Modern history


A Nursery and a Kindergarten

Born aboard a whaleship in the stormy Tasman Sea in 1859, twelve-year-old William Fish Williams was on his third whaling voyage with his parents as the Monticello sailed north in the summer of 1871.

He was three years old before he began to live ashore in San Francisco during the Civil War. Until then, land was a distant, occasional novelty, strange and wondrous as a carnival attraction, and never the same. As a baby and toddler, he was handed by strong whalemen down to his mother, who sat in a rocking boat, and rowed ashore at Russell in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, at Guam, Honolulu, Hakodate in Japan, and Okhotsk on the Siberian coast—all were brief sideshows to the little boy, whose truest home was the cramped rear cabin of a rolling, pitching whaleship and the surrounding sea in all its moods and conditions from the latitudes of New Zealand to the Arctic. His most common spectacle, and the abiding ethos of his world, was the pursuit, capture, and dismemberment of great whales.

His father, Thomas William Williams, and his family had come to America from Hay-on-Wye, the ancient border town between England and Wales, as steerage passengers in 1829, when Thomas was nine. After a year on Long Island, they moved and settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The family, including young Thomas, found work in local wool mills. But this was grueling indoor labor, and Thomas’s mother, worried about his health, got him apprenticed to a Wethersfield blacksmith to learn the toolmaker’s trade. However, when he was twenty, something inside Thomas—perhaps the impression made by a transatlantic voyage on a nine-year-old boy2—made him lift his sights beyond the claustrophobic insularity of village life. “My father’s case was typical,” wrote his son William many years later. “I recall the stories of the captains when gamming with our ship or calling at our home in Oakland, California, they all ran away from home to make their first voyage.” These future-captain boys had a streak of ambition or a lust for adventure, and from the tidy and constrained village life of the early nineteenth century there were only two kinds of territory to light out to: the undeveloped West, or the sea. Thomas didn’t run away—he was twenty and had completed his apprenticeship when he told his mother he was going to sea—but his departure greatly alarmed his family. The sailors the Williamses had known in small towns in England were generally retirees from Napoleonic-era sea battles, contemporaries of Nelson and the fictional Jack Aubrey, whose limbs had been blown off by cannonballs and flying shards of ship timber. Thomas’s parents and grandparents were horrified and fully expected him to return, if at all, minus an arm or leg. He traveled to New Bedford in 1840, near the peak of the American whale fishery, as many other young men did, and shipped as a “green hand” aboard the whaleship Albion. Andrew Potter, the shipping agent who hired him, was impressed by the tall—six-foot-three in his socks—capable-looking youth. When Potter boarded the Albion on its return to New Bedford two years later, he again met Thomas, who was apparently suffering from “moon blindness” from sleeping on deck in the tropics beneath the full light of the moon. The young man was eager to get home to see his mother, and Potter lent him traveling money so he could leave before the voyage’s accounts were settled and the men paid off. Thomas sent Potter back his money by mail from Wethersfield. The two men were to become lifelong friends. After a month at home, his eyes healed, Thomas returned to New Bedford, and Potter found him a job as a blacksmith and “boatsteerer” (harpooner) aboard the whaleship South Carolina. When that ship discharged its crew in Lahaina in 1843, Thomas shipped as boatsteerer again aboard the Gideon Howland, which brought him back to New Bedford in 1844. From there, he sailed as second mate aboard the whaleship Chili; subsequently as second mate, and eventually first mate, of the South Boston.

In April 1851, Thomas married Eliza Azelia Griswold at Wethersfield. Three months later he sailed as captain of the South Boston. He was away for three years and returned to meet his two-year-old son, Thomas Stancel. His voyage aboard the South Boston had earned the ship’s owners $140,000, a great success, making Williams highly sought after as a captain for hire; but he might have tried to give up the sea then, to stay home with his young family, for he purchased a one-hundred-acre farm in Wethersfield, and a herd of cattle that he drove himself from Vermont to Connecticut. Yet he was back aboard a ship later that same year, in October 1854, as captain of the whaleship Florida . He was away on this voyage for three and a half years, returning again to meet his second son, Henry, then almost three years old.

Thomas’s wife, Eliza Williams, was born in 1826, in Wethersfield, where her family, the Griswolds, had lived and farmed since 1645. She was a small woman, weighing less than a hundred pounds, and could stand erect under her husband’s outstretched arm. Her retiring character was unsuited to the job of tending to her husband’s affairs in his absence, collecting the interest on his investments, and dealing with Thomas’s brother-in-law, who was a sharecropper on their farm and unpleasant to her. Like many whalemen’s wives, she tried at some point to get her husband to give up the sea, which may explain the purchase of the farm. Some wives prevailed, like Jane Courtney, who persuaded her husband, whaling captain Leonard Courtney of Edgartown, Mar tha’s Vineyard, to try his hand at some land-based venture in the expanding west of New York or Ohio. Whaling captains often found themselves surprisingly vulnerable outside their chosen element: on their way west, in April 1847, Captain Courtney, who had sailed hundreds of thousand of miles, driven his ship around Cape Horn, and taken many whales from small tossing boats, was killed in a stagecoach accident.

Most captains and their wives were resigned to long separations. Such men, by temperament or long habit, were not always skilled at navigating the more democratic environment of home; and his absence from it, and mutual longing between husband and wife, often kept a whaler’s marriage fresh, or allowed it to endure. Probably just as often, it made the whaleman, of any rank, a bemused stranger in his own home and propelled him to sea again.

Eliza and Thomas were an unusually devoted couple—their letters while he was away from her at sea frequently expressed how greatly they missed each other. But Thomas Williams had become a confirmed and exceptionally skilled whaleman (he tried numerous speculative ventures ashore, but none proved successful), so Eliza instead sailed with him on his next voyage. The degree of her longing to be with her husband is evident by the fact that she was somehow able to leave the two boys, ages six and three, with her family in Wethersfield.

Eliza was five months pregnant with their third child when she sailed from New Bedford with her husband aboard the Florida on September 7, 1858. From the first moments of the voyage—even before, on the pilot boat sailing out to the ship, hove to below Clark’s Point—she kept a journal. Her impressions were plainly and frankly recorded, yet her essentially uninvolved, supernumerary, fly-on-the-bulkhead observations of all that was new to her, and the accretion of minutiae that filled her pages over the course of three years, make for some of the most vivid and accurate descriptions to come down to us of the life and work aboard a whaleship:

In company with my Husband, I stept on board the Pilot Boat, about 9 o’clock the morning of the 7th of Sept. 1858, to proceed to the Ship Florida, that will take us out to Sea far from Friends and home, for a long time to come. . . . The men have lifted me up the high side in an arm chair, quite a novel way it seemed to me. Now I am in the place that is to be my home, posibly for 3 or 4 years; but I can not make it appear to me so yet it all seems so strange, so many Men and not one Woman beside myself.

The small aft cabin was furnished with a geranium and a pet kitten. The food at her first meal aboard was “a good deal like a dinner at home” except for the universally disliked, rock-hard ship’s biscuit. But as the boat that brought her out to the ship headed back to shore, Eliza found herself miserably awash with “tender associations” of home and thoughts of “Dear Friends, Parents, and Children, Brothers and Sisters, all near and dear to us. But I will drop the subject; it is too gloomy to contemplate.”

And she did thereafter almost completely drop the fulsome lamentations for home and family. Her entries were confined to the world of the ship and its business. At first she didn’t know enough about that world to write about it, and could only focus on the misery of her own condition:


There is nothing of importance to write about today; nothing but the vast deep about us; as far as the eye can stretch here is nothing to be seen but sky and water, and the Ship we are in. It is all a strange sight to me. The Men are all busy; as for me, I think I am getting Sea sick.

While Eliza lay sick in her bed, Captain Williams was going through the procedures accompanying the commencement of a whaleship voyage. On the first day out, the crew were mustered in the “waist,” the clear area of the main deck forward of the mainmast where the drawing of the boat crews—the men who would actually go out in the small whaleboats after whales—took place. These boats were usually commanded by the first, second, third, and fourth mates, but aboard the Florida and all the ships of which he was the captain, Thomas Williams, a large, powerful man who had been a successful boatsteerer, always “lowered” in his own boat to chase after whales himself, unless weather conditions or the close presence of land made it imprudent for him to leave the ship. So, in turn, the first, second, third mates, and finally Williams, sang out names from the crew gathered before them until five men, in addition to the mate or captain, had been chosen for each boat. The crews of the captain’s and the second mate’s boats stepped to the starboard side of the ship, and became the starboard watch; the men of the first and third mates’ boats stepped to port and became the port watch. The men not selected in the draw were divided between the two watches. Then Williams explained (for the green hands) that watches were four hours long, starting at midnight. While one watch was on deck, running the ship, the other was off watch, below, sleeping if at night. From four to eight p.m. daily, the “dogwatch,” all hands remained on deck working the ship, then the order of watches—the next watch to go below—changed from the preceding twenty-four hours. Every man was to learn to steer and take his two-hour “trick” at the wheel. The ship’s cooper, cook, steward, and cabin boy were exempt from watches and rarely went off in the boats after whales, as they had regular duties and rested at night when not engaged at these.


It is quite rugged today, and I have been quite sick; these 3 or 4 words I write in bed.


It remains rugged and I remain Sea sick. I call it a gale, but my Husband laughs at me, and tells me that I have not seen a gale yet.

When better weather returned, Eliza got up and began to explore. Her first impressions of the activities aboard ship were strange and baffling, as the coopers, carpenters, blacksmiths worked away and the officers bawled orders to the men, who tried to obey them.

More quiet days followed, helping Eliza to get her sea legs, with several “beutiful moonshiny evenings” during which “one of the boat steerers, a colored Man, has a violin, and we have some musick occationaly which makes it pleasant these nice evenings. There is a splendid comet to be seen.”

On another clement day, she did some sewing, helping Thomas make a new sail for his whaleboat.

On Sundays, unless whales were spotted and chased, all work was laid aside and Eliza was surprised, after the bellowed orders that accompanied every heave of the ship, at the solemn peace aboard the ship. Many of the men read their Bibles, or worked at some piece of carving or scrimshaw. “It is the Sabbath, and all is orderly and quiet on board; much more so than I expected among so many Men between 30 and 40 . . . nothing done on Sunday but what is necessary.”

Three weeks after leaving New Bedford, when the ship was close to the mid-Atlantic islands of the Azores, sperm whales were spotted. Though it was late in the day, boats were lowered, including the captain’s, and rowed off into the twilight that was deepening across the ocean. It was night when the second and third mates’ boats returned, without whales, and Eliza grew worried about Thomas, who, like the first mate, was still out on the water, fighting whales in the dark. “My anxiety increases with the darkness. . . . The Men have put lanterns in the rigging to help them see the Ship.” The mates’ and Thomas’s boats eventually returned with a catch. “All is confution now to get the whale fast alongside. . . . I am quite anxious to see how [the] fish looks, but it is too dark.”

She got her first look at a sperm whale the next morning. The mate’s whale was a calf, but it looked enormous to Eliza. She groped to describe it:


My Husband has called me on deck to see the whale. . . . It is a queer looking fish. . . . There is not much form, but a mass of flesh. . . . They are about a mouse color. . . . [The men] first take the blubber off with spades with verry long handles; they are quite sharp, and they cut places and peel it off in great strips. It looks like very thick fat pork, it is quite white.

Eliza was still seasick when she recorded that first sight of a whale. As she got her sea legs and the men caught more whales, her interest in the endeavor—the primary focus of all activity aboard the Florida—and her ability to describe what she saw quickly sharpened:


... The welcome cry of “There blows” came from aloft before breakfast this morning; then all was bustle. . . . Two boats were lowered and pulled lustily for them. The movements of the boats were watched from the Ship with great interest. . . . Some of the time [the whales] went a good ways off. It also takes a good while to wait for them to come up after they go down. Then they come up in quite a different place. On board the Ship, they place signals to mast head in different places, and different shaped ones, made from blue and white cloth, to let those in the boats know in what direction the whales are and whether they are up or down, as it is difficult sometimes for the Men in the boats to tell, they are so low on the water and the whales change their position so often. . . .

The Mate finally got fast to one. . . . It looked queer to me to see those three little boats, attached together with ropes, towing the whale along. . . .

[Finally, the whale is alongside the hull.] There are ridges all over the back, which I should think must be from age. . . . There were a great many marks on the back, caused, my Husband said, from fighting. They are a much handsomer fish than I had an idea they were. . . .

It must be quite an art, as well as a good deal of work to cut in the whale. . . . The Men . . . seem to know exactly where to cut. They begin to cut a great strip. The hook is put through a hole that is cut in the end of this piece . . . then it is drawn up by the tackle as they cut. They do not stop till the piece goes clear round. Then it comes clear up and is let down into the blubber room where it is afterward cut in pieces suitable for the mincing machine. . . . The head they cut off and take on board in the same way. . . . It was singular to me to see how well they could part the head from the body and find the joint so nicely. When it came on deck, it was such a large head, it swung against the side of the Ship till it seemed to me to shake with the weight of it.

It was all done and I was glad for the Men. . . . It made me tremble to see them stand there on that narow staging, with a rope passed around their bodies . . . to keep them from going over, while they leaned forward to cut. Every Man was at work, from the foremast hand to the Captain. The sharks were around the Ship and I saw one fellow, more bold than the rest, I suppose, venture almost to the whale to get a bit. The huge carcass floated away, and they had it all to themselves.

The next day more whales were spotted, and boats lowered to give chase. Eliza stood at the ship’s rail and avidly followed the pursuit with everyone else aboard. “Though they were a good way off, we could tell when the iron was thrown, for the whale spouted blood and we could see it plain.”It was a “cow” that had been trying to protect its calf. “The poor little thing could not keep up with the rest, the mother would not leave it and lost her life. [ The mate] says they exhibit the most affection for their young of any dumb animal he ever saw.”

By the next day, four dead sperm whales were lying alongside the Florida, making much work aboard. The first mate took Eliza down to the “reception room, as he termed it,” the “tween-decks” blubber room immediately beneath the main deck, in the middle of the ship, where the great peeled strips of blubber were chopped up for the “try-pots” (great cauldrons placed in the “tryworks”—brick fireplaces—in which the blubber was melted to oil). The men were waist-deep in “horse pieces” of blubber, coated with oil, but all of them “laughing and having a good deal of fun.” Intensive activity aboard a whaleship meant money for all hands. “Greasy work” always put the entire crew in a happy mood.

Eliza became fascinated: “It is truly wonderful to me, the whole process, from the taking of the great, and truly wonderful monster of the deep till the oil is in the casks.” Several months later, after a night of watching the crew cutting in and trying out an enormous right whale, she wrote: “It is certainly the greatest sight I ever saw in my life.”

Yet with the excitement came the frequent anxiety for the safety of the men, sometimes gone all night in the boats after whales, and, on more than one occasion, real fear for her husband’s life. This episode came in the foggy and ice-strewn (even in July) Sea of Okhotsk, off the Siberian coast:


... I have passed a very unhappy night. My Husband was away all night. . . . I was frightened when I heard them lower [his] boat, for I did not suppose he would go at all—or anyone go alone in such a foggy night. I worried all night long and did not sleep at all. The time seemed very, very long, every minute thinking, and hoping that he would come back, until I was very much afraid his boat had been stoven and no one to assist him. . . . The thought was awful to me and the night a long one. . . . The Officer said that he was sure he was fast to a whale and as he had no anchor in the boat, had to lay by him. It proved to be so. We had sent two boats off to look for him quite early. They found him and towed the Whale back to the Ship. I saw him coming about 8 o’clock. He had had good luck in taking the Whale, but the unpleasant job of laying by him all night. He will make about 60 bbls [barrels of oil].

I was overjoyed to see my Husband coming. I was much afraid that something had happened to him.

Her fears had been amply fueled by the news a few weeks earlier of “Capt. Palmer being killed by a Whale, or rather he got fast in the line and was taken down by the Whale and never seen again. His poor Wife and three Children are at Hilo, and will not hear about it till fall.”

And death came to the Florida in the Sea of Okhotsk just three weeks later. Tim, the black boatsteerer who had a violin and made the “musick” Eliza liked, had, like Captain Palmer, been caught in a line attached to a whale and dragged out of the boat into the water. The whale was later caught and Tim’s body recovered, “bruised a good deal by being dragged on the bottom.”

Though she wrote openly of her fears, Eliza was, with the sensibility of her time, conspicuously reticent about certain things. The lead in this entry is buried amid whaleship minutiae:

[FEBRUARY 4, 1859.]

It is now about a month since I have written any in my Journal and many things have transpired since then.

The 10th of January we had a gale of wind that lasted till the 12th, the heaviest gale we have had since we left home. On the 11th, the fore sail was carried away. We spoke [to] the Whale Ship Rodman, Capt. Babcock, on the 11th, bound home. Did not exchange many words, it was blowing so hard. They had Pigeons on board and four of them flew on board of us. They are very pretty and my Husband has had a nice house made for them. We have a fine healthy Boy, born on the 12th, five days before we got into Port.

There is no mention anywhere in Eliza’s journal of her pregnancy, how it made her feel, any difficulty that moving about a tossing ship in her condition might have created for her, or the contribution this might have made to her seasickness; there is only this briefly noted fact: the boy, born in that “heaviest gale we have had since we left home” in the notoriously stormy Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, was William Fish Williams (Fish was the name of one of the Florida’s New Bedford owners).

Eliza was fortunate in being so close to New Zealand at the time of Willie’s birth, rather than far out on the Pacific. Thomas sailed his ship into the port of Manganui, on New Zealand’s North Island, where he knew they would find an oasis of sailorly and, paradoxically, womanly society. As soon as the Florida anchored, the harbormaster, Captain Butler, sent his wife on board, who returned every day until Eliza could leave her bed, and then she and the baby moved ashore to the Butlers’ house. The British Butler family was large: eight children, three of them grown women, who, with Mrs. Butler, enveloped Eliza and her baby in feminine care. “They are a nice Family, extremely kind and affectionate, and every one of them seemed to try to see which could pay me the most attention. . . . They all sing, dance, and play on the piano. They are quite a lively Family and one of the young Boys plays on the violin.”

There were eight other ships in port at the time, and their captains, who used the Butler residence as an informal clubhouse, visited her and the baby and brought gifts: “Oranges, Lemons, several kinds of Preserved Fruits, some Arrowroot, a nice Fan made on one of the Islands . . . and a bottle of currant wine.” Several of the captains had their wives and children with them, one of these a ten-month-old boy who had been born in the Butlers’ house. Eliza was also comforted by the piety of the Butler household. Captain Butler was an Episcopal minister and conducted daily services in his house.

She spent only two weeks ashore before the Florida left New Zealand for the “Japan grounds.”

It was almost a year before Eliza referred to her son by his name in her journal. Until then, he remained “the Baby,” a noun, like “my Husband,” whose small adventures were duly recorded. “The Baby is well and healthy and sleeps a good deal,” she wrote on February 24, 1859. “He is a very pleasant Baby.”

In addition to mastering the pull of gravity, like all babies, Willie had to acquire gyroscopic skills to accommodate the nearly constant roll and pitch of a ship through his first years.

It has been a very unpleasant day, blowing a gale all day and the Ship rolling very badly. I can’t keep the Baby in one place, and he gets a good many bumps. . . . The Baby likes to be on deck most all day. He goes about the deck by taking hold of things but does not go alone yet. . . . He will climb a good deal for such a little fellow. . . . We have been making a real Sailor’s Cot [hammock] for the Baby to sleep in. The motion of the Ship keeps it in motion all the time. The Baby is delighted with it. . . . Willie [past his second birthday now] has met with a bad accident this afternoon. He was playing in one of the Staterooms and fell off from a Chest and cut his lip open very badly—with his teeth, we suppose. It bled a good deal. His Pa sewed it up. The poor little Fellow bore it better than I thought he would.

Melville’s Ishmael said that “a whale ship was my Yale college and my Harvard.” For Willie it was his nursery and his kindergarten.

THOUGH THE FLORIDA SET OFF from New Zealand, heading for the remotest regions of the globe, Eliza was to find more female company wherever they went. Whaleships invariably sailed the same routes from commercial hubs like New Zealand or the Hawaiian (then the Sandwich) Islands to the whaling grounds, and from one whaling “ground” to another, and there they would find other whaleships, increasingly in greater numbers, all competing for the same whale stocks. Far out in the lonely, still primitive, barely discovered, and to a large extent still unspoiled Pacific, along routes as well defined as air routes 150 years later, whaleships would routinely see and often “speak”—sail within speaking range of—other ships. On the Brazil Banks, in the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk, and crowding the narrow channels between ice and land in the Arctic, whaleships met other whaleships. A small number of these were, like the Florida, “lady ships,” which carried a captain’s wife and sometimes their children aboard. These supernumerary passengers formed a floating community that preserved a strong fabric of home. Wives and children visited other wives and children as they might have on any afternoon in New Bedford, except that here they were rowed back and forth by whaleboat crews instead of traveling by carriage. They gathered aboard nearby ships for Sunday services. An active social life, which included cultural and religious visits, was a vital part of what made an isolated life at sea bearable.

The journals kept by some of these captains’ wives give an indication of this cozy society of satellites, virtually a floating annex of New Bedford neighbors and their families that existed wherever whaleships sailed.

In the Sea of Japan, Eliza wrote:


This morning it rained quite hard and was rather foggy. As soon as I was up, I heard that there was a Ship ahead, and I was in hopes that it was the South Boston. . . . To my Joy it proved to be. My Husband came to the skylight and told me that I might expect to see Mrs Randolph, for he was going to speak the Ship in a few moments. Very soon he came down and told me to hurry and get ready to go on board. I was not long getting Willie and myself ready. We went aboard before breakfast and stayed till evening. We had a nice gam and spent the day very pleasantly.

The South Boston also had letters for the Williamses, picked up in Hawaii five months earlier, but written six months before that: “We got our letters—one of them from home—and feel very thankful to hear that our Dear little Boys, Father, Mother and all were well at that time, which was in June.”

The very next day, the whaleship Harvest hove in sight close to the Florida and the South Boston, all of them cruising the “Japan grounds,” and Eliza and Mrs. Randolph were rowed to the Harvest to spend the day with Mrs. Manchester.

Such visits offered a respite from the constant claustrophobia of the close quarters aboard ship. In June, the Florida passed through La Pérouse Strait into the Sea of Okhotsk. The whaling was slow, and the weather for the next week was rainy, snowy, or foggy, keeping the family cooped up in their small cabin.

“It is very dull on deck,” wrote Eliza, with uncharacteristic complaint. “I have been ironing for one thing and doing other little things too numerous to mention. Thomas [a rare use of his name] has been reading a good part of the day, and Willie has been through his usual course of mischief.”A week later, Eliza sounded positively peevish: “Have not seen a Whale and scarcely a Bird. It is dull—very dull. We have not seen a Ship since we were in the Straits [nine days earlier].” In the same seas the previous year, Eliza had counted nineteen whaleships in one day. But soon enough company hove in sight again: “This afternoon have been on board the John P. West and spent the afternoon very pleasantly with Mrs Tinker . . . [and] their little Boy. He is about 2 years old and a fat little fellow. . . . Capt. Tinker’s Wife and little Boy have been on board and spent the afternoon. We enjoyed it much—the Children in particular.”

THESE WHALING WIVES developed a keen, sometimes intense interest in the taking of whales, which had a direct bearing on their husbands’ fortunes. Eliza found “that odor with the smoke that comes below from the try works is quite unpleasant, but I can bear it all first rate when I consider that it is filling our ship all the time and by and by it will all be over and we will go home.”

Mary Chipman Lawrence, of Falmouth, Massachusetts, sailing with her husband, Captain Samuel Lawrence, and their daughter Minnie, aboard the New Bedford whaleship Addison, became obsessively involved with the ship’s search for whales. “A whale, a whale, a kingdom for a whale!” she moaned to her journal in July 1858, during a dismal summer of arctic whaling:

We have looked and searched in vain. . . . If we cannot find the whales, we cannot get the oil. . . . [The captain of the Dromo] had been to Cape Lisburne and as far north as the barrier of ice and had not seen a spout. . . . Captain Bryant came on board and stopped until dinner. He has been as far as the ice barrier . . . and has seen ne’er a whale. If we cannot get ourselves, it is a great satisfaction to know that others are not taking it in great quantities. . . . Oh, where shall whales be found?

Mrs. Lawrence recorded that her “sorrow found vent in tears,” until finally, “Eureka! Eureka! We have got a bowhead at last.” And then: “We have been eating bowhead meat for several days. . . . It is really good eating, far before salt pork in my estimation.”

In July 1859, when she learned that a few lucky ships had, just one month earlier, found a great pod of whales and scored an enormous windfall of oil off Cape Thaddeus, where the Addison had cruised so fruitlessly the year before, Mary Lawrence was sick with envy:

Imagine our feelings when we were told there had been a grand cut taken off Cape Thaddeus by a few ships in June, where thirty or forty ships were hanging about for weeks in the ice last season and not a whale to be seen. . . . The Mary and Susan took 1,600 barrels, the Eliza Adams 1,400, Nassau seven whales, Omega seven, Mary six, William C. Nye six. Those are all the ships we have heard of that were there. I never felt so heartsick in my life. . . . Why couldn’t we have been one of the number? Because it was not for us, I suppose.

In the late fall, when the weather turned cold off Siberia, Captain Williams turned the Florida east and sailed his ship across the entire Pacific Ocean for a winter’s whaling off the Mexican coast of Baja California. This was a seasonal migration for many whaleships, and the wide bays and lagoons north of Cabo San Lucas had all the social attractions of a riviera for whaling wives and families.

At Turtle Bay, the Williamses’ Florida shared an anchorage with four other ships, another Florida among them:


It has been a splendid day, and my Husband, Willie and I have been aboard of the Florida, to see Capt. Fish and Wife, and spent the day very pleasantly. They have a little Son with them, 6 years old. . . .


It has been a very fine day. My Husband, Willie and I have been aboard of the Florida and spent the day very pleasantly with Capt. Fish and his Wife. Captain Hempstead and his Wife were there. I like them very much. Mrs H. is a little, small Woman and quite pretty.

Cruising along this same coast two years earlier in the Addison, Mary Lawrence, her husband Samuel, and their eight-year-old daughter Minnie joined a picnic in progress:

Saw a tent with flags flying onshore; concluded they were having a picnic. Soon after we were anchored, a boat came off to us with an invitation to us to unite with them, which invitation we cordially accepted. On our arrival there we found Captain Willis, wife, and three children; Captain Weeks, wife and two children . . . Captain Ashley, wife and one child of the Reindeer; Captain May of the Dromo . . . and Captain Lawrence, wife, and one child of the Addison. Made ten captains, four ladies, and seven children. We could hardly realize that we were whaling. Had a nice chowder, coffee, cold ham, cake, bread, crackers, and cookies. We also roasted plenty of oysters.

Through the winter, Thomas, Eliza, and Willie socialized their way down the Mexican coast. Eliza was still ready to party on February 26: “I am going on board [the Cambria] to see Mrs Pease this evening.”

The next day—no mention of the approaching event appears in her journal—Eliza again gave birth. “We have had an addition to the Florida’s Crew in the form of a little Daughter,” she recorded, a full month later, as the ship rolled west again across the Pacific toward the Hawaiian Islands, “born on the 27th of February in Banderas Bay on the Coast of Mexico. She weighed 6-3/4 pounds, is now one month old and weighs 9 pounds. . . . Willie is much pleased with his little Sister.”

IN THE PROCESS OF SAILING up and down and across the length and breadth of the Pacific—in some cases entirely around the world through the Roaring Forties by way of Cape Horn—Eliza, Mary Lawrence, and the other whaling wives became, each in her own fashion, champion tourists.

“It will be a pleasant sight to me to see land, even though it be a bleak, foreighn Island of the Sea,” Eliza had written in October 1858, as the Florida approached the first landfall after leaving New Bedford. It was the island of Brava, one of the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Africa. After weeks aboard ship, and in complete ignorance of what it would take to get there, Eliza agreed to accompany Thomas ashore. It was no pleasure trip:

OCTOBER 12TH [1858].

The wind not fair to get the Ship in to the harbor; concluded to row there in one of the small boats. My Husband said I could go with him, but I most repented it before we got there. It got quite rugged, and they had to go some ten miles to get into harbor—

Any sailor will appreciate that “rugged” would be an understatement to describe a ten-mile upwind row and sail in a light whaleboat off an Atlantic island. The small boat was frequently swamped with waves that drenched Eliza, the captain, and the crew. Eliza was frightened, but Thomas told her there was no danger, and the she believed him.

They had stopped at Brava to buy food and supplies, and to recruit additional crewmen from among the fishermen in the port where their boat landed, but business kept them there overnight. The only accommodations were in “the city,” a three-mile ride by donkey up a steep mountain trail. At times on the way up, Eliza “could hardely refrain from screaming, for it seemed to me that the poor faithful animal must fall.” But her terror was relieved by the sight of her husband close behind: “I would look at him once in a while and laugh in spite of my fear, for he looked so comical on that little Jackass and he so tall, with his long legs coming most to the ground.”

Eliza’s gaze at the islanders, and her description of their clothing, were clear and—rare for a New England whaling wife—without any kind of censuring prejudice. She was even capable of seeing herself through native eyes: “I suppose we looked as strange to them as they did to us, dressed so different as we were.”

Mary Lawrence’s attitude toward natives everywhere was framed by a rigid Christian superiority. She could not see a people and their culture, only a substandard race of creatures that needed uplifting: “I confess that I am disappointed in the appearance of the natives,” she wrote from Lahaina, in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, in 1857.

They are not nearly so far advanced in civilization as I had supposed. Why, the good folks at home pretend to hold them up as a model from which we would do well to copy. I do not doubt but that there has been a great deal done for them, but there is a vast deal more to be done to raise them very high in the scale of morals. From what I saw and heard of them (and I made many enquiries) they are a low, degraded, indolent set. They have no apartments in their houses; all huddle in together. Many of them go without clothing; both sexes bathe in the water entirely naked, unabashed. As I am writing, two men are close by my door without an article of clothing.

(Mary Lawrence’s first view of the edenic island of Maui and the mountain slope rising through the clouds behind Lahaina was just as blinkered: “I looked in vain for a resemblance to my own dear native land.”)

This was the normal, accepted Victorian perception, which, even after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, tended to see Adam and Eve as rather Teutonic-looking northern Europeans, and everyone else, particularly darker races, as benighted, fallen versions of the Scripture-credentialed ideal. A view easy to take issue with 150 years later, but it underscores the freshness and open-mindedness with which Eliza Williams saw the world. In Hakodate, Japan, Eliza described Japanese harbor officials as “dressed nicely though quite singularly, to me. Their dress is quite loose and slouching, very loose pants if they can be called such, and a kind of loose cloak with very large sleeves.” She and Thomas admired the sheathed samurai sword and knife each man wore in his belt, and an interpreter explained the use of each, which Eliza wrote down without comment: “They struck with the sword . . . and they cut off the head with the knife, which it seems they do for a small offence.” She and Thomas watched a funeral procession and visited a temple. She found Japanese workmanship “exquisite” and the word “beautiful” is used repeatedly in her descriptions of Japan. She tried some of their food, commenting that the “Pears and Oranges are poor” but “they have a kind of Fig that is very good.”

Eliza and Willie went ashore with Thomas and some of his men in Okhotsk, Siberia, where they experienced the sort of hospitality that was only shown when the world was a much younger, less jaded place:


... They appear to be a very nice, kind People and did everything for us that they could. They would take all the care of the Baby, hardly giving me time to nurse him. They took me to all the biggest Families and they all wanted me to stop all night, but the first Family claimed the privilege of keeping us. . . . They had everything nice that could be obtained . . . nice butter, and milk. They make very good tarts but no cake. . . . They have nice berries of several kinds. They treated us to wine, tea, and coffee which they make very nicely. . . . I liked them very much.

Between such Marco Polo adventures, there was the sea in all its states to contend with, ice, storms, the ship and its bits and pieces, and Eliza soon wrote about all this and the business of whaling with the fluency of a seaman; hearing of these things spoken only by whalemen, she knew no other way of describing them. The sights Eliza saw—“the Bears come down from the mountains every night for [stranded] Whale meat” on the Siberian shore, waterspouts, ice floes, tropical islands—and the people she met—the Japanese, Russians, Eskimos, Pacific island kings and queens (“ The King has a nice new house . . . in the centre of the ground was the place for fire” ), British and American settlers and missionaries, and the common people everywhere—all became the ambient features of Eliza’s, and Willie’s, everyday lives, and she put it all down in her journal without a shred of judgment.

Willie saw all this at close hand and learned much of life from his mother’s example. “I often marveled at my mother’s courage and control of her nerves under real danger or trying conditions,” he wrote, “because in small matters she was timid and dreaded the sight of blood. . . . But when a situation arose that called for the kind of courage that sweeps away all evidences of fear and leaves the mind in calm control, she was superb.” When the lance from a bomb harpoon gun exploded by accident in a whaleboat, it sliced across the face of a mate, James Green:

His wound was sewed up by my father without anesthetic or antiseptics, as they had none, and first, officers and finally my mother held his head while this sewing was done. . . . I cannot overlook . . . the nerve and grit of one little woman compared to the big strong men. First one officer and then another, as they gave up sickened by the sight of blood, held Mr. Green’s head while my father took the stitches but my mother had to take over and finish the job. . . . In my experience, a woman can be depended upon to show true nerves and grit at the crucial moment better than a man.

Willie’s experience of women began with an unusual example, and one wonders what he found later that could have measured up to it.

Willie’s father, whom he idolized, provided an equally high standard of manhood:

I had an intense respect for my father; he has always been to me the finest type of man I have ever known. He stood six feet three inches in his stockings, was broad shouldered, straight as an arrow, blue eyes, black hair, large and fine-shaped head, and weighed over two hundred pounds with no superfluous flesh. He was a natural leader and commander of men, being utterly fearless but not reckless, and a thorough master of his profession. Like most men who follow an outdoor life, of a more or less hazardous nature, he was reserved. He was always ready to enforce an order by physical means, if necessary, but he was not a bully or a boaster.

Eliza, too, surely saw a hero in her husband. No captain could be fairly judged by his neighbors or even family members during the relatively short periods he spent at home, where he was perhaps ill-at-ease, or inept, in social settings, on hiatus from his work and what it was that most truly defined him. The conditions of life aboard a whaleship—or any ship—provided extraordinary opportunities for revealing a person’s true nature—to oneself and everyone else aboard. Joseph Conrad liked setting his stories aboard ships because they were entire hermetic worlds: “The ship, a fragment detached from the earth, went on lonely and swift like a small planet. Round her the abysses of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier . . . she was alive with the lives of those beings who trod her decks; like that earth which had given her up to the sea, she had an intolerable load of regrets and hopes.”3 A ship was a crucible holding a packed cargo of human material, and the conditions of life at sea—weather, whaling, and other men—were like a flame that unraveled personalities to their discrete strands.

Mary Chipman Lawrence, in her acutest insight, realized this early on as she saw her husband, Samuel Lawrence, respond to the demands of captaincy aboard a whaleship: “I never should have known what a great man he was if I had not accompanied him. I might never have found it out at home.”

Yet even the greatest of whaling captains, and Thomas Williams was certainly one of them, could be overcome by adverse circumstances—it was a lesson the best of them learned firsthand. On August 28, 1870, then in command of the whaleship Hibernia, with his family aboard as usual, Williams was sailing through a driving snowstorm toward another ship that appeared to be in distress (the signal for which was the national flag flown upside down) when the Hibernia collided with a large chunk of ice. Water began pouring into the hull immediately. No longer in a position to help anybody, Williams turned his ship toward the shore. He anchored in shallow water and with the help of crews from several other vessels set men to pumping and bailing throughout the night, but by the next day the Hibernia had settled into the mud and was declared a loss. Williams sold the wreck and its cargo of 500 barrels of oil and 3,000 pounds of whale “bone” (baleen) to another captain for $150 at an impromptu auction held on the ship’s heeled deck. Williams and his family and crew were taken aboard the whaleship Josephine and sailed to Hawaii.

Thomas Williams’s reputation was strong enough to weather the loss of several ships, for the risks of an arctic voyage were well understood, while the skill of a competent captain in those waters was prized. Williams immediately found another ship, whose owners were happy for him to assume command. On November 24, 1870, within three weeks of landing in Honolulu, the entire Williams family again put to sea, this time aboard the Monticello. They sailed for the South Pacific whaling grounds, the “between season cruise.” In early spring they sailed north once more to the Japan grounds, and from there to the Siberian coast off Okhotsk, and finally, during the long days of June, to the Arctic.

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