Our story takes place on the Christopher Mitchell. This is a drawing of the Christopher Mitchell with a superimposed picture of an attack on a sperm whale.
The most intriguing aspects of this story are based upon letters from the US Consulate in Paita, Peru, newspaper articles from Rochester, N.Y., other newspaper articles including an interview with the First Mate of the Christopher Mitchell, and the book Whale Hunt by Nelson Cole Haley relating the account as given by Captain Thomas Sullivan and other members of the crew of the Christopher Mitchell during a “gam” (chance meeting) at sea. As you read, keep in mind that what happened to George Johnson and his impact on the crew of the Christopher Mitchell are based on evidence found in these sources.
The portrayal of characters, other than George Johnson, is designed to fit the story. So, while the character names are true, their portrayal is not. The First, Second, and Third Mates, and the boatsteerers (also known as the harpooners) were determined from order in the ship’s log and partially verified by the account in the Rochester, New York, newspaper article.
A whaling voyage in 1849 would take, on the average, about 3 years. The ship would be provisioned for months at a time and need to stop at various ports for more provisions only as required. Months may be spent on the ship without ever setting foot on land.
The bark Alice Knowles has much the same construction as the Christopher Mitchell. This ship was 302 tons, 115 feet long, 28 feet wide, and 17 feet deep. It was built at Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1878. This diagram was originally taken from The Fishery Industries of the United States, Washington, 1889. The Charles W. Morgan, another ship of this era, can be seen and toured at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.
The whale ship carried 3-6 whaleboats which were used to attack the whale. Two of these were kept as spares to be used when the others were damaged, sometimes due to weather but more often due to encounters with whales.
The boats were cramped, as they contained all the equipment required to attack a whale, to navigate back to the ship should its position be lost, to deal with damage to the boat, and to perform the job of maneuvering on the water. Into this, 6 sailors would take their positions, five as rowers and the First, Second, or Third Mate who would steer.
The harpooner, or boatsteerer, was furthest forward and rowed to starboard. Next was the bow rower who rowed to port. Next was the midships position which rowed to starboard. Then, on alternating sides were the tub and stroke or after oars. A hole in the second seat back from the bow received the mast and yard. These, however, were often carried lengthwise in the boat. Five oars about twelve feet long were placed in the boats and paddles were placed at each of the positions as well. A nineteen-foot steering oar would be laid across the seats. When the harpooners had completed their preparations, a tub of rope was also placed in each boat just in front of the stern-most seat. A smaller tub with about 75 fathoms, or 450 feet, of line was also in the boat. This was the towline used in bringing whales to the ship. Three neatly sheathed harpoons, or irons, were placed in the bow along the starboard gunwale of the boat with each shank resting in a notch. Three lances would be neatly placed on the opposite gunwale in the same fashion. With the wooden shaft, a lance was about eight feet in length. Each boat had a small water keg, and another long narrow one with a few biscuits, a lantern, candles and matches within. There was a bucket and large ladle for baling, a small spade, a flag, two knives and two small axes. A rudder hung outside by the stern. In all, there were forty eight articles, and at least eighty-two pieces according to some accounts.
1, 2, 3, 4, & 5 indicate rowing positions for harpooner, bow, midship, tub and stroke oarsmen
6. Steering oar strap & brace
7. Lions tongue
8. Mast and sail
10. Water breaker, piggin, and lantern keg in after cuddy
11. Standing cleats (2)
12. Mainline tub & line
13. Spare line tub
14. Sheath knives (2)
15. Hatchets (2)
16. Oarlocks (4 regular and 1 double tub)
17. Paddle for each oarsman (5)
18. Peaking cleats – one for each oarsman
19. Lances (sheathed heads 4)
20. Spare harpoons (3)
21. Working harpoons in the crotch
22. Hinged mast partner
23. Boxed mast step
24. Centerboard case
25. Shroud cleats (2)
26. Line stops (2)
27. Clumsy cleat – notch for harpooners knee to larboard
28. Kicking strap
29. Hoisting rings or shackles
30. Boat warp or pointer
31. Box warp or stray line (part of main whale line)
32. Chock pin
The forecastle was home for the common sailor. The boatsteers, idlers, mates, and Captain bunked in the aft of the ship. The forecastle had one entrance and no portholes. An average sized man would need to walk with head bowed to avoid hitting his head on the beams. Bunks were placed along the hull. Chests found room on the floor of the forecastle. What room was left would be used as meeting place for eating, sharing yarns, and passing the time during stormy weather.
The quarters furthest aft belonged to the Captain. Those just forward of that, were for the Mates, harpooners, and idlers. These had single entrances and portholes. While the space was nearly as cramped as in the forecastle, it was a privilege to have an aft berth. Not only was the ride better, but the food was often of a better quality as well.
Attacking a whale was dangerous business. In this picture, the boat in the front is attacking the whale which has rolled leaving his most vulnerable spot open to the lance wielded by the mate. The harpooner is at this point in the stern of the boat using the steering oar. When the whale was mortally wounded, it would spout blood from the blowhole in the top of its forehead. Once taken, if the wind were not with the ship, the whale would be towed to where the ship waited.
The head of the sperm whale is a marvel. The top half, called the case, contains pure spermaceti. The bottom half, called the junk, contains spermaceti mixed with fibrous matter. The lower jaw contained the teeth which fit into indentations in the upper jaw.
Flogging was a common punishment. Some Captains used it to excess which often times caused more problems than it resolved. When given, all the crewmen were usually required to watch.
Standing watch at the top of the masts was a lonely and boring business. The man, whose job was to watch for whales, had time to think on all sorts of matters and often had to actively fight sleep. The watch was usually a two hour job. The lookout was reached by climbing the rigging and then crawling up the ropes that stretched from the mast to the edge of the platform. As he stretched over the edge of the platform, he would grip the ropes that rose upward from the its edge and then pull himself completely up. The lookout would stand within a ring that was about chest high. In bad weather or when dozing, it would be all that kept him from a disastrous fall to the deck or into the sea.
The main hatch opened to the blubber hold. This compartment held the blanket pieces cut from the whale. In the heat of the summer or when hunting the line (equator), it was unbearably hot and quickly turned the blubber to what was called stink for obvious reasons.
A special thanks is extended to the Nantucket Historical Association and their wonderful library. Also, a thanks to the Mystic Seaport’s whaling display and their guides on the Charles W. Morgan, a ship of the same vintage as the Christopher Mitchell. Research in Rochester, New York, was facilitated by Ms. Ruth Tiano.