The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales

Author: Frank Thomas Bullen

Chapter IX Our First Calling-Place

Perhaps it may hastily be assumed, from the large space already devoted to fishing operations of various kinds, that the subject will not bear much more dealing with, if my story is to avoid being monotonous. But I beg to assure you, dear reader, that while of course I have most to say in connection with the business of the voyage, nothing is farther from my plan than to neglect the very interesting portion of our cruise which relates to visiting strange, out-of-the-way corners of the world. If —which I earnestly deprecate—the description hitherto given of sperm whale-fishing and its adjuncts be found not so interesting as could be wished, I cry you mercy. I have been induced to give more space to it because it has been systematically avoided in the works upon whale-fishing before mentioned, which, as I have said, were not intended for popular reading. True, neither may my humble tome become popular either; but, if it does not, no one will be so disappointed as the author.

We had made but little progress during the week of oil manufacture, very little attention being paid to the sails while that work was about; but, as the south-east trades blew steadily, we did not remain stationary altogether. So that the following week saw us on the south side of the tropic of Capricorn, the south-east trade done, and the dirty weather and variable squalls, which nearly always precede the "westerlies," making our lives a burden to us. Here, however, we were better off than in an ordinary merchantman, where doldrums are enough to drive you mad. The one object being to get along, it is incessant "pullyhauly," setting and taking in sail, in order, on the one hand, to lose no time, and, on the other, to lose no sails. Now, with us, whenever the weather was doubtful or squally-looking, we shortened sail, and kept it fast till better weather came along, being quite careless whether we made one mile a day or one hundred. But just because nobody took any notice of our progress as the days passed, we were occasionally startled to find how far we had really got. This was certainly the case with all of us forward, even to me who had some experience, so well used had I now become to the leisurely way of getting along. To the laziest of ships, however, there comes occasionally a time when the bustling, hurrying wind will take no denial, and you’ve got to "git up an’ git," as the Yanks put it. Such a time succeeded our "batterfanging" about, after losing the trades. We got hold of a westerly wind that, commencing quietly, gently, steadily, taking two or three days before it gathered force and volume, strengthened at last into a stern, settled gale that would brook no denial, to face which would have been misery indeed. To vessels bound east it came as a boon and blessing, for it would be a crawler that could not reel off her two hundred and fifty miles a day before the push of such a breeze. Even the CACHALOT did her one hundred and fifty, pounding and bruising the ill-used sea in her path, and spreading before her broad bows a farreaching area of snowy foam, while her wake was as wide as any two ordinary ships ought to make. Five or six times a day the flying East India or colonial-bound English ships, under every stitch of square sail, would appear as tiny specks on the horizon astern, come up with us, pass like a flash, and fade away ahead, going at least two knots to our one. I could not help feeling a bit, home-sick and tired of my present surroundings, in spite of their interest, when I saw those beautiful ocean-flyers devouring the distance which lay before them, and reflected that in little more than one month most of them would be discharging in Melbourne, Sydney, Calcutta, or some other equally distant port, while we should probably be dodging about in our present latitude a little farther east.

After a few days of our present furious rate of speed, I came on deck one morning, and instantly recognized an old acquaintance. Right ahead, looking nearer than I had ever seen it before, rose the towering mass of Tristan d’Acunha, while farther away, but still visible, lay Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands. Their aspect was familiar, for I had sighted them on nearly every voyage I had made round the Cape, but I had never seen them so near as this. There was a good deal of excitement among us, and no wonder. Such a break in the monotony of our lives as we were about to have was enough to turn our heads. Afterwards, we learned to view these matters in a more philosophic light; but now, being new and galled by the yoke, it was a different thing. Near as the island seemed, it was six hours before we got near enough to distinguish objects on shore. I have seen the top of Tristan peeping through a cloud nearly a hundred miles away, for its height is tremendous. St. Helena looks a towering, scowling mass when you approach it closely but Tristan d’Acunha is far more imposing, its savage-looking cliffs seeming to sternly forbid the venturesome voyager any nearer familiarity with their frowning fastnesses. Long before we came within working distance of the settlement, we were continually passing broad patches of kelp (FUCUS GIGANTEA), whose great leaves and cable-laid stems made quite reef-like breaks in the heaving waste of restless sea. Very different indeed were these patches of marine growth from the elegant wreaths of the Gulf-weed with which parts of the North Atlantic are so thickly covered. Their colour was deep brown, almost black is some cases, and the size of many of the leaves amazing, being four to five feet long, by a foot wide, with stalks as thick as one’s arm. They have their origin around these storm-beaten rocks, which lie scattered thinly over the immense area of the Southern Ocean, whence they are torn, in masses like those we saw, by every gale, and sent wandering round the world.

When we arrived within about three miles of the landing-place, we saw a boat coming off, so we immediately hove-to and awaited her arrival. There was no question of anchoring; indeed, there seldom is in these vessels, unless they are going to make a long stay, for they are past masters in the art of "standing off and on." "The boat came alongside—a big, substantially-built craft of the whale-boat type, but twice the size—manned by ten sturdylooking fellows, as unkempt and wild-looking as any pirates. They were evidently put to great straits for clothes, many curious makeshifts being noticeable in their rig, while it was so patched with every conceivable kind of material that it was impossible to say which was the original or "standing part." They brought with them potatoes, onions, a few stunted cabbages, some fowls, and a couple of good-sized pigs, at the sight of which good things our eyes glistened and our mouths watered. Alas! none of the cargo of that boat ever reached OUR hungry stomachs. We were not surprised, having anticipated that every bit of provision would be monopolized by our masters; but of course we had no means of altering such a state of things.

The visitors had the same tale to tell that seems universal—bad trade, hard times, nothing doing. How very familiar it seemed, to be sure. Nevertheless, it could not be denied that their sole means of communication with the outer world, as well as market for their goods, the calling whale-ships, were getting fewer and fewer every year; so that their outlook was not, it must be confessed, particularly bright. But their wants are few, beyond such as they can themselves supply. Groceries and clothes, the latter especially, as the winters are very severe, are almost the only needs they require to be supplied with from without. They spoke of the "Cape" as if it were only across the way, the distance separating them from that wonderful place being over thirteen hundred miles in reality. Very occasionally a schooner from Capetown does visit them; but, as the seals are almost exterminated, there is less and less inducement to make the voyage.

Like almost all the southern islets, this group has been in its time the scene of a wonderfully productive seal-fishery. It used to be customary for whaling and sealing vessels to land a portion of their crews, and leave them to accumulate a store of sealskins and oil, while the ships cruised the surrounding seas for whales, which were exceedingly numerous, both "right" and sperm varieties. In those days there was no monotony of existence in these islands, ships were continually coming and going, and the islanders prospered exceedingly. When they increased beyond the capacity of the islands to entertain them, a portion migrated to the Cape, while many of the men took service in the whale-ships, for which they were eminently suited.

They are, as might be expected, a hybrid lot, the women all mulattoes, but intensely English in their views and loyalty. Since the visit of H.M.S. GALATEA, in August, 1867, with the Duke of Edinburgh on board, this sentiment had been intensified, and the little collection of thatched cottages, nameless till then, was called Edinburgh, in honour of the illustrious voyager. They breed cattle, a few sheep, and pigs, although the sheep thrive but indifferently for some reason or another. Poultry they have in large numbers, so that, could they commend a market, they would do very well.

The steep cliffs, rising from the sea for nearly a thousand feet, often keep their vicinity in absolute calm, although a heavy gale may be raging on the other side of the island, and it would be highly dangerous for any navigator not accustomed to such a neighbourhood to get too near them. The immense rollers setting inshore, and the absence of wind combined, would soon carry a vessel up against the beetling crags, and letting go an anchor would not be of the slightest use, since the bottom, being of massive boulders, affords no holding ground at all. All round the island the kelp grows thickly, so thickly indeed as to make a boat’s progress through it difficult. This, however, is very useful in one way here, as we found. Wanting more supplies, which were to be had cheap, we lowered a couple of boats, and went ashore after them. On approaching the black, pebbly beach which formed the only landing-place, it appeared as if getting ashore would be a task of no ordinary danger and difficulty. The swell seemed to culminate as we neared the beach, lifting the boats at one moment high in air, and at the next lowering them into a green valley, from whence nothing could be seen but the surrounding watery summits. Suddenly we entered the belt of kelp, which extended for perhaps a quarter of a mile seaward, and, lo! a transformation indeed. Those loose, waving fronds of flexible weed, though swayed hither and thither by every ripple, were able to arrest the devastating rush of the gigantic swell, so that the task of landing, which had looked so terrible, was one of the easiest. Once in among the kelp, although we could hardly use the oars, the water was quite smooth and tranquil. The islanders collected on the beach, and guided us to the best spot for landing, the huge boulders, heaped in many places, being ugly impediments to a boat.

We were as warmly welcomed as if we had been old friends, and hospitable attentions were showered upon us from every side. The people were noticeably well-behaved, and, although there was something Crusoe-like in their way of living, their manners and conversation were distinctly good. A rude plenty was evident, there being no lack of good food—fish, fowl, and vegetables. The grassy plateau on which the village stands is a sort of shelf jutting out from the mountain-side, the mountain being really the whole island. Steep roads were hewn out of the solid rock, leading, as we were told, to the cultivated terraces above. These reached an elevation of about a thousand feet. Above all towered the great, dominating peak, the summit lost in the clouds eight or nine thousand feet above. The rock-hewn roads and cultivated land certainly gave the settlement an old-established appearance, which was not surprising seeing that it has been inhabited for more than a hundred years. I shall always bear a grateful recollection of the place, because my host gave me what I had long been a stranger to—a good, old-fashioned English dinner of roast beef and baked potatoes. He apologized for having no plum-pudding to crown the feast. "But, you see," he said, "we kaint grow no corn hyar, and we’m clean run out ov flour; hev ter make out on taters ’s best we kin." I sincerely sympathized with him on the lack of bread-stuff among them, and wondered no longer at the avidity with which they had munched our flinty biscuits on first coming aboard. His wife, a buxom, motherly woman of about fifty, of dark, olive complexion, but good features, was kindness itself; and their three youngest children, who were at home, could not, in spite of repeated warnings and threats, keep their eyes off me, as if I had been some strange animal dropped from the moon. I felt very unwilling to leave them so soon, but time was pressing, the stores we had come for were all ready to ship, and I had to tear myself away from these kindly entertainers. I declare, it seemed like parting with old friends; yet our acquaintance might have been measured by minutes, so brief it had been. The mate had purchased a fine bullock, which had been slaughtered and cut up for us with great celerity, four or five dozen fowls (alive), four or five sacks of potatoes, eggs, etc., so that we were heavily laden for the return journey to the ship. My friend had kindly given me a large piece of splendid cheese, for which I was unable to make him any return, being simply clad in a shirt and pair of trousers, neither of which necessary garments could be spared.

With hearty cheers from the whole population, we shoved off and ploughed through the kelp seaweed again. When we got clear of it, we found the swell heavier than when we had come, and a rough journey back to the ship was the result. But, to such boatmen as we were, that was a trifle hardly worth mentioning, and after an hour’s hard pull we got alongside again, and transhipped our precious cargo. The weather being threatening, we at once hauled off the land and out to sea, as night was falling and we did not wish to be in so dangerous a vicinity any longer than could be helped in stormy weather. Altogether, a most enjoyable day, and one that I have ever since had a pleasant recollection of.

By daybreak next morning the islands were out of sight, for the wind had risen to a gale, which, although we carried little sail, drove us along before it some seven or eight knots an hour.

Two days afterwards we caught another whale of medium size, making us fifty-four barrels of oil. As nothing out of the ordinary course marked the capture, it is unnecessary to do more than allude to it in passing, except to note that the honours were all with Goliath. He happened to be close to the whale when it rose, and immediately got fast. So dexterous and swift were his actions that before any of the other boats could "chip in" he had his fish "fin out," the whole affair from start to finish only occupying a couple of hours. We were now in the chosen haunts of the great albatross, Cape pigeons, and Cape hens, but never in my life had I imagined such a concourse of them as now gathered around us. When we lowered there might have been perhaps a couple of dozen birds in sight, but no sooner was the whale dead than from out of the great void around they began to drift towards us. Before we had got him fast alongside, the numbers of that feathered host were incalculable. They surrounded us until the sea surface was like a plain of snow, and their discordant cries were deafening. With the exception of one peculiar-looking bird, which has received from whalemen the inelegant name of "stinker," none of them attempted to alight upon the body of the dead monster. This bird, however, somewhat like a small albatross, but of dirty-grey colour, and with a peculiar excrescence on his beak, boldly took his precarious place upon the carcase, and at once began to dig into the blubber. He did not seem to make much impression, but he certainly tried hard.

It was dark before we got our prize secured by the fluke-chain, so that we could not commence operations before morning. That night it blew hard, and we got an idea of the strain these vessels are sometimes subjected to. Sometimes the ship rolled one way and the whale another, being divided by a big sea, the wrench at the fluke-chain, as the two masses fell apart down different hollows, making the vessel quiver from truck to keelson as if she was being torn asunder. Then we would come together again with a crash and a shock that almost threw everybody out of their bunks. Many an earnest prayer did I breathe that the chain would prove staunch, for what sort of a job it would be to go after that whale during the night, should he break loose, I could only faintly imagine. But all our gear was of the very best; no thieving ship-chandler had any band in supplying our outfit with shoddy rope and faulty chain, only made to sell, and ready at the first call made upon it to carry away and destroy half a dozen valuable lives. There was one coil of rope on board which the skipper had bought for cordage on the previous voyage from a homeward-bound English ship, and it was the butt of all the officers’ scurrilous remarks about Britishers and their gear. It was never used but for rope-yarns, being cut up in lengths, and untwisted for the ignominious purpose of tying things up —"hardly good enough for that," was the verdict upon it.

Tired as we all were, very little sleep came to us that night—we were barely seasoned yet to the exigencies of a whaler’s life —but afterwards I believe nothing short of dismasting or running the ship ashore would wake us, once we got to sleep. In the morning we commenced operations in a howling gale of wind, which placed the lives of the officers on the "cutting in" stage in great danger. The wonderful seaworthy qualities of our old ship shone brilliantly now. When an ordinary modern-built sailingship would have been making such weather of it as not only to drown anybody about the deck, but making it impossible to keep your footing anywhere without holding on, we were enabled to cut in this whale. True, the work was terribly exhausting and decidedly dangerous, but it was not impossible, for it was done. By great care and constant attention, the whole work of cutting in and trying out was got through without a single accident; but had another whale turned up to continue the trying time, I am fully persuaded that some of us would have gone under from sheer fatigue. For there was no mercy shown. All that I have ever read of "putting the slaves through for all they were worth" on the plantations was fully realized here, and our worthy skipper must have been a lineal descendent of the doughty Simon Legree.

The men were afraid to go on to the sick-list. Nothing short of total inability to continue would have prevented them from working, such was the terror with which that man had inspired us all. It may be said that we were a pack of cowards, who, without the courage to demand better treatment, deserved all we got. While admitting that such a conclusion is quite a natural one at which to arrive, I must deny its truth. There were men in that forecastle as good citizens and as brave fellows as you would wish to meet—men who in their own sphere would have commanded and obtained respect. But under the painful and abnormal circumstances in which they found themselves—beaten and driven like dogs while in the throes of sea-sickness, half starved and hopeless, their spirit had been so broken, and they were so kept down to that sad level by the display of force, aided by deadly weapons aft, that no other condition could be expected for them but that of broken-hearted slaves. My own case was many degrees better than that of the other whites, as I have before noted; but I was perfectly well aware that the slightest attempt on my part to show that I resented our common treatment would meet with the most brutal repression, and, in addition, I might look for a dreadful time of it for the rest of the voyage.

The memory of that week of misery is so strong upon me even now that my hand trembles almost to preventing me from writing about it. Weak and feeble do the words seem as I look at them, making me wish for the fire and force of Carlyle or Macaulay to portray our unnecessary sufferings.

Like all other earthly ills, however, they came to an end, at least for a time, and I was delighted to note that we were getting to the northward again. In making the outward passage round the Cape, it is necessary to go well south, in order to avoid the great westerly set of the Agulhas current, which for ever sweeps steadily round the southern extremity of the African continent at an average rate of three or four miles an hour. To homeward-bound ships this is a great boon. No matter what the weather may be—a stark calm or a gale of wind right on end in your teeth—that vast, silent river in the sea steadily bears you on at the same rate in the direction of home. It is perfectly true that with a gale blowing across the set of this great current, one of the very ugliest combinations of broken waves is raised; but who cares for that, when he knows that, as long as the ship holds together, some seventy or eighty miles per day nearer home must be placed to her credit? In like manner, it is of the deepest comfort to know that, storm or calm, fair or foul, the current of time, unhasting, unresting, bears us on to the goal that we shall surely reach—the haven of unbroken rest.

Not the least of the minor troubles on board the CACHALOT was the uncertainty of our destination; we never knew where we were going. It may seem a small point, but it is really not so unimportant as a landsman might imagine. On an ordinary passage, certain well-known signs are as easily read by the seaman as if the ship’s position were given out to him every day. Every alteration of the course signifies some point of the journey reached, some well-known track entered upon, and every landfall made becomes a new departure from whence to base one’s calculations, which, rough as they are, rarely err more than a few days.

Say, for instance, you are bound for Calcutta. The first of the north-east trades will give a fair idea of your latitude being about the edge of the tropics somewhere, or say from 20deg. to 25deg. N., whether you have sighted any of the islands or not. Then away you go before the wind down towards the Equator, the approach to which is notified by the loss of the trade and the dirty, changeable weather of the "doldrums." That weary bit of work over, along come the south-east trades, making you brace "sharp up," and sometimes driving you uncomfortably near the Brazilian coast. Presently more "doldrums," with a good deal more wind in them than in the "wariables" of the line latitude. The brave "westerly" will come along by-and-by and release you, and, with a staggering press of sail carried to the reliable gale, away you go for the long stretch of a hundred degrees or so eastward. You will very likely sight Tristan d’Acunha or Gough lsland; but, if not, the course will keep you fairly well informed of your longitude, since most ships make more or less of a great circle track. Instead of steering due East for the whole distance, they make for some southerly latitude by running along the arc of a great circle, THEN run due east for a thousand miles or so before gradually working north again. These alterations in the courses tell the foremast hand nearly all he wants to know, slight as they are. You will most probably sight Amsterdam Island or St. Paul’s in about 77deg. E.; but whether you do or not, the big change made in the course, to say nothing of the difference in the weather and temperature, say loudly that your long easterly run is over, and you are bound to the northward again, Soon the south-east trades will take you gently in hand, and waft you pleasurably upward to the line again, unless you should be so unfortunate as to meet one of the devastating meteors known as "cyclones" in its gyration across the Indian Ocean. After losing the trade, which signals your approach to the line once more, your guides fluctuate muchly with the time of year. But it may he broadly put that the change of the monsoon in the Bay of Bengal is beastliness unadulterated, and the southwest monsoon itself, though a fair wind for getting to your destination, is worse, if possible. Still, having got that far, you are able to judge pretty nearly when, in the ordinary course of events, you will arrive at Saugor, and get a tug for the rest of the journey.

But on this strange voyage I was quite as much in the dark concerning our approximate position as any of the chaps who had never seen salt water before they viewed it from the bad eminence of the CACHALOT’s deck. Of course, it was evident that we were bound eastward, but whether to the Indian seas or to the South Pacific, none knew but the skipper, and perhaps the mate. I say "perhaps" advisedly. In any well-regulated merchant ship there is an invariable routine of observations performed by both captain and chief officer, except in very big vessels, where the second mate is appointed navigating officer. The two men work out their reckoning independently of each other, and compare the result, so that an excellent check upon the accuracy of the positions found is thereby afforded. Here, however, there might not have been, as far as appearances went, a navigator in the ship except the captain, if it be not a misuse of terms to call him a navigator. If the test be ability to take a ship round the world, poking into every undescribed, out-of-the-way corner you can think of, and return home again without damage to the ship of any kind except by the unavoidable perils of the sea, then doubtless he WAS a navigator, and a ripe, good one. But anything cruder than the "rule-of-thumb" way in which he found his positions, or more out of date than his "hog-yoke," or quadrant, I have never seen. I suppose we carried a chronometer, though I never saw it or heard the cry of "stop," which usually accompanies a.m. or p.m. "sights" taken for longitude. He used sometimes to make a deliberate sort of haste below after taking a sight, when he may have been looking at a chronometer perhaps. What I do know about his procedure is, that he always used a very rough method of equal altitudes, which would make a mathematician stare and gasp; that his nautical almanac was a ten-cent one published by some speculative optician is New York; that he never worked up a "dead reckoning;" and that the extreme limit of time that he took to work out his observations was ten minutes. In fact, all our operations in seamanship or navigation were run on the same happy-go-lucky principle. If it was required to "tack" ship, there was no formal parade and preparation for the manoeuvre, not even as much as would be made in a Goole billyboy. Without any previous intimation, the helm would be put down, and round she would come, the yards being trimmed by whoever happened to be nearest to the braces. The old tub seemed to like it that way, for she never missed stays or exhibited any of that unwillingness to do what she was required that is such a frequent characteristic of merchantmen. Even getting under way or coming to an anchor was unattended by any of the fuss and bother from which those important evolutions ordinarily appear inseparable.

To my great relief we saw no more whales of the kind we were after during our passage round the Cape. The weather we were having was splendid for making a passage, but to be dodging about among those immense rollers, or towed athwart them by a wounded whale in so small a craft as one of our whale-boats, did not have any attractions for me. There was little doubt in any of our minds that, if whales were seen, off we must go while daylight lasted, let the weather be what it might. So when one morning I went to the wheel, to find the course N.N.E. instead of E. by N., it may be taken for granted that the change was a considerable relief to me. It was now manifest that we were bound up into the Indian Ocean, although of course I knew nothing of the position of the districts where whales were to be looked for. Gradually we crept northward, the weather improving every day as we left the "roaring forties" astern. While thus making northing we had several fine catches of porpoises, and saw many rorquals, but sperm whales appeared to have left the locality. However, the "old man" evidently knew what he was about, as we were not now cruising, but making a direct passage for some definite place.

At last we sighted land, which, from the course which we had been steering, might have been somewhere on the east coast of Africa, but for the fact that it was right ahead, while we were pointing at the time about N.N.W. By-and-by I came to the conclusion that it must be the southern extremity of Madagascar, Cape St. Mary, and, by dint of the closest, attention to every word I heard uttered while at the wheel by the officers, found that my surmise was correct. We skirted this point pretty closely, heading to the westward, and, when well clear of it, bore up to the northward, again for the Mozambique Channel. Another surprise. The very idea of WHALING in the Mozambique Channel seemed too ridiculous to mention; yet here we were, guided by a commander who, whatever his faults, was certainly most keen in his attention to business, and the unlikeliest man imaginable to take the ship anywhere unless he anticipated a profitable return for his visit.


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Chicago: Frank Thomas Bullen, "Chapter IX Our First Calling-Place," The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales Original Sources, accessed June 2, 2023,

MLA: Bullen, Frank Thomas. "Chapter IX Our First Calling-Place." The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, Original Sources. 2 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Bullen, FT, 'Chapter IX Our First Calling-Place' in The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales, trans. . cited in , The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales. Original Sources, retrieved 2 June 2023, from