January 9, 2012

Whaling Disaster of 1871

written by Rosa Morgan

My name is Frances Pickwick of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and like my father and his before him, whaling is in my blood. I teethed on sailor's knots, and rounded the Horn before I was knee-high, but I promised my mother, I'd not sail to Arctic waters, until I had enough hair to shave.

It was June of 1871 when,
I, at seventeen, set sail for the Bering Strait. When I stood on the Bark Massachusetts' deck, and said fare-the-well shoreward, I confess, my heart's desire was conflicted, for a sweet lass had given me my first kiss, and I longed for another.

There was an unending demand for the whales I hunted; their oil illuminated lamps and lubricated machinery, their flesh was sold as meat, and their baleen made everything from corset stays to buggy whips, but it was the magnificent beasts themselves, that captured my imagination.

Bowhead whale were the prey on this particular voyage, and though some reached a span of seventy feet, and their lower jaw could break through a formidable depth of ice, they were in truth, gentle giants. I recall the first time my captain, West Mitchell, sent me out in a shallop to harpoon them. I espied a small herd of these dark-skinnned creatures: several male playfully jostling with two females. They were at their leisure; I imagine singing one of their haunting songs to one another, until they noticed our undue attentions. It was then they dove down and hid beneath the great sheets of ice a good forty minutes. When they finally breached the surface, there was violent tale slapping, and much excitement as we harpooned and lanced them to death.

By August we'd passed as far as Point Belcher, and with forty ships gathered in the area, there was a multitude of hands put to work. Like a well-oiled machine, we slayed the beasts, tethered them to the ship's stern, cut up and boiled their blubber, and then stored it in casks for the voyage home.

So great was the quantity of our prey and so successful our efforts, that the early winter winds took us completely by surprise. Hopelessly trapped, I witnessed placidly drifting ice plates turn to arctic monsters who hungrily ate our hulls with their jagged edged teeth. Only seven vessels escaped in tact, leaving a thousand or more of us sailors adrift in small whalers and crossing seventy miles of open sea. Though the loss financially was enough to sink many a whaling company, blessedly, not a soul was lost, and when I tell this tale to my grandchildren sitting on my knee, I cannot help but laugh that those beautiful whales had surely beat us that day.
(The bowhead's population was severely reduced by whaling, but has significantly rebounded by a 1966 moratorium. The population is estimated to be over 24,900 worldwide, down from an estimated 50,000 before whaling.)

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