that I forgave Mr. Barker all he had omitted to do for his friend in life. In 1790 Captain West commenced his career as a South sea whale fisherman, and continued in it until 1798, when the French troubles compelled its suspension. In 1800, however, he was away as First Lieutenant of the Oneida, a twenty-gun ship, bound on a voyage to China, via Cape Horn and the Marquesas Islands, where she expected to lay in her cargo of seal skins. The Oneida was absent seventeen months, and returned with a rich cargo of teas, silks, and nankeens, so profitable that it was talked of in the counting-rooms of all our ports. Whaling was just then reviving. The ship John Jay,




then in the China trade, was purchased, and Mr. West went out in her as first officer on a voyage to Brazil Banks. On his return, Seth Russell & Sons of New Bedford offered him command of the Dolphin, in. which he sailed on a whaling voyage to the South Seas. She registered but 130 tons, and was probably the smallest vessel that ever sailed on such a voyage.

"Well out on the whaling grounds, the young Captain discovered that his vessel was leaking and was also very defective in her upper works. Most commanders would have come home. He put into Delgoa Bay, on the coast of Africa, where he found a number of his townsmen in command of English, French, and American ships. He called to his aid the carpenters and smiths of these ships, went into the woods and cut timbers, repaired his ship, and refastened her throughout. Then they went for a cruise off the Cape of Good Hope, fell in with schools of whales, filled the ship in six weeks, and were home full, the first ship of the season. Captain West’s reputation was now assured. In the ship Martha he made two voyages to the Brazil Banks and to Patagonia, taking upwards of 1,850 barrels of sperm oil each time, but losing the last

captured by the English ship Nimrod, in the war of 1812. On the return of peace he made three seven months’ voyages in his old ship Martha, returning full each time. Then the Liverpool packet Pacific was bought, and in her in a seven months’ voyage he took



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2,400 barrels of oil. He made a second voyage with like results. He then performed his last voyage in the South America, taking 700 barrels, and retired from the sea, having brought 25,000 barrels of oil into port. He died in 1859, nearly eighty-five years of age.

"The next son, Paul, was also a successful ship-master, first sailing for Nantucket merchants and then in English employ. His brother, Silas, was noted for an exploit that was narrated in every cabin and forecastle throughout the fleet. He was in command of the London whaleship Indian, and when off the Gallipagos Islands discovered a school of ten or twelve ‘bull whales.’ Then there was a sound of piping by day, the boats were lowered, and Captain West was soon in the midst of the monsters, never slacking his labors till the last was killed. When the ship worked up there were ten whales waiting to be taken alongside. I was telling this story years afterwards in one of our public resorts, several old masters being present, when one, then past his eightieth birthday, remarked: ‘The gentleman has told the truth of the matter; I was second mate of the ship Lion, then in company, and saw it done.’ Capt. Silas West was killed by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean.

"Capt. Benjamin Worth was another of those heroic masters. A volume might have been made of his exploits and adventures. Once he told me of a little adventure that befell him on the coast of New Zealand,





showing how a trivial circumstance may arrest the course of events and deliver from the jaws of destruction. They were in a deep bay on that coast when a terrible gale overtook them. With close-reefed main topsail and foretop-mast stays’l set all they could carry they tried to beat out, but in vain; the ship was urged to leeward by the tempest on towards the foaming breakers and black, jagged rocks. Captain and mate consulted, and decided to run the ship on shore while it was day so that they could pick out a safe place to land. The negroes on board and most Nantucket ships carried more or less of those people on hearing the order to put up the helm, and seeing the ship headed towards shore, crowded around the Captain and urged him to try once more for the open sea, ‘for,’ said they, ‘if we escape to shore here, we shall surely be eaten, for the natives are cannibals.’ They were well aware that the New Zealanders much preferred negro flesh as a diet to that of white men. Touched by their distress, the Captain decided to make another attempt to gain sea room. He brought the ship to the wind again, and set fore and mizzen tops’l, let out a reef in each of the others, and awaited the result. ‘You should have seen the tense, pale faces of the men,’ he used to say, ‘and the ship dancing like a sea-bird on the waves, with the wind howling through her cordage like a legion of devils, and the boiling caldron on her lee. But the sails held, the wind eased up



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a point or two, and we flew like a bird past the headland, and out to sea.’ They made Sydney, New South Wales, and there Captain Worth displayed the qualities of a great commander by bringing victory out of disaster. The ship was a mere wreck boats and try-works gone, cabin gangway splintered~ part of the deck torn up, and not a barrel of oil yet obtained; but Worth, not disheartened, built boats, repaired his ship, made grass rope, recruited stores, and put to sea, and in fifteen months was at Nantucket Bar, full. That shows the spirit of a Nantucket sea-king. Sailors will hardly believe it; but I bad it from his own lips. This Captain Worth, by the way, was grandfather to Secretary Folger’s wife. He was an elegant sailor and commander, as was his son, who sailed from England the ships Griffen and Rochester.

"Capt. David Baxter, one of Mr. Rotch’s captains, once gave his owner a great surprise. When in England, just before the war of 18192, Mr. Rotch engaged him for a passage to the Pacific for sperm oil. When thou art full and on thy way home,’ said he, ‘call at St. Helena, and I will there have a letter directing thee how to proceed from that point.’ Everything drew alow and aloft on the passage out, and when the good ship, the Charles, reached the coast of Peru she found whales so plentiful and had such luck in striking them that she was full before the men had thought of home; then favoring winds swept her speedily back, and she




called at St. Helena for the letter before Mr. Rotch had thought of her leaving her cruising-ground. Of course, there was no letter of advice, and Captain Baxter stood away for England, knowing too much to attempt New Bedford, with all his Majesty’s cruisers on the lookout for American ships. He took a pilot in the channel, who, one morning, before Mr. Rotch had arisen, anchored the Charles, with her bowsprit almost in the bow windows of his palatial residence on the Thames. Then Captain Baxter went ashore. Arrived at Mr. Rotch’s house, the great merchant came into the reception-room in slippers and dressing-gown and was vastly alarmed to meet his master. ‘Why, Baxter,’ said he, ‘what has happened to thee? Has thee become a wreck, or what has happened?’ supposing he had made no voyage. But when the Captain announced the Charles as full of sperm oil, worth an enormous number of guineas, Mr. Rotch was immensely relieved, and heartily congratulating him, made him stay to breakfast. It was a great surprise to the old Quaker. I think the time was only about eighteen months the usual absence being three years. Baxter was a man of untiring force in all his fine voyages. I have heard him relate details of them often. He was uncle to Sir Francis Baxter, of New Zealand memory.

"Let me give you an instance of the strength and nerve of another of our Nantucket sea-kings, Capt.



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Obed Fitch. He went, as second mate of that famous ship the Maria, to the east coast of Africa, George G. Hussey being commander, and Micajah Gardner first officer. Approaching the African coast, near where Riley and Paddock, two of our best captains, had been disastrously wrecked, the man on the forecastle reported ‘something looking strange to him ahead.’ Fitch, who had the deck, walked forward, and peering under the foresail, at once discovered the land looking white. Quick as a flash, without a word or order to any one, he sprang to the quarter deck and put down the helm hard down to the rail, then springing to the yards, swung them around with his powerful arms as quickly as though all hands had been at the halliards, thus putting the ship about and on the opposite tack; then, pausing to look over her side, he saw the mud coming up, and sea-drift, showing that her keel had scraped the bottom. When the ship was safe, Captain Hussey appeared in the gangway with Mr. Gardner, and took Mr. Fitch’s statement. Next morning at the breakfast-table Captain Hussey said playfully: ‘Mr. Gardner, why didn’t you take the deck last night?’ ‘Why, sir,’ said Mr. Gardner, ‘I saw Mr. Fitch had it, and that no man was safe around him. I saw he was in earnest.’

"Captain Fitch was a fine, majestic figure, over six feet tall, muscular, strong-limbed, his arms when in motion plainly showing his power. It is said that once




while bringing a new ship home they wanted water from alongside, and there being no bucket, he seized a barrel, and letting it down drew it up full as easily as an ordinary seaman would a bucket.

"Capt. William Mooers of the ship Maria was Mr. Rotch’s favorite captain. I heard a story once illustrating his spirit and decision of character. He was making a voyage to France in command of the Maria, Mr. Rotch being a passenger. We were at war with England at the time, and Captain Mooers had begged to be permitted to arm his ship ere setting out, but the Quaker merchant said there must be no fighting on his vessels. A few days out a cruiser discovered them and gave chase. She drew so near that the balls began to whistle about, and Mr. Rotch, horrified at the sound of strife, rushed on deck and ordered Captain Mooers to strike his flag. ‘Mr. Rotch,’ said Captain Mooers, ‘go below; I have the deck,’ and he held on his course. At the same moment the breeze freshened, and the Maria’s wide spread of canvas enabled her to take herself out of harm’s way. It is not on record that Mr. Rotch ever disciplined his captain for this cavalier disregard of orders.

"It is something, is it not, to have talked with a man who has been in the whale’s mouth? That man was Capt. Edmund Gardner, a descendant of John Swain, Jr., the first white male child born on Nantucket. He began his sea life in 1801, in the ship Union, Grafton



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Gardner, commander, and succeeded to the Captaincy in 1807, at the same time sailing to the Pacific on a whaling voyage. Twenty days out a huge sperm whale struck the ship, and she immediately sank, Captain and crew escaping in their three whale-boats, in which, after many adventures, they safely reached the Azores. There Captain Gardner found another ship, and in her made a noble sperm-whale voyage. In 1816, while on another voyage in the same ship, on the Peruvian coast, in an encounter with a sperm whale, his boat was knocked into splinters, and he was precipitated into the monster’s mouth. The horrible jaws closed on him, then opened and cast him out. The mate’s boat took him up for dead. One hand was gone, and there was an indentation in his head deep enough to hold an egg. The mate made all sail for the port of Paita, in Peru, where they soon arrived. It being the hot season there, the doctor said the wounded man must be taken up into the mountains, where the cool breezes would serve to restore him. This was actually accomplished. He regained his ship, completed his voyage, and arrived home in New Bedford in 1817, to the great joy of his owners, the Rotches and Rodmans.

"Reuben R. Pinkham was another of our great masters. An anecdote of him is well worth repeating. In 1833 the United States frigate Potomac, Commodore John Downes in command, was crossing the North Pacific on her voyage round the world.




Reuben R. Pinkham was her third lieutenant. One day, near sunset, Pinkbam had the watch, and the Commodore was walking the deck. The wind, which before was fresh, had increased to a gale, topgallant sails were handed down, topsails reefed, and the spanker brailed up, when all at once Pinkham gave the order:

‘Man the weather head braces, weather main brace, weather main topsail brace, lee crojeck (crossjack) braces.’ ‘What is that for, Mr. Pinkham?’ asked the Commodore. ‘We shall have the wind out here in a moment, sir,’ said Pinkham, stretching his arm out and pointing to leeward. With that the Commodore ran over to the lee rail and looked anxiously out in the direction indicated. Presently he returned and said:

‘I see no signs of it, Mr. Pinkham; let the men leave the braces.’ With that a number of the crew dropped the ropes, but on Pinkham’s calling out ‘Keep hold of those braces, every man of you!’ they resumed their grasp. The Commodore’s face flushed with anger to find his directions thus disregarded, and he called out in a peremptory tone, ‘Let the men leave the braces, sir!’ Again the crew dropped the ropes, when Pinkham, shaking his trumpet at them, exclaimed, ‘Don’t any of you dare to let go of those ropes!’ At that moment the wind did not die away, but stopped, and the sails flapped against the masts. Raising the trumpet to his lips, Pinkham shouted, ‘Haul taut,’ and the ponderous yards swung to a reversed direction.



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This was hardly done when the wind shot out of the opposite quarter and struck the ship like a sledgehammer. She bent over before it, but shaking the spray from her bows dashed forward unharmed.  Commodore Downes said not a word, but rushed ml his cabin, and presently the orderly came up to Mr. Pinkham and said the Commodore wished him to send to the first lieutenant to relieve him for a few minute as he wished to see him in the cabin. Entering the cabin, Pinkham found the Commodore seated by table with a decanter of wine and two wine-glasses before him. Pushing one of the latter towards h:

visitor, he said: ‘Take a glass of wine, Mr. Pinkham. Mr. Pinkham, I consider myself indebted to you for my own life, and for the lives of all on board this ship. Had you not hauled the yards just when you did, an had the wind found the ship unprepared, and take the sails aback, not all the power on earth could have moved the yards, and the ship would have gone down stern foremost. But I tell you frankly that had the wind not come out as you predicted, I would have put you under arrest in two minutes.’ ‘Commodor Downes,’ replied Lieutenant Pinkham, ‘I did not in tend any disrespect, and I should be sorry if you thought I did, but I have been in these seas before, and am familiar with these sudden changes of wind. I saw undoubted indications of such change then, and knew that I had no time for explanation.’




"Benjamin Hussey was another of our great captains the first to enter the Falkland Isles in a whalermy journals say in January, 1785. Before that date he was in Greenland, again off the African coast whaling. When in France Napoleon confiscated his entire property. Then he came to Nantucket, and the people engaged him to inoculate us boys that was in 1815. I shall never forget his huge head; when he took off his broad beaver I could think of nothing but a half-bushel of brains. In 1817 he returned to France and regained some of his property. With that and the assistance of some of my family, he fitted out from Dunkirk a whaler for the Greenland fishery, where lie arrived all safe, but unfortunately soon got entangled in the icebergs. He was at the wheel, steering the vessel, when the ice crushed against the rudder, and threw him over the wheel, breaking his ribs, from which wounds he soon died, May, 1820 then eighty years and five months old.

"It was men of this fiber that William Rotch had in mind when he made his famous reply to George III. Rotch asked for the admission of the Nantucket whale ships and their cargoes to England free of duty. ‘And what wilt thou give me in return?’ asked his Majesty. ‘We will give thee and thy people the young men of my native island,’ replied the intrepid Quaker, and I think the return would have balanced the concession.

"I could fill a volume with anecdotes, but these will



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suffice to indicate the character of the men of Nantucket. Remember, too, that I have mentioned but few of the noble men who have sailed from our port and carried its fame to the remotest ports. I was recalling yesterday the names of some of the more notable of those not mentioned Robert Folger, of the same blood as Franklin’s mother and the late Secretary of the Treasury; Joshua Coffin and Shubael Coffin, connections of Sir Isaac Coffin, the baronet; Thomas Hiller; Silas Holmes, the merchant of New York; Gideon Gardner, Resolved Gardner, the latter one of Girard’s captains; John Grinnell, Thomas Bunker, Reuben R. Bunker, Jonathan Colesworthy, the East India Captain, John Gardner of Philadelphia, Walter Folger, J. C. Briggs, Joseph Chase, Silas Ives, James Gwin, Ransom Jones, Gideon Ramsdell, Seth Swain, Jacob Barker, Latham Gardner, Thaddeus Coffin, Micajah Gardner, Zebulon Coffin, Robert Mott, and George Pollard, who was with Fulton on the Clermont in 1807, when she made her first trip up the Hudson, and Joseph Rotch, who commanded the Dartmouth on her first voyage out after the tea had been emptied out of her (the voyage was to London, and on her return she foundered, and Captain Rotch and his crew were taken off by Timothy Folger and brought to Boston, November, 1774), and the Watermans Thaddeus, Robert, and Robert, Jr. the latter famed for his quick China passages, seventy-four and




seventy-eight days, which have never been beaten Alexander Coffin, the London packet master, who conveyed Dr. Franklin’s despatches to the Continental Congress, and Nathan Coffin, his grandfather, whom Bancroft cites (‘History of the United States,’ vol. ix, p. 318) as a noble example of the indomitable spirit of the American patriot, and scores of others, who each achieved such greatness that we might look upon him and say;

Take him for all in all, he was a man,

We ne’er shall look upon his like again.