© 2004-2016

Patagonia Bookshelf



Part of this narrative occurs in Patagonia, at a location called "James' harbour": I can find no such name on modern maps.

[…] one of my townsmen, Mr. Silas Dean, made me an offer to go on a voyage of two years, to Patagonia, catching seals. He offered me the berth of carpenter, and the usual share of the proceeds of what seal we might take. I did not think I should be able to perform the duties incumbent upon me in such a situation, [the author had lost his right arm in a naval battle, Ed.] but Mr. Dean finally prevailed upon me to ship, and I entered my name on the articles of ship Mary, of Newport, as carpenter, Simeon Tisdale, commander, to have the same share allotted me of the seals we might take, as if I had both of my arms to work with.

In a few weeks we got every thing ready for sea, and on the 14th day of December, 1807, we got under weigh, with a fair wind, and proceeded on our voyage. For two or three days we had very fine weather, but on the 19th a tremendous gale came on, which lasted two days, doing us considerable damage, and carrying away our yawl that was hoisted up under our stern. During the rest of our outward passage, we had pretty good weather, although at times adverse winds; but our time passed off very pleasantly. Capt. Tisdale kept me pretty steadily employed most of the time, getting out oars for our boats, so that we might be all prepared when we arrived on our sealing ground.

In forty-nine days we arrived at the Isle of May [Maio, Ed.], one of the Cape de Verds [Verde, Ed.] or Western Islands, where we began to take in water and salt for the voyage.

We got under weigh, and sailed from the Isle of May on the 4th of February, and in fifty days, with the exception of some slight changes in the weather, we had a pleasant passage to the coast of Patagonia, and put in to James' Harbor, in about 45 degrees south latitude.

It now being very late in the season for catching seal, and having to cruise along shore, for 100 miles from the ship, we made very little progress. The weather, too, became very boisterous, and our cruising was attended with imminent danger, being altogether in open boats.

We got about 1000 skins this season, and winter coming on, we were obliged to lie to until spring. We now went to work overhauling our vessel's hold, and to our surprise we found that the greater part of our water had leaked out, leaving us but about 4 hogsheads on board. We were immediately put on allowance of 1 gallon per day for each man; but being near shore we started in pursuit of a supply. We traveled for miles around, but could find no rivers or creeks except those that were so brackish that we could not use the water. We now dug wells, in every direction, but all to no purpose; there was no water to be found that we could use, and the small supply we had on board would soon be exhausted, as we had nothing to live upon but salt provisions.

In looking over our chart, we discovered a fresh water river laid down on it, about 80 miles to the northward. Two boats were now manned, and started off in search of it. In about 4 days they found the river, filled our gang casks, and returned to the ship, having been gone 8 days.

After our supply of water had become nearly exhausted, our captain ordered one boat to be manned by four of the men who went on shore at Cape Verds, under charge of the second mate, to get us another supply. A few days after they had left the ship, the weather became so boisterous that the boat's crew were obliged to put in shore, and cook themselves provisions and get some rest, for they had become very much exhausted by hard pulling against a high wind and heavy sea. During the time they were on shore, these four men made up their minds that they would take the boat from the mate, and go and seek their fortunes. They informed the mate of their determination, and told him that he must seek his way back to the ship; and, that he might not want for provision during his travel back, they gave him two sea biscuits and two pounds of beef, telling him that he might steer for the ship or any where else he saw fit, for they were now going to make their fortunes by themselves.

They had on board, when they left the ship, about 8 days provisions, and one musket with some powder and ball. They were now about 25 miles from the ship, out of our sight, so that we had no intelligence from them until the mate arrived, which was about 3 days from the time they left us. The mate now informed the captain what his men had done, which enraged him very much, and he threatened them with the severest punishment should he ever fall in with them again.

In about ten days, the four men came back and gave themselves up, having got tired of seeking their fortunes on a coast like this in the winter season. We told them that the captain had threatened them with the severest punishment, and notwithstanding their emaciated appearance, they would have to submit to be put in irons. They appeared to feel very bad at this intelligence, and then rehearsed what they had suffered during their absence from the ship. It appeared that they landed once to procure themselves food, and coming across some wild cattle, they shot one, and cut off a back load for each of them, and then returned to their boat, and continued on their voyage, living upon this food until it was exhausted. When they again attempted to land they found the coast so lined with steep rocks that it was entirely useless to try; and what course to steer, to keep clear of us, they could not imagine. Hunger now staring them in the face, and not being able to effect a landing, one of them proposed to the others that it would be better for them to return to the ship, and give themselves up, than to die there with starvation. For a long time the other three would not listen to this, but by the earnest and repeated entreaties of their suffering companion, they finally consented, and altered their course for the ship. They had the good fortune to reach us three days afterwards, having had nothing to eat or drink during their return.

All hands were now called on the quarter deck, and each individual asked if he had any thing to say, why these four men should not be put in irons. No one made any reply. I then told the captain, that I thought the men had suffered enough already, and putting them in irons would do them no good; and that as they had voluntarily given themselves up, it was as much as saying that they would do better in future, and stick by the ship until the voyage was up. As they were good men, and knew their duty, we should miss them very much; and that if we were a little lenient, it certainly would be an encouragement for them to maintain good conduct in future. All I could say, however, had no effect upon Capt. Tisdale, for he now had them all ironed, and chained to the main deck, and put on an allowance of one biscuit and some water, each, per day, with nothing to lie down upon but the bare deck, and a piece of old sail to cover them from the inclemency of the weather; and it was now very severe, the ice making around our vessel about 5 inches thick, and the ground being covered with snow.

They were kept in this situation for 14 days, during which time their lamentations were most heart-rending ; but the captain's heart appeared to be too callous to regard their appeals for mercy, for he had two of them taken and put on an island about 4 miles from the ship, giving them 12 pounds of bread and a small piece of beef, and a gang cask of fresh water, and then told them this was better usage than they deserved. The other two men were chained between decks, put on the same allowance, and for thirty days kept in this situation, the captain not going near them during the whole time, nor appearing to care whether they survived this treatment or not.

If this was not cruelty, I never saw it! Had the foremast men objected to this, when asked by the captain, these four men would not have suffered half as much. They appeared to feel sad at their being punished so long, but it was too late to speak now, for they feared the captain more and more every day, and should he take a dislike to any of them, they dreaded the consequences.

During the time these men were undergoing this punishment, the ship Elizabeth, Capt. James Williams, and a schooner of about 80 tons, as tender to the ship, came in here from South Georgia, having been out about 12 months. The captains of these vessels on learning the treatment that four of our men had received, remonstrated with our captain and finally prevailed upon him to restore them to the ship, and put them on their good behavior. They now behaved themselves very well, and finally gained the confidence of the captain, and every thing began to look more cheerful.

The winter now became very severe, but the only suffering we experienced was the want of water. A severe snow storm now set in, which lasted for three or four days; and we made every effort while it lasted, to fill up our casks with water for the ensuing season. With what snow we melted, and with the water we obtained from the fissures in the rocks after the snow had melted away, we were enabled to get our supply.

The captain now had our provisions overhauled, when we found that to make them hold out for the voyage, we must be put on an allowance of 4 pounds of pork and beef and 5 pounds of bread per week, each man. Our bread had become wormy, so that there was a waste of one pound in each allowance; but this made not the slightest difference, and we were compelled to put up with it.

I now went to work, and commenced building a small shallop [light sailboat or tender, Ed.], of about 10 tons, so that she would be ready for use the next season. With the assistance I received from the hands on board, I had her completed at the time required; and we launched her, and made her ready for use in a few days afterwards.

The place where I built her was about 25 feet above our heads, under a shelving rock, which made a complete shelter from the weather. The harbor here is very narrow, and lined with perpendicular rocks, so that vessels can make fast to them with their cables, and lie in perfect safety from wind and sea. It is about 4 rods wide, [22 yards, roughly 20 metres, Ed.] and about half a mile inland. The winter season is very severe here, and often accompanied with tremendous gales of wind, and with hurricanes; and unless vessels wintering on this coast are fortunate enough to make this harbor, they are often lost, and all hands on board perish.

In about two months after the ship Elizabeth came in here, fourteen of her men deserted the vessel in the night, taking with them some beef and bread, six muskets, a keg of powder, and other necessaries, with the intention of reaching the Rio de la Plata, about 2000 miles from where we were moored. The idea that they could accomplish such a journey as this on foot, in the winter season, seemed to us preposterous in the highest degree. They took no water with them, and were therefore entirely dependent upon their good luck in falling in with some fresh water rivers on their way, which, by looking over our chart, we found to be very scarce. Again, although the people of this continent were very friendly to us, it would be hard to tell what they might be tempted to do if they had a number of white men in their power. They are a most gigantic race of men, most of them from seven to nine feet in height, and so very powerful that one of our men was handled by a Patagonian as easily as you could handle an infant. They generally travel upon horses, and wander about the coast in search of game and whatever else they can pick up, something after the manner of the Arabs. We had some traffick [sic] with them, for blankets, sheep skins, powder horns, and wild cattle, for which we paid them in tobacco. Their weapon of defence is the bow and arrow, with which they kill all their game, &c.

In about two months after these men deserted, we were cruising along the coast for seal, when we one day espied a smoke on shore, and supposed it to proceed from some encampment of the Patagonians. We manned a boat and went ashore, and to our surprise who should we find but these deserted men. Two of them had died of fatigue and starvation, and the other twelve were so emaciated and worn out, that but one of them was able to stand, and he was employed in bringing water for the rest, in an old tarpaulin hat, from a spring near by where they had encamped. They had nothing to eat but the decayed carcass of an old seal that had washed on shore, and but little of that left. They were entirely destitute of clothing, it having become so burthensome [sic] to them, that they were obliged to cast it off, before they arrived where we found them. They had given themselves up to die, not having one ray of hope left them that they should ever escape from their perilous situation. At one time they were eight days without a drop of fresh water to wet their parched lips, except the dew they scraped from the grass, before the sun was up.

We now took them on board our vessel, and carried them back to their own ship, and gave them up. Their captain immediately put them in irons, and chained them under deck, on short allowance, and kept them in this situation for twenty days, then put them on duty, on their good behavior. They did not relish this treatment very well, but they found no remedy to prevent it, and thought it was somewhat better than the situation we had found them in, so that they appeared cheerfully to do the duties allotted them, without a murmur. They however threatened to fix their captain, if they should live to get home again.

As soon as the season came round to catch seal again, both ship's crews were mustered to cruise for one month, and to go as far south as the Falkland Islands. We then ran along down the coast, and every creek, bay, and harbor along it was effectually searched, but we found they were very scarce. Our month being nearly up, we returned to the ship, and made a division of the skins we had taken.

The weapon we use to kill seal, is, a club about five feet in length, and about four inches in circumference, at the largest end. The tide along this coast ebbs and flows about thirty feet; and at high water the seal come out and lie upon the rocks to sun themselves. As soon as the tide gets about half ebb, we pass along shore, between them and the water, and when they attempt to retreat we give them a blow on the end of the nose with the club, which kills them instantly, causing both of their eyes to fly out of the sockets; and I have often had them strike me in the face when I hit them a fair blow. After we have secured all that are out of the water, we turn to, and skin them, and then with a beaming knife we clean them of fat, salt them, and then stow them away in the hold.

We now fixed our boats and shallop, and went to the southward, about two hundred miles, and continued sealing until the winter began to set in, when we returned to our vessel, and stowed away all that we had taken, and made every thing ready for our return voyage.

We had on board about twelve thousand fur seal skins; two hundred sea lion, do.; and about five hundred hair seal, do.

The harbor being very narrow where we lay, we got out two warps, one on each side of the ship, and attempted to warp her out. When we had got about half way out, a tremendous squall struck us, parted both our warps, and drove us broadside on to the rocks, striking with such force as to knock the men off from their feet. We then went to work with boom and takles, [sic] and in a short time succeeded in getting her to swing to her anchor, leaving us within ten feet of the rocks. I now sounded the pumps, and found she had three feet of water in the hold. The pumps were then manned, and in a short time we got her free. We now saw the ship Elizabeth, that was moored to the rocks, astern of us, thumping against them, and in imminent danger of going to pieces. We manned our boats and went to their assistance, and found she had parted one of her chains in the squall, and that there were but two men on board of her, and one of them was so sick that he could not come on deck. We then went to work and got out their other chains, and moored her in safety, when we returned to our own ship.

Capt. Williams, with his other men, had gone out in their schooner, a-sealing; and had been absent about six weeks. The day after the squall, the schooner returned, having had very bad luck; and during the time they were out, Capt. Williams had died in a fit of derangement—probably delirium tremens—for he was a very intemperate man, being seldom sober.

The next morning I sounded the pumps, and found our vessel had made two feet of water in twelve hours, while lying still at our moorings. I knew at this rate, it would be as much as we could do to keep her clear, after we had got out to sea, for then every timber in her would be of use, and our situation would indeed be perilous, unless something could be done in repairing her before we got under weigh. In order to do this, we should be compelled to discharge our cargo, and heave our vessel down so as to get at her bottom; and this would take us a long time. In overhauling our provisions, we found that we had but about forty days' supply, and the greater part of that was not fit for the dogs to eat. Capt. Tisdale now told us that we must go upon half allowance; and so we got our vessel under weigh as soon as possible, as it would be of no use to stay here and starve. I told him the ship was not sea-worthy, and that it would be unsafe for us to sail with her until she was repaired. But he would hear to no reason on the subject, and getting most brutally intoxicated, he ordered her to be got to sea with all possible despatch.

The wind coming round fair, the next day we got under weigh, to try our luck, and for two days we done [sic] very well. The third day out, a tremendous gale came on, and our ship complained in every timber. If you went between her decks, you would think there was a fiddle playing, her beams and timbers creaked so loud, and her water way seems [sic - seams, Ed.] opening and shutting with every roll or surge she made; letting the water have a pretty free course into her. It seemed as if her upper deck was entirely loose, for there was not a plank in it but that you could discover to be in motion. In this perilous situation we were forced to lie too, for twelve hours, and to keep both pumps continually at work to keep her free, which we never could have done, if we had not been so strong-handed, having eighteen men before the mast. As it was, it proved to be very hard work, for the short allowance the men were under would hardly keep life in them, and to continue their labor with nothing more, they must soon be worn out. Capt. Tisdale did not appear to care for this, for he had a plenty of liquor on board, and was constantly intoxicated, cursing and swearing at the men, and making their labor ten times harder than it would have been, had he held his tongue and let them done their duty cheerfully, as they wished to have him do.

The weather now became good, and it cleared away, so that by keeping one pump constantly at work we kept the vessel free. I now told the captain that she never could stand another such gale, and that the best thing we could do was to crack on all the sail we could in good weather and make the nearest port, then, heave her down and repair her, and get in a fresh store of provisions before we got under weigh again for the United States. But he knew his own business best, he said, and should act his own pleasure in that respect. I said no more to him on the subject, but I felt fearful that all was not right, and opened my mind, in part, to the foremast hands. They were nearly all of my opinion, but thought it best to say nothing at present, but to keep a good look out for him. The officers of the ship were not what they ought to have been, or they would have suspected that something was in the wind. However, time passed away, and we got along very well, every man doing his duty as cheerfully as circumstances would permit, and the short allowance they were under enabled them to— being now reduced almost to skeletons by such incessant labor.

In thirty-nine days from the time we set sail, we arrived in Rio Janeiro, in the most miserable condition, being almost naked and reduced to skeletons. We now had hopes of getting something for our voyage, which we stood in great need of. We attempted to prevail upon the captain to advance us money enough to obtain a supply of necessary clothing, but he would hear nothing to what we said. He paid the first and second mate what their voyage came to, and then advertised the vessel and cargo for sale.

For two months we lay by the ship, expecting every day she would be sold, and that we should get our share of the proceeds of sale; but our expectations were in vain; we never had that pleasure.

Finding that we were in a Portuguese country, where there was little or no law for American seamen, and our Consul there, an Irishman, who could easily be bought to take part with the captain, for a small trifle, we now gave up all hopes of getting any thing for our voyage but curses, when we made application to the Consul to procure us a passage home, which he did, though in different vessels, taking care that we should land as far from each other as possible when we did arrive, and as far from our homes as suited his convenience —there being at the time no two vessels bound to the same port in the United States.

Finding we could get nothing from our captain, we finally took passage in the different vessels the Consul had procured for us, and sailed for the United States, without a cent of money in our pockets, and no clothing except what we stood in, and that was all in rags.

I had predicted as much, soon after we got under weigh from Patagonia, but there was no help for it now. Two years of the hardest kind of service of 19 men had been thus taken from them by an unprincipled villain, and they left to return to their homes and families, as beggars, and in rags. The thought was most heart-rending to me, situated as I was; for when I left my home and family, I had a plenty of good clothing, some money, and was in good health. I had now become reduced to a skeleton, been deprived of my hard earnings, and landed five hundred miles from my home, without a cent in my pocket, or a decent garment to my back; and this too, through the villainy of one of my own townsmen and near neighbors.

About a month after my return home, I learned that our captain, after getting rid of his men, sold his vessel and cargo for $18,000, took the money and cleared himself from Rio, and has not since been heard of in the United States. The vessel belonged to his uncle in Newport, and he has not, to this day, ever received a mill [thousandth part of a dollar, Ed.] for her, from his dear nephew. […]

Source: "The Yankee Tar",John Hoxse, Northampton MA?, 1840
Clipped: 18-VIII-2013
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