The Race to the White Continent: Voyages to the Antarcticby Alan Gurney
In the 1830s much of the world was still unexplored territory to European and American travelers, and the forbidding Antarctic region represented perhaps the ultimate mystery. As the decade drew to a close, three expeditions to the Pole were launched simultaneously by the United States, France, and Britain, each nation vying to be the first to forge a path through the ice and venture farther south than any vessel had ever sailed before. The leaders of these expeditions were U.S. Navy officer Charles Wilkes, seasoned French explorer Dumont d'Urville, and Royal Navy captain James Clark Ross. The Race to the White Continent is a colorful and captivating account of the travels and adventures of these navigators, who paved the way for the explorers, traders, and whalers of what was to become known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.
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ABLE-WHACKETS. A popular sea-game with cards, wherein the loser is beaten over the palms of the hands with a handkerchief tightly twisted like a rope. Very popular with horny-fisted salts.
ADVANCE MONEY. In men-of-war and most merchant ships the advance of two months' wages is given to the crew, previous to going to sea; the clearing off of which is called working up the dead horse.
Admiral W. H. Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book, 1867
THE WORLD of the 1830s still held great mysteries. South America, Africa, and Australia, all with their forbidding and hostile interiors. Tibet, sprawling across the roof of the world, guarded by deserts and mountains and ruled by a god-king. The closely shuttered islands of a feudal Japan, its only window open to Europeans with the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. Ancient China with its contempt for the inquisitive, acquisitive, hairy foreign devils clinging like leechesand closely watchedin their enclaves at Macao and Canton. All these were a palimpset that explorers, travelers, merchants, adventurers, and rogues could mark for fame or fortune.
For the seaman lay the vast stretches of the Pacific and Indian oceans with their pinpricks of reefs, islands, and atolls. The reefs were dangerous, but the islands and atolls provided opportunities for the adventurous trader and souls for the adventurous missionary. The seas themselves in certain areas were rich in whales for the taking. Then laythe polar regions, perhaps the greatest mystery of all. From all else came whispers of human activity: strange customs, different gods. From the polar regions came nothing but ice.
Beyond the cordons of ice guarding both Arctic and Antarctic lay an unexplored area the size of Africa and Australia combined. In the third century B.C. Pytheas, a trader from Marseilles, had sailed north and brought back strange stories of a mare concretuma frozen seato a skeptical Mediterranean world. Since then the lands and seas rimming this improbable region had produced ivory, furs, cod, whalebone, and whale oil. The tantalizing lure of a northern sea route to the riches of the East had drawn European seamen and merchantsmainly English, Dutch, and Frenchto search for a Northwest and Northeast Passage. The Arctic ice always defeated them. But memorializing their efforts, their names lay engraved on Henry Roberts's map: Baffin's Bay, Hudson's Bay, Davis's Strait.
The south had waited longer for its Pytheas. In 1700 Edmond Halley had made the first drawing of an Antarctic tabular icebergthe large flat-topped icebergs calved from the floating ice shelves rimming Antarcticawhen commanding the Paramore on a voyage to collect information on magnetic variation. But it was not until 1775, with James Cook's circumnavigation of Antarctica in the Resolution, that the full enormousness of the southern pack ice was first realized.
What lay beyond these northern and southern barriers of ice was a matter of educated and uneducated speculation. More ice? Land? An open polar sea?
James Cook, the first seaman to probe both Arctic and Antarctic ice, had his own ideas. In February 1775, nearing the completion of his Antarctic circumnavigationa voyage that finally laid to rest the centuries-old speculation of a terra australis incognita, an unknown southern continenthe wrote in his journal: "That there may be a Continent or large tract of land near the Pole, I will not deny, on the contrary I am of the opinion there is, and it is probable that we have seen part of it. The excessive cold, the many islands and vast floats of ice all tend to prove that there must be land to the South...."
Three years later, on his last voyage in the Resolution, this time in the Arctic Ocean between Asia and North America, he was again halted by ice. Roberts's map bears a terse notation: "The further progress of the Ships Northward was render'd impossible by the Ice extending from Continent to Continent." From Icy Cape in Alaska to Cape North in Siberia, the Resolution and the Discovery had ranged and probed the implacable ice front, pack ice that threatened to sweep them against the low-lying shores of either continent. This ice was very different from the ice floes that Cook had seen in the Antarctic. This was old ice with floes rafted one upon another, sometimes to a thickness of thirty feet.
On 27 August 1778 an entry that summed up Cook's thoughts on this northern ice went into his journal: "It appeared to me very improbable that this ice could be the produce of the preceding Winter alone, but rather that of a great many." A few sentences later he ended his speculations: "Thus it may happen that more ice is distroyed in one Stormy Season, than is formed in several Winters and an endless accummulation prevented, but that there is always a remaining store, none who has been upon the spot will deny and none but Closet studdying Philosiphers will dispute." Cook's acerbic "Closet studdying Philosiphers" is a barbed reference to the Honorable Daines Barrington, a man whom Cook must have regarded as a particularly mischievous troll sent to try him. A dispassionate observer can only agree.
Although of the same age, Barrington, the son of a viscount, and Cook, the son of a farm laboror, stand in stark contrast with each other. Cook demonstrates to a perfect degree what J. R. L. Anderson has termed the Ulysses factorthe characteristics, the weft and the warp, that make a great explorer: courage, practical competence, imagination, leadership, endurance, self-sufficiency, the compulsion to cross the next range of mountains, to ford the next river, to double the next headland, and the self-confidence when to admit defeat. Cook, in a rare moment, revealed himself in a telling journal entry on 30 January 1774. Halted by the Antarctic ice at 70°15'S latitudethe farthest south that any ship had sailedhe wrote: "I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions."
Barrington demonstrates to a perfect degree what might be called the Magpie factor: the compulsion to collect random facts, ideas, information, and statistics on a subject and then bind the whole together to form a rickety, speculative theory.
The books, tracts, and articles flowed from this lawyer, antiquary, and naturalist's pen. Jeremy Bentham considered him as a lawyer to be "a very indifferent judge." As an antiquary he wrote on the Flood (an article attacked by the Gentleman's Magazine); on Dolly Pentreath, the last person to speak the Cornish language (an article ridiculed by Horace Walpole); on Julius Caesar's landing in Britain and the passage of the Thames; on the antiquity of cardplaying ("Barrington is singularly unfortunate in his speculations about cards," wrote William Chatto in his History of Playing Cards). As a naturalist he designed a form for keeping records and sent a Copy to the Reverend Gilbert White at Selborne. (Of the 110 letters that make up White's classic Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 61 are addressed to Barrington.) "I have," Barrington ruefully admitted, "perhaps published too many things."
A man from an influential familyone brother a respected post captain in the Royal Navy, another a bishop, yet another a secretary at warand with a wide circle of influential friends, Barrington had been instrumental in obtaining for Johann Forster and his son Georg the positions of naturalists aboard Cook's Resolution after Joseph Banks, the intended naturalist, had stormed off in a fit of pique. Forster, pedantic, humorless, quarrelsome, harboring grudges, had proved a constant irritant on the three-year voyage that circumnavigated Antarctica.
Barrington's influence also made itself felt in the Arctic. The same year, 1773, that Forster was sourly eyeing the Antarctic pack ice, two more Royal Navy vessels, the Racehorse and the Carcass, sailed north from Spitsbergen before being stopped by pack ice. This expeditionmuch against the advice of Greenland whalerswas attempting to sail through the pack to a theoretical open polar sea. The expedition can be considered the brainchild of Daines Barrington. The viscount's son, never having seen it, had pitched upon the Arctic Ocean as one of his many hobbyhorses. The polar sea was an open sea, according to Barrington.
Intrigued by a theory of the Swiss Samuel Engel that seawater never froze and that all polar ice came from the breakup of frozen rivers, Barrington had entered into a long correspondence with the land-locked Engel. This type of speculation was pure catnip to Barrington. Powerful friends in the Admiralty and the Royal Society set the Racehorse and the Carcass on their course for the North Pole. The singular failure of the expedition-the two vessels barely escaped from the pack ice, and a young Horatio Nelson barely escaped from a polar bearalso failed to dampen Barrington's infatuation with the open polar sea. Quite the reverse. He resumed his lobbying, this time for an expedition to search for a Northwest or Northeast Passage from the Pacific. The astronomer royal Nevil Maskelyne, Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty, Joseph Banks, and Dr. Daniel Solanderthe latter two still basking in the glow of their 1768-71 Endeavour voyage with Cookall were dragooned into helping Barrington. By March 1774 Barrington was happily informing the secretary of the Royal Society that the voyage "will be undertaken after the return of Capt. Cook in 1775; when a similar expedition will be fitted out, which will in general follow the outline proposed by the Council of the Royal Society to the Board of Admiralty." Here, in embryo, lay the flesh and bones of Cook's last fatal voyage.
The Resolution sailed from Plymouth on 12 July 1776. Barrington continued to publish articles and tracts about the open polar sea. Republished in 1781 and 1818, they had a profound effect on British and American theories on the nature of the polar regions, theories advanced by men whom Cook would have instantly pigeonholed as more closet studying philosophers.
Cook's pioneering voyage into the high southern latitudes was followed by others. The seamen who speculated upon the source of this ice, the vast fields of compacted floes, the huge flat-topped icebergs that could be counted by the hundred from deck level, all these men, men with questioning and inquiring minds, had their own ideas on the source of the ice and what lay close to the South Pole.
Thaddeus Bellingshausen, commander of the 1819-21 Russian naval expedition that circumnavigated Antarctica, thought it an ice-covered sea with the ice attached to shallows and islands. The sealer James Weddell's farthest southachieved in his eponymous sea, a sea clear of iceled him to believe that the remaining miles to the pole would be ice-free. However, the season's being late, the wind contrary, rations short, Weddell had reluctantly made the prudent decision to turn north for the island of South Georgia. A decade later, in 1832, during the third circumnavigation of Antarctica, John Biscoe, on a sealing voyage, having sighted land in both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean sectorsland some three thousand miles apartwrote to Captain Francis Beaufort at the British Hydrographic Office that it was his considered opinion that these widely separated coastlines formed "the headlands of a Southern Continent."
An ice-covered sea, an open sea, a polar landmass: Even the pragmatic seamen held divided opinions on what lay close to the South Pole. But all these men would have agreed with Cook's candid opinion of Antarctic sailing:
The risk one runs in exploring a coast in these unknown and Icy Seas, is so very great, that I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored. Thick fogs, Snow storms, Intense Cold and every other thing that can render Navigation dangerous one has to encounter and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the enexpressable horrid aspect of the Country, a Country doomed by Nature never once to feel the warmth of the Suns rays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice. The Ports which may be on the Coast are in a manner wholy filled up with frozen Snow of a vast thickness, but if any should so far be open as to admit a ship in, it is even dangerous to go in, for she runs a risk of being fixed there for ever, or coming out in an ice island.
Reading that grim paragraph would be enough to convince any mariner to steer clear of the high southern latitudes. But Cook's widely read journals had also written of the Pacific and its whales, of the American northwest coast and its sea otters and fur seals, of New Zealand with its flax and timber, of Tahiti with its breadfruit and hogs. Here, for sharp-nosed merchants, were trading possibilities. As the years went by, the whaleships and traders moved into the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Blubber Hunters and
BACK OFF ALL. The order when the harpooner has thrown his harpoon into the whale. Also, to back off a sudden danger.
BOTH SHEETS AFT. The situation of a square-rigged ship that sails before the wind, or with the wind right astern. It is said also of a half-drunken sailor rolling along with his hands in his pockets and elbows square.
Admiral W. H. Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book, 1867
Prior to the American civil war a handful of small New England ports and islands burst out from the grim provincialism of their puritanical shores and became the world's paramount whale oil and whalebone marketplace. More than three-quarters of the world's whaling fleet sailed under the Stars and Stripes. Their more fastidious merchant marine colleagues disparagingly called these whalemen and their vessels blubber hunters.
A theatrical air surrounds nineteenth-century prints of the blubber hunters at work. Convention dictates the whaleship be set as the backdrop, hove to, a dead whale alongside, black smoke billowing from the tryworks as the blubber is reduced to oil. Front stage is full of action. Here are whalesinvariably sperm whales with bulbous heads and dangerous toothed jawsharpooned and lanced, roiling and thrashing the waters in their death throes, blood spouting from their blowholes. Some fight back. The fearsome jaws bite into fragile open whaleboats. Men tumble out. Spars, oars, whale line tubs, and men bob in the water. Flukes thrash the air and sea. Men, whale gear, splinters of boat, all explode skyward.
The print's central message is uncannily close to that of a prehistoric rock painting showing men hunting mammoths with spears or, nearer our time, the bas-relief of Fifth Dynasty Egyptians hunting hippopotamus from papyrus reed boats with harpoon and line. Samuel Colt might have patented his six-shot breech-loading revolver, but his countrymen's techniques, in hunting the world's largest animal, were little removed from those of the Stone Age.
The nineteenth-century descendant of the ancient Stone Age hunter, braced in the bow of his whaleboat, arms drawn back, hands grasping the harpoon, poised to plunge the weapon into the whale's body, was in a very literal sense the point man for an industry that provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of American men and women.
The New England whaling ports provided the infrastructure that kept the blubber hunters, men and ships, at sea. Here were shipyards for building and repair, loud with the noise of mallet and hammer, saw and adz, sweet with the smell of wood shavings, tar, and paint. Ship chandlers' shelves and floors were crammed to overflowing with a cornucopia of stores and equipment, the buildings pungent with the aroma of tarred hemp rope. Men worked in cool and airy sailmakers' lofts and lengthy rope walks. Blacksmiths worked furnaces and forges to fashion harpoons, lances, flensing knives, blubber hooks, and blubber spades. Coopers shaved staves for the barrels and the kegs that lay piled on wharves. Boardinghouses, inns, and brothels catered to the physical desires and comforts of whalemen returned from a four-year voyage and those about to sail. The more material needs of the whalemenespecially the raw, green hands from the Vermont and the New Hampshire backwoodswere catered to by the avaricious and predatory outfitters. The whalemen called them land sharks. (So general was the term that the New Bedford Outfitters' Association resorted to fines in an attempt to stop its members from calling themselves land sharks during their meetings.) The outfitters also ran sweatshop clothing operations. Local women were supplied with cheap fabrics for the sewing, at piece rates, of shirts, jackets, and trousers. These in turn were sold to the whalemen, with the outfitter pocketing a very handsome profit.
These exploited whalemen roamed the world's oceans, seeking out sperm whales, right whales, bowhead whales, and elephant seals. In their wandering among the islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans the whalemen, with evenhanded abandon, spread rum, whiskey, firearms, and venereal disease. Some of the islanders, looking upon their visitors as undesirable aliens who molested their women, massacred themand sometimes ate them.
The massacre of the whales, however, provided the oil that lit the lamps of the Conestoga wagons and the advancing western frontier settlements, lit the offices, streets, factories, and light beacons of the eastern seaboard. Bright, clean burning spermaceti candles replaced smoky, guttering tallow candles in the home. The lower-grade oil from the right whale and bowhead whale lubricated the clattering machinery of the mills.
Baleen (the fibrous plates acting as food filters in the mouths of the right whale and the bowhead whale) provided the strips of strong, springy whalebone sewn into corsets and stays that cinched and shaped the female figure. Baleen provided hoops for crinolines and struts for the parasols that protected delicate female skin from bright sunlight, skin that had been cleansed and soothed with spermaceti-based soaps and ointments, skin then dabbed with perfume fixed with ambergris.
The menfolk of these cleansed, perfumed, constricted ladies rode on whalebone sprung carriages, and swung whalebone buggy whips. They wore gloves, leather boots, and wool clothing all cured and carded with whale oil. This industry, in short, was one guaranteed to send today's conservationists, environmentalists, and anthropologists into hysterical fits of the vapors.
The wealth produced by this reprehensibleto modern-day perceptionsindustry (a description that would have raised the blood pressure of a nineteenth-century mercantile Yankee; only the shoemaking and the cotton industry outranked whaling in Massachusetts) may be seen in the graceful architecture of the New England towns closely identified with whale oil and whalebone. But the towns, with their elegant Greek Revival buildings lining tree-shaded and tourist-haunted streets, stand in stark contrast with the whaleships that once sailed from them.
Dumpy-looking vessels, heavily constructed, flat-sheered, bluff-bowed, wide of beam, three-masted with lookouts at the mastheads spying for whales, whaleboats slung in heavy wooden davits and resting on cranes, spars and sails grimy with soot from blubber smoke: All these made whaleships instantly recognizable. Even more so when they were cutting in the whale: the dead whale alongside, men balancing on a plank platform rigged out from the hull and slicing the blubber into strips with razor-sharp blubber spades, the whale slowly revolving as the blubber was ripped off in a long strip, hauled aboard by a heavy tackle rigged to the main yard. On deck the blubber was chopped into blocks and then thinly sliced (but held at the skin like the spine of a book, blocks known as bible leaves to whalemen) before being heaved into the smoking try-potsiron cauldrons held in a rectangular brick structure with a fire underneath fed on scraps of shriveled blubberthe thick black smoke curling through the masts, sails, and rigging. At night with their try-pots at full cook, fires flaming under the cauldrons, the whaleships resembled miniature floating infernos. Such uncouth craft, the merchant seamen claimed, were built by the mile and cut to the length required.
The only sweet curved lines of these slow-moving plebeian seagoing hunters lay in their whaleboats. Graceful, double-ended craft with raking stem and stern, swooping buoyant sheer, twenty-eight to thirty feet overall, they hung in their davits ready for instant lowering: two or three boats to port and one at the starboard quarter, that side being left clear for the cutting in of the whale carcass.
So many of these lightly built and graceful craft were required by the whaling fleet that they can claim to be one of the world's earliest mass production line of boats. Builders would steam bend frames and stems, cut planks, thwarts, and knees, all to be stockpiled for a production run. One New Bedford builder, James Beetle, told of getting a verbal order for forty boats from one whaleship owner. Beetle's whaleboats bore his burned-in brand name and a carved-in serial number.
Stowed in the open hull of these craft, perfect for their purpose, lay the simple but effective hunting gear: There were harpoonsironsfor the initial spearing and lances for the final killing. Two whale line tubs holding three hundred fathoms of carefully coiled, lightly tarred three-strand hemp rope the thickness of a thumb. A wooden drogue for hitching to the whale line to slow and tire a harpooned whale. Several ten-foot pointed staffs with flagswaifsfor marking the ownership of the dead whale. A boat blubber spade for cutting a hole in the whale's lips or flukes (through the hole went a toggle and line for towing the animal back to the whaleship). Six ash oars, five for rowing and the sixth, considerably longer, for steering. Six paddles; a wooden piggin for bailing; a freshwater keg; a lantern keg containing lantern, tinderbox, matches, candles, pipes, tobacco, biscuits. Several thick-padded canvas rectanglesnippersfor hand protection when gripping the whale line once the whale had been struck. A bucket for wetting the whale line as it surged around the loggerhead, for a struck and sounding whale could take out whale line so fast that the friction often ignited the timber post. Spars, sails, rigging, compass, boathook, grapnel, hatchets, and knives completed the outfit.
Six men formed the whaleboat's crew. All played a specific part in the highly choreographed performance that lay in whale killing. Warships had their gun drill; whaleships had their boat drill.
The two leading players in this marine ballet were the boatheader and the boatsteerer. The boatheader (one of the mates and sometimes the captain) commanded and steered the whaleboat on its approach to the whale. The boatsteerer rowed in the forward position and harpooned the whale. When the boat was fast to the whale, the two men changed positions, the boatsteerer moving aft to the long steering oar and the boatheader forward to lance and kill the whale. It was an acrobatic exchange calling for sure footwork and balance in a wildly pitching and rolling whaleboat encumbered with an obstacle course of men, oars, thwarts, masts, sails, and whale line.
Aft of the boatsteerer rowed the bowman; the most experienced foremast hand, he helped the boatsteerer in stepping and lowering the mast. Aft of the bowman came the midship oarsman, usually the most inexperienced hand on board. Aft of him came the tub oarsman, who wetted the whale line as it smoked around the loggerhead. The stroke or after oarsman coiled the whale line as it was hauled inboard, and he caught and secured the mast when it was lowered. He also bailed.
"Lower away there, d'ye here?" was the invariable call to action that set the men in motion. Line tubs were loaded aboard, gripes and tackles cast off; the whaleboat was raised slightly, and the cranes were swung inboard. The mate and boatsteerer went down in the boat as it was lowered, the mate aft by his steering oar and the boatsteerer forward. Once afloat and rocking in the swell, the four remaining crew members scrambled down the chains and took their appointed places. Davit tackles were cast off, oars shipped, and the whaleboat pulled away from the mother ship. If the whales lay downwind, the mast was stepped and sails were set. If the whales lay upwind, the long row started. The whale line was now led from the tub, around the loggerhead, and then forward between the rowing men to the bow chock and then hitched to the harpoon. The slim, narrow craft, fully armed, ash oars bending under the strain, creaming toward her target, was now a deadly missile set on its course.
The result of this conflicta half ton of human muscle against sixty tons of whaleinvariably ended in death. For the whaleman the means were various: a simple drowning; a bone-crunching death from flukes or jaws; or"a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity," according to Herman Melvillebeing snatched by a foul turn of the racing whale line and plucked overboard.
Some whales died quickly and quietly. Some sounded and set off at speed underwater, towing the whaleboat in a mad careering white-water run, the famous "Nantucket sleigh-ride." Others fought back with the ferocity shown in the whaling prints. But the whale's end usually came with the flurry, the final furious swimming in a narrowing circle, spouting blood, before rolling "fin out," dead. Old whalemen claimed that the final moment always came as the whale faced the sun.
Meet the Author
Alan Gurney is a former yacht designer and photographer living in Suffolk, England. His previous books include Compass and Race to the White Continent.
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