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Authors: Peter Nichols

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BOOK: Final Voyage
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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:
SEPTEMBER 8 TH.
 
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.
SEPTEMBER 10 TH.
 
It is quite rugged today, and I have been quite sick; these 3 or 4 words I write in bed.
 
 
SEPTEMBER 11 TH.
 
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:
SEPTEMBER 29 TH.
 
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:
NOVEMBER 8TH.
 
 
... 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:
JULY 21ST.
 
... 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.”
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