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Joan Druett, a historian who's been called a female Patrick O'Brian by the Wall Street Journal, dramatically re-creates the mystery of the ill-fated whaleship and reveals a voyage filled with savagery under the command of one of the most ruthless captains to sail the high seas.
On a gale-racked day in the hamlet of Holmes Hole-now called Vineyard Haven-on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, a whaling captain arrived at the front door of a substantial house that commanded an unbroken view of the storm-tossed waters of the harbor. His name was Howes Norris; he was thirty-seven and had just seventeen months left to live.
The date was May 14, 1841, a day set apart as a national holiday to commemorate the death of President Harrison, and so Captain Norris would have been formally dressed, as befitted a whaling master. He was an impressive figure. Strongly built and tall for his time at five feet, nine inches, Norris had the thick, sloping shoulders of a man who had spent much of his youth pulling heavy oars. Pale-complexioned, with ears that protruded from thinning brown hair and a full-lipped mouth that appeared disdainful in repose, his face was dominated by large and heavy-lidded eyes, wide-set under arching brows. What would have made him most distinctive, however, was his bearing-that of an experienced and successful whaling master, which counted for a great deal in the social milieu of Martha's Vineyard.
It was little wonder that Howes Norris had chosen whaling for his career. As the Rev. Joseph Thaxter, minister of the Edgartown Congregational Church, remarked back in 1824, Vineyard boys could be relied on to "scorn to Hoe a field of Corn, but will row a Boat from morning till Night and never complain." Like his schoolmates, Howes Norris had been raised in the unmistakable island aura of whale oil, clams, smoked herring, and the ocean. As a boy he had swum naked in the lagoon; had taken out boats after codfish and halibut; had swaggered over the oil-soaked planks of Edgartown jetties; had swarmed illicitly through the rigging of anchored whalers.
Like his friends, Norris had regarded the sea as his playground, and his boyhood as a kind of apprenticeship. From childhood, he would have been well aware that he would have to seek his fortune on the ocean. "The Sea is the source from whence the People look for their Support" Thaxter noted, the island being only marginally fertile. Indian corn was raised in a few scattered clay patches, along with rye, potatoes, and turnips, but not enough to satisfy the local market, let alone export to the mainland. So, for young Howes Norris, farming had not been an option.
Born on September 19, 1803, the son of a humble Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, pilot, Norris first went to sea at the age of sixteen, shipping on the brig William Thacker of Edgartown on June 2, 1820. Probably he managed this by pretending to be older than he actually was, because when he joined the Ann Alexander of New Bedford on August 1, 1825, he declared his age to be twenty-three. This obvious dedication was rewarded in July 1828, when he was given the command of the Leonidas of Fairhaven. It was a grave responsibility for such a young man: the Leonidas had been just eight years in the Fairhaven fleet, and had a history of making profitable cruises. Norris managed to fulfill the owners' expectations by bringing her back from the South Atlantic inside twelve months, with a cargo that was worth the creditable amount of thirteen thousand dollars. Norris would have looked back on this voyage with nostalgia, as a wonderful example of beginner's luck.
Single-minded, ambitious, and hardworking, Norris had stopped just one month at home before again taking charge of the Leonidas. This voyage, though, was not nearly as fortunate. Not only did the whales prove much more elusive, but Norris was forced to put into the port of Rio de Janiero, as four of his men were down with scurvy. Still worse, he had to linger there five weeks for expensive repairs, a rotten mast being in dire need of replacement. Then he steered south, back to the Brazil Banks, but it took another season to fill his holds with oil, with the result that they did not arrive home until mid-1831.
Perhaps because of this, the command of the Leonidas was passed on to a fellow Vineyarder, Captain John H. Pease. However, the owners still had enough confidence in Norris to entrust him with the maiden whaling voyage of the London Packet. He left in November 1832, on a cruise to the Indian Ocean that took thirty-three months to complete-and came home tight-lipped about much of what had happened.
However, he was able to report nineteen hundred barrels-sixty thousand gallons-of oil, which meant a reasonable profit for the merchants who had invested in the ship; reasonable enough to encourage them to give him the command of the London Packet again. And this time his luck held. This voyage was an excellent one, with the spectacular report of well over twenty-five hundred barrels. Because of this, and because secrets had been kept, Norris now had the enviable reputation of a man with luck on his side.
Was he still lucky? It would take another voyage like that one to prove it. Down in the anchorage an assortment of sloops and schooners lay huddled under the cold southwest gusts, waiting for the wind to swing east and moderate, so they could sail down Vineyard Sound on the first fair tide. Until then, the shipping was trapped. Captain Howes Norris watched the scud of the waves, and the way the craft pulled at their anchors, clutching his tall hat and the flapping skirts of his frockcoat as he studied the gale-whipped scene. His next command, the Sharon, was waiting for her captain in Fairhaven, in mainland Massachusetts, and he had to cross that water to get to her-to once more look for good fortune on the whaling grounds.
Two days before, the whaleship Champion had blown into Edgartown harbor on the breast of this cold southwest storm, at the end of a sperm-whaling voyage to New Zealand that had lasted three years. She had an excellent report-more than three thousand barrels full of sperm oil from spermaceti whales, the best and most valuable kind. Hearty congratulations were due to her master, Captain George Lawrence. With sperm oil fetching the price of ninety-four cents per gallon, a gross profit of $90,000 was likely-cause for celebration, particularly considering that it had cost only about $10,000 to outfit the ship in the first place. Once that oil was gauged and put onto the market in New Bedford, Lawrence and his officers could expect to take home a very good sum, and even the lowliest crew members would be relatively pleased.
As Norris understood well, it was good voyages like this one that encouraged the merchants of New England to keep up their investment in the whaling trade. Every now and then some legendary skipper would bring in a huge cargo after a remarkably short time away, giving renewed hope to the citizens who sank their money into the ventures. One such was the fabled Captain Obed Starbuck of Nantucket, who had made two record-breaking voyages on the Loper. In 1829 he had sailed home with every one of his barrels full of sperm oil after a voyage of just seventeen months. No sooner had he exchanged his full casks for empty ones than he had turned round and gone out again, returning fourteen months later full of oil again. In just thirty-one months he had harvested 140,000 gallons, grossing more than a hundred thousand dollars, an enormous sum at the time.
What would have nagged at Norris's mind, however, was the knowledge that every one of those gallons had been rendered out of what had once been a live whale-that every good report meant fewer whales for him to hunt. Voyages were lengthening as the ships had to cruise farther in search for prey, and reports were worsening with each season that passed by. The Nantucket ship Obed Mitchell was still at sea thirty-two months after departing on her maiden voyage, and, like everyone else, Howes Norris would have heard the rumor that she had taken only eight hundred barrels in all that time. If true, this meant financial disaster for her owners and a crippling loss of prestige for her captain.
It didn't bear thinking about. His mind edged away. All those who speculated in whaleships-and especially those who commanded them-were gamblers at heart. Optimism was essential, because a man who did not secretly believe that his next cruise was going to be a record breaker would never be able to force himself to embark on a voyage that was increasingly doomed to last three or more years. And, as in all other kinds of gambling, superstition played a large part, too.
The whaleship Sharon did look as if she would be lucky. She had been out on just one previous voyage, to the Pacific Ocean under the command of Captain John Church, and it had been a very good one. Departing in June 1837, she had returned on December 10, 1840, a voyage of forty-two months, which was longer than most men liked to be away. Her holds, though, had been crammed with oil worth $80,000, a sum that made the protracted voyage seem worthwhile.
Naturally, then, Norris was anxious to take over his new and promising command. It is likely that he had already made arrangements with a young man by the name of Holmes Luce -who called himself "Captain" and his humble sloop a "packet" because he made his living ferrying Vineyarders to the mainland-to take him to the Acushnet River. But sailing down the sound could not be done until the wind and tide set fair, which meant Howes Norris had time to take part in a family gathering.
Instead of knocking and waiting, Norris would have opened the door and walked in unannounced. That he was able to do this would have given him great satisfaction. Set south of Owen Park and on the harborside of Main Street, the house he was visiting was in one of the most prestigious locations in town. Eastville, where Norris had been born and raised, had a very different reputation from Main Street, Holmes Hole. In the years since he had first gone to sea, Norris had risen mightily in social status.
Now known as East Chop, Eastville is a respectable part of Oak Bluffs today, but back then it was nicknamed "Barbary Coast" because it was considered nothing better than a hangout for transient sailors. As well as being despised by the gentry, Eastville was off the beaten track. Howes's mother, Lucy Shaw Norris, would have found it difficult to go shopping, let alone enjoy any social life. To get to Holmes Hole she either had to go by small boat across the harbor-extremely uncomfortable in the northerly winds of winter-or else get in a wagon and drive all the way around the lagoon, a bone-jolting trip of at least four miles each way. For an Eastville man to be accepted in Main Street, Holmes Hole, was a tall step up the ladder of gentility. Yet Norris had managed it, partly because of his success as a whaling master, but mostly because of an advantageous marriage. The fine house he stepped into on this blustery day was the property of his father-in-law, Captain Nathan Smith.
Nathan Smith, who, as host, would have stepped forward first to shake Norris's hand, was a stocky, middle-aged man with an affable smile, a pleasantly open expression, and a benevolent air. "Captain" was an honorary title. Nathan Smith had not made his fortune out of whaling, but out of the liquor trade, running one of the most prosperous and popular watering holes in town. Called Smith's Tavern, the establishment had been built around 1750, and was originally owned and operated by Captain David Smith, Nathan Smith's father. There, Captain David Smith had served Nevis rum at one dollar per gallon, along with "breadstuffs" that he brought in from New York by running the British blockade with the assistance of his son Nathan, who must have been a flamboyant character in his youth. Nathan had inherited Smith's Tavern after the death of his father in 1818, and had spent the next twenty-two years serving behind the bar. It is easy to picture the practiced hospitality of his demeanor as he entertained his guests in front of a roaring fire in the "keeping-room"-or "keeping-company room" -of this fine house, which had been bought with the proceeds of selling the tavern, after his retirement in April the previous year.
Because of the holiday, it is probably safe to assume that Nathan Smith's fifty-six-year-old brother, Captain Thomas Harlock Smith, was in the room as well. Another prosperous man, Thomas had established the foundations of his fortune by sailing in the foreign trade as an "adventurer," speculating in cargoes, and investing his profits in Martha's Vineyard property. In a typical transaction just the previous month, Thomas had sold a lot for $200 that he had bought for $135 in July. Considering the short time of ownership, this was no small return, and the revenue from several transactions like this would have quickly added up to a sizable sum. Quite apart from an energetic program of buying and selling, he owned and operated a chandlery store, which he kept in a boat shed on the beach below his house, on Main Street and south of Owen Park, a couple of lots to the north of his brother's place.
Both brothers had done well when they had married, too. Captain Nathan Smith's wife, Polly Jenkins Dunham Smith, was wealthy in her own right, being a member of a family that had become rich from taverns, stores, and profits made in foreign trade. Captain Thomas Smith's wife, Deborah West Smith -familiarly known as Depza-had brought him both property and the expectation of a substantial legacy from her father, Jeruel West. Both women had given them sons. Two of these would also have been present, having a great deal in common with Captain Howes Norris. Both were whalemen, and both were due to sail with him on the Sharon.
The younger of the two, Nathan Skiff Smith, was the son of Captain Nathan Smith, and therefore Norris's brother-in-law. A brown-haired, narrow-eyed twenty-five-year-old, Nathan Jr. looked a lot like his father, though his expression was not nearly as jovial. One eyelid was markedly lower than the other, so that he looked both alert and suspicious, an impression emphasized by a down-turned mouth. The other whaleman was Nathan Skiff Smith's first cousin, Thomas Harlock Smith Jr., a light-complexioned, sandy-haired, tough and nuggety little fellow, just four feet, nine inches tall. Though a mere five feet, four inches, Nathan Skiff Smith had quite an advantage in height.
Norris was going to rely on these men a lot: Thomas Harlock Smith Jr. would be his first mate on the Sharon, while Nathan Skiff Smith would be the second officer. Both would play a vital part in the daily running of the ship. They would transmit the captain's orders and be in charge of discipline, functioning as intermediaries between Captain Norris and the crew.
Excerpted from IN THE WAKE OF MADNESS by JOAN DRUETT Copyright © 2003 by Joan Druett
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 29, 2004
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in nautical history (specifically the whaling industry). The story of the whaleship Sharon will definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in mutinies and other disasters at sea. I thought her theories were interesting and well-developed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
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