By 1848 when Benjamin Russell painted the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World,” New Bedford was a rich, successful, and world-famous mercantile seaport. With resulting pride the city’s citizens began to take a satisfied, if reflective, view of its progress. Colonial Bedford Village was founded in 1765 specifically to pursue commercial whaling, and in 1848, Yankee whaling generally, was well over a century old. After such a long time, the trade had a history, and Russell explored some of the more prominent stories of that history in several of the Panorama’s scenes. Arguably his interpretation of a whaling voyage in the 1840s was steeped in the industry’s larger historical context.
Although he focused on American whaling, he was not alone in broadcasting his perspective on New Bedford’s history. At 1850 the two-hundredth anniversary was approaching of the signing of the 1652 deed by the Wampanoag tribe granting colonial settlers the lands of the Old Dartmouth region. Local New Bedford artists like William Allen Wall took a fresh view of formative colonial historical events, including the 1602 landing of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold at Smoking Rocks, the 1635 story of Governor John Endicott and the Red Cross, and in 1853, Wall painted “Birth of the Whaling Industry.”
This painting (and the above print) shows a makeshift oil refinery along the shores of the Acushnet River around 1763. In a statement about it, Wall wrote in 1853: “seated upon the frame of a grindstone… is seen in his broad-brimmed hat and Friendly coat, the founder of New Bedford and the father of her whale-fishery, Joseph Russell.” He included many rich details including a Native American trader, a black hostler, laborers, oxen, the try-house with a sperm whale jaw on the roof, and most importantly, a sloop careened on shore flying the red ensign of the British merchant service. He described the sloop as “undoubtedly the workmanship of some Old Dartmouth mechanic.” The “Friendly coat” is a direct reference to the typical plain Quaker garb of the period, but overall Wall is harkening back, he’s acknowledging the history of the Old Dartmouth Region within the Massachusetts settlement story. Wall adapted these stories, recognized them as significant, and interpreted them, not in the European tradition of history painting from classical themes, but rather as history painting from American themes.
His oil painting “Endicott and the Red Cross,” is another example. Here, Wall folded local history into the story of events that had taken place in Salem, by deliberately painting a persecuted Quaker in the place of the persecuted Catholic of the actual event. In 1635, there were no Quakers. The sect had yet to be formed in England when the Puritan Massachusetts governor, John Endicott, in his fury with the perceived popish policies of Charles I, took his sword and cut the cross out of the English flag. By replacing the Catholic with a Quaker sitting in the stocks, Wall called attention to the later Puritan persecution of Quakers, making a larger statement about the evolution of colonial history in Massachusetts. He was evidently proud of New Bedford and its achievements, prominent citizens, beautiful locale and thriving harbor, and the mid-century mark seemed to have worked on the Wall and others profoundly.
Another significant addition to the story of New Bedford’s historical celebration came in 1858 when Daniel Ricketson, Henry Thoreau’s friend, and New Bedford’s resident Transcendentalist, penned the first history of New Bedford, appropriately titled, The History of New Bedford: Bristol County, Massachusetts. Ricketson had been thinking about the history of the region and its place in American history for years. He structured the book in such a way that it covered the story of Native Americans and King Philip’s War, early settlers, early whaling, and the American Revolution. It served for decades as the sole history of the region. In 1859, New Bedford painter Albert Bierstadt also painted a version of Gosnold’s landing at Cuttyhunk.
There was a sense of growth and maturity on the part of both the community and the nation. Ricketson summarized this feeling in the introduction to his history: “While other nations are boasting of their antiquity, and exulting in the mysterious deeds of their ancestors, we pride ourselves in the recency of our origin, and the well-known achievements during the struggle for liberty, as well as for the rapidity of our increase.”
Albert Bierstadt would shortly leave New England entirely and travel out across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and beyond, seeking to capture on his canvases the wonder of the wild landscape and its Native people, and something of the new American spirit of destiny. Benjamin Russell also tapped into the feeling of history and civic accomplishment in several of the scenes that he painted. His obvious historical perspective lends some strong clues to the sort of narrative that he told when the traveled with the Panorama.
The first and most obvious example is his view of the whale ship William Hamilton outfitting in New Bedford harbor. The ship, built to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. at the Hillman Brothers shipyard in New Bedford in 1834, was named for an apocryphal Cape Cod figure of the mid-seventeenth-century who was said to have been the first American colonist to harpoon a whale. Naming a ship from an American whaling legend confirms the awareness of history that ran deep in New Bedford’s whaling community. Russell then went on to highlight a number of the 316 ships registered in the New Bedford port district at the time. Being a shrewd businessman, he included as wide a variety of house flags of New Bedford merchants as he could when he painted these ships. These merchants were, after all, potential patrons for his paintings. Curiously, he also chose to paint and name the ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn.
The Lyra was built at Fairhaven to the order of John and James Howland in 1822. She sailed on a two-year sperm whaling voyage to the South Pacific that same year under the command of Reuben Joy, Jr. It was the Lyra’s fate to sail in consort with the ship Globe of Nantucket, Thomas Worth, master, upon which the famous and dreadful mutiny occurred on January 26, 1824. Reuben Joy was among the last to see Captain Worth alive, for in the night the Globe’s boatsteerer Samuel Comstock killed the captain with an axe. His fellow mutineers assisted Comstock in the murder of the ship’s officers. By daylight Comstock and the mutineers had control of the ship and were sailing it for Mili atoll near the Marshall Islands. Most of the mutineers who landed with Comstock at the island, revolted and murdered him, and most of them were, in turn, themselves killed by the Native islanders. Two men who landed at the island survived, neither of them mutineers, Cyrus Lay and William Hussey. They were rescued a year later by a U.S. Navy expeditionary force, the schooner Dolphin under the command of Lieutenant Commander John Percival, dispatched to the islands to round up any remaining crew of the Globe.
The mutiny on the Globe sent waves of horror through the whaling community and the event resonated through the popular memory for years. It was a significant part of the impetus behind the formation of the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen in 1830. The preamble to the 1831 First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the New-Bedford Port Society included the following insightful paragraph:
“Experience has placed the proposition beyond question, that on pecuniary grounds merely, it would be good policy to attempt seriously, the moral improvement of the men who navigate our vessels, and win their cargoes from the monsters of the deep. – Not to advert particularly to the horrid catastrophe that took place on the ship Globe, of Nantucket, or to other cases, where plans of a similar character have been at least meditated, how many voyages have been injured or ruined, by the desertion of sailors, or the misconduct or intemperance of the master, or officers?”
Russell’s inclusion of the view of the Lyra rounding Cape Horn evidently allowed him to expand upon the story in his narration of the Panorama. It was undoubtedly a riveting tale guaranteed to capture the attention of the audience. He followed up the Globe story with a more contemporaneous one, the mutiny on the ship Sharon of Fairhaven.
The mutiny on the Sharon took place in the Central Pacific near Ascension Island in the Caroline Islands, in November of 1842. Around this same time, Benjamin Russell himself was whaling around the coast of Australia onboard the Kutusoff. The story quickly made the rounds of the fleet. Unlike the mutiny on the Globe, where the Nantucket-born ring-leader planned the whole affair beforehand, the mutineers on the Sharon were not even white men, they were three islanders, “Kanakas,” who had shipped onboard at Rotuma (Grenville) Island in April of that year to replace several crew members who deserted. These men rose up in anger against the captain, Howes Norris, and decapitated him with a cutting spade. Norris, by all reports, had treated the crew very badly for most of the voyage, and may have been drunk at the time of the mutiny. The mutineers seized the vessel but a quick-thinking young fellow, Manuel dos Reis, the acting steward at the time, scurried aloft and began cutting up the rigging so that the ship became unmanageable. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew, who had all lowered for whales, attempted to re-take the ship under the cover of darkness which they succeeded in doing. The third mate, Benjamin Clough, was badly wounded in the fight but two of the mutineers were killed and the third taken to Sydney, Australia for trial. Clough was later honored by the owners with a presentation sextant and command of the Sharon on her next voyage. He went on to command another four whaling voyages.
If the story of the Sharon constituted more-or-less current events, Russell also harkened back to the most famous event of all (to date), in American whaling history, the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket. As has been told many times, the ship Essex under the command of George Pollard was struck by a large sperm whale on the “Off Shore Grounds” in the southeastern Pacific off the coast of Peru in November of 1820 and sunk. The crew took to the whaleboats and suffered unimaginable horrors and deprivations as they strove to survive on the open ocean. Of the crew of twenty men, eight survived. Captain Pollard and one seaman, Charles Ramsdell, were two of the survivors having been in the whaleboat for 90 days. The wreck of the Essex was a high-profile event in American whaling history, indeed in popular culture as well. The story was published in a number of books about sea-faring adventures, so it’s no wonder that he illustrated it so effectively.
Other events are not so well-known, but are nonetheless picturesque. Among the Panorama scenes of the fabled Polynesian islands is one that shows a whale ship close in to shore tied up to a palm tree. The story originated in an August 16, 1824 letter written by Captain Richard Macy, master of the ship Maro of Nantucket, to a prominent island citizen Josiah Hussey. Macy wrote describing Eimeo Island, one of the Society Islands about twenty miles west of Tahiti:
I entered the harbor on the North side of the island, which is not to be surpassed for access, and safety by any harbor in this ocean. I took my ship 2 miles up this beautiful harbor (entirely landlocked) and tied her to an old tree. The scene that surrounded me was truly romantic.
Captain Macy, at the time, was exploring the Society Islands and the vast waters to the west. He wrote: “Impressed with the strong belief that great numbers of sperm whales existed among the islands of the Pacific… the Society, Friendly, Feejee and Caroline’s, I resolved to spend three months among those islands.”
Many of the islands of the Pacific had achieved fabled status well before Macy visited them. It was their fame that provided Benjamin Russell fodder for his whaling voyage round the world story. Islands like Pitcairn, Juan Fernandez, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii were fabled to Western mariners. Russell included them all, as these were indeed the stuff of legends. Who hadn’t read of Robinson Crusoe marooned at Juan Fernandez, or heard of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty with the mutineers sailing to remote Pitcairn and settling there? The death of Captain James Cook at the hands of the Hawaiian Islanders at Kealakekua Bay was common knowledge, especially through maritime communities. Cook’s Voyages had been published in many editions and were easily and widely available. Herman Melville himself perpetuated the exotic romance of the Pacific with his novels Typee (New York, 1846), and Omoo (London, 1847). In the Panorama Russell told all of these stories but he told them through the lens of the American experience.
When Russell painted Pitcairn Island, he painted it almost completely from the description published in Captain Frederick Beechey’s famous Pacific exploration narrative, Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Strait (London, 1831):
“Immediately round the village are the small enclosures for fattening pigs, goats, and poultry, and beyond them the cultivated grounds producing the banana, plantain, melon, yam, taro, sweet potatoes, appai, tee, and cloth plant with other useful roots, fruits, and shrubs, which extend far up the mountain and to the southward; but in this particular direction they are excluded from the view by an immense banyan tree, two hundred paces in circumference, whose foliage and branches form of themselves a canopy impervious to the rays of the sun Every cottage has its out house for making cloth, its baking place, its sty, and its poultry house.”
Other scenes of the Panorama lend themselves to speculation about his intent. He had obviously crafted an illustrated narrative with a story to accompany the pictures. While the text of the narrative has not survived (or at least has not yet come to light), so many parts of the story can be guessed from actual events, that other parts may represent events remembered by him but which time and contextual separation have forgotten. One such scene, that may represent a known event, is the view of a dismasted ship foundering off Cape Horn. It appears from the action that one man is left onboard and about to leap into the water, while the whaleboats from a passing whale ship are rescuing the remainder of the crew. Such an event did happen. In May 1832, the ship Science of London left Hobart, Tasmania bound to London. In June, the ship was dismasted in a storm, and lost the lifeboats and four sailors about 350 nautical miles (402 statute miles) from Cape Horn. The ship Warren of Warren, Rhode Island rescued the fifteen survivors and the ship was abandoned. Benjamin Russell himself had business and family ties to Warren, Rhode Island and he died there in 1885. It’s possible that he was illustrating the wreck of the Science.
Much of what Russell conveyed through his monumental pictorial overview of the American whale fishery he either witnessed or experienced himself. A great deal of it, however, he gleaned through conversations with other people and possibly research like old newspaper accounts, published narratives and the like. We know that he owned copies of important whaling books of the period including J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (New York, 1846), because his signed copy is in the New Bedford Whaling Museum library. How he developed some of his ideas remains to be researched, but his intent seems to have been to cover American whaling not only from its current status as he experienced it, but also as an industry with a strong heritage. His emphasis on these events as well as those of the storied islands of the Pacific Ocean serve to put the growing American whaling industry on an equal footing with the European influences of the eighteenth-century.
 Richard C. Kugler, William Allen Wall, An Artist of New Bedford (New Bedford, 1978), p. 23.
 American Activities in the Central Pacific, Vol. 4, Moorea #2, p. 637.