Cape Cod – Theology And Whaling – Pt. 2

THE First Comers, after they had established their farms, quickly turned to the sea for the profit there was in it: for since Cabot’s voyages, and before, men had known of the riches that lay there, and the earliest history of the Atlantic coast is that of its rival fisheries. Cabot encouraged English fishermen by report of “soles above a yard in length and a great abundance of that kind which the savages call baccalos or codfish.” France exploited the Newfoundland fisheries, and by 1600 fully ten thousand men were employed catching, curing, and transporting the fish : one old Frenchman boasted that he had made forty voyages to the Banks. Holland pushed into the trade to such effect that men said Amsterdam was built on herring bones and Dutchmen made of pickled herring. The law of the road, at sea, was a hard law, and fishermen fought out their quarrels there without benefit of clergy. In 1621, when the Fortune made her landfall and Nauset Indians warned Ply-mouth of a strange boat rounding the Cape, it was because of the suspicion that it might be a Frenchman bent upon mischief. The Old Colony was to bear no small part in England’s game of edging out competitors on the sea. Plymouth was quick to estimate the value of those rich fishing-grounds in the lee of Cape Cod, where Gosnold’s chronicler Brereton was “persuaded that in the months of March, April, and May there is better fishing and in as great plenty as in Newfoundland,” and, as we have seen, used the revenue therefrom for the maintenance of a free school. Until well up to the middle of the next century the catching of mackerel, bass, cod, and herring, duly regulated, was conducted from shore by seines, weirs, pounds, and “fykes.” And then men put to sea for voyages to the Banks, and prospered. And in 1850, when cod-fishing was at its height, more than half the capital invested in it by Massachusetts came from the Cape. The deep-sea voyaging of the clipper ship era has been dead these sixty years, but still fishermen from the Cape, though in smaller numbers now, join up for a cruise to the Banks. They are more frequently swarthy newcomers from Cape Verde and the Azores than the English stock of the early nineteenth century when the Reverend Mr. Damon, of Truro, surveying with delight the arrival of a fleet of four or five hundred mackerel schooners, cautiously modified his emotion and exclaimed : “I should think there must be seventy-five vessels! I never saw such a beautiful sight!” And it was good Mr. Damon, perplexed in his petition for fair winds, whether men should be sailing north or south, who thus trimmed ship: “We pray thee, 0 Lord, that thou wilt watch over our mariners that go down to do business upon the mighty deep, keep them in the hollow of thy hand; and we pray thee that thou wilt send a side-wind, so that their vessels may pass and repass.”

Mr. Rich gives a lively description of the old fishing days, when “all Yankees fished with hand-lines from the vessel.” “The model fisherman keeps his craft snug and taut. He has tested her temper and strength through storm and calm. He will defend her sea-going and fast-sailing almost with his life. A larger fleet and finer manoeuvring have never been seen than in a fleet of fishermen. Sometimes three or four hundred sail, from forty to perhaps one hundred and forty tons, all sea-going, well equipped and well-manned, haul aft their sheets in a freshening breeze to reach a windward harbor. Codfishing on the Banks was considered tough work. The boy who could graduate from that school with full honors, could take care of himself; fight his own battles. It was kill or cure; few, however, were killed; he was sure to come home hale and hearty.” But sometimes the fare ran short on a long cruise, and the staple bean soup grew thin. “What in creation are you doing?” a skipper asked a little Dutch sailor who was peeling off his jacket as he surveyed the scanty meal. “Tive for the bean, by Cot,” answered Dutchy. “Going to the Grand Bank meant leaving home in April for a three to five months’ trip, with no communication till the return. It meant besides the usual sea casualties, to be shut up in the fog, exposed to icebergs and cut off from the world as if alone on the planet. Do not imagine, however, that these men felt they were prisoners, or even dreamed of being unhappy. It was their business and they were more happy and content than the average working-man I have met on land. Day by day, and week by week, a more cheerful company, kind, pleasant and accommodating, it would be hard to find. Saturday night was a happy hour. At sunset the lines were snugly coiled, the decks washed, and a single watch set for twenty-four hours. Sunday was a day of rest. The bright, unfaltering star that never set or dimmed, that robbed the voyage of half its discomforts and terrors, was going home. How pleas-ant the anticipation, how glad the welcome, how lavish the store ! ”

Mackerel-fishing was a separate art acquired in its perfection by the progression of many devices. Here, again, we quote from Rich. “Laying-to, or a square dead drift, throwing bait freely, coying the fish, was found the most successful. By this way, with a moderate breeze, a school could sometimes be kept around a vessel for hours. As many as one hundred and fifty wash barrels have been caught by hook and line at a single drift. A fleet of hundreds of sail, laying-to and beating up to the windward to keep on the school is a fine marine picture. `High-line’ is the highest degree conferred in this school. It outranks all others. The fishermen of Truro were among the first to follow the mackerel business and Truro has had a remarkable succession of leading or lucky skippers.” It is a delight to read Mr. Rich’s history, and we must repeat two of his stories of “fisherman’s luck.”

A certain Captain Ryder was one of a large fleet of fishermen that were lying wind-bound in Hampton Roads. The young captain, in the face of probability, determined to try for a breeze outside. There he took “a fairish wind so he could slant along and saw no more land nor sky till he struck the shore in Portland Harbor. Here he had quick despatch as vessels were scarce,” and returned to Hampton Roads to find the fleet weather-bound as he had left them, waiting still for fair conditions to put to sea. Another Truro fisherman, who had the name of making fortunate voyages, once shipped a seaman with the opposite reputation. “I hear, skipper, you’ve shipped Uncle Wiff,” protested one of the crew. ” I won’t go with him. He’s a `Jonas.’ You won’t make a dollar.” “I’ve told Uncle Wiff he may go, and go he shall, make or break, whether you go or not,” returned the cap’n. The result justified his courage. “We made that year the best voyage I ever made,” he was pleased to re-call, “and Uncle Wiff was one of the best men I ever saw.” The comment of Mr. Rich is sufficient: “Lucky men are most always bold, brave men; and fortune favors the brave.”

Whaling was a business distinct: the great sea-sport, to ordinary fishing as a lion-hunt to a partridge-shoot. Early in the seventeenth century Purchas, in his “Pilgrimage” wrote a brave epic of the whale that must have roused many a stay-at-home to hunger for adventure: “I might here recreate your wearied eyes with a hunting spectacle of the greatest chase which nature yieldeth; I mean the killing of a whale.” Freeman says that the method thereof was but “slightly altered during upwards of two centuries.” Here, substantially, is Purchas: “When they espy him on the top of the water, they row toward him in a shallop, in which the harpooneer stands ready with both hands to dart his harping iron, to which is fastened a line of such length, that the whale may carry it down with him; coming up again they again strike him with lances made for the purpose about twelve feet long, and thus they hold him in such pursuit, till after streams of water, and next of blood, cast up into the air and water, he at length yieldeth his slain carcass to the conquerors.” “The proportions of this huge leviathan deserves description,” chants Purchas. “His head is the third part of him, his mouth (O, hellish wide!) sixteen feet in the opening, and yet out of that belly of hell yielding much to the ornaments of our women’s backs. This great head hath little eyes like apples and a little throat not greater than for a man’s fist to enter. They are swallow-tailed, the extremes being twenty feet distant.” He labors for accuracy: “The ordinary length of a whale is sixty feet, and not so huge as Olaus hath written, who also maketh the moose as big as an elephant.”

In 1620 the leviathan was familiar enough to Cape Cod Bay to forestall any necessity of hunting him in the far seas. The schools of mackerel and cod there made rich feeding for the whales which not infrequently met their death when greed tolled them to shoal waters and they were left high and dry by the receding tides. Then Indians or whites made their kill, and the rights in these “drift-whales” were a fruitful source of trouble. In 1662 the agents of Yarmouth had appeared at court “to debate and have determined a difference about whales”; and in 1690 an order was passed “to prevent contests and suits by whale-killers.” But contests there were between one man and another, and town and province, as evidenced in 1693 by a dispute with a county sheriff who had seized two whales for the Crown; and in 1705 by a letter from William Clapp to “Squier” Dudley, of Boston, a better testimony to Clapp’s business enterprise than to his scholarship. “i have liveed hear at the Cap this 4 year,” wrote Clapp, “and I have very often every year sien that her Maiesty has been very much wronged of has dues by these country people.” And he would be willing to remedy the evil “if your honor see case to precure a commishon of his Exaleney for me with in strocktions I shall by the help of god be very faithful in my ofes.” And that Clapp got his appointment is shown by the Governor’s endorsement on his letter: “Commission for William Clapp, Lt. at the Cape. Warrant to prize drift whales, a water baylif.” But the towns were tenacious of their rights, and usually assured the parson’s salary from their profit. Mr. Cotton of Yar mouth looked there for his forty pounds a year; Mr. Avery of Truro, for his larger stipend; and some of the whaling-profits were also used for school maintenance.

Waiting for stranded drift-whale ill-suited the spirit of the pioneers at Cape Cod, and soon duly commissioned watchers gave notice when a whale spouted in the bay, and men put off in small boats to give chase. It is said that a “Dutchman” from Long Island, Lopez by name, taught Barnstable men the art of killing, and that Lieutenant John Gorham, who made a tidy fortune out of the business and whose son was to use his whaleboat fleet to good advantage in the French wars, ” first fixt out with old Lopez whaling in ye year about 1680.” Ten years later Nantucket sent to Cape Cod for Ichabod Paddock “to instruct them in the best manner of killing whales and extracting their oil.” At Yarmouth a tract of land was set off as “Whaling Grounds,” where a lookout was kept and the crews lodged ready to put off at the instant’s alarm. Cotton Mather comments upon a great kill there of a whale fifty-five feet long. “A cart upon wheels might have gone into the mouth of it. So does the good God here give the people to suck the sea.” And as late as 1843 a monster whale was captured near Provincetown by a small “pink-stern” schooner. Its estimated value in oil and bone was ten thousand dollars, of which, owing to lack of facility in the salvage, only a small part was realized.

The Indians, who were particularly expert in the art, were always employed largely both in bay and deep-water whaling; and they, too, were jealous of their shore rights. In 1757 the Indians of Eastham and Harwich complained to the General Court of the encroachment of whites, especially on “a certain neck or beach in or near Eastham called Billingsgate Point or Island, the place most convenient for the whale-fishery in the whole county, and always before so improved.” And it is noted that “certain inhabitants of Harwich” were prosecuted for such “whale fishery at Billingsgate.”

It was in Wellfleet Harbor that the Pilgrims had seen Indians at a kill of blackfish, and named it “Grampus Bay.” These blackfish, only less valuable for oil than whales, clown to recent times were occasionally beached in great shoals on the Cape, and the stench of the rotting carcases carried for miles. Mr. Rich tells of a Truro captain who, as he drove his cows to pasture one fine morning, descried .on the shore as he took a squint seaward seventy-five huge fish, which before nightfall he had sold for nineteen hundred dollars. And in 1874, over fourteen hundred, the largest school ever known, were stranded at Truro and cut up to twenty-seven thousand gallons of oil. Even boys were adept at the game; and one urchin, having prevented several great fish from escaping to deep water, fought one with hatchet and knife, made his kill, and was discovered deftly stripping it of blubber. It was in 1834, as ill chance would have it on a Sabbath, that a vast school of blackfish was beached at Truro. Here was temptation for the devout that was to divide, in the eyes of all men, the sheep from the goats. Many fishermen happened to be offshore; the news reached the churches at the close of morning service. It is said honors were even as to Sabbath-breakers from church-goers and sea-men. But one young sailor, though he was no “professor,” refused to take part in the chase because, forsooth, his father had kept sacred the day. He was a conservative by nature, and winter after winter studied his sums in a tattered old book. “My father and grandfather cyphered out of that arithmetic,” was his retort for criticism. “I should think it divilish strange if I can’t.”

From hunting the whale offshore in small boats, Cape seamen, when the prey grew more wary, pursued it to the farthest reaches of the ocean, and brought back prosperity to the home ports. Wellfleet was a great whaling town; Truro also, and Provincetown. Then the bulk of the business went to the islands to the southward and to New Bedford. Captain Jesse Holbrook of Truro, who killed fifty-four sperm whales on one voyage, was employed for twelve years by a London company to teach English lads his art, and it was two Truro captains, on the advice of an English admiral stationed at Boston, who were the first to go whaling about the Falkland Islands. Captain William Handy, of Sandwich, was another famous whaling-captain during and after the Revolution, sailing from New Bedford and also from Dunkirk by some engagement made with Napoleon. On one such voyage he and a single companion, both unarmed, had a desperate encounter with a huge polar bear. where they had landed on an icy shore; the ice bore up them and not the bear, or even their courage would have availed them little in the unequal conflict. Captain Handy retired to become a ship-builder, but was impoverished by “the French spoliations,” as well as from the War of 1812, and at the age of sixty returned to the sea to make good his fortune and “to show the boys how to take whales,” when “he accomplished in fifteen months a most successful cruise to the admiration of all.” In 1771 no less than seventy-four vessels had been engaged in such ventures; and Mr. Osborn, the versatile Eastham par-son who taught his people how to use peat, celebrated their prowess on the sea in a whaling-song that opened with appropriate detail:

“When Spring returns with western gales, And gentle breezes sweep The ruffling seas, we spread our sails To plow the wat’ry deep; For killing northern whale prepar’d, Our nimble boats on board With craft and rum (our chief regard) And good provision stor’d; Cape Cod, our dearest, native land, We leave astern, and lose Its sinking cliffs and lessening sands Whilst Zephyr gently blows.”

But it is Edmund Burke, in the British Commons, with the magno modo of the time but commendable accuracy, who pronounced the panegyric of the New England whalers: “While we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, penetrating into the deepest recesses of Hudson Bay; while we are looking for them beneath the Arctic circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of Polar cold, that they are at the Antipodes, and engaged under the frozen Serpent of the South. Falkland Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of natural ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry. While some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others run the longitude and pursue the gigantic game along the shores of Brazil.”