Life Aboard - New Bedford Whaling Museum

Life Aboard

Learn about the isolated society and daily life aboard a whaleship.  Look at the holidays and festivities at sea and look at family life at sea.


Table of Contents

    Life Aboard

    Life on a Whaleship

    Although the crew’s rations ranged from unpleasant to revolting, hard work gave them good appetites, even for greasy pork, hard biscuits, and cockroach-laden molasses.

    An isolated society: The whaleship was an isolated community that roamed the oceans of the world on journeys that lasted for years. In Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (New York, 1846), J. Ross Browne describes the crew’s quarters called the forecastle, or, in sailor’s parlance, the fo’c’sle:

    “The forecastle was black and slimy with filth, very small and hot as an oven. It was filled with a compound of foul air, smoke, sea-chests, soap-kegs, greasy pans, tainted meat,” sea-sick Americans and foreign ruffians. The ruffians were “smoking, laughing, chattering and cursing the green hands who were sick. With groans on one side, and yells, oaths, laughter and smoke on the other, it altogether did not impress [me] as a very pleasant home for the next year or two. [I was] indeed, sick and sorry enough, and heartily wish [myself] home.”

    How long is long?: The larger a vessel, the greater distances it could travel. The whaling schooner, the smallest whaler, generally undertook 6-month voyages, while brigs, barks, and ships might be at sea for three or four years. * The longest whaling voyage is believed to be that of the Ship Nile from 1858 to 1869 — eleven years!

    Men on board: The size of the crew depended on the size of the vessel and the number of whaleboats it carried — ranging from sixteen up to at least 36 on the largest ships.

    These men were organized in a rigid hierarchy of officers and crew: * The captain was absolute master of this strange floating world; * The officers — three or four mates – were next in rank, each commandimg a whaleboat. * The boatsteerers were the harpooneers and enjoyed more privileges than the rest of the crew; * The blacksmith, carpenter, cook, cooper (caskmaker), and steward also ranked higher than ordinary crewmen. When the crew chased a whale, these men remained behind as shipkeepers; * The foremast hands were the ordinary crewmen.

    How they were paid: Each man received a “lay,” or percentage of the profits, instead of wages, the size depending upon his status. The captain earned the largest share, perhaps 1/8th, and the green hand (inexperienced crewman) the least, as little as 1/350th. An ordinary crewman might earn only $25.00 for several years work.

    Earning less than nothing: The crew might receive nothing on a voyage where profits were low. Even on a profitable trip, a whaleman might end up in debt to the shipowners. Cash advances for his family or to spend in ports of call, and any tobacco, boots, or clothes he purchased from the ship’s store were charged against his lay. In debt as they sailed into home port, many men immediately signed on for another voyage.

    Sleeping and eating: Meals and quarters reflected the ship’s class structure:

    • The captain slept in a stateroom and enjoyed a cabin with a sofa and chairs in the stern (rear) of the ship. He ate the best meals on shipboard. Ducks, pigs, and chickens were often carried in crates to provide meat for his table;
    • The mates had smaller cabins in the stern and ate meals with the captain in the main cabin;
    • The boatsteerers (harpooneers) and the more skilled members of the crew, such as the blacksmith and cooper, had bunks in the steerage – an irregular-shaped compartment in the middle of the ship (midship). They ate in the main cabin after the captain and mates left, usually being served the same meals, except for butter and sugar. Like ordinary hands, they used molasses to sweeten their coffee or tea;
    • The foremast hands – ordinary crewmen – slept in the forecastle, a narrow triangular-shaped room under the deck in the bow (front) of the ship, in narrow bunks that lined the walls. The only seats were the men’s sea chests. In fair weather, the cook’s helper carried tubs of food to the deck and the crewmen ate there, retreating below deck during foul weather.

    An appetite for salt horse: Although the crew’s rations ranged from unpleasant to revolting, hard work gave them good appetites, even for greasy pork, hard biscuits, and cockroach-laden molasses. Other fare included “salt horse” (heavily salted beef, pork, or horse), beans, rice, or potatoes. The chance to eat something fresh was a treat. At ports of call, fresh water, fruits, and vegetables were taken aboard. Cooks became used to preparing sea turtles, dolphins, sea birds, and fish. A ship cruising off the African coast once harpooned and ate a hippopotamus.

    Living with accidents, vermin, and punishment: Apart from the dangers of the hunt, life on a whaleship could be unpleasant:

    • Rats, cockroaches, bedbugs, and fleas were facts of life, perhaps because of the oil and blood that were not removed from the decks by scrubbing. The men endured these creatures in their food, in their bunks, and on their bodies – Sharp-edged tools, hostile natives, and shipboard arguments led to injuries. It was usually the captain who dealt with illnesses, using limited knowledge and supplies from the medicine chest. Occasionally, a captain’s wife on board would nurse ailing crewmen
    • Punishments included being “put in irons” and flogging (whipping). If a man disobeyed orders or otherwise displeased captain or mate, he suffered one or the other. The “cat-o’-nine-tails” (a whip of nine knotted lines) was often used. It was painful for the crewman who experienced it, and frightening for others to watch.

    A Multi-Racial Enterprise

    During most of the history of American whaling, ships drew their crews from men of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.

    The early deep sea whalers usually carried crews comprised of men from New England and Long Island, members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), and African-Americans.

    On some ships, the men on board were all neighbors. It was possible in those days to begin as a foremast hand and work up to the position of captain.

    As the industry grew and New Bedford became its greatest center, more men were needed for an increasing number of ships. Although Yankees still went whaling, few shipped out as foremast hands more than once. It was a cruel way to make a living and the financial rewards were too few for all except the captain, the officers, and some of the more skilled members of the crew.

    A League of Nations on board: Captains and ship owners picked up hands wherever they could find them. Of a ship’s crew, half might be Americans, while the rest came from other nations. On some vessels, the crew was entirely foreign-born. Racial and cultural stereotypes persisted and three groups in particular experienced limitations on advancement: African-Americans; Cape Verdeans; Pacific Islanders (also known as “Kanakas,” a term derived from the Polynesian “Te Enata,” which means “the men”).

    A kind of racial harmony: Genuine integration did not exist on most American whaleships, and violence sometimes flared. In general, however, men who were packed into tight quarters for years at a time and subject to the nearly unlimited power of the captain and officers, usually found it wise to tolerate each other.

    Dealing with boredom: Whalemen devised ways of filling hours of inactivity: * Socializing In the late afternoon and early evening, most hands came on deck to socialize. They puffed on pipes, talked, read, mended clothes. They often broke into high-spirited singing and dancing. ” * Scrimshaw is an art form developed by American whalemen, who used long hours of idleness and the availability of whale teeth and baleen (keratinous strips found in the mouths of baleen whales) to carve homecoming presents for loved ones. The most popular items were etched teeth and jagging wheels (pastry crimpers). The term “scrimshaw” also covers pieces whalemen created from sea shells, coconuts, tortoise shell, and other materials (Go to Scrimshaw: The Whaleman’s Art for more information); Gams When whaleships met on the high seas, they usually held a “gam,” an exchange of visits. This was a distinctive whaling custom. (Merchant ships, intent on getting cargoes to port quickly, exchanged only brief greetings.) The whaleboats ferried between the ships so that every crewman had a chance to exchange news and socialize. A gam might last a day or a week, but eventually the ships would separate and the crews would return to lonely hours of waiting for whales.

    Logbooks: Logbooks were kept by the captain or first mate for all the ship’s records. Routine entries recorded the ship’s position (location), whales captured, the number of barrels of oil they yielded, wind direction, accidents and sicknesses on board, and anything else the logkeeper considered important. Private journals kept by crew members also recorded details of daily life on shipboard.

    Chores: Days, weeks, sometimes months passed between whale sightings. Some time was filled with routine chores, such as washing the deck, setting sail (increasing or decreasing the number of sails on the masts), steering, or standing watch at night.

    Routine days: The entire entry for November 18, 1858 for the Bark Ocean Bird records: “At daylight land in sight bearing E. by N. distant 50 miles — wind light — all hands variously employed — ship steering E. by S. — cook still off duty with the venerial.”

    And dramatic ones: A collection of logbooks analyzed by historian Stuart Sherman contains details of “castaways, mutinies, desertions, floggings, women stowaways, drunkenness, illicit shore leave experiences, scurvy, fever, collisions, fire at sea, stove boats, drownings, hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, shipwrecks, ships struck by lightning, men falling from the masthead, hostile natives, barratry [fraud by a captain or crew at the expense of the shipowners], brutal skippers, escape from Confederate raiders, hard luck voyages and ships crushed by ice.”

    Mutinies: Uprisings on whaleships were remarkably rare, considering the harsh conditions their crews suffered. Just such an event occurred on December 25, 1857 onboard the ship Junior of New Bedford under the command of Archibald Mellen. Poor whaling, bad food, harsh discipline, and inconsistent shipboard management, combined with the presence onboard of a real troublemaker, a foremast hand named Cyrus Plummer, culminated in a night of violence that left the captain and third mate dead, and the first mate and second mate severely wounded. Both wounded men survived, and the mutineers were eventually arrested on the coast of New South Wales. The U.S. Consul at Sydney took over the ship, discharged the old crew, shipped a new crew, converted the Junior to a prison ship and returned the mutineers to New Bedford for trial.

    Ports of Call: “In their search for oil,” Richard Ellis writes in his book Men and Whales, “the roving whalers opened the world, much as the explorers of the 16th century had done in their quest for the wealth of the Indies.”

    Plum-pudding whaling: In the early years of American whaling, voyages were restricted to the Atlantic Ocean. A common route was to cruise south in spring to the West Indies, then to the Azores, stopping at ports in these Portuguese islands, where whalers picked up fresh food,water, and additional crew. From there, the ships cruised past the Cape Verde Islands and the west coast of Africa, before recrossing the South Atlantic to the Brazil Banks or Falkland Islands. Returning to New England in July, the whalers refitted, then sailed for the Davis Straits between Greenland and North America for the summer. These relatively brief voyages were known as “plum-pudding whaling.”

    The vast expanse of the Pacific: The Rebecca of New Bedford sailed around the Horn (the southernmost tip of South America) in 1793, becoming one of the first whalers to enter the Pacific from an American port, launching the era of round-the-world- whaling.
    Yankee whalers encountered scores of small islands and gave them Yankee names. They saw the mysterious stone faces of Easter Island, the lush isles of Hawaii, the frightening snowfields of the Antarctic. They sailed into Japanese waters and from there into the Arctic Ocean. After Captain Thomas W. Roys discovered bowhead whales in the Arctic in 1848, New Bedford ships soon followed. (See Arctic Whaling for more information.)

    A unique way of life: Men – and sometimes families – on whaleships lived in a strange, floating world and experienced a way of life that was unlike any other. Its rigors repelled all but the hardiest and most adventurous, or those who were desperate for work or companionship. As Everett S. Allen wrote in Children of the Light, “Never, in all of man’s history, has there been anything comparable to whaling in terms of what it demanded of those afloat who pursued it or of the vessels in which they sailed.”

    Families on Whalers

    A seagoing male society: Whaling was a male occupation that separated men and boys from their families for years. The excitement of the chase and the work of processing whales filled relatively few hours. Routine chores and carving scrimshaw from whalebone and teeth were not enough to prevent loneliness and boredom.

    Mrs. Russell takes to the high seas: Families shared the loneliness of the whalemen. In 1822, Mary Hayden Russell, wife of Capt. Joseph Russell, and their young son, Charles, became the first family known to have joined a whaling voyage. Other families soon followed suit. A scholar has identified several hundred seagoing wives. Many preferred the discomforts of life at sea to years of separation.

    Hen frigates: Although crewmen referred to a ship that carried a woman as a “hen frigate,” they were often glad to have one aboard. On the Bark Powhatan, Caroline Mayhew cared for eight hands that fell ill with smallpox and navigated when her husband became sick. Mrs. Nathaniel Jernagan helped the crew put out a shipboard fire, while other wives were valued for spotting whales or calming their husbands.

    A narrow world: Other than calling out “There she blows,” a wife was not allowed to participate in whaling. Most women washed clothes, cooked, sewed, educated their children, wrote diaries or read. Others used music to fill the long hours.

    Fleas and cockroaches, seasickness and mutiny: Whaling wives fought cockroaches and fleas, and often suffered seasickness during violent storms. A few found the crew unpleasant, while others experienced the dangers of a mutiny aboard ship.

    Gamming: Gamming was a diversion for a wife, as well as the captain and crew. When whalers met at sea, the crews exchanged visits. The captain’s wife was lowered from ship to whaleboat in a gamming chair and rowed to the other ship for a festive social occasion, visiting with the other captain’s wife.

    Refugees: During the mid-nineteenth century, the wives of missionaries, merchants, and whalers formed a community of American women in Hawaii. A captain’s family might stop in Hawaii while his vessel went to the Arctic. Later, some families wintered in the Arctic (go to Arctic Whaling for more information).

    Babies: Wives sometimes stopped over in the Azores, on a Pacific island, or in a South American port, to give birth to babies conceived on the high seas. Other babies were born at sea.

    Holidays and Festivities on Whaleships

    Three holidays: Although today we enjoy a dozen or more holidays a year, 19th century Americans observed only the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

    At the whim of the master: Whether or not a holiday was observed at sea depended upon the captain. If his family was onboard, it was more likely that there would be festivities. A special meal was often the major focus of a celebration, especially in the captain’s cabin. The crew ate regular rations unless the captain felt generous.

    The Fourth of July: Crews were often too busy pursuing whales to make much of the day. A boatsteerer on the Mentor in 1840 wrote in his journal: “Celebrated the 4th by firing a gun at sunrise.” He and the crew spent the rest of the day chasing whales. On the Clara Bell in 1856, Robert Weir noted that they “wound up the day by firing salutes with a couple of packs of fine crackers and a grand consertino given by the steward and myself on an old tin pan and a cracked flute.” The crew also enjoyed coconuts, roast pig, and other special treats as their bill of fare – “quite extensive for sailors,” Weir wrote.

    Thanksgiving and Christmas: For most of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving outranked Christmas as New England’s premier holiday. On shipboard, festivities usually centered on food, sometimes limited to the captain’s table, sometimes available to all hands. As Christmas became popular, families on whalers reproduced the on-shore celebration by decorating the cabin, hanging stockings, exchanging gifts, and eating well.

    Good cheer sometimes spilled over to the crew. On the John P. West in 1882, Sallie Smith made popcorn balls to help her husband’s men celebrate Christmas. William B. Whitecar, who spent several Christmases on a New Bedford whaler, wrote that one year the captain observed the day by sending a cheese to the crew. Another year, there was no change in the day’s routine. Yet another year, all hands received mince pie.

    Resourceful whalers: Crews were resourceful about providing their own festivities for holidays and other moments when a celebration seemed in order. They toasted each other, sang and fired guns. Whaleboat races were common on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, especially when two whaleships met. But despite these efforts, accounts of holidays at sea, especially Christmas, have a recurring theme – how much the seafarer misses his family.

    Seagoing ceremonies: There were other rituals that broke monotony at sea. For example, during a ceremony for those who were about to cross the equator for the first time, men were blindfolded, soaked with water, lathered with an unpleasant smelling soap, shaved, and tricked into thinking they had been thrown into the sea.

    Woman in gamming chair being brought onboard from the movie “Down to the Sea in Ships.” #2000.100.62.142