Bertha Goes Whaling 1871

My great-grand-aunt Bertha Hamblin Boyce wrote this in her 96th Year.

“Maria, it is almost time for my ship to sail. Are you going with me this time?”

That was my father, Capt. John C. Hamblin, speaking to my mother. She had been with him on two voyages, and he hoped she was going with him this time. My sister Alice was born in Australia, and my brother Harry was born in Norfolk Island, in the South Seas.

My mother shook her head and said, “Oh, John, I don’t see how I can go this time.”

There were six children to leave at home. But I noticed that the trunk came down from the attic, and Aunt Abby and Uncle Josiah came up from Pocasset to take care of the family, as they always did when Mother went whaling. And Bertha, age five, and Benjamin, age two and a half, were outfitted for a whaling voyage; so there were only Etta, Alice, Harry, and John, the four older children, to leave at home.

The ship, the Islander, was sailing from New Bedford. That is where they sailed from in the 1870’s. The only way to get to New Bedford was to take the stage coach, so we went bag and baggage by Stage. We never had been on the stage coach before, so that was exciting, of course. A horse and buggy had been the wav we traveled, as there was no railroad in chose days.

When we got to the wharf in New Bedford, there was the ship out in the harbor. We had to go out in a row boat. I remember I was very much afraid the sailors would spatter some water on my beautiful new hat. But I don’t chink the hat got wet.

We reached the ship and went aboard. The cabin looked rather small to me after the living room in our great big house in West Falmouth, and I wondered what my mother was going to do with two lively children in that small space.

The Captain’s bedroom, with its swinging bed, opened out to the tight of the cabin, and when bedtime came for Bertha and Ben, a trundle bed was pulled out from the swinging bed. And there is where we slept all the time we were on the ship.

On July 25th, 1871, up went the sails and off we went for the Indian Ocean. And I could have told the whales that they should stay out of sight under water or my father would catch them!

I guess they didn’t stay under water. They have to come up to breathe, you know. I am told my father sent home 895 barrels of sperm oil from the whales taken in those two years on the Indian Ocean. So I guess the folks had plenty of oil for their lamps and didn’t have to go to bed in the dark.

Everyone wants to know what we did for amusement. What did we find to play with on board a ship bound for the Indian Ocean? We won’t see land again for quite a while. Instead of the woods and green fields for our play ground we will have the ship’s deck. It was July. The weather was warm, so we will go up on deck and see what we can find that is interesting. I guess there was no danger of our falling overboard, for Mother let us go up alone.

Of course, there were the sailors, but they were too busy on the first day out to pay any attention to us. There was a little house on deck called the cook’s “galley,” where he gets the food ready. We had to get acquainted with the cook, hoping to get a handout. Then there was a great big sea turtle crawling around on deck. He didn’t look too friendly, but I can tell you that I spent many hours on that turtle’s back while he was touring the deck. I was careful to keep away from his head so he couldn’t bite me. I suppose that in the course of time he was made into turtle soup and other good things to eat, for we brought home a big box of turtle shell, which we shared with our friends.

Ben was a lively little lad. One day he was playing with a rope on deck. The wind was blowing, and the ship was rolling, and Ben found himself swinging out over the sea! Evidently he wasn’t frightened for he held on and came back when the ship rolled again.

In the morning as soon as breakfast was over one of the sailors was hauled up to a seat at masthead called the crow’s nest. The sailor had a spy glass, which he used to search the sea for sight of a whale. When the sailors on deck heard the words “There she blows!” they knew a whale had come up to breathe and had thus disclosed his whereabouts. The sailor would also tell his latitude and longitude from the ship.

Down go the whale boats into the water; the harpooners begin the chase. Very likely the whale goes down again, but they follow him until they get a chance to harpoon him. Then the fight begins! They are fortunate if the boat isn’t smashed before they hit a vital spot. The whale has an enormous jaw with big teeth and can do great damage to the boat. I remember we brought home a whale’s jaw that hung on a tree in our driveway for a long time.

Naturally the whale fought for his life. After he was finally killed, he was towed to the ship. The cutting stage was lowered, and the men peeled off the blubber (the fat) in large pieces. It was then hauled aboard, cut in smaller pieces called Bible leaves, and cooked in the try pots. Up in the bow of the ship there was the fire with two large, iron try pots. This is where they cooked the blubber and turned the oil into wooden barrels to be sent home. The fire was started with wood but later would be fed by scraps of boiled blubber.

Sometimes the try works were burning at night, and we enjoyed that. We could see our shadows on the deck.

In those days kerosene was not plentiful and there was no electricity, so people had to have the oil for lamps. I remember two Sandwich glass lamps on our piano which burned oil but later had kerosene burners. We had the first piano that was brought to West Falmouth.

I don’t know the names of the islands in the Indian Ocean where the sailors went ashore. Unfortunately, I gave my father’s log book away and have lost track of it. The captain or first mate wrote each day’s happenings in the logbook. I used to read it once in a while. I remember it told which way the wind was blowing. And all up and down the edge of the page were little black pictures of whales if they had happened to sight one. I remember that one day he wrote: “Next week is Thanksgiving. I hope next Thanksgiving will be spent at home. If it weren’t for hopes, what would we do.”

I remember that the sailors did go ashore, for one day one of them brought back a pail of turtle eggs. The turtle lays its eggs in the sand and depends on the heat of the sun to hatch them.

We must have stopped at an island where there was a cow for they brought back some milk. My mother scalded the milk so it would keep. It was on the table in the cabin. I decided to take a drink. It burnt my mouth, and I screamed, “I am dead, I am dead!” My mother put me in the swinging bed with Arabian balsom in my mouth, and I was soon asleep. I didn’t die!

Sometimes there was another whale ship sighted. That was a great day. The captains would visit each other and have a gam and have dinner together. They would talk of world affairs and share experiences.

Sometimes days went by without sighting a whale. This was rather dull for the sailors, so they spent their time making things out of whalebone. These bones and the things which were made from them are called scrimshaw. It is highly prized by museums. I have two beautiful boxes made of whalebone. My father, Capt. John, was a 33rd degree Mason, and one design was a Masonic emblem. They also made India ink pictures on the large whale’s teeth and on ostrich eggs. I also have what is called a swift, for winding yarn. It is adjustable so you can wind a large or small skein. They made a fork of whale bone with a wheel on one end which they called a gadging wheel, used to crimp pies.

My mother used one of these. She must have crimped hundreds of pies for her big family and many guests. She didn’t have time to make cookies, so she made what she called “hard gingerbread.” The top was ornamented with the wheel. When it was cool and cut into squares, it was like soft molasses cookies. It was much enjoyed by her eight children and all the neighboring children, who were always welcome at our house’.

We sailed the Indian Ocean all of the year 1872 as far is I know. I do know that August 31st was my sixth birthday, and I spent it on the ship, which was anchored between Africa and Madagascar.

My youngest brother was born on the ship the day before I was six. His name was Ernest Seaborn Hamblin. When he grew up the children used to tease him by calling him an African and saying that he could never be president of the United States.

A whale was caught on my birthday, and my father promised to give me a watch for a birthday present.

I remember my father took Mother and me over to see the Chief of Madagascar. He had seven wives. I remember just how they looked. They were dark skinned of course, being Africans, and they were dressed in white. Their lips were blood red from chewing betel nuts. I tell the girls that is where they got the idea of using lipstick.

Early in 1873 my father must have decided he had caught whales enough, for we sailed for Australia. We left the ship in Tasmania, for I remember the ride across the island. There was a wonderful road made by convict prisoners from England.

I never will forget that ride across the island of Tasmania. Wild roses were growing all along the road. The blossoms had gone but the red seed pods were very beautiful to me, who had looked out on the Indian Ocean for so long.

When we reached Australia we stayed with a Mrs. Tassell. She was a missionary, I think. Anyway, she had Sunday School for the natives. Evidently she had Bibles to give away, for she gave me one. I have that Bible now. My mother wrote my name in it and the date presented by Mrs. Tassell. It is such fine print I don’t think I could read it now. She also gave me a song book which I lost on my way home. My favorite song was:

I want to be an angel
And with the angels stand,
A crown upon my forehead
And a harp in my hand.

The ship was sold in March, 1873. Capt. Hamblin, my father, had decided to give up whaling and go home. The ship sent home 895 barrels of oil and never went back to New Bedford. The first mate, Mr. Hiram E. Swift of Whitman, Mass., now took over as Captain. His wife came to be with him and brought their little daughter, Amy Louise, but no little boy.

Capt. Swift once visited us in West Falmouth and told me that his little girl had my picture and made a real playmate of it. He also told me (hat one day I went into the cabin and got his pocket book to play with. I told him I didn’t take the white money, I only took the yellow money. It was the gold I was after. Even at that early age I knew the difference.

Captain Hamblin and family were now ready to go home by way of London. We took a steamer for London, stopping at Lisbon, Portugal, and Le Havre, France. I know we visited those places for I have on our living room table a pretty little shell snuff box from France and a large shell that held a thimble, little scissors, and a case for needles that I bought in Lisbon.

Our next stop was London. The thing I remember about London was that my little brother decided he would explore the city by himself and was lost in the crowd. My mother was frantic until he was found. We also made a visit to the Zoological Gardens and almost got a ride on an elephant. The elephant was off on a trip with some other children, and we couldn’t wait for him to come back.

Our next stop was at Fayal, one of the Azores. We were there long enough to visit one of the parks and to eat some nice little cakes brought around by a man with a little tin trunk. We also have a beautiful lace shawl from there. My mother always told me that the thread was neither cotton or silk but the fiber of a tree. It is a museum piece. We also have some flowers made of feathers, which are still perfect.

Now we are really on our wav home on another steamer. We left home on the stage coach; but while we were away, the railroad was built to West Falmouth, so we had a ride on the train.

Of course, there was no one at the station to meet us because there were no telephones in those days, and no one knew just when we would arrive. Our house was not far from the station, so we walked home. I will never forget that walk home. The Boyce house wasn’t built then. The only house I remember was painted white with blue blinds. It looked very pretty to me. The First stop was at the Hamblin house, to get reacquainted with Aunt Abby and Uncle Josiah and our brothers and sisters. That was exciting! In the course of time we also got acquainted with the house in the barn, also tile hens and chickens, also the two pigs in the pigpen. Life was going to be quite different from our life on the ship in the Indian Ocean.

There were hay fields in front of the house and woods to explore at the back of the house as we got acquainted with West Falmouth. But that is an other story.

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