CapeCodHistory.us home
historic docs
whaling and fishing
Oct 2010
THE WHALERS OF CAPE COD
Apr 28,1889; The New York Times

THE WHALERS OF CAPE COD
HOW THE BUSINESS WAS CARRIED ON IN OLD TIMES.
PROFITABLE OFF-SHORE WORK LEADS TO WORLD-WIDE ENTERPRISE — YARNS SPUN BY OLD SALTS.

Provincetown, Mass., April 27.—Of the New-England colonies, Provincetown, on the tip end of Cape Cod, was the first to engage in the whaling business. This industry in its infancy was carried on in small boats from the shore, then in larger vessels that cruised alone the coast, but never at any great distance from the shore. During the earlier period the hump-back and right-whale species were taken, the more valuable whale not approaching the coast, but keeping in midocean on the borders of the Gulf Stream. In fact, this latter species was practically unknown and consequently never hunted until larger vessels were built and proceeded to foreign shores, where the sperm whale was found, and, its oil being of an exceedingly fine quality and commanding a high price, vessels were fitted out exclusively for that branch of the business.
    In the latter part of the eighteenth century Nantucket men secured the services of the Provincetown people to teach them the art of whaling. Two brothers went to Nantucket and for a long time carried on the whaling from the shore. The business constantly increased, making necessary the building of large barks and ships at Nantucket, and making it the largest whaling port in the world. Her vessels were found in the snow and ice of both frigid zones, and tho Atlantic Ocean was scoured over its whole surface, while hardly an island could be found in the Pacific where any vegetatlou grew that had not received a visit from some Yankee whaler.
    A large number of retired whaling Captains are now living in Provincetown who obtained a sufficient competency in the business during its palmy days and who are now enjoying the fruits of their toil in comfort and ease. Bronzed and hardeued though they may appear from exposure to the heat and cold of both zones, they bid fair to last for many years to come. There is nothing churlish about them, and a more profitable hour could hardly be spent than in an interview with any one of them, not only as regards their methods of conducting the whaling business, but of the different manners and customs of the people with whom they came in contact in foreign climes.
    Capt. John Cook is one of the retired Captains of Provincetown. He relates this very interesting story, showing the perils of whaling and the difficulties that may be overcome by good judgment and a little pluck:
    "It was many years ago in the month of April when I sailed in the bark Parker Cook from Provlncotown with a crew of twenty-two men, including officers, for a voyage of sperm whaling around the Azores and Cape de Verde Islands. After gettiug out of the south channel and into the Gulf Stream we took a gale of wind which increased to a hurricane. A goose-wing maintopsail was all the sail that the vessel could stand up under and the sea was tremendous. During the gale, my mate discovered that the rigging was giving way at the masthead, and knowing that it would be useless to proceed I tried to make the Bermuda Islands for repairs, but getting tired of waiting for a breeze to take us to port, I set about making the repairs, which were satisfactorily accomplished.
    "When the breeze sprang up I made away for the whaling grounds to the westward of the Azores.
    "Everything went well, and soon after arriving on the grounds I obtained a cut of oil which stowed us down something over one hundred barrels of sperm. We cruised about the grounds for some time with an occasional whale in sight, but the sea was so rough that we were unable to take anything. At last the weather became better, and one morning we came across a large bone whale lying still on the surface. Boats were at once lowered, and I went out and struck the whale, when it turned and attacked me; passing the bow of the boat it struck with its flukes and cut my boat completely in two, just aft the harpooner's thwart, capsizing it bottom up. We crawled upon the bottom and found that our harpooner was missing. During this time our mate had succeeded in fastening the whale, which was towing him to the windward. The second mate came to our relief and we were taken ou board, after which we went to the mate's assistance. On reaching him I found that he had picked up the harpooner, who, when the boat was capsized, had fouled in the line by a turn catching him around his leg. He had beeu dragged through the water at a terrible rate, but, having presence of mind, had with his knife, cut himself clear and came to the surface just as the mate's boat was passing him. His foot was completely severed from the leg at the ankle joint. We took him aboard, the vessel and made him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, but had little hopes of his ultimate recovery.
    "I then returned to assist my first mate. As we neared him he said: ' Captain, this is au awful ugly customer, and we must be very careful or else all hands will get stove, as every time I attempt to land him he will come at me for a light. Don't you think we had better try to shoot him with a bomb i'
"In those days the bomb and gun were crude affairs, and the only one we had was in the capsized boat, but I went und got it, drew the charge, wiped it dry, reloaded, and returned to the battle ground. Iu the mean-time the whale had charged upon the vessel and had struck her three severe blows, knocking off the cutwater clear to the wood ends, and had started the vessel leaking badly. The whale then turned its attention to the mate's boat. and when I arrived there the mate had his lance flrmly placed against the front of the whale's head and was pushing with, all his might, while the crew were backing the boat for their lives, the whale trying to strike and smash the boat with his jaw. When I got uear enough I fired the gun, and the bomb lance struck the bone just over the left eye and exploded, not doing auy damage to the whale, but increasing his ugliness. The mate strongly urged me to leave the whale, but I was determined to kill him in revenge for the damage he had done.
    "The whale was swimming around slowly, making a circle, and every time it would see a boat it would charge on it at a furious spend. The mate being fast, could not work his boat so handily, and when he was charged upon I would pull up and attract the whale's attention till the mate could get at a safe distance. I had almost despaired of getting a chance at him, both boats being so near together. The whale charged again upon the mate's boat, and as he neared it he doubled up to strike with his flukes. This was my chance; a few quick strokes of the oar and black skin and cedar met. With all the strength I could put out, I drove the hand lance into him the whole length clean to the seizing, and before he knew what was the matter with him I had backed off to a place of safety. For a few seconds he seemed bewildered, and then came the final struggle. He lashed the sea into foam and spouted thick blood. Then I knew that he was mine and I had conquered, and within a few miuutes he rolled over—dead.
    "We towed him alongside. He made just 108 barrels of oil, and when we were cuttiug him we could sets the large dents in his head made there when he struck the vessel. We were obliged to discharge our vessel and repair, for we were so badly damaged I think one more blow would have sent us to the bottom. In all my long years in the business I do not know of a harder or more trying time thau that. After the vessel had been repaired we returned home without any further mishap."
    On another voyage to the Pacific Ocean Capt. Cook commanded the schooner George H. Phillips, and when off Cape Horn during a gale he fell in with a French bark bound for Callao. After the gale had moderated he proceeded, and after passing inside of the Diogos, a group of islands to the southwest of the Cape, he came across some whales which netted 200 barrels of oil. As he lay by. trying out the last whale, a bark hove in sight, which proved to be the Frenchman left off the Cape. The bark camo within hailing distance and the French Captain sang out: "How came you here, little fellow ?" Capt. Cook replied: "I have been here teu days and have got 200 barrels of oil." This was a stunner for Frenchy, and he said: "Ho! No ! Zat is impossible for such a leetle fellow as you. I sink you must be somebody else, for ze little schooner I see off Cape Horn could not beat l'Amitie   so bad as zat."    After an absence of nine years, and during which time she went ashore on an unknown reef, the Phillips returned to port with a large cargo and in good repair, and to-day she forms one of the fleet of eight sail from this port.
    Another whaler at Provincetown tells a story somewhat as follows: "There is a substance found in the sperm whale known in commercial circles as ambergris. It is a hard secretion found in dead whales, and is used as a basis for perfumes. It is very valuable, and a good quality is worth more than its weight in gold. Its eolor is dark slate or chocolate, and in many eases its specific gravity is more than water. Old whalemen attribute ita formation to the food of a whale that is found in the vicinity of the mosquito coast, which consists chiefly of small squids, the sharp bills of which are indigestible, and cause an irritation that produces the secretion. The odor is strong and very pungent, but not disagreeable. It is looked for in all sperm whales captured, as often its value is more than that of the whole whale. Cape William Curran once found a piece weighing eighty pounds. A short warp was fastened around the piece and hauled taut and an effort was made to pull it in at the gangway. The piece was very slimy, and when he got it out of the water it slipped from the rope, and before any one could get hold of it the valuable piece sank like so much lead. This lump was worth at least $16,000."
    There are a good many retired whalemen here who were not so unfortunate as Capt. Curran, and it is no infrequent occurrence for one of them to bring home a good lump of ambergris.