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Changing places: Some technical whaling highlights from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848-1851.

The great appeal of the Panorama, at least as far as the newspaper reviews are concerned, was not the actual whaling scenes, but the scenery. The views of the islands including the volcano at Fogo, Cape Verde, drew the most admiration, at least from one reviewer from the New York Courier in 1851, who called the view “sublime.”

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, "burns continuously," and may "sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues."

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, “burns continuously,” and may “sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues.”

The same reviewer commented favorably upon the “graphic and life-like” view of New Bedford Harbor and the “magnificent” rendering of the harbor at Rio Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

While the reviewer determined that the whaling scenes were “sprightly,” little more is said about the industrial aspect of the whaling subject. This is a pity, really, as few Americans outside of a few established New England whaling ports, even New Yorkers living in one of the world’s great seaports, had any idea about the actual techniques used by whalemen in both ship management and hunting.

While a ship at sea is generally acknowledged a beautiful thing its management was little considered by those who did not participate directly in the proceedings. As far as the sailor’s themselves were concerned, their labors were performed out of sight of all but their fellows under exceptionally difficult conditions for hours, days and weeks at a time during voyages that could last years. Ships were out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind to most people, unless there was some compelling reason to think about them, such as having a loved one onboard, an expected letter from overseas, or a monetary investment in a voyage or cargo.

Details like this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, lowering boats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few others document lowering boats including the handling of the ship while lowering for whales. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could easily be required to kill a particularly large sperm whale.

Details from the Panorama, such as this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, and lowering the whaleboats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background, serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few other artists document lowering boats including how the ship was handled during this operation. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could be and commonly were required to kill a particularly large or dangerous, “ugly,” sperm whale.

Benjamin Russell, however, documented whaling directly from his experience; hence his whaling scenes serve a larger purpose, both at the time they were painted and today. Even in New Bedford in the 1850s, some of the most accomplished artists in the city, never having gone a’ whaling themselves, had a hard time capturing the essence of the hunt. Two of these painters, Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford, for instance, undertook in the early 1850s to make a mass-market print of sperm whaling, however, it was poorly received in New Bedford and Benjamin Russell was called upon to assist them in elements of proportion, whaling and nautical details, points of naval architecture, etc. The resulting prints were among the most solid representations of the industry done by Americans.

"Sperm whaling No. 1 - The Chase," 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

“Sperm whaling No. 1 – The Chase,” 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

As far as his work on whaling scenes in the Panorama is concerned, he transcended the usual broadside ship view, or other simple perspective of whaling so common to most whalemen’s illustrations. He drew his ships from a variety of perspectives and with a reliable attention to accuracy. He also focused on other little-documented details of the hunt. William Morris Davis, whaleman and author of Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman (New York, 1874), commented favorably on Russell’s art:

“There have been lately published by Benjamin Russell, of New Bedford, two illustrations representing both the sperm and right whale-fishing, which gives and accurate idea o the the general features of the business, both in the boats and onboard the ship. The illustrations show the positions of the boats in the contest, and of the ships, and in cutting-in, etc. Mr. Russell himself was a boatsteerer; and, guided by several years’ experience, his artistic skill has embodied in the small space of two pictures the most correct idea of whaling which I have seen.”[1]

One good example from the Panorama is his view of the boat-steerer and boat-header exchanging places in a whaleboat that is fast to a whale. This oft-described oddity of the whaling trade has no pictorial parallel. The description appears in many whaling texts, including this one from Reverend Lewis Holmes that appears as “A Brief History of Whaling,” in The Arctic Whaleman; or, Winter in the Arctic Ocean (Boston, 1861):

“When, however, the whale becomes so exhausted, having been perhaps harpooned by some other boats, that the warp can be hauled in, and the boat or boats approach the whale again, the lancer [boat-header], who is generally one of the mates of the ship, exchanges places with the boat-steerer, and takes his position at the bow of the boat, with a lance ten or twelve feet long.”[2]

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

Close-up detail of the above scene.

Close-up detail of the above scene showing the men exchanging places.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, in his fundamentally critical fashion commented not only on the practice, but upon its disadvantages to the success of the hunt:

” Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boatheader and harpooner likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent jeopardy of themselves and everyone else. It is then they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat. Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them. To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”[3]

Regardless of Melville’s opinion on the practicality of this matter, the practice retained its tradition well past the 1840s when he was whaling, and continued throughout the rest of the history of the American industry. As late as 1887 in The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, where the details of the methods of the fishery were outlined, James Templeman Brown wrote: “When the animal has been fastened to “good and solid” the harpooner and officer immediately change places.”

Detail from Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

Detail from the Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen painting, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

The origins of this practice dates to the earliest days of commercial whaling in the early 17th century when Basque whalemen were training British and Dutch whalemen in the techniques of killing bowhead whales in the Arctic. The Basques, being the most experienced whalemen, commanded the boats and undertook the actual killing of the whale. Following the Basques long established hunting techniques, the most experienced whaleman in the boat was the officer in charge. He knew how and where to place the boat so that the harpooner could get fast. The second most experienced person was the harpooner and having planted his irons, ceded his position to the boatheader who again, knew where to plunge the lance and how to handle the lance once it was planted in the animal to ensure a quick death. Thus, a hunting technique originating in the early 17th century European Arctic fishery continued throughout the American sperm and right whale fishery into the 20th century.

Hand-whaling techniques did spread beyond the American and European experience. Curiously, while many of the techniques and technology of the Yankee whale fishery were retained by the Azoreans as the islanders developed their own sperm whale fishery in the 20th century, this exchange of crew members during the actual killing of the whale was not retained. Robert Clarke reports in Open Boat Whaling in the Azores (Cambridge, 1954) that:

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around. 1977.17.1

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail and one under oars, are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around in the traditional way. 1977.17.1

In the American whaleboats, the striking of mast and sail was partly the job of the harpooner as he went aft to change ends with the boat-header. In the Azores the bow and midship oarsmen attend to the mast and sail, for the boat-header and harpooner never change ends in the present survival, and this is the one detail that which distinguishes the existing technique of hunting from that of 100 years ago. To the last days of American whaling it was an invariable rule that the harpooner fastened to the whale but did not lance it; he gave place to the boatheader for this operation, and himself went aft to take the steering-oar and tend the line at the loggerhead.[4]

Without the full text of Russell’s narration of the Panorama as it traveled from town to town, we’ll never know the extent to which he addressed many of the details that he drew. As he was himself a boat-steerer onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford on a four-year sperm and right whaling cruise to the Pacific Ocean, 1841-1845, he would certainly have been intimately familiar with the process, another fascinating detail of his whaling experience shared in the Panorama.

[1] Davis, p. 171.

[2] Holmes, pp. 273-274

[3] Melville, Chapter 62.

[4] Clarke, in: Discovery Reports, Vol. 26, pp. 281-354.

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