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Bill Thayer

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The Lost Favourite

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Unexpected Seizure
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p159  Capturing a Whale

"Unerring aimed, the missile weapon flew,

And plunging, struck the fated victim through;

Awhile his heart the fatal javelin thrills,

And flitting life escapes in sanguine rills."

Well, here's "Old Ironsides," just returned from the little towns of Payta and Puna, the former celebrated for its cloudless skies, pretty, agreeable women, profusion of onions and sci of water, and the latter for its blood-sucking, relentless mosquitoes, trees loaded with delicious oysters and guanas, paroquets and alligators in no small quantity; lying once more at her accustomed anchorage in the harbour of Callao, and presenting, to the gaze of the citizen who should chance to bend his steps towards the mole to enjoy the salubrity of the cheering sea breeze, as well as to the inmates of the other vessels-of‑war that are at anchor adjacent, as neat and faultless a hull as elegant a symmetry of spars, as systematically squared yards, as delightful a contour of standing and running rigging, from her truck to her dead-eyes; aye, and as briskling a set of teeth, ready at a moment's warning to bid defiance to a saucy foe; as any other floating structure that ever fluttered a pennant.

I like Callao better than any other port on the coast, and I believe so does nineteen out of every score of man-of‑war's‑men who come on this station. Valparaiso may have its attractions on shore amongst its dizzy tops, to please the reckless tar when pursuing his orgies on liberty, yet still the heavy-armed ship lies not half so secure there with her ponderous anchor ahead; nor does she float on the briny element with that placid stillness, that swan-like buoyancy, as when riding gracefully upon the bosom of the tranquil waters of Callao's harbour: — "Yes, Callao, country of earthquakes and revolutions, market of fleas and cheromoyas, and rendezvous-general of commissioned man-of‑war smugglers," the preference to you I must give; and spite of the chill heavy dews which wend their sluggish way from thy barely moistened soil, ascending  p160  like the murky clouds of a burning forest, obscuring the horizon within the narrowest limits, still the tranquillity of thy commodious harbour, formed by that natural breakwater, San Lorenzo, together with the numerous shoals of delicious fish with which thy waters abound, serve to raise you in the opinion of every candid tar who has ever, whilst at anchor, enjoyed the serenity of the one, or whose stomach has ever felt the luscious effects of the other: — And thy bum‑boats, too, here is another attraction, frivolous perhaps in the eyes of many, but to the son of Ocean, undergoing the rigid confinement of a man-of‑war, the summit of his hopes, the ne plus ultra of his desires; with what anxious expectancy will he not look towards the shore, as the sharp rap tap‑tap of the rattling drum proclaims that eight bells is on the eve of striking; and as he perceives the indefatigable and plodding bumboat‑man pulling vigorously towards the ship, a smile of gratification o'erspreads his bronzed features, his eye sparkles with happy delight, the word is quickly passed to the occupants of the gangway, who are anxiously awaiting the result of his glances shoreward that their desideratum is approaching, and in a few minutes (breakfast having in the interval been piped) you perceive crowds, both young and old, ascending the ship's side, bearing in their hands tin pans of no trifling magnitude, plenti­fully heaped with smoking fried liver, together with a due proportion of its accompaniment, onions and gravy.

Ah, Hill and Antonio, how often have our epicures, as they'd reach their messes at breakfast-time, curled their noses with disdain at the appearance of perhaps a prime piece of raw salt pork, or a smoking bread scouse, which their indefatigable cooks had in readiness for their morning's repast, and all because their nasal organs inhaled the delicious smell of your savoury, well-seasoned liver. — How many small, flat, circular pieces of silver, known amongst our lads by the name of "York shillings," have you dropped into your capacious purses by the sale of this article? But no matter, continue your present course of traffic, you aquatic hawkers, and when old age, or an accumulated heap of glittering dross causes you to renounce your calling, drop the hint to your successors to follow in  p161 your footsteps; for believe me, the dreary and sterile Isle of San Lorenzo will float like a gossamer in the air, before the happy inmates of one of Columbia's ships-of‑war on this station will cease to purchase their darling liver, whilst they have a shot in the locker.

It was upon the first of November, our ship lay as before adverted to in the harbour of Callao; a more delightful day one could scarcely desire; the sun beamed forth in all its splendour, not emitting that fierce, sickly heat, that in southern climates so overpowers the frame, but diffusing a gentle and soothing warmth around, which, contrasted with the heavy, chill dews so prevalent in this port, was doubly agreeable to all those who were enjoying its cheering influence. There was just breeze enough to slightly ruffle the surface of the waters of the surrounding bay; and as the several ships at anchor, with their national banners floating aloft in graceful wantonness, met the eye, the sight was one pleasing and interesting. It was Sunday; and as is generally the case upon the Sabbath, the interior of our ship, from the lower to the spar-deck, was cleansed with the most scrutinous care, and everything was arranged in its proper place with the nicest precision and exactitude. Our crew were uniformly dressed in blue jackets and trowsers and snow-white frocks; the rules for the regulation of the Navy had been read, and each one had passed around the capstan, undergoing the criticising glance of our commander; and they were now scattered in different groups about the several decks, endeavouring as they best could, to beguile the time 'till the boatswain's shrill pipe would proclaim the noontide meal.

Whilst things were thus situated, the attention of the quarter-master on the look‑out, was attracted by an unusual noise in the water a short distance from the ship, and upon having recourse to his spy‑glass, two whales were perceived pursuing their gambols in the bay, making rapid tracks towards where the merchant vessel lay at anchor; their clumsy, power­ful bodies one moment disappearing from the sight, and the next forming a glowing foam on the face of the sparkling waters as they raised with a sudden breach to the surface.  p162 The circumstance was soon known throughout the ship, and all were immediately on the alert, repairing to the spar-deck with precipitate haste to feast their eyes upon the disportings of those huge inmates of the deep. The fore, main and mizen-rigging, poop, forecastle, and every other part where a good view could be possibly obtained of those finny monsters, were literally crowded with individuals; for to a great many of our crew the sight was as novel as unexpected; — their sports however were but of short duration. The inmates of a French whaling vessel lying in the harbour, soon beheld those noble fish; and after casting many an eager and covetous glance upon their giant carcasses, as they rolled and tumbled about with all the playfulness of porpoises; they lowered a boat, and with a stout, athletic crew and all the several implements necessary for this peculiar warfare, they pulled vigorously in pursuit.

It could be very soon perceived, from the wariness and caution with which they proceeded, together with the skill and tact evinced in the management of the boat, that the Frenchmen were no novices at this business; and as they pursued their prey, one moment pulling with unabated vigour and the next lying silently on their oars, awaiting for the fish to rise to the surface, their movements called forth the applause or censure, as the case might be, of our "old salts," who, from their different elevated stations, watched the progress of the chase with keen and criticising glances.

"Now Crapeau,​a is your chance," broke forth a green horn belonging to the after-guard, who from the starboard fore-rigging with mouth wide open, was viewing the scene, as he perceived one of the noble fish lying almost motionless upon the water but a few feet from the boat, completely unconscious of the glittering instrument of death that was poised with fatal aim over him — "By golly, what a slick time for a dart; I reckon I could put an iron right clean through him, lying as he does now; them ere fellows are scared, they know nothing about killing a whale I see."

"Look here, Tubbs," cried Bradley, the maintop‑man, addressing the quarter-deck swab-wringer, "just clap a stopper on that red rag of yours; you are giving your opinion in this affair as if you were  p163 some old Nantucket whaler; and I know you hav'nt been many months from behind a clam cart; let somebody pass their remarks that know more about it than you do." "Do you think I hav'nt been whaling?" responded Tubbs — "I reckon if you ever fall in with captain Seth Handy, of New Bedford, and ask him who pulled the after oar in his boat, I guess he'd mention my name. That was the man for turning up a fish; he made no more of lancing a whale in a flurry than others would of hooking a mackerel."

During this little colloquy the whale once more sounded, and the inmates of the boat conjecturing by so means or another that his stay below would not be of long duration, remained lying upon their oars adjacent to where he went down, the harpooner, with his keen instrument balanced above his head, awaiting his re‑appearance with breathless anxiety. Their expectations were quickly realized — the huge creature in a few moments made his appearance above the surface, throwing the water up to a considerable height, with a noise resembling the escape of a heavy pressure of steam. The hardy crew now pulled fearlessly towards him; the noise of the oars attracted his attention for a moment, and before he could avail himself of the only two alternatives left him, viz. flight or diving once more to the bottom, the harpooner, with a power­ful effort, launched his javelin, and in one second the barbed steel was quivering in his life-blood. "That's just as it ought to be," cried Bill Garnet, rubbing his hands with delight — "I tell you, the fellow that heads that boat has fastened to a whale before to‑day; he sent that iron in the right place, or I'm much mistaken; two or three darts of a lance now will make him as still and motionless as our figure-head." "But he's not as far gone as you think for, Bill," remarked Bradley; "the way he's walking off with the slack of that boat is nobody's business; my eyes! how she's flying through the water." Bradley was right — the finny monster rendered furious by his wound, was dragging the boat along with a velocity almost incredible, the crew remaining perfectly motionless, taking advantage of every opportunity that offered to gather in the slack of the line so as to enable them to finish the work of destruction with the lance, which was used with great alacrity  p164  by the person in the bow; and its fatal effects were soon perceptible, from the sanguinary streams which the infuriated animal threw up into the air, colouring the water around with the same crimson tint.

"There's a pretty touch; go it my hearties, he's all your own. I tell you Johnny Crapeau is no slouch at killing a whale; he's worked that fellow's old iron up in as pretty a style as any Nantucketer could do it. Don't you think he has, Dobbs?" ejaculated Garnet, addressing himself to a fellow at his elbow, who from the earnestness with which he riveted his staring eyes upon the boat, appeared to be completely absorbed in the probable issue of the contest. "Why, they've done pretty fair, considering once or twice they did'nt bring the boat on to him as they ought; for if he happened to get into his flurry then, he'd knocked them all to eternity before they could say starn all; but they've done his business — for there he heaves the blood up as thick as mush; they need'nt lance him again, he'll turn over in a short time."

The unwilling fish now began gradually to slacken his pace, thus giving his pursuers a fair opportunity of irritating him with the lance, which they used unsparingly, and which, as its keen edge entered with cruel force his already lacerated body, caused him to belch forth complete streams of the crimson fluid. His last moments now approached — he rolled and plunged into the blood-stained waters with an impetuosity almost fatal to the boat, forming a complete sea of foam all around him — one moment would he lift his enormous head several feet above the surface, as if seeking out his tormentors, and again bring his huge tail down with a sudden crash, making the whole harbour resound with his fearful bellowings. His struggles were soon over — he rallied all his remaining strength for a last effort, raised himself almost completely out of the water, and came down again with a force almost capable of destroying a ship; then all was still — the noble animal had breathed his last.

Our lads in the rigging were so taken up with the affair, that they remained bending their eager eyes towards the scene of action, long after the fish became lifeless; and they would have kept their stations till he was towed in shore, did not the shrill dinner-pipe and the  p165  roll for grog (that quick disperser of every crowd on shipboard) cause them to repair to their several messes; and the theme of conversation during the meal hour, was the gallant conduct evinced by the French boat's crew when "capturing the whale."

Thayer's Note:

a I think this is meant for crapaud, properly "toad" rather than "frog".

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21