Modern history


Alaska, June 1871

Early in June 1871, as the whaling bark John Wells, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, approached the snow- and fog-shrouded Siberian shore at the southern entrance to the Bering Strait, the ship was intercepted by a small boat full of wild-looking, fur-clad men. At first the whalemen on the Wells’s deck mistook them for Eskimos, natives of this coast. For the most part, New Englanders found the Eskimos, with occasional female exceptions, repellent-looking (made more so by the chin tattoos of the women, and the holes men bored in their cheeks around their mouths, then plugged with ornamental pieces of bone), but these creatures, as they drew closer, looked particularly wretched. All were bearded, their long hair matted, their faces smeared with grease and blackened from crouching over smoky fires. They appeared out of the cold, vaporous air like spectral phantoms, waving and calling, their voices thin and imploring. But their cries were in everyday English. The boat was soon alongside the John Wells, and its ripe-smelling occupants were helped aboard the ship.

One of them introduced himself as Captain Frederick Barker and explained that he and the men with him were the surviving crew of the whaling ship Japan, which had driven ashore on the nearby coast in a storm eight months before. Barker and his men were taken below, where they bathed, shaved, and were given clean clothes. Finally, over a seaman’s meal of beef, pork, beans, and bread—Christian food they had not tasted for eight months—they told their story to the Wells’s captain, Aaron Dean, and his officers.

They had enjoyed an exceptionally fortunate season’s whaling the previous year, in the summer of 1870. The Japan had pushed through the ice in the Bering Strait and reached the Arctic Ocean whaling grounds by the unusually early date of March 10—it was normally July before ice conditions allowed whaleships north of the strait. Their good luck had continued throughout the summer and into the fall. Because of mercurial changes of weather at the season’s close, when summer might be replaced by winter in the space of twenty-four hours, most whaling captains normally started heading south from the Arctic by early September. Lulled by continued fine conditions and an abundance of bowhead whales—and mindful of the injunction given by all whaling ship owners to their captains: “You are not to omit taking a whale when you can”—Captain Barker delayed his departure by a full month. He continued taking whales even as the autumn rime coated the shore, the true barometer of what was coming.

Early in October, Barker finally turned his ship south. On October 4, a heavy gale struck the Japan, and with it came the full, brutal, change of season. In driving snow, with ice forming in the rigging, Barker and his crew attempted to work the ship through the fast-disappearing channel between the coast and the solidifying ice pack that the storm was hourly driving closer to shore. With the ice and the storm came snow squalls, and between the squalls, the air was filled with a dense, disorienting fog. When even the roughly level plane of the sea beyond the decks became invisible, Barker’s world was reduced to an icy, disorienting cloud. Without visual or celestial aids, his navigation exponentially veered toward guesswork as he aimed the Japan for the eye of a geographic needle, the sixty-mile-wide Bering Strait, beyond which lay the open waters of the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.

The benign season had also seduced other whaling captains into postponing their departure from the Arctic, and these ships were now sailing through this same storm. The New Bedford whaleship Elizabeth Swift was not far away. “ This day blowing a terible gale from the N,” noted the Swift’s logkeeper on October 5. Waves continually broke aboard the Swift, filling her with water, keeping her men laboring at her pumps. The oar-powered whaleboats carried in davits high above the decks were swept away. As the storm went on, the height of the waves and the force and weight of the water crashing aboard increased. On October 6, a great wave smashed into the ship’s side and “stove our starboard bulwarks all to atoms.” Sails blew to ribbons. Another New Bedford whaleship, the Seneca, was seen working heavily through the seas not far away. Neither ship knew its position with any certainty. “ Dont know whare we are,” wrote the Swift’s logkeeper. “Vary cold. So ends this day.”

On October 8, the men aboard the Japan sighted another whaleship through the snow, the Massachusetts, of New Bedford, also running south at speed. The Japan made signals to the other ship, hoping to stay in company with her, for Barker feared the Japan might not weather the storm. But the Massachusetts either did not see the signals or could do little about them, and disappeared into the spumy air.

At the same time, the Champion, of Martha’s Vineyard, lay about sixty miles to the north, behind the Japan. She had recently caught and cut up four whales, but there hadn’t been time before the storm struck to boil the blubber from these into oil and stow the barrels below. Large chunks of whale meat and blubber, called “horse pieces,” 500 barrels’ worth, were now stored “between decks,” the space between the upper deck and the ship’s hold. This constituted a danger almost as great as the storm, for such deadweight, forty or fifty tons of it, sliding around with every roll and pitch, made the ship dangerously top-heavy, more likely than ever to slew around out of control before the wind and capsize. The Champion’s captain, Henry Pease, later described the circumstances aboard his ship as it headed for the Bering Strait:

... ship covered with ice and oil; could only muster four men in a watch, decks flooded with water all the time; no fire to cook with or to warm by, made it the most anxious and miserable time I ever experienced in all my sea-service. During the night shipped a heavy sea, which took off bow and waist boats, davits, slide-boards, and everything attached, staving about 20 barrels of oil.

With the coming of a bleak daylight, the Champion’s crew lowered the lead line (a lead weight on the end of a rope) in an attempt to get some idea of where they were. They found seventeen fathoms of water beneath the ship and concluded that they had passed through the Bering Strait during the night and were now headed for the rocks of St. Lawrence Island, directly ahead. By then the storm moderated enough to allow them to raise two small sails and haul the ship away from the island, saving themselves from certain shipwreck.

Barker and his crew were not so lucky. On the morning of October 9, running at “racehorse speed” before the wind, in “such blinding snow that we could not see half a ship’s length,” the Japan drove like a runaway train onto the rocky shore at the western side of the strait. All of her crew were miraculously unhurt in the wreck. Most of them immediately jumped overboard and waded a quarter of a mile through the pounding surf to the shore. The water temperature was at, or only a little above, freezing. Barker went below to gather his ship’s papers and logbook, but as he emerged from the cabin, a breaking wave swept over the deck and tore everything from his arms. Drenched, in clothes instantly growing stiff with ice, he descended to his cabin, again to change. Although the Japan was now pounding in the shallows, the ship’s position had stabilized somewhat. Knowing he would probably not have another chance, Barker spent a further three hours below-decks, attempting to collect clothing and provisions for his men.

Meanwhile, two of the Japan’s crewmen, who had reached dry land and started running up and down the shore to restore their frozen circulation, spotted fresh dog prints in the snow. They followed these to an Eskimo village, whose inhabitants immediately returned with them to the shore to help the sailors.

The Eskimos met Barker staggering out of the surf. They put him on a sled and began pulling him toward their village. On the way, he saw the bodies of many of his men, who, after safely reaching the shore, had collapsed on the ground and frozen to death. He imagined that he, too, was dying.

The air was piercing cold. . . . I thought my teeth would freeze off. . . . I supposed I was freezing to death. In a short time we reached the huts and I was carried in like a clod of earth, as I could not move hand or foot. The chief ’s wife, in whose hut I was, pulled off my boots and stockings and placed my frozen feet against her naked bosom to restore warmth.

But there were no hot meals for the survivors. Raw walrus meat and blubber, much of it putrid and rotting, was the only food, and it was days before the whalemen could bring themselves to eat it. “Hunger at last compelled me, and strange as it may appear, it tasted good to me.”

The Japan had wrecked on East Cape, Siberia, the easternmost point of mainland Asia, at the top of the Bering Strait. After two months of the native diet, Barker and the healthier members of his remaining crew (others were too weak to travel) set out along the now solidly frozen shore for Plover Bay, several hundred miles away, at the southern end of the strait. This deep, protected harbor was well known to arctic whaling and trading vessels, and was the site of several large Eskimo settlements. Barker hoped he might still find a ship there that could carry him and the rest of his crew away before the onset of the long winter, or at least find better food if they could not get away. The white men had already traded their stiff salt- and ice-sodden pea-coats, canvas foul-weather clothing, wool pants, and boots to the natives, who coveted these smart outfits, for warm fur and skin Eskimo garments and boots, and these served Barker and his men well on their ten-day tramp over ice and rock.1 At Plover Bay they found the San Francisco whaler Hannah B. Bowen, which was wintering over in the bay. They were taken on board and made comfortable, but four days after they arrived, the Bowen sprang a leak as ice thickened around her waterline and stove in some planks, forcing all hands to move ashore. They fixed up a small hut and remained there through the winter, eating the Bowen’s more civilized rations. Three times over the next few months, Barker made trips overland through the brief hours of faint daylight to bring provisions to the thirteen men who remained at East Cape. Although the Eskimos there continued to show every kindness to the wrecked sailors, all but one of them, Lewis Kennedy, who was too sick to move, finally could no longer bear the grim austerity of native life and attempted to make the trek south through the strait. They got as far as Indian Point, thirty miles from Barker’s quarters in Plover Bay. One of them froze to death on the way. There they remained.

BARKER AND HIS FIRST MATE, E. W. Irving, told this tale to Captain Dean and the officers of the John Wells. The next afternoon, June 6, 1871, they boarded another New Bedford whaler, the Henry Taber, which had arrived in Plover Bay, and repeated their story. Both ships then sailed around the coast to Indian Point, where a third New Bedford whaler, the Contest, had found and taken aboard the Japan’s eleven crewmembers camped there. Ten days later, on June 17, the Wells and the Taber reached “Owalin” (the present-day Russian settlement of Uelen) near East Cape, where the Japan had wrecked, and the ship’s last shipwrecked sailor, twenty-four-year-old Lewis Kennedy, an Englishman, was taken aboard the Taber. Kennedy had been one of the men who had safely reached shore, and then almost died of hypothermia on the beach. He had never recovered enough to make the trek south, and had remained in the Eskimo settlement, where, despite the best attention and food the Eskimos could give him, he was still unwell. “We’ve now 15 of the japan’s men aboard including Captain & second mate,” wrote the Wells’s logkeeper, second mate Nathaniel Ransom, who hailed from New Bedford’s neighboring town of Mattapoisett. At most times, Ransom’s log entries were the usual for ships’ logs: dry, essential details of weather, course, location, and ship’s business; but on this Saturday evening, after hearing of the Japan’s ill-fortune, his thoughts flew to the comfort of home, and he added, “Wrote a few lines to my darling wife.”

Abram Briggs, logkeeper aboard the Henry Taber, was more forthcoming:

Now, I am glad to state here that all of the survivors of the Ill fated Ship (Japan) are kindly cared for, as circumstances will admit and distributed among several of the fleet. From the time of her stranding, up to the present day, they lost 9 of the ships company & let us all trust they are far better off then In this World of Trouble, and let us hope the (all wise being) will permit the rescued ones to return to there friends no more to pertake of the trials & troubles of The Arctic Ocean.

The two young logkeepers, like every other whaleman in the Arctic, readily saw themselves in the Japan’s luckless and lucky crew. They were not inured to the prospects that lay beyond a moment’s bad luck, and keenly understood the peril of their situation. They were almost constantly afraid, like men in combat, and devoutly believed that, but for the grace of God, any one of them might find himself shipwrecked in the same unforgivable circumstances, facing a numbing or painfully lingering death, or, at best, a season in icy hell on an Eskimo diet. They put their lives and faith almost equally in the hands of God and His closest proxy in their world, their ships’ captains.

THE JOHN WELLS, the Henry Taber, and the Contest were in the vanguard of a fleet of forty whaling vessels then nosing through the melting ice in the Bering Strait. Most were from New Bedford. Others had sailed from Sag Harbor, New York; New London, Connecticut; and Edgartown, Massachusetts; several were registered in Honolulu; and one ship sailed annually to the Arctic from Sydney, Australia. The ships’ captains and crews fully expected to encounter one another, to see perhaps ten, twenty, even thirty other whaling vessels at a time in good weather, wherever they sailed during the season. But even amid such fierce competition, there was, by 1871, no better place on earth for finding whales.

High in the Arctic Ocean, roughly 300 miles south of the permanent polar ice pack (only 1,200 miles south of the North Pole itself), these “Arctic grounds” opened only for a few months every summer. They comprised a narrow channel that ran along the Alaskan coast from the Bering Strait to Point Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost tip of land, in the shallow water between the shore and the temporarily retreating ice pack. Then, as now, a powerful ocean current pumped northward through the Bering Strait out of the North Pacific, rising from abyssal depths and sweeping over the undersea continental shelf, stirring up and carrying a rich sediment of nitrates, phosphates, and other minerals into the Arctic Ocean. In spring, as the days lengthened toward twenty-four hours of chlorophyll-producing sunlight, this earthy undersea stream mixed with the oxygen-rich surface water at the edge of the melting ice pack to produce a dense, unparalleled efflorescence of plankton in the shallow water off the Alaskan shore. And as the ice melted, the arctic bowhead whales, whose diet consisted of plankton (filtered out of the water by the fronds of baleen that filled their great mouths), came here to feed on this rich soup. And the whalemen came for the whales.

As more ships gathered and nosed through the retreating edge of the ice pack in the strait, captains and crews went visiting. They rowed about in their small whaleboats for “gams”—social visits—aboard other vessels. Barker and first mate Irving accompanied Captain Dean, of the Wells, and often remained for several days as guests of other captains, telling again the story of the Japan and her crew’s long winter in the Arctic.

One of these ships was the Monticello, of New London, Connecticut. Her captain, Thomas William Williams, was one of a number of whaling ship masters who sailed with his wife and children aboard his ship.

Captain Williams’s youngest son, William Fish Williams, was twelve years old when Captain Barker came aboard for a meal in the Monticello’s saloon in June 1871. The food served to visitors was always the ship’s finest, yet it was plain. Sailors were not adventurous eaters. Despite the monotony of scanning the horizons for whale spouts for years at a stretch, they wanted dependability in their shipboard diet. Beef, pork, codfish, cheese, bread, and coffee they consumed daily with a relish undiminished by repetition. They were not bold experimenters when it came to the exotic foodstuffs to be found ashore—except for fruit, which, like children, they prized most for its color and sweetness. (One youthful seaman, who had never in his life seen or tasted tomatoes, bought a bag in Japan. Their “sourness” was so surprising that he threw the bag away.)

What young Willie Williams remembered most from his meeting with Barker was the captain’s revolting account of going hungry and eating tallow candles salvaged from his ship’s wreckage before succumbing to the natives’ diet of raw and rotting walrus blubber and meat with the hair still on it.

This also made the profoundest impression upon the captains of the other whaleships: the threat of starvation, the unsustainability of life ashore along this coast in the event of a shipwreck. A scenario that would determine the fate of every man, woman, and child in the fleet at the end of this summer.


NINETEENTH-CENTURY SHIPOWNERS, whale-oil refiners and dealers, whale-product merchants, ship captains, harpooners, whaleboat crews, coopers, and the common seamen who sailed aboard whaleships, their families, and the communities they returned home to, felt little of the Melvillean romance, of the environmental concerns, and nothing of the abhorrence that have since attached themselves to the enterprise of whaling. True, museums are full of scrimshaw carvings made by common seamen who were affected in an aesthetic way by the elemental, primordial struggle they experienced and witnessed in their work; some were genuinely enthralled by what they saw, though most of this work was occupational therapy, to stave off the stultifying boredom of life aboard a whaleship. Herman Melville’s dark, rapturous vision did not resonate with the readers of his day. His greatest book was a critical and commercial flop on publication, marking the end of his career as a popular novelist. There weren’t many fanciful types who held romantic notions about life aboard whaling ships. A shelf or two of memoirists of small or no literary merit tried (usually many years later, after the quotidian normalcy of shipboard life had given way to marveling at what they had once done in their heedless youth in the pursuit of a very few dollars) to express the astonishing, unquestioning audacity of pursuing a great whale in a small rowboat, to catch it with a hand-thrown hook, stab it to death, haul it back to a small, rolling ship, and there chop it up and melt it down for its oil. Why, what an idea.

For most of its practitioners, at every level, whaling was a rational, workaday endeavor, no more romantic than house carpentry, and far more dangerous and unpleasant. For the businessmen at the top of the trade it could mean phenomenal wealth; for the seaman in the cramped fo’c’sle, whose pay would often amount to no more than pennies a day, it was employment where none existed ashore, a path off the farm, or out of the slum, an opportunity of last resort. Very few young men, mainly delusional misfits, would have seen it as a tempting way of driving off the spleen, addressing a damp, drizzly November of the soul—Melville’s existential getaway. Life aboard a whaleship was too brutal and too dull for sensitive souls. Even Melville jumped ship, deserting the whaler Acushnet after only eighteen months—his only experience of whaling.

But for many, particularly those from New Bedford, there was a central tenet of whaling behind the economic rationale, an imperative that grew the industry from a part-time fishery to a holy calling, a belief that Melville nailed with bravura satire in chapter 9 of Moby-Dick, “The Sermon”:

“Beloved Shipmates,” cries Father Mapple, from the lofty prow of his pulpit, fashioned to resemble the bow of a whaleship,

“clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’ Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!”

Melville cleverly appropriated Jonah, perfect for his story, but one may wonder what other tales from the mighty cable of the Scriptures Father Mapple would have read from on the remaining fifty-one Sundays of the year. He would soon have turned to the Book of Isaiah, which proclaimed, with less of a fish story, a truth that everyone in New Bedford held sacred: they were doing the Lord’s work. The slaying of whales was a holy directive, unambiguously ordered by God Himself in Isaiah 27:1-6:

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. . . . He shall cause them that come of Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit.

The message was clear: slay whales and prosper. Every man, woman, and child in New Bedford knew that the whale was a divinely created oil reserve, placed floating in the sea by God so that His Children might secure it for themselves. And in so doing, whaling had anointed its practitioners with unmistakable signs of the Lord’s blessings. The merchants who controlled the whaling industry in New Bedford in the mid-nineteenth century had grown wealthy to the point of embarrassment, beyond what appeared seemly. The only possible conclusion they could draw was that they were doing the Lord’s work, His pleasure evinced by the otherworldly scale of their rewards, which they struggled to accept with modesty and disperse with responsibility. And the sailors who etched scenes, on sperm whales’ teeth, of men battling the leviathan in small boats, were responding to the same urge that led early man to draw scenes of the hunt on cave walls: they believed they had experienced a partnership with the divine. God had given them dominion over the earth and all it contained. Father Mapple and all New Bedford knew the truth in Psalms 107:23-24: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”


WHILE HERMAN MELVILLE’S TALE was too gothic and obscure for his contemporaries, the popular imagination of his day was thoroughly hooked by the money to be made in what was universally known as the “whale fishery.” This first industrialized oil business found its most successful form as a paradigm evolved by a tightly knit cult of religious fundamentalists on Quaker Nantucket. It realized its apotheosis of worldly reward when this paradigm was enlarged in Quaker New Bedford, which became the world’s first oil hegemony, the Houston and finally the Saudi Arabia of its day. Yet so fanatically and narrowly held—by some—was the religious faith that powered this great design, that it could not countenance or accommodate change, diversification, reappraisal, or compromise. The oil business of the second half of the nineteenth century was overtaken so swiftly by new paradigms created in the petroleum industry that New Bedford’s most hidebound merchant tycoons, and the world they had created, were swept away like sand castles in a hurricane. They vanished as fast as the new oil barons appeared to replace them. And New Bedford lost its preeminence as God’s Little Acre for merchant princes, though it would rediscover itself in the less exalted role of a Massachusetts mill town where the flotsam and jetsam of the whaling business—Azorean and Hawaiian seamen, freed and runaway black harpooners and their families, and poor young men and women from all over New England who had come to New Bedford to find a place aboard its ships and in its ropewalks and oil refineries—found steadier and far safer employment as cotton mill workers.

The rise and fall of the American whale fishery in New Bedford is a classic Darwinian story of the fitness of a group for a specific environment; of the failure by some of that group to adapt when their world changed, and how they withered and disappeared from the world, while others evolved and lived on.

That change was most abrupt for the 1,219 men, women, and children aboard the fleet of whaleships in the Arctic that summer of 1871. For them it would be a season of unparalleled catastrophe.

For the oil merchants and shipowners back in New Bedford, the change that overtook their lives would be more profound and longer-lasting.

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