As Ann’s story progresses, I find that the years 1848-52 were filled with all kinds of interesting events. Whaling was still going strong; the California Gold Rush was at its peak; ships were being abandoned in San Francisco by crews with visions of striking it rich; Indians and the US government were to hold a meeting at Fort Laramie (plains Indians flocked there by the thousands) to help alleviate tribal feuding and to provide safe passage for immigrants heading to California; cities along the Des Moines River in Iowa were devastated by some of the area’s worst flooding in history.
More about these to come; look for Till Her Heart Dances this Spring.
More images and documentation on Rebecca Ann Johnson and on Bekah’s adventure are available at FirstFury.com and RuinedFury.com.
Lean forward…dip the oars into the water…pull; lean…dip…pull. Over and over. Again and again. And the ship gets no closer. Towing twenty tons of dead weight slows the whaleboat down. Lean…dip…pull. By the time the sun is directly overhead, the blood from the whale’s final fury has dried on your clothes and skin. The sweat rolling down your face turns it into a sticky mess.
Closing your eyes, you lean…dip…pull, hearing the shush of the oars and timing your strokes to coincide. Groans get louder. You listen. They’re coming from your mouth now. Lean…dip…pull. The pain from the cracks in your dry lips are barely noticeable. Lean…dip…pull.
The sun is halfway down to the western horizon. Your arms are numb; the muscles in your back seek rest when you lean, only to rebel when you begin to pull…again. Lean…dip…pull.
At last…the ship…you see your friends. Lean…dip…pull. You can almost touch it. Lean…dip…pull. The Mate yells something, but the words are lost in a fog or weariness. Somehow the whaleboat ends up beside the ship. There, arms are reaching down. You lift dead weights up; no, they’re your arms. Someone grabs them and you’re being hoisted out of the boat. You collapse to the deck.
Your body might be as dead as that whale. But the Captain doesn’t care. At the moment, you hate him. He’s demanding that you get back on your feet. It’s time to cut it in.
Blood rains down upon you, and the smell fills your nostrils. As the whale thrashes and spins in a fury, the Mate has you back off and wait. When the water is still and you think its fight with death is over, the Mate brings your little whaleboat around till it is head on with one of the whale’s eyes. Cautiously, he leans out with the lance. Every one of your muscles is tensed and ready to take the boat to the stern should the beast rally once more. The Mate stretches the lance forward and with a quick motion pricks the eye. The whale makes no response. Finally, you let out the breath you’ve been holding; your body suddenly feels as limp as a wet rag.
Now you scan the horizon for your ship. Ah, there it is, at least its sails, maybe a mile off. Unfortunately, the breeze has stopped.
The Mate returns to the steering oar, and the harpooner returns to the front thwart.
“Man the oars!” yells the Mate and you begin towing BIG twenty ton sperm whale to your ship.
Finally! The boat slows till its movement could be due just to the breeze, or the current. But you know what keeps the line taut. The Mate loosens the rope from the loggerhead and orders you and the other 4 crewmen to begin pulling it in. Pull after pull, one draw at a time, your boat advances…toward that 50 ton monster that you pricked with a harpoon. The rope disappears in the sea in front of you.
Suddenly, shivers rise up your back; and your arms want to cease in place; not a hundred feet in front of you the line ends…attached to a black form just below the surface. It dwarfs your little whaleboat; and its tail moves slowly, powerfully up and down tugging constantly on the rope.
“Pull on, men!” The Mate bounces up and down with excitement.
You don’t want to bring yourself any closer. It can’t be safe! But you do.
“That whale is ours!” screams the Mate. “Take your oars.”
The boat is maneuvered square on to the beast’s side. With a sweep of the steering oar, the harpooner brings the boat in close and the Mate sticks the lance into the whale’s side. When the long, sharp weapon enters his flesh, the whale’s head turns to bite. But the harpooner uses the steering oar to pull the boat to safety just in time. The whale’s massive jaws follow the boat but can’t quite reach it.
“Shhushhh!” The whale is struggling to breathe. You hear his fear. He moves his head back forward and his tale splashes trying to escape. But he’s tired. Suddenly, in a frenzy, it strikes out wildly in all directions, then settles down again.
The harpooner sweeps the boat in and the mate churns the lance down…up…down… The whale raises its tail toward the boat like club over a pest. The boat is swept away just as the tail crashes down.
“Fire in the chimney!” yells one of the men.
…”Stern all! Stern all; for your lives!!”
You lean back, pull the oar handles to your chest, dip the ends into the sea, and push with every muscle. Your breathing is quick; your eyes are riveted open; your muscles quiver as the beast behind you thrashes about. Your little boat is now attached to a creature more than 60 feet in length and weighing over 50 tons. You lean, dip, and push even harder.
“For your lives!!” yells the officer again.
You’re facing him as he stands in the stern staring with wide eyed excitement at what you cannot see. The thrashing has stopped, and the officer tells you lift the ends of the oars from the water and quit rowing. The boat is picking up speed as he tosses another loop of rope about the loggerhead. The line runs from its tub, back to and around the loggerhead, and then, tight as a bow-string, over each oar, and out the bow. It moves so fast you cannot see its threads, though you feel them flying past your wrist. You and your mates struggle to bring the oars inboard. Smoke rises from the loggerhead as the rope winds around it.
“Wet the line!” yells the officer.
The seaman with the tub of rope in front of him pulls off his hat and dips water from beside the boat onto the rope as it flies from the tub. You turn to face forward carefully avoiding the rope. To get tangled in it would result in your being pulled overboard and down.
As the speed of the rope diminishes, the boat races faster and faster until your stomach flops from your gut into your throat each time the whaleboat careens up and down an ocean swell…over and over. Spray covers you. The rope…it stretches forward into the sea…pulling you on taking you where it wills. What kind of wondrous power churns at the end of that line!
This picture of a tortoise might be what the crew of the Mitchell saw when they stopped in the “Mystic Isles” (Galapagos Islands) to stock up on Tortoises. These creatures provided meat and water during a long voyage west along the equator. They could be kept alive for months in the hold of the ship.
Melville: “These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereupon the Hindu plants his total sphere […] The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age: datelessness, indefinite endurance. And in fact that any other creature can live and breathe as long as the tortoise of the Encantadas, I will not readily believe. Not to hint of their known capacity of sustaining life while going without food for an entire year, consider that impregnable armor of their living mail. What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time? […] With them I lost myself in volcanic mazes, brushed away endless boughs of rotting thicket, till finally in a dream I found myself sitting cross-legged upon the foremost, a Brahmin similarly mounted upon either side, forming a tripod of foreheads which upheld the universal cope. Such was the wild nightmare begot by my first impression of the Encantadas tortoise. But next evening, strange to say, I sat down with my shipmates and made a merry repast from tortoise steaks and tortoise stews” (Melville 1967 ).
We just celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve. For whalers, as for us when we are away from home, these holidays brought fond memories of past celebrations with families now far away. The cook might make something a little special; the watches might be given a little more free time. But, whales always took precedence. The watch at the tops was always kept.
In First Fury, Ann sits alone at the masthead picturing celebrations from the past, now gone from her life.
The Alice Knowles (take the link for an image) was a whale ship and can be used as a type for the Christopher Mitchell. She was 115 feet in length, 28 feet wide, and 16 feet deep.
In the side view, the following is visible. The Captain and the Officers bunked aft. The 15 or 16 common hands made the front half home. Just below deck, in the bow, was the forecastle containing the bunks. This is where common hands lived. A ladder is visible leading from the companionway (a box cover on the deck) down. The opening in the companionway was the only source of fresh air. In storms, even this opening was closed. The bowels of the ship were for storage, mostly oil. Just forward of the main (middle) mast is the blubber hold. Between that and the forecastle companionway, on deck, is the tryworks and carpenter’s bench.
In the top view, the whale boats are visible, three on the port side and one on the starboard. Two spares rest over the cookhouse. Notice how restricted the area was for 21 men (a normal full ship’s complement) to live and work for 3 years.
This picture shows a couple of tourists leaning against the ship’s “carpenter bench.” The cages beneath it might contain pigs, chickens, etc. As a member of the crew, when the ship began its journey, you would be called to assemble here.
Facing aft, you wait…for the Captain. Beneath you, the pigs squeal; the chickens cluck. This brings memories of your home on the farm. But that’s all they are…memories. The Captain comes forward and demands silence. The animals ignore the command but you and your mates comply. You learn this is HIS ship. HE is the law; HE is the judge. You WILL do as you are told. On this journey, your life will change, and you become profoundly aware of this…your new “world.”
When I first came across the story of Rebecca Ann Johnson, I thought it merely a fictitious tale. However, when her name came up while researching family history in the Nantucket Historical Association’s library, I took a more serious look. The things she did were astounding. Her story needed to be told. Here are some historical documents referenced in writing First Fury:
- Letter from A. Bathurst, American Consul to Peru, to Charles and Henry Coffin in Nantucket, owners of the ship on which Ann sailed.
- Story from The Rochester Daily Democrat, August 22, 1849, page 2.
- Story in The Polynesian, August 25, 1849, A Romance of the Ocean.
More documentation can be found at FirstFury.com.
First Fury is available as an eBook at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, And on my web site.