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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p81  Chapter VI
The Seal Fisheries

While American vessels, largely those of Boston, were bartering with the Northwest Indians, establishing an American outpost in Hawaii, and carrying on a furtive contraband trade with Spanish America, Yankee enterprise had simultaneously developed another unexpected and rich source to supply the Canton market with furs. On the barren islands off the coast of Patagonia, in the waters south of Cape Horn, and along the Chilean coast, were discovered vast herds of fur seals. Here, ready at hand — for nothing more was necessary than to club the helpless animals over the head and strip them of their skins — was a product which the Chinese merchants bought as eagerly as they did the fur of the sea otter.

For a period which roughly corresponds with that of the Northwest trade, from about 1790 to 1812, this parallel commerce in the South Atlantic and South Pacific thrived and prospered. Sealskins were taken to Canton by the hundred thousand. Then inevitably the sources of supply became exhausted. Herds which had been estimated to number millions completely disappeared as the sealers methodically and indiscriminately massacred their prey. The southern fur seal shared the fate of the Northwest sea otter, but not before the trade had enriched many a seaman and merchant of the Atlantic ports.

The value of the seal furs to the hong merchants of Canton had been discovered in an indirect and curious way. About the time the Empress of China was opening the trade with the East, an Englishwoman, living in Boston, and  p82 widely known as Lady Haley, had dispatched the ship States to the Falkland Islands for hair sealskins and sea‑elephant oil.​1 In collecting their cargo the crew of this vessel also killed some thirteen thousand fur seals and brought their skins to New York.

[image ALT: An engraving of a mall rocky island, being approached from the viewer's left by a two-man canoe (a three-masted sailing ship could be seen in the background); on the island, in the foreground, a man clubs a seal to death, and on the flat top of the island some distance behind and above him, others can be seen doing the same. It is a view of a seal rookery in the Falkland Islands in the early 19c, its seals being killed by the sailors of a sealing ship.]

There was so little demand for these unknown furs in American society that they fetched only fifty cents apiece. It was decided to ship them to the Orient in the hope of getting a better price for them. Captain Metcalf of the Eleonora carried them out to Canton and, to what must have been his surprise and gratification, they sold there at the rate of five dollars per skin, just ten times the price paid in New York.

Some years passed before this lead was followed by a direct sealing voyage to Canton, but Elijah Austin, of New Haven, sent out two ships in 1790 under Captain Daniel Greene to the Falklands and South Georgia, and in the same year the ship Industry sailed from Philadelphia under Captain Patten and collected fifty‑six hundred skins at Tristan da Cunha. It proved to be so easy to obtain a full cargo, and so eager were the Chinese merchants to buy the skins, that the next few years saw a sudden rush upon the lonely and inhospitable islands which the seals chose for their breeding-places.

During the next two decades American vessels, and especially those of Connecticut, were gathered every year by the dozen on the rocky shores of the Falklands, Staten Island, South Georgia, the Aucklands, and especially Masafuera, one of the Juan Fernandez group, where on a neighboring isle the original Robinson Crusoe had once  p83 walked the lonely beach watching vainly for a sail.​2 Captain Benjamin Morrell estimated that from Masafuera alone some three and a half million furs were taken to Canton between 1793 and 1807, while Amasa Delano declared that for the briefer period from 1797 to 1804 the total was three million.

The profits on these voyages were tremendous. The price of the skins fluctuated widely, falling at one time from the original five dollars to as low as thirty-five cents, but around two or three dollars was a fairer average. In 1793, Captain William Stewart in the Eliza could get only $16,000 for thirty-eight thousand skins, less than forty-five cents apiece, and, unable to fill his ship with his own China goods, had to carry freight for others to Ostend. Three years later, Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., supercargo of the New Haven ship Neptune, sold eighty thousand funs at three dollars apiece. When this latter vessel's return cargo was auctioned, it brought $280,000, a net profit of $100,000 for the owners, $50,000 for the supercargo, and $70,000 for captain and crew.

About the same time as the Neptune's voyage, Captain Edmund Fanning made an expedition in the Betsy in which the original investment of $7867 mounted to $120,000. After deducting all duties, shares of captain and crew, and capital, this represented a clear profit of $53,118. The  p84 Concord, which sailed in 1799, had cost $13,680 and the expenses of its voyage were $11,462. When ship and cargo were auction upon its return, they brought $67,794.56.

Only the chance of such generous profits could have induced merchants or seamen to undertake the sealing voyages. They usually lasted from two to three years and for the seamen meant indescribable hardship and discomfort. Most of the voyage was spent at anchor off some cold and barren island, where the shore gangs were busy day after day killing the seals, stripping them of their skins, scraping off the blubber, and pegging out the furs for curing either by sun or salt. It was work which required a certain measure of skill, perhaps, for Nathaniel Appleton in his journal of the ship Concord's voyage speaks of the slow progress they made because all hands were green, but it was a brutal and disgusting task.

A hint of this is given in the account by George Staunton, who sailed with the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793, of conditions on the island of Amsterdam, where he found some Frenchmen and Americans left to gather furs while their vessel had gone on to the Northwest Coast. Four men were able to kill and skin one hundred seals a day, but this left them no time to do anything with the dead bodies. They were left to rot. 'A shocking spectacle,' Staunton wrote, 'was thus exhibited at every step, while the smell infected the atmosphere around.'

Sometimes the sealing gangs were left a year or more under such conditions, living in rude huts and getting most of their food by shooting wild hogs, goats, geese, and wild fowl, which they cooked over fires of seal fat. It was not considered necessary to provide them with anything but bread, molasses, and coffee, but they were encouraged to plant vegetable gardens which might in time yield potatoes,  p85 onions, radishes, or lettuce to their meager diet. Life in the little colonies which sprang up among the various islands of the South Pacific and South Atlantic was rough and hard. Its sole end and aim was slaughter.

The crews of the sealers sailed on shares, but despite this interest in the success of their voyage in no other branch of the China trade were mutiny and desertion so common. Sometimes the sailors gave up their share in the profits to become what were known as 'alone men,' who killed and skinned on their own account in order to sell their furs to the next vessel which touched at the island on which they had been left. Sometimes they were imprisoned by the Spanish, who occasionally awoke to a realization that the seal islands were Spanish territory and the Americans without rights in their profitable trade.

One fascinating story of being marooned is that of Charles H. Barnard, master of the Nanina, who spent two years on the Falkland Islands when the crew of a wrecked English ship rewarded the aid he extended to them by running off with his own vessel. He and four companions were left destitute in a bitterly cold climate and their efforts to build a house, to find fuel for their fire, to kill wild hogs for food and sea lions for skin clothes, marked a bitter struggle for life which only ended with the welcome arrival of two British whaling ships.

If the sealers escaped some of the dangers which beset the Northwest traders, for there were no natives lying in wait to seize their vessels, there was one new hazard they had to face. This was the risk involved in attempting to reach the rocky shores or high cliffs which the seals chose for their rock rookeries. Many a whaleboat was swamped endeavoring to  p86 fight its way through the high surf and many seamen were drowned or crushed against the treacherous ledges on which the pounding waves swept their capsized craft.

A typical sealing voyage of the early period was that of the New Haven ship Neptune. This was a three‑hundred-and‑fifty‑ton vessel with a crew of forty-five, quite large for a sealer, as one of Delano's vessels which made a voyage of five years was only sixty‑two tons. Captain Daniel Greene, who had made the first direct sealing voyage to Canton in 1790, was in command.

Sailing from New Haven in 1796, the Neptune first stopped at the Falkland Islands. There a sealing gang was left with a thirty‑ton shallop made by the ship's carpenter, and Captain Greene went on to the Patagonian coast. The Spanish protested against their activities on the mainland, but when they put a number of the crew under arrest, the Americans promptly broke out of jail, drove off the soldiers who were holding their ship, and calmly sailed away.

A few adventures of this kind and the Neptune returned to the Falklands to pick up the men who had been left there and the thirty thousand sealskins they had succeeded in collecting. Captain Greene then debated whether to proceed to Canton by way of the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. Deciding on the latter course, his ship had to beat its way to the Pacific in such bitter weather that her decks were filled with snow and her rigging loaded with ice.

Their next stop was Masafuera, where a number of American ships had already preceded them. The Neptune's sealing gang gave a good account of itself despite this rivalry, and within seven weeks fifteen thousand more skins were added to those collected at the Falklands and in Patagonia. This meant a full cargo, and leaving behind  p87 twelve men who were to be picked up on another voyage, the Neptune set out across the Pacific.

After a brief stop at Hawaii — for the sealers as well as the Nor'westmen were apt to break their voyage at these friendly islands — they reached Canton and exchanged their furs for tea, some twelve hundred chests of Bohea and smaller quantities of Hyson, Hyson Skin, and Souchong. Then the voyage home through the Straits of Malacca, past Penang, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope, until, on July 11, 1799, after having been away almost three years, the Neptune sighted New Haven harbor. The profits of this venture, as we have already seen, brought a small fortune to its promoters.

At Masafuera the Neptune had met Captain Fanning and the Betsy. This redoubtable sailor was more closely identified with the sealing trade than any other merchant-captain of his day and it is reputed that he was either captain or directive agent of seventy voyages to the South Seas and China. Born at Stonington, Connecticut, in 1769, he first went to sea when he was fourteen. Fifty-seven years later, at the age of seventy‑one, he was still active, memorializing the Government in favor of an exploring and trading expedition to discover new seal islands in the Antarctic.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

His voyage in the Betsy was one of his most memorable ventures. Like the Neptune, this vessel first stopped at Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, where the crew had more success in hunting wild hogs through the tussock bogs than in killing seals, and then went on to Masafuera. Here one of their whaleboats was capsized in the surf and another stove into pieces, but in ten weeks from January to April the sailors killed so many seals that even the cabin and forecastle of the Betsy were filled with skins. And at that four thousand more were left ashore in charge of a boat's crew.

 p88  Setting out for Canton, the next halt was made, not at the Hawaiian Islands, but at the Marquesas. At Nukahiva, one of the Washington group which had been discovered by Captain Ingraham in the Hope, the most friendly relations were established with the natives. They surrounded the Betsy, 'much like a flock of blackbirds upon a tree,' and eagerly exchanged breadfruit, yams, cocoanuts, bananas, and sugar cane for Captain Fanning's trading supply of hatchets, chisels, buttons, beads, and looking-glasses. A formal visit was paid to the native king and he was ceremoniously presented with a metal plaque, bearing the name of the Betsy and its home port, which was hung about his majesty's royal neck with a crimson ribbon. Two hundred ladies of the court, clothed in white and with white turbans, were formally introduced to the Americans. It was a ceremony which the startled travelers soon discovered meant rubbing noses with every one of the native women.

After leaving Nukahiva, the Betsy's next stop was at the Ladrone Islands, where Fanning rescued the crew, including the captain's wife and daughter, of a wrecked English ship, and then proceeded to Canton. This friendly act caused complications. The China would let no females land — 'it no have China custom; how can do?' — and not until the East India Company had intervened and bribed the officials could Captain Fanning get rid of his awkward guests and obtain permission to sell his cargo. Once this was done, little time was lost in loading the Betsy with China goods and sailing for New York. After an uneventful crossing of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, the home port was reached on April 26, 1799.

Captain Fanning was soon at sea again and in search of new seal herds. This time he sailed in the letter-of‑marque Aspasia and penetrated as far into the south as the island  p89 of South Georgia. It was mid‑winter when he arrived and the temperature was thirty‑six degrees below zero. His ship became coated with ice and almost heeled over while his men landed on an iceberg to lay the keel of a thirty‑ton shallop. Before the season commenced, the Aspasia was joined by seventeen other sail, but so expert were its crew that, of the one hundred and twelve thousand skins taken off the island that year, they accounted for fifty-seven thousand.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Another of Fanning's ships, the Catherine, commanded by his brother, Captain Henry Fanning (there were eight boys in the family, all of whom went to sea), a few years later found a new source for sealskins in the Indian Ocean. It had become necessary by this time (1805) to go farther and farther afield to get a full cargo of furs for Canton. The seals on the islands off South America were becoming scarce, and two years earlier Joel Root, supercargo of the New Haven ship Huron, had reported that at Masafuera there were almost as many sealers as seals. Some one hundred and fifty men from American vessels were fighting for the depleted herd, and the crew of the Huron were able to obtain only four thousand skins themselves and to buy ten thousand more from the 'alone men.'

Henry Fanning's find was the rediscovery of the Crozet Islands. Two seasons were spent searching for them, and it was a glorious day when their shores were at last sighted and found to be covered with thousands of seals. The Catherine paid a quick visit to Prince Edward Island, where a note was hidden to tell another of the Fanning ships of the marvelous discovery, and then returned to the Crozets, where a full cargo for Canton was soon taken aboard.

On another search for seals in 1808, Captain Mayhew Folger, of the Boston ship Topaz, decided to try his luck at  p90 Pitcairn Island in the hope that it might have an untouched rookery. As he approached the island, a double canoe filled with natives put out to meet the ship, and to the amazement of Captain Folger the Topaz was hailed in perfectly good English.

When the islanders came aboard, it soon developed that they were not full-blooded natives, but the children of the mutineers of the Bounty, an English ship which had completely disappeared some twenty years before after its commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, of the British Navy, had been set adrift with a few of his crew while on a voyage carrying breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. Only one actual survivor of the mutiny was left on Pitcairn Island, a man named Alexander Smith, and it was an amazing story which Captain Folger now heard from him and later communicated to the British Admiralty.

After the mutiny, the Bounty had returned to Tahiti. A few of the crew had remained — later to be arrested and court-martialed in England — while the rest put up out to sea again under the command of one Fletcher Christian, taking with them a number of Polynesian men and women. They landed at Pitcairn Island, deserted and little known, promptly burned their ship, and founded a settlement. It was made up of eight Englishmen and the six men and twelve women whom they had brought from Tahiti.

For a time all went well, but after the death of Fletcher Christian the trouble began. The Tahitians grew jealous and discontented, until one day, without warning, they seized their arms and massacred every surviving Englishman except Alexander Smith. Then the very night following this massacre, the Tahitian women took a bloody revenge for the murder of the whites. They killed every single Tahitian man. When Captain Folger appeared, there was  p91 left on this lonely island in the Pacific a group of thirty-four women and children over whom Alexander Smith presided as sole survivor of the English fugitives.

Not a single vessel had called at Pitcairn Island until the arrival of the Topaz, but the patriarch of the little community had brought up his flock as English men and women. He had instructed them especially in the Christian religion, and one of Captain Folger's greatest surprises, when he invited some of these supposed natives to dine on his ship, was their insistence upon saying grace before starting the meal.

The Topaz left the community as it had found it, and in the course of the next few years it was visited by several other vessels, both English and American. Finally, in 1830, a British ship removed the colony to Tahiti, as Pitcairn Island was suffering from drought, and then once again its strange history became entangled with that of the China trade. The descendants of the Bounty mutineers did not take kindly to Tahiti, and the next year Captain William Driver, of the Salem ship Charles Doggett, agreed to take them all back to Pitcairn Island. He collected as pay from his sixty-five passengers some old copper, twelve blankets, and one hundred and twenty-nine dollars in missionary drafts.3

To return again to the sealers themselves. The gradual extinction of the herds, not only on the Falklands and at Masafuera, but, also at South Georgia and the Crozet Islands, had made the old voyages unprofitable by the time of the War of 1812. The importation of the furs at Canton had fallen from several hundred thousand a year to  p92 a few score thousand, and the seal trade was gradually dying out just as was that in the furs of the sea otter. But about 1819 it had a sudden, brief revival, and although in this period it was more common to bring the skins back to the United States than to carry them directly to China, a chapter on the seal fisheries cannot close without mention of the days of glory of the port of Stonington.

It was from this little Connecticut port that Captain Fanning had directed so many of his voyages and at one time it had a sealing fleet of twelve small vessels totaling eight hundred and fifty tons and carrying two hundred and two men. From it there sailed in 1819 the Hersilia, commanded by Captain James P. Sheffield and with William A. Fanning as supercargo, on an expedition to sail as far south as possible in the hope of discovering land beyond any then known to Americans.

Making its dangerous way ever farther into the misty region of snow and ice below Cape Horn, the Hersilia came upon the South Shetlands. Their shores were thick with seals. Captain Sheffield killed and skinned eleven thousand — he could have taken fifty thousand, he later reported — and hurried back to Stonington with his precious secret.

Amid much excitement and mystery, preparations were made for a second expedition. It was pretended that whaling and not sealing was the object of the intended voyage, but the secret could not have been very well kept. For in 'Niles' Register,' published in Baltimore, there was a notice in 1820 of a Stonington ship being outfitted for 'an island unknown to any one except the captain, where seals which had never been disturbed by man, were tame as kittens, and more plenti­ful than at any other place upon earth.'

Five vessels left in the Stonington fleet that year. Arriving at the South Shetlands, some one hundred and fifty  p93 thousand skins were taken aboard within a few weeks. And while this work of killing and skinning was going on so rapidly, one little vessel slipped away to make a further discovery, which is still known as Palmer Land, a perpetual reminder of how far into the Antarctic the Connecticut sailors dared to penetrate. The man from whom this name derived, Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, was then only twenty‑one, and his command a tiny sloop called the Hero, 'but little rising forty tons.'

No more seals were found on the ice‑bound coast of Palmer Land, however, and those on the South Shetlands could not long outlast the slaughter of Stonington's annual fleet. The fur seals were killed here as they had been everywhere else and even the Antarctic could yield no further riches to carry to Canton.

The Author's Notes:

1 Lady Haley was a sister of John Wilkes, the spectacular English reformer and arch foe of George III, and of Commodore Charles Wilkes, the American explorer.

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2 With some appreciation of the hardships Selkirk had undergone, the literary sealers of this period thought little of Defoe for the way he was reputed to have treated the unfortunate sailor. Amasa Delano wrote: 'The amanuensis privately took minutes from Selkirk's journal, and returned the book; telling him, that he could not make any thing of it. Shortly after, this same person had the injustice to avail himself of the hard-earned labours of Selkirk, by the publication of his journal, under the title of the History of Robinson Crusoe, the poor man being thus robbed of the only advantage he hoped to reap from his sufferings, and at a period of life when he was so much in need. When we reflect on a transaction like this, we involuntarily exclaim, how can man be thus destitute of feeling for his brother!'

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3 The descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty still live on Pitcairn Island. The latest count puts their number at one hundred and forty. They are Seventh Day Adventists, grow coffee, and keep poultry and goats.

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