As my family's genealogist and curator of an extensive family archive spanning more than two centuries, I fully appreciate the great labor of love involved in David Churbuck's transcribing an extraordinary memoir entitled Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield, which was written by his great-great grandfather, and posting it to his blog.
In a brief introductory preface, Churbuck explains that "Thomas Chatfield was a whaling captain, officer in the Union Navy during the Civil War, and then a mariner and sailmaker in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts village of Cotuit Port. He was born in 1831 and died in 1922. He wrote this memoir of his first thirty-four years in 1905 for his four daughters."
This is fascinating reading, a remarkable and exceptionally detailed first hand account of life at sea spanning the years 1848-1865. I found it a real page turner, which is high praise indeed for an electronic manuscript that occupies 73 pages in Microsoft Word and can be read in eleven installments here via WordPress.
What Churbuck has done is made a unique piece of history from his family record available and accessible on-line in the broadest possible sense. Doubtless there are reams of similar memoirs in the collections of places like Mystic Seaport or the New Bedford Whaling Museum, but one has the sense that the quality of his writing and broad experiences of Captain Chatfield constitute a most singular record that would otherwise be unavailable to readers or researchers alike. I have more than a passing knowledge of the subject matter and found many things that were fresh and even surprising in the narrative.
Here's a taste:
"We were off the north coast of New Zealand, and at daylight we were in the midst of a school of sperm whales. They proved to be a school of young males. Sixty barrel bulls – whalemen call them – such as the old bulls, who will tolerate no interlopers in their harem, had driven out of the herd: and being young, active, and full of fight are dangerous fellows to deal with. It was blowing half a gale, and the sea was so rough that it was a question as to whether it was safe to lower the boats. But we were after oil, and so decided to try for it. I struck, or rather your Uncle Bethuel, who steered my boat, struck a whale in a few minutes after we were clear of the ship, getting in one iron only. There is always two irons (Harpoons) ready, and the boat-steerer (harpooner) is expected to strike the whale with both; but, as in this case, is not always able to do so. The first iron is attached to the end of the line, the other to one end of a short warp, the other end having a hawline in it through which the main line passes and is only of use if the first iron pulls out of the whale. In striking, the boat got half full of water, and I dropped off a hundred fathoms in order to bail out the water, secure the sail, and get ready for the fight, which from the fact that the whale instead of running remained in the same place, was standing on his tail showing his head and part of his body out of water, pirouetting round and so bringing his eye to bear in all directions, making for his enemy. I was sure I had on my hands. We hauled up to within ten fathoms – the usual distance – got the second iron into the crotch, then took the oars ready for action: and just at that time the fellow got his eye on the boat. He did not hesitate a second but made his rush at once. Had the sea been smooth I might have dodged him, and perhaps killed him as he passed, but it was too rough for that, and he came quick, jaw dropped, head above water, at an angle of forty degrees, and over the boat he came. All I could do was to drive the second iron and the lance deep into his ugly head, for I didn’t want those sharp things in the water with us. He snapped his jaws together, cutting the boat into two pieces, rolled over on one side, smashing one half with his head, and threw the other half in the air with his jaw, making kindling wood of both. The first thing I discovered was that my feet were entangled in the line, or perhaps the lance warp, and that if he started to either run or sound it would be the last of me. You may be sure I doubled myself up, and with my hands cleared the line from my feet quick. Then I looked around for my men, and could see only three, Bethuel and the after oarsman (Martin) were not in sight. I gave an oar to each of the three men, and directed them to swim off to the mate’s boat which was lying five hundred yards distant: all the time the whale was thrashing about striking with his flukes snapping his jaws, sometimes underwater for a few seconds. After seeing the three men started towards the mate’s boat I looked again for Bethuel and Martin, and I saw Martin clinging to a piece of the boat’s bow still being enough to hang him up, and Bethuel (hardly able to keep afloat) with his feet within a few inches of the whale’s nose. I called him to swim off at right angles to the whale, but he did not seem to understand. So I looked around for another oar, and found two which I put under his arms. This gave him confidence, and he started after the other three men. Then I looked to see how Martin was faring. (The whale had settled under water, and it was more fearful) and found that he had climbed onto the piece of boat, and with a piece of wreckage was paddling off to leeward, submerged to the waist, but still making some headway. I learned afterwards that when the men left the boat Martin (Who could not swim or thought he couldn’t) had clinched Bethuel, and they had gone down together, and that Bethuel had a hard struggled to break away from him, which he finally did by getting his knees against Martin’s breast and then straightening out. Then both came to the surface. Martin found that he could swim, and reached that piece of boat. Bethuel so exhausted that he could hardly keep afloat until I gave him the oars. The men being safe, it was time for me to look out for myself. Just then I heard the whale blow close behind me, and he was so near that when I started to swim with the first stroke, the sole of my foot came in contact with the edge of his flukes. I naturally looked behind me, and there was that tail ten feet in the air, and apparently right on head, and it came down like a flash, and struck the water with a noise as a clap of thunder, and the spray and foam completely buried me. I overtook Bethuel and Martin, and kept with them until we reached the boat, all pretty well exhausted and all pretty sick from the effects of the saltwater we had in our stomachs. Poor Mr. Bunker, he was a timid sort of man, and the first words I heard him say were: “My God, Mr. Chatfield, I didn’t dare come any nearer. It would not do to get two boats stove and both crews drowned.” Which was true enough. We went to the ship, which was a short distance off, and after talking it over concluded it was too rough to risk any more boats. So we ran down with the ship, and tried to kill the whale from the bows: but he settled and let the ship go over him, and in a short time he started off to windward, and we soon lost sight of him for good and all."
Set aside some time and read the whole thing.