Tag Archives: Caleb P. Purrington

Whalemen’s natural history observations and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Apart from the specific species that they were targeting during the hunt, whalemen were generally poor observers of wildlife. Sperm whales, right whales, bowhead whales, their habits, habitats and general appearance were commonly understood at a commercial level but only a few whalemen made any attempt to systematically identify other species of whales or small cetacea. Blackfish (Globicephala melas, the long-finned pilot whale) are an exception as these were also frequently hunted and whalemen had the opportunity to observe both their behavior and anatomy closely.

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

At the very least whalers were inconsistent in whatever observations they may have made.[1] This is not to say that whalemen didn’t see an astonishing array of the world’s species, just that their interests were almost wholly commercial and only rarely systematic. The whales, birds and other cetaceans illustrated and described in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World are no exception. Obviously, frequent mentions are made in seamen’s logbooks and journals noting a wide variety of birds, fish and whales but seldom are these animals illustrated, and even more rarely are they either named or described in any useful way. Vernacular, seemingly random, and completely unsystematic terms are commonly employed to which none but a whaler can relate.

Scene described as "brig in a school of porpoises," from Purrington & Russell's Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Scene described as “brig in a school of porpoises,” from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

For instance, this particular scene in the Panorama is described in the handbill text as “brig in a school of porpoises.” By no stretch of the modern imagination could the animals painted in this scene be described as “porpoises,” yet whalemen commonly applied the term to any number of small cetaceans. Modern descriptions of the porpoises (Phocoenidae) describe them as small, blunt-headed and coastal; “preferring to keep to themselves, porpoises are typically shy creatures and rarely perform the acrobatic feats of dolphins.”[2] The only species of porpoise common to the Cape Verde archipelago is the harbor porpoise, (Phocoena phocoean) a small, blunt-nosed creature. However, even with their pointed snouts, a hint of a dorsal fin, a large aggregation and fairly acrobatic portrayal of behavior, one would be hard-pressed to say what exactly Purrington and Russell intended these animals to be.

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two "algerines" in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. ODHS #572

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two “algerines” in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. Apart from their generally pointed snouts, the only other prominent anatomical feature is the dorsal fin, a feature common to many dolphin species. ODHS #572

They are obviously some type of cetacea, probably of the dolphin tribe, possibly of the sort called “algerines,” or “algerine porpoises” by the whalemen. The animals in the picture also greatly resemble members of the beaked whale tribe of the sort sometimes called the “grampus” by whalers. The region where this scene took place was in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Cape Verde Islands. These waters are home to a wide variety of oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae) however current habitat projection maps do not suggest that any species of beaked whales (Ziphiidea) live in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands. Recent observations (2010, 2014) have placed small groups of at least two species of beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and Gervais’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon cf. europaeus) around the waters off Cape Verde, but these are confirmed as rarities.[3] Dolphins are another matter. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and spinner dolphins all live in these waters, are socially gregarious and acrobatic in their behavior. That, combined with the use of the whaler’s term “porpoise” suggests that these animals are probably dolphins.

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. KWM #436

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. Like other whalers, White calls them “porpoises.” These particular animals are about the size of a man and are obviously frolicking in the water in a large, social school. KWM #436

One solid advantage to the relational usage of the term “porpoise” is that most whalemen used the term to describe the multitudes of dolphins encountered in large schools on the high seas. Further, as beaked whales seldom congregate in social schools gamboling about in the waves, the likelihood is very strong that Purrington and Russell accurately described the behavior of a school of dolphins.

Probably the best single synopsis of whalemen’s vernacular language describing the various whales and small cetaceans encountered is from Moby-Dick. A selection of these can be read in Chapter 32, “Cetology, ” with the following caveats:

  1. There was at the time of its writing considerable inconsistency in the naming of cetacean species and popular language swapped around between actual species as far as Linnaean nomenclature could identify them and mariner’s usage.
  2. Melville as a whaleman himself adopted whalemen’s usage.
  3. Melville was mocking the books of science written by persons with no firsthand knowledge of what it was they were describing.

He writes in the first part of that chapter: “of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty.” He then goes on the arrange his classifications and subdivisions similarly to the table of contents of Robert Hamilton’s “On the Ordinary Ceacea, or Whales,” in William Jardine’s Naturalists Library, as well as John Hunter’s “Observations on the structure and œconomy of whales” in Philosophical Transactions of London (June 28, 1787); that is Roman numeral, genus, species. Being the satirist that he was though, instead of even attempting to sound “scientific,” Melville makes up these foolish categories of whale species compared to the sizes of books, presumably representing the varieties in size of the very books he consulted, hinting that books are the sole source of knowledge of cetacean, and that whalemen, while seeing most of the animals in question could not properly identify most of them. Dolphins and porpoises are not distinguished and just because Melville calls it a porpoise does not mean that it is one. Numerous whaling references, including early 20th century photographs identify dolphins as porpoises and we know that whalers lowered for dolphins as well as harpooned them from the bows of the ship for food.

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronei), what he calls a "Right Whale Porpoise" in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii), what he calls a “Right Whale Porpoise” in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Sulphur bottom – Undoubtedly Balænoptera musculus (Blue whale) as verified in Charles M. Scammon’s Marine mammals of the Northwestern coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874)  and Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966). The “Great Northern Rorqual” of Jardine/Hamilton (PH 5190-A) is derived from the two 1827 prints of the blue whale that stranded at Ostend, Belgium  which was in large measure copied in 1832 for another print.

Killer/Thrasher – Undoubtedly Orcinus orca. In the text of Jardine/Hamilton under the entry for “The Grampus” is the following: “Finally it is the fish which the Americans have long been in the habit of denominating the killer or thrasher, from its reputed pugnacious and cruel disposition.”

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this fine view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

As this entry mentioning “thrasher” serves as the only reference that I have ever seen (including logbook and journal references to killers) I suspect that Melville either legitimately heard this phrase used in the fishery or, what is more likely, borrowed it from Jardine/Hamilton. Please note that Melville separates “killers” from “grampus.” What was meant by the whalemen’s term of “grampus” is difficult to determine. Sometimes in the whalemen’s writings it seems to refer to the killer or orca, other times, the killer is distinct and the grampus is also distinct. Jardine/Hamilton’s illustration of “The Grampus” is obviously an orca. Grampus griseus or Risso’s Dolphin is the only official appearance of the term grampus. The only actual illustration of the grampus of whalemen’s parlance is from KWM #1033, a journal kept by seaman Daniel C. Whitfield onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1856-1859. It is obviously a beaked whale of some kind.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the "Grampus." It is an almost perfect outline of Cuvier's beaked whale. This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1853-1855. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the “Grampus.” It is a near-perfect outline of Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale, and if the grampus was actually the beaked whale, as Whitfield suggests, then whaling logbooks and journals can provide valuable information about the distribution and common sightings of these pelagic animals. While the Dr. Franklin cruised primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Whitfield describes a number of species from his experiences on other whales in other oceans. KWM #1033.

Huzza porpoise – Probably Lagenorhynchus obliquidens of Scammon, the striped or common porpoise. Scammon’s text description coincides well with Melville’s the difference being that Melville claims that they are found “almost all over the globe,” whereas this particular animal is a Pacific species. Apart from that the striped dolphin or common dolphin is the most likely candidate being gregarious and global.

Algerine porpoise – Completely unidentifiable. Whaling logbooks and journals frequently mention them although they are seldom illustrated (ODHS#572, September 22, 1859). Chances are good that they are one of the many species of larger dolphins, such as Tursiops truncatus, the bottle nose dolphin.

Mealy-mouthed porpoise – Undoubtedly the Southern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis peronii .

While the bulk of American whalemen did not record their observations of sea creatures, some did. Those few who did actually identify species in a useful fashion have contributed some important clues to understanding the prolific life of the oceans. Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama was intended to be educational entertainment, but for all that, it serves today as an important document serving to offer insights into the world as witnessed by American mariners. Whether or not the artists captured the true nature of marine life, they absolutely captured the significance of the American whalemen to the growing understanding of the world and its seas in the 19th century.

[1] Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (Edinburgh, 1839); William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions (Edinburgh, 1820); Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) are notable exceptions. These books, written by whalemen are all superb natural history texts, illustrated accurately with a wide variety of species and other documentary pictures. The average whalemen produced nothing even remotely as insightful as these.

[2] Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995).

[3] Hazevoet, Monteiro, et al. “Recent data on whales and dolphins (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of four taxa new to the archipelago,” Zoologia Caboverdiana 1 (2) 2010: 75-99

Image

New Bedford Harbor Towboats and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger into New Bedford harbor.

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger past Clark’s Point lighthouse and into New Bedford harbor in 1847.

In the early scenes of the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, ever the purveyors of the unique in their paintings of maritime scenes, show a whaler passing Clark’s Point lighthouse under tow of a sidewheel steamer. The whaler shown is the ship Niger of New Bedford flying the house-flag of Hathaway & Luce. Given the period in which the Panorama was painted, 1847-1848, this scene can only be meant to represent the successful return of the Niger from her maiden voyage.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

The steamer shown was the Nantucket Steamboat Company sidewheel steamer Massachusetts. The Massachusetts was a ferry built for the company in 1842 to run three days a week between the island and New Bedford. She remained in service until 1858, as was described as the finest vessel of her type in service. This is the only such painting documenting an island steamer towing a whaler into New Bedford harbor. That the steamers were employed as towboats is well documented, especially at Nantucket where the Massachusetts was employed towing whalers lodged in the floating dry-dock “camels” over the sandbar at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor. Other histories indicate that both the Massachusetts and the Telegraph, another ferry in the same service at the same time, earned extra money for company as towboats.[1] Later photographs show whalers being towed out of New Bedford harbor and barges and such being towed by tugs into the harbor. By the 1890s this was common practice. The bark Canton of New Bedford was towed out of the harbor in May of 1891 and back into the harbor when she arrived home in June of 1892 (ODHS #988).  For all of that, however, this image from the Panorama is unique.

One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke. A pioneer in coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss. – Erik Ronnberg

Another steamer appears in the early sequences of the Panorama and while it is prominently featured was not a steamer that saw regular use in New Bedford harbor. “One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke.
A pioneer in coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss.”
 Erik Ronnberg, Curator of the Cape Ann Museum wrote the above text and it appears courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum

The Panorama towing scene offers a number of interesting points to consider. For instance, under what circumstances would a sailing ship need to be towed into the harbor? When was the steamer available? How much did it cost to employ the steamer? Some of this information is forthcoming, some of it isn’t. For instance, whaling merchant John Avery Parker kept account books that summarized each of his vessels’ voyages.

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846. KWM #A-163

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846.
KWM #A-163

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

In the summaries he breaks down standard outstanding costs like pilotage, wharfage, rolling and filling oil casks, night watching, etc. For a few of these voyages, “steamboat towing” is a cost listed. The cost in the mid-1840s for the use of a steamer for towing a ship “up the harbor” was about between $15.00 and $30.00 depending upon how far the vessel needed to be towed. Other times, although rarely, a vessel in distress would need to be towed. A good example is the story of the bark Courser. On September 8, 1869, the  Courser of New Bedford on her homeward passage sailed directly into a hurricane off Block Island, ran aground, and had put into Newport Harbor leaking so badly that teams of men from Newport needed to be put onboard to continuously man the pumps for three days. A steamboat was sent for and on September 11 the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company steam ferry Helen Augusta arrived in Newport from New Bedford to tow the Courser to her home port.[2] While the Courser is an extraordinary example, steamers most definitely had their place in lifesaving, wrecking, towing and other duties in addition to carrying passengers.

The majority of logbook entries for the final day or two of a homeward New Bedford voyage, however, end at or around Block Island, Nomans Island or Cuttyhunk when a Branch Pilot was taken up to guide the ship into New Bedford. As far as the log keeper was concerned, his responsibilities ended when the pilot took command of the ship and most logbooks go no further after the pilot come onboard.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing "Pilot takes a lunch - Whaleship BALTIC - May 23rd 1859" for an article "A Summer in New England" published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1859.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing “Pilot takes a lunch – Whaleship Baltic – May 23rd 1859,” showing the famous New Bedford Branch Pilot Ben Aken, for an article “A Summer in New England” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1859. 2001.100.4630

Branch Pilots were highly skilled, licensed mariners whose job it was (in the case of the New Bedford Port District) to cruise the waters between Block Island and Nomans Island in order to provide services to inbound vessels. Another set of harbor pilots guided the outbound ships. Some of these pilots lived in New Bedford. Many of them made their homes on Cuttyhunk Island and others lived on Martha’s Vineyard and even on Noman’s Island. In 1847, inbound pilots charged $2.00 per foot of the length of the vessel being piloted. Ship captains were not obliged to take a pilot but such a choice had its own perils. In 1844, for instance, Captain Avery F. Parker of the ship Midas of New Bedford did not like the terms under which the pilot of the schooner Superior, who was not a licensed Branch Pilot, offered to guide the ship through Quicks Hole. He finally agreed to take the pilot as the weather was worsening. With the wind northeast (a head wind), the ship ran aground twice off Dumpling Rock on the outgoing tide and needed to be kedged off the rocks. The prevailing wind on Buzzards Bay is southwest, but the wind often shifts around to the north. A north wind is one of the primary conditions under which a sailing ship would need to be towed into the harbor in order to avoid the very sort of difficulties encountered by the Midas.

On a fair wind a ship could sail in under her own power and many did just that. One such example is that of the ship Milton of New Bedford that returned from a voyage to the Pacific Ocean in June of 1873. On the day of the final log entry, the wind, predictably, was west/southwest. They took a pilot off Cuttyhunk and “at ½ past 6 PM arrived alongside of the wharf, made fast and left.”[3]

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

In most cases the final logbook/journal entry will indicate that the vessel has come to anchor off Clarks Point Lighthouse or Palmer’s Island. In some cases, like that of the Milton, the final entry makes mention of the vessel actually sailing to its berth at the wharf. Curiously, the Niger returned from her maiden voyage on November 29, 1847, a three-year sperm and right whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The final entry in the logbook indicates that the ship Niger sailed into the harbor with studdingsails set on a strong westerly wind.[4] This was about the same time that Purrington & Russell were painting the Panorama. Whether the scene shown is intended as a documentary illustration of actual events, or as a representative example of potential common activities, the Niger was not towed into the harbor by the Massachusetts in 1847.

"View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven." Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

“View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven.”
Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

The Massachusetts itself appears in several other prints and paintings of the period. Fitz Henry Lane included a fine view of the Massachusetts as well as a whaler anchored off Palmer’s Island, in his 1845 lithograph “View of New Bedford from the Fort near Fairhaven.” In many ways, this view seems to capture much of the spirit of the later Panorama view of the harbor and perhaps it was for this very reason that Purrington and Russell chose to document the steamer in use as a towboat instead of simply as a vessel type to be seen in the harbor.

[1] Harry B. Turner, The Story of the Island Steamers (Nantucket, 1910), pp 22-28

[2] ODHS #1187

[3] ODHS #420

[4] NBWM #1279