NARRATIVE OF A SHETLAND SEAMAN, FROM HIS OWN RECITAL.
I have been almost all my time whale and seal hunting at Davis’ Straits, Greenland, or the West Ice; but the voyage which was nearest being my last was my second one, in the year 1836, when I was still but a boy. I shipped at Lerwick on board the Harmony of Hull in the early spring of that year, and we sailed for Davis’ Straits. The whale season was a bad one, and towards the end of August or the beginning of September we tried to get back to the east side of Baffin’s Bay, and so, by coming down along the Danish settlements, to get home again. The ice was very bad to get through—loose and thick all round, so that we had to shove her through every yard of the way. On the 11th of September there were three ships of us in company: the William Torr, the Swan, and ourselves. We were keeping together, as we were all working in the same direction, and we didn’t well know what might happen any minute to some one or other—so it was good to keep within hailing distance if possible. Well, as night was coming down—the ice getting more and more troublesome—we thought of making fast till daybreak, and seeing how things looked then. We were just alongside the William Torr—both ships shoving through among the loose ice—when her captain hailed ours, and recommended him to bring up alongside a great curving mass of ice which lay quite close to both ships; but our old man, not liking the looks of it, and not thinking it fast, determined to push on a bit farther. The William Torr, however, hauled up to the ice and brought-to for the night. So, leaving her behind us, we ran on for about an hour, and by that time came up with a very solid looking flaw of ice, which, having a good bight in it, offered a sort of harbour protected from the floating masses around, we made all snug for the night and brought up there. By midnight, the ice was closing all around, and at two o’clock in the morning we were hard and fast. From the mast-head at daybreak, nothing but ice could be seen, with the masts of the Swan in the distance, and still farther off, as far as could be made out with a good glass, we saw the mast-heads of the William Torr. But that was the last sight of her by mortal man, for next day she was gone; and we knew then that our master was right, and that she had been made fast to a loose flaw, and that the under current had taken her off.
So when we saw that we were beset with little or no chance of escape—at least till next spring or summer—we took stock of every eatable thing, and reckoned up our chance of life. We found that on an allowance of a biscuit a man a day, we had what would last us to the 14th of March: we had also a few peas, some coffee, and a little pork; but as our coals were done, we could not count much on this last. However, from that very day, we went on this allowance. Seven biscuits were served out to each man on Monday morning—these had to last him for the week: on three days a week there was a little pork served out—about as much to each man as he could put in his mouth at once—(I’ve seen a Dutchman with a bigger quid of tobacco)—and we got a little coffee at times. The fresh-water ice gave us good water, and for fuel we took what wood we could safely cut away in the hold. Each man had a few splinters allotted him, and two or three would club together and boil their pannikins at once, so we did get a mouthful of hot coffee, and I can tell you that coffee tasted well.
Our captain was a good fellow and well liked by the men, and when the provisions were reckoned up, he brought his keys and gave up all his own cabin stores, and went on the same allowance with the rest. And so, because he was so ready, the men wouldn’t be exact with him, and he had some little things to himself, such as cheese and other stores which were in the cabin; and I got the benefit of that by-and-by, for he would often call me aft in the night watch, and give me a bit of bread or cheese out of his own allowance.
I was but a youngster, and did not take well to the single biscuit a day. And as I could not depend on myself to keep the whole week’s allowance without taking more than each day’s share, I got one of the mates, who was very kind to me all the voyage, to take charge of my rations. I gave him my seven biscuits on Monday morning, and he gave me half of one each morning and evening till the week came round again. Sometimes when I was very hungry, I would beg and pray him for a bit more—but it was no use; he stuck to the agreement, and I had to wait till next feeding time.
I suppose I was too young and foolish to think of the danger of our state, and of the small chance we had of seeing Europe again: I was often hungry, but never frightened.
So the days went by, and September came to an end. We were now in the regions of perpetual night: no daylight ever visited us, unless a sort of dusky glimmer about noon, far down on the southern horizon, might be called that. But there was little difference between day and night; there was no darkness, as, between the clear starry sky above and the snow and ice below, there was reflection as bright as an ordinary moonlight at home. For weeks there was not a breath of wind—not so much as you could feel on your cheek, and the ship was as immovable as a rock. We knew we had not changed our position a yard, as the captain took regular observations of the stars, and found that we had not moved.
By-and-by, the men began to get dull and low-spirited. They would not turn out of their berths, and refused to come on deck or to keep watch, and did not mind captain or officers. The master himself was very down-hearted at times, and I would see him a-crying when he thought no one was looking. For my part, I was often so hungry that I couldn’t sleep, and was glad to go on deck and keep watch just for a change. But latterly the hands got so careless and desponding that I have seen not one turn out to the mate’s watch but myself.
Thus October passed, and no change. November next, and the men were getting worse and worse. Some of them were now so feeble that they scarcely could have left their hammocks—many of them were wearing down to skeletons. When November ended, we saw that, by another month, we would have double rations, at any rate, those who were left.
On the 10th December—well I remember the day—there was some appearance of a change of some kind. A cloud rose in the N.W.; we felt a breath of wind moving. As the day wore on there was some motion in the ice—the ship had a sort of grinding, rising and falling motion as you see a craft alongside a quay. All the afternoon we heard and felt her grinding along the ice-edge. But the most had grown so desperate that they paid little heed to it.
In the middle of the night—and there was only one man with the chief mate on deck—there was a sudden knocking at the hatchways, and every soul was started broad awake with the cry: “All hands, make sail!” I tell you, I never heard before or since, such a call as that was. Men who had not turned out for days were on the yard-arms in a moment, and, I dare say, the Harmony was never got under canvas in such a space of time before. The men were on the top-gallant-yards in their stockings, and bare-headed, and in little time we had every stitch on her.
The ice had broken up; there was a gentle breeze sending us right out, and there were pools and canals of open water all round. Our rudder had been unshipped long ago, and was made fast outside the quarter; so, as we could not afford the precious time needful to ship it again, we kept her running, steering with the yards as well as might be. The wind kept freshening: by-and-by we had to take in the top-gallant-sails; next to haul up her courses. In a short time she was staggering under double-reefed topsails and foretopmast stay-sail, among the floating ice. Still we could not ship the rudder, and we trimmed her as well as possible with the yards and by hauling out or in the trysail. Every now and then she would strike the floating ice full with the lee-bow, sending her up to the wind, when a piece would catch her on the weather-bow, and knock her off again to leeward. Every instant we looked to be stove in. But we pushed and tore through the ice for two days and nights without getting any particular damage; and, on the 14th, we came to the end of the ice, and got the open sea before us. Then the biscuit-a-day allowance ceased, but not till we were fairly out of the ice—and every man got leave to eat what he liked; but the most of them had picked up wonderfully every hour after that “making sail.” We had a tough job getting the rudder shipped as soon as we cleared the ice: it took us nine hours to ship it, but we managed it. Then, with a gale of W. wind and the Atlantic before us, we felt we were all right. Well, we ran before it as hard as we could, every man getting stronger and heartier with every mile of easting we made. For ten days we never started tack or sheet, carrying on with every stitch we could crowd upon her: little grass grew under the Harmony’s heels for that time; and, at the close of the tenth day we sighted the Old Rock (as we Shetlanders call our land) once more. It perhaps isn’t quite a Paradise of a country. I have seen more splendid-looking places here and there over the globe; but you take my word for it, that it looked pretty good in our eyes, when we had the luck to sight it on the 24th December, 1836.
On Christmas morning we dropped anchor in Lerwick Harbour, and many a one was looking at us, and many a boat was alongside to hear the news. But we could tell them nothing of the William Torr, or of the Swan, and for many a day there were heavy hearts in Shetland looking and fearing for the news of husbands and fathers, brothers and sweethearts lying in that ice-prison. After Christmas, a ship with provisions was sent out to try and relieve them; but she never got within hundreds of miles of them.
The William Torr and all her crew, with a portion of another shipwrecked crew which she had on board, perished. Nothing was ever heard of her. Some years afterwards, some of her casks were found on the west coast of Shetland and about the Hebrides. It was supposed that after she had broken up, the current had carried the fragments into the Atlantic, and that the gulf-stream had taken them down to our shores. I recollect, some time afterwards, when I was out there again, that the Esquimaux wanted us to come into the interior, and they would show us the graves of white men, which we supposed to be those of the William Torr. A whale-ship, next summer found a boat with seven corpses in her, on the ice. No doubt these were some of them also.
The Swan was beset all winter. And next spring the whale-ships fell in with her. They gave them fresh provisions, and put ten hands on board to navigate her home, and when the ice broke up, she got away. But of her whole complement of between fifty and sixty men—including some men of a wrecked ship whom she had taken onboard in the previous summer—only seventeen men were alive when she reached Lerwick in the month of May. Some of them held out till they sighted land, and died then. I knew two men of her crew, very well—smart fellows they were and good seamen, and they both died just within sight of home. I have sometimes wondered at it; and I never could well make it out, why, after holding out so long, they gave in then. Perhaps hope kept them up, and then, when their desire was like to be fulfilled, it was too much for them—and they so weak.
That’s how I was frozen-in, and came home again.