‘The Worst of People’: Greenlandmen in Fact and Fiction
Media reports would have us believe that modern society has created these yobs, neds and hooligans, and that previous generations had no such problems. The media, however, may be working to its own agenda, for rowdiness has been common to every era. Gangs of upper-class roughs known as Mohawks infested the nights of 18th century London, overturned coaches and pestered women. Fear of garrotters led to mid-Victorian gentlemen wearing spiked collars and carrying pistols, while throughout the 18th and 19th centuries drunken seamen plagued the ports of Britain. Although Packet-rats from the Atlantic and Geordie Bears from the collieries were notorious, Greenlandmen from the whaling ships had the worst reputation of all.
It was Walter Scott who first sparked my interest in the Greenlandmen:
‘Here’s to the Greenland tar, a fiercer guest
Claims a brief hour of riot, not of rest;
Proves each wild frolic that in wine has birth
And wakes the land with brawls and boisterous mirth’
Scott’s impressions of the whalers stemmed from his visit to Lerwick in 1814. A local minister, Reverend John Mill, termed them ‘curs’d ruffians’ and ‘the worst of people.’ Christian Watt described them as ‘a wild and rough lot,’ and she should know, as both her father and husband were Greenlandmen.
When I set out to investigate the truth behind the reputation of Scottish whaling men, I had no idea that my search would lead me to write both a non-fiction book titled Whalehunters and Whales for the Wizard, a novel that was to lift the 2005 Dundee Book Prize. They were as much about the people as the industry, and where I could, I projected real individuals into the fiction, layering the characters with images gleaned from log books and journals, newspaper articles and reports by the Dundee Customs officers.
Logbooks and photographs, company accounts and customs records all helped unravel the working side of the industry; the number of vessels, of whales caught, where they hunted and what they ate. But more intensive searching revealed the individual stories that were most often lost in the blanket stereotype of the Greenlandmen as a homogeneous mass of anonymous troublemakers.
There was a letter in Dundee University Archives: ‘Please pay the bearer Janet Cunningham oil money due to me from the ship Dorothy, signed by me (X) John Cunningham’s mark.’ This Greenlandman, then, cared enough for his wife to have his oil money, a large proportion of his wages, paid to her. So at least one of the ‘curs’d ruffians’ had a heart. This little document prompted me to begin Whales for the Wizard with the plight of the women waiting for their men to return from a disastrous voyage. I invented Mary Gordon, the stowaway searching for a husband lost in the Arctic, and used her as a focal point to highlight the superstitious nature of the whaling men.
From Alexander Alison, a fourteen-year-old boy who was slighted as a supposed Jonah, to ‘lucky pennies, lucky days’, to Bessie Miller, the witch from whom seamen bought a favourable wind, the lives of whaling men were constrained by superstition. Perhaps surviving in a dangerous environment has that affect on people, but few writers mention that many whalers were also religious. ‘Called at 5pm, turned out for tea, then had prayers.’ (Mathew Campbell); ‘we had divine Worship every Sunday.’ (Alexander Alison); ‘the 103 psalm & the 64 paraphrases were sung.’ (Margaret Penny). Some were only religious when they thought it expedient, for as the shipowner Robert Runciman observed, seamen swore as a habit but prayed when the ship was in danger.
The more I searched, the more I found; piece after piece of often disjointed information that unravelled the tight-tangled web of history and misapprehension surrounding these grimy men of the north.
Photographs helped ascertain faces, ages and even attitudes. They showed women watching their men sail away. Ship’s surgeons wrote most of the surviving journals, a tremendously valuable resource created by educated men who witnessed every aspect of the whaler’s life at sea. Mathew Campbell, the surgeon of the Nova Zembla in 1884, spoke of emotional scenes at the start of his voyage: ‘our crews were not all on board, they being mostly engaged in taking their leave of their families.’ And Thomas Macklin, who was aboard the Narwhal when the experimental steel whaler Empress of India sank, wrote about the wild scenes when Greenlandmen looted the wreck, but also mentioned the continuing affection those same men felt for their wives: ‘One man got a wooden [box] he had promised his [wife] to bring her back a box to wash her dishes in.’
The behaviour of these men sometimes veered wildly from heroism to eccentricity. The Baffin Fair of 1830 is a prime example of the latter: when scores of British whaling ships were stuck in the ice and nineteen sank, rather than mourn their fate a thousand whaling men camped on the ice, burned the wrecked ships to gain access to the rum and engaged on a days-long drinking orgy that saw several die of the frost. The capacity of Greenlandmen for rum was remarkable, with some vessels taking on board three puncheons for a voyage of just four months. As a single puncheon could hold 113 gallons, that amounted to 339 gallons for a crew of perhaps 44 men.
No wonder some men became ‘groggy’ and indulged in fistfights. When the Enterprise returned to Fraserburgh from her bold trek in the Arctic in 1856, Surgeon Trotter reported that the ‘mate fisted his son… our second mate began to fight two harpooners… several others were fighting besides them.’ It was more surprising to find that the officers could be as truculent as the men, for instance in 1859 Mr Martin, the mate of the Narwhal, was so foul mouthed ‘that he even astounded and astonished the crew.’
Such talent deserved fame, so I resurrected Mr Martin in Whales for the Wizard, named him Bully Forbes, the mate of the Redgauntlet, and enhanced the bad-boy image by adding phrases and character traits from a real-life Bully Forbes, an Aberdonian clipper captain of the 1850s.
Another surprising feature of the whaling life was the diversity of people who sailed. There was Arthur Conan-Doyle, who worked as surgeon in the Aberdeen whaler Hope and turned down the opportunity of a second voyage because he found the experience ‘brutal’. James Tytler was the son of an Angus minister and hankered for a literary career. He went on to edit the Encyclopaedia Britannica and soar aloft in the first aviation balloon seen in Britain; he quit whaling after a single voyage. William Gordon Burn Murdoch was a medical student when he sailed south with the Dundee Antarctic Expedition of 1892; he provides a splendid account that mentions ‘wives and children… picking their way about the decks’ of the Balaena as it prepared to leave Dundee – ‘the last of the crew bade good bye to their wives and children… leaving many a… face wet with tears.’
Many history books play down the role of women in the industry. My research revealed that they were involved in virtually every aspect of the trade, and could be hardheaded, affectionate and forceful.
In Victorian Scotland, it was inevitable that most whaling wives had to work hard. Walter Scott mentions the women of Shetland were ‘slavishly employed’ with ‘more than one carrying home the heavy sea-chests of… husbands… discharged from on board the Greenlander.’ Whether they came from Shetland or Dundee or Leith, every wife must have spent the summer months waiting for word of their husbands and dreading news of shipwreck and loss. Some voyages ended in heartbreak, others in a frenzy of spending. In 1837 the Aberdeen Herald reported scenes when ships returned from a bad voyage: ‘weeping widows rushed on board… parents and friends followed in equal grief. Of those who were privileged to meet their surviving relatives… their joy was great.’ Whales for the Wizard tapped into this grief with the Ivanhoe widows.
In 1797 the Montrose Custom Officer made a laconic comment in his daybook: ‘No accounts whatever have been had on the ship George Dempster, whence it is inferred that she must have foundered at sea.’ The master of the George Dempster, David Christie, disappeared with the others. Rather than despair, Christie’s widow opened a school that became famous throughout Angus and earned a reputation for strict discipline and quality teaching. Other widows, however, were forced to resort to more menial work, such as net-mending or bait gathering.
19th century women were every bit as capable of managing themselves and their families as their descendants are today. Women sometimes owned shares in the whaling vessels, or even owned a ship outright. For instance in 1838 Thomas Nicoll, owner of the Friendship, died and passed ownership of his sixty-four shares to his wife, Charlotte Robertson, and their son and daughters. Friendship passed through many owners over the next few years, with Mrs Margaret Davidson and Elizabeth Shield among them. Women could also act as agents, with Christine Robertson of Orkney amongst the best known.
While Whalehunters tries to explore the relationship between whaling men and women, my researches only scraped the surface. I know that some shipmasters took their wives to sea, for captain’s wives feature in many nautical tales. They had a reputation for penny pinching and keeping crews on their toes, when they were not darning the socks of the youngest apprentice or doctoring the sick. Margaret Penny seems to have been the only Scotswoman who wrote of her adventures at sea; it is maddening that her journal avoids personal details. I found it illuminating that Captain Penny, one of Aberdeen’s foremost whalers, left her ‘in charge of the ship’ while he was absent. As no professional seaman would willingly endanger his ship, such a statement reveals a world of trust on one side, and capability on the other. On a more domestic level, Christian Watt wrote of her husband: ‘the running of the house was solely my domain. He gave me every penny he earned.’
Not all relationships, however, were so successful. Captain Markham, a passenger on board the whaler Arctic, disclosed that some seamen were happy to escape ‘the thraldom of a jealous and ill tempered wife’. Perhaps it was such marriages that encouraged many Scottish whaling men to seek ‘temporary’ wives overseas. The Inuit generally welcomed these economic sanctuary seekers, gave them homes and vocational advice, and even accepted them into their beds. I found at least one instance where the attraction was reciprocated. In 1885 the Dundee whaler Esquimaux overwintered in Hudson’s Bay and a number of Inuit women moved in. I made a pivotal role for the Inuit in Whales for the Wizard, reflecting the fact that they had in real life cared for the crew of a lost Scottish ship.
An invaluable source for both books was oral history and folklore. While I was working in the Scottish Fishery Museum at Anstruther, an elderly fisherman told me the story of Robert Pratt of Cellardyke. He said that a press-gang had snatched Pratt from a whaling ship in the Firth of Forth, but he jumped ship and became a seaman on a merchant ship, only to be pressed again in London. Captured by the French, he endured months of imprisonment, escaped and returned to whaling before settling in Cellardyke. It is an interesting story, and one that is partially supported by documentary evidence. In 1808 there was a Robert Pratt aboard the Dundee whaler Mary Ann, and his name vanishes for years, to reappear in 1814. There is no way of telling if ‘Robert Pratt’ from ‘Cellerdykes’ was the same man my fisherman mentioned, but it would be nice to think so.
Folklore often casts the whalers as rough, drunken and violent. My research revealed a more rounded picture of family men, albeit who may have shared their time between Scottish and Inuit wives; of men who liked their rum but who also sang hymns. The Greenlandmen were brave. They thought as little of risking their lives to save a colleague as they did of punching a recalcitrant shipmate in the mouth. They were British seamen, with all the faults and virtues of their age. It was a fascinating voyage to explore them, and I hope that the results, in fact and fiction, do them justice.
Selected printed primary sources:
Barron, William Old Whaling Days (Hull 1895)
Burn Murdoch, W. G. From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (London 1894)
Fraser, David (Ed) The Christian Watt Papers (Edinburgh 1983)
Grierson, H. J. C. (Ed) The Letters of Sir Walter Scott 1812-1814 (London 1934)
Innes Macleod (Ed) To the Greenland Whaling (Sandwick 1979)
Markham, Captain A Whaling Cruise to Baffin’s Bay and the Gulf of Boothia (London 1874)
Ross, W Gillies This Distant and Unsurveyed Country (Montreal 1997)
Troup, James A (Ed) The Ice Bound Whalers: the story of the Dee and Grenville Bay 1836/7 (Stromness 1987)
Whalehuntes: Dundee and the Arctic Whalers is available from Mercat Press (£12.99 PBK, ISBN 1841830658); Whales for the Wizard is available from Polygon (£8.99 PBK, ISBN 1904598404).
© Malcolm Archibald 2005