Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

Stories of Whaling

In the old days, before petroleum or kerosene had been found in this country, people had many ways of lighting their houses. A cheap light was made by putting a little grease or oil in a saucer in which was a little wick or rag lying over the edge of the saucer or drawn up through a cork that floated on the grease. When this wick was burning, it gave hardly as much light as a candle. This is one of the oldest ways of making light. It was used thousands of years ago. Many people now living remember little lamps made in this way.

Poor people often made light by burning pine knots, or bits of pitch pine chopped out of old stumps. These gave a bright light for a time. Pitch pine in New England was called candle wood; in the South it was called light wood.

The commonest light in old times was the tallow candle. This was sometimes made by dipping a candle wick into melted tallow. Then, when the tallow had cooled, the candle was dipped again and again. A little tallow remained on it each time, and at last it was thick enough to burn. Candles made in this way were called "dips." Better candles were made by running melted tallow into molds.

Before the Revolution a favorite candle for burning at fine houses was made of the wax-myrtle berry. This berry is full of a kind of green wax which came out when it was boiled. When this wax rose to the top of the pot, it was skimmed off and used for making wax candles. These candles had a pretty green color, and gave out a delicate perfume when they were burning. More expensive candles were made of beeswax.

For hundreds of years whale oil was burned in large lamps, and thousands of whales were killed in order to get the oil. Candles were also made from spermaceti, which is a substance taken from the head of the sperm whale.

When the people first settled on Long Island, there were a great many whales in the sea. Sometimes these whales would run into bays and other shallow places. When the tide went out, the whale would be left without water enough to swim in. Sometimes he found himself lying on the dry ground. Before the white people came, the Long Island Indians used to kill whales stranded in this way, with spears. The Indians used the fat of the whale for food. The white people killed them, and got the oil out of the fat by boiling. This oil they sold for lamp oil.

Finding that much money could be made by selling whale oil, the people on Long Island fitted up boats, which they kept always ready along the seashore. Whenever anybody saw a whale, the boatmen ran to their boats, and rowed out to kill it. They did not yet know how to go out to sea in whaling ships as some people in Europe did. After a while the Long Island people learned to take their small boats out to sea for miles to look for whales. This way of killing the whales spread from Long Island to Connecticut, and from there to Cape Cod.

The people on the island of Nantucket had also learned to kill the whales that came into shallow water. They got a man to come out from Cape Cod to show them how to go out in boats and kill whales along the coast. After a while they built small ships in which they went to sea to seek for whales, but they brought the fat on shore in order to get the oil out of it.

In 1718 the people on this island began to build ships with great kettles in them for rendering the oil on board the ships. The brave Nantucket men, and the men on the coast near by, soon began to send their ships into very distant seas. Some of them sailed among the icebergs in the Arctic regions; others went to the Southern Ocean; and some of the Nantucket and Cape Cod ships went round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. The hardy whalemen ran great risks during their long voyages, but, if they were fortunate in killing whales, they made a good deal of money.

There are still whaling vessels in our times, but not so many as there used to be. We do not need whale oil so much, because we have kerosene, gaslights, and electric lights. There are not so many whales to be found as there used to be.

When the men on a whale ship in the old times discovered a whale, they fitted out their boats and rowed toward it. The whale would go down out of sight. Each officer would place his boat where he thought the whale would come up. When the whale came up to get breath, the men in the nearest boat would row toward it. The officer who stood in the bow of the boat would then throw a harpoon, which would stick fast in the whale. As soon as the whale was struck with the harpoon, he would go down into the water. There was a line fast to the harpoon, which was coiled in a tub standing in the whaleboat. Sometimes the whale would run down so far, that it would take more line than the boat carried, to keep hold of him. When this was likely to happen, another whaling boat would come alongside, and tie its line to the line of the harpoon that was fast to the whale. In some cases nearly five thousand feet of line were drawn out of the boats before the whale came to the top again. Whales breathe air as we do, so the whale that had been harpooned would have to come up again. Then the whaling boat would run close to him, and the officer would try to kill him with a sharp lance. When a whale was killed, the men drew him alongside the ship.

A whale's body is covered with a great mass of fat called blubber. When the dead whale was lying alongside the ship, the whalemen would fasten a hook in the blubber. They then cut the blubber into a long strip running round the whale. As they pulled on the hook with ropes, the strip of blubber came off the whale, the whale rolling over and over. The men unwound the blubber from his body in this way, pulling it up on board the ship, and cutting it into pieces.

If it was a sperm whale, they would cut a hole in his head, to reach a place where there was a great quantity of oil. This oil they dipped out. Sometimes forty barrels of oil were dipped out of the head of a whale. From the fat of some very large whales more than two hundred barrels of oil could be secured.

The men on the whaling ships were gone from home for years at a time. When there were no whales in sight, they had to find ways of amusing themselves. Many of them carried sharp pocket knives, and passed their time in whittling. By long practice they became very skillful with their knives. Some of them carved pretty figures in wood, and made pieces of furniture. Others carved shells into beautiful shapes. After years at sea, they would bring these things home with them, to give to their wives or sweethearts. Such work done on shipboard is called scrimshaw work.

Some of the whaleships met with very curious accidents. In 1807 a ship named "The Union" was sailing along very quietly. All at once she struck something which jarred her from end to end. It was found that she had run right on a whale. Casks of water were thrown out of the ship to make her lighter, but the bottom of the ship was badly injured. The men on board had to get out the boats at once. They took food and water with them, and compasses to sail by. Soon after the boats got clear of the ship she filled with water, and upset.

The men now found themselves in open boats in the ocean. The land nearest to them was Newfoundland, but, as the wind was blowing straight from that land at that season of the year, they knew that they could not reach it. So they set out in the direction toward which the wind blew, sailing for the islands called the Azores. These were hundreds of miles away. They made a sail for each boat.

One day they saw a schooner, but they could not make the schooner see them. The next day they had fine sailing, but at night a fearful wind arose. There were violent squalls and bursts of thunder. The boats were obliged to lie still with their bows to the wind. At last the waves broke into the captain's boat, and it was all they could do to get the water out again.

They now had to throw overboard most of their fresh water, so that they suffered much with thirst from this time on. They had only three quarts of water a day to be divided among sixteen men. That is about a small teacupful apiece. After sailing eight days, they came in sight of the beautiful islands of the Azores. Here they found a ship to bring them back to their own country again.

A still stranger accident happened to the ship "Essex" in 1820. She was far away in the Pacific Ocean. Three of the boats of the ship went out after a whale. The mate's boat, having been injured, went back to the ship. As the mate stood on the ship, he saw a large sperm whale rush directly at the vessel. The whale seemed to think the ship some great animal, and that it would be fine fun to have a fight with it. He struck the ship with his great square head. The crash was fearful. For a moment or two the crew were so astonished that they could do nothing. Then they found the ship sinking. They put up signals for the other boats to come back.



But the whale was not satisfied. He wanted to fight it out with the ship. He was soon seen coming toward the vessel again. He came on so fast that the water foamed round him. He struck the ship a second blow, which almost crushed it. The mate now quickly put what provisions he could into a boat, and got ready to leave the ship.

The other boats returned. The men were so horrified that for some time they could not speak to one another. The ship fell over on her side. The men cut away her masts. Then they cut holes into the ship's side, and got out what bread and water they could carry. They were a thousand miles from land, in the direction that the winds blew.

After twenty-eight days of sailing in these open boats, the men got to Ducie's Island. Here they could not find food enough for so large a party, so the boats put off to sea again. Three men remained behind on the island. These were afterward found by a passing ship, which took them home. Some of the men in the boats perished, but the rest of them were picked up by a ship and taken home.