From the crushing blow of the civil war the American sperm-whale fishery has never fully recovered. When the writer was in the trade, some twenty-two years ago, it was credited with a fleet of between three and four hundred sail; now it may be doubted whether the numbers reach an eighth of that amount. A rigid conservatism of method hinders any revival of the industry, which is practically conducted to-day as it was fifty or even a hundred years ago; and it is probable that another decade will witness the final extinction of what was once one of the most important maritime industries in the world.
In the following pages an attempt has been made—it is believed for the first time—to give an account of the cruise of a South Sea whaler from the seaman's standpoint. Its aim is to present to the general reader a simple account of the methods employed and the dangers met with in a calling about which the great mass of the public knows absolutely nothing.
At the age of eighteen, after a sea experience of six years from the time when I dodged about London streets, a ragged Arab, with wits sharpened by the constant fight for food, I found myself roaming the streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
My money was all gone, I was hungry for a ship; and so, when a long, keen-looking man with a goatlike beard, and mouth stained with dry tobacco juice, hailed me one afternoon at the street corner, I answered very promptly, scenting a berth. "Lookin' fer a ship, stranger?" said he. "Yes; do you want a hand?" said I anxiously. He made a funny little sound something like a pony's whinny, then answered: "Wall, I should surmise that I want between fifty and sixty hands, ef yew kin lay me onto 'em; but, kem along, every dreep's a drop, an' yew seem likely enough." With that he turned and led the way until we reached a building, around which was gathered one of the most nondescript crowds I had ever seen. There certainly did not appear to be a sailor among them—not so much by their rig, though that is not a great deal to go by, but by their actions and speech. However, I signed and passed on, engaged to go I knew not where, in some ship I did not know even the name of, in which I was to receive I did not know how much or how little for my labor, nor how long I was going to be away.
From the time we signed the articles, we were never left to ourselves. Truculent-looking men accompanied us to our several boarding houses, paid our debts for us, finally bringing us by boat to a ship lying out in the bay. As we passed under her stern, I road the name Cachalot, of New Bedford; but as soon as we ranged alongside, I realized that I was booked for the sailor's horror—a cruise in a whaler.