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Sunday, December 24, 2023

Butler Point Whaling Museum summer newsletter

Butler Point Whaling Museum, 1840s Historic House and Gardens
'It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor.  The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.'
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick 1851)
Hakihea Kōrero
Newsletter: Summer 2023
Tēnā tātou

Welcome to our Summer 2023 newsletter

Meri Kirihimete to you!

The pohutukawa trees fringing the beach are celebrating the festive season and the delicious summer weather by producing the largest, most bedazzling pompom-like flowers any one has ever seen.
News from the garden

The first thing to notice is the hum, the loudest hum ever, of a multitude of bees. Like little cargo planes laden with pollen, they lurch between the giant magnolia grandiflora flowers, crash drunkenly into their target, and slather themselves with the golden dust making sure to combine business with pleasure. Cicadas have already begun to add their buzzing to the thrumming of the bees, a happy reminder that high summer is here. This year nature in the Far North is definitely having fun.

We have three reasons to celebrate: the installation of five paintings above the whaleboat depicting the whaling history of Mangonui, the acquisition of an old Montagu whaler, and a brand new website with an online booking system - check it out here
Julia Bell, our Artist in Residence lives on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.  Her multi-discipline arts practice spans 40 years, during which time she has created many murals, paintings, mosaics and ceramics which decorate both private and public spaces. She loved taking on the project, as it presented the opportunity to delve into the history of whaling, research being half the fun of telling a good story.

Now a picturesque village frequented by tourists, it is hard to imagine that Mangonui was once the South Pacific centre of the global whaling industry, its harbour filled with whaling ships from all over the world, its streets filled with drunken whalers.

The paintings beautifully illustrate the perilous journey whalers faced, beginning on the wild windswept little island of Nantucket on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, traversing vast oceans, rounding Cape Horn and ending in the idyllic safe harbour of Mangonui where the ships re-provisioned at Butler Point, carried out repairs and the exhausted men got to enjoy some well-earned rest and recreation.

The picture frames have been masterly crafted by Steve Crouch from branches that have fallen from Butler Point Pohutukawa trees. The soft hues of the timber beautifully complement the masterful use of colour in the paintings.
Montagu Whaler

After some sleuthing, Nigel, sailor and Butler Point team member, tracked her down to our Mangonui hinterland, where she had been marooned on dry land for 40 years. Letitia, the most intrepid member of our team, navigated the massive 27’ foot long load along narrow metal roads, one lane bridges and steep hills  to deliver her to the boat shed where Nigel will spend many happy hours restoring Phoenix to her former glory.

Whaleboats were first developed by early whalers in the late 1750s. The double-ended pulling boat was designed for ships engaged in whaling for maximum manoeuvrability to reverse quickly away from harpooned whales.  They were introduced into Royal Naval service in 1810 and used to great advantage during the Napoleonic wars for boarding enemy ships in battle.

In the early 1900s Admiral Montagu suggested a number of improvements to the design and since then whaleboats have been known as Montagu whalers. For most of their time in service, the whaler was simply a small boat for specialised tasks. After the Second World War however, with the move towards smaller frigates, the whaler was one of only two boats carried.   Used as the ‘sea boat’; the ready use boat and lifeboat, they were fitted with special release gear and turned out, ready for use whenever the ship was at sea.  The boats were finally phased out in 1990.

Whalers were made from Kauri as the basic material, and Pohutukawa for the grown parts such as the elbow used to strengthen the bows.

There were two sizes, 27 foot and 25 foot and were able to be both pulled and sailed.  When being pulled they were single banked, that is a single oar was used from each thwart, three on one side and two on the other.  The oars had a central shaft of Oregon pine, with laminated blades, four of them being 17 feet long and the bowman’s 16 feet in length.  When under sail the boat has two masts and carries a ‘Montagu Rig K’.  
In other news the crew from the R. Tucker Thompson, the tall ship based in the Bay of Islands made the most of a day at Butler Point with a tour of the museum and a picnic, followed by their team-building workshop in the grounds.  They are a passionate and dedicated team who run Youth Development Programs on this working tall ship.  Their summer season is up and running through to the end of April and we highly recommend taking one of their Day Sails or Sundowner Sails. It is an unforgettable experience to be on a living, breathing wooden sailing ship, to hear the creaking timbers as it rides the waves, to see the crew swarm up the rope ladders and watch the unfurling sails fill with wind.  Look them up at
Noho ora mai
Happy New Year

from The Team

Butler Point

Michael Wynd, Researcher - National Museum of the Royal NZ Navy
Copyright © 2023 Butler Point Whaling Museum

Monday, December 18, 2023



Tasmania is a starkly beautiful island, much closer in nature to New Zealand than the continent of mainland Australia. The bush and the landscape "feel" the same, though much more sepia colored. There is a darkness there, too, darker than New Zealand, a shadow cast by a brutal history.  I will never forget the chill that descended over me when I first explored the ruins of the prison at Port Arthur, where the worst of convicts met the worst of punishments. Chosen by the lieutenant governor, Sir George Arthur, for its site -- on a narrow isthmus, almost entirely surrounded by shark-infested waters -- it was a place where dreadful things happened on a daily basis. An aura of despair clings to the ruins; later, I was not surprised at all that a modern mass shooting was carried out there. Its history of violence has seeped into the stones.

A completely callous man, Sir George Arthur set out from the day he took office, in May 1824, to wage war against the indigenous people, the Aborigines of Tasmania.  It was called the "Black War." His first move was to station small gangs of soldiers in remote parts of the island, to "protect" the settlers, which in effect meant lynching and shooting the Aboriginal men, and raping, then killing, the women. He even put a bounty on the heads of these unfortunate first owners of the land, first for live men, then for live women and children, and finally for the heads of dead Aboriginals.  

And this astounding film depicts this dark history exactly, laying bare the brutality, cruelty and barbaric ignorance that marked the colonisation of the island by the British.

Clare (played superbly by Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irishwoman with an angelic singing voice, called "The Nightingale."  The crime that landed her on the far side of the world is never described, but it must have been minor, as she had worked out her sentence long before this story starts. She has been allowed to marry Aidan, who is also Irish, so this film is in Gaelic as well as English, and it is heart-touching to hear Clare and her husband converse lovingly in that musical language.

They have a little baby, a hut, and a horse, and both, technically, should be free. Both should have been given their "tickets of leave" -- meaning that they would not be forced to keep on serving the local military detachment. But the lieutenant in charge -- Hawkins, played with barely restrained savagery by Sam Claflin -- refuses to give them these "papers."  When Clare persists, he rapes her.  She flees to her husband, but then Hawkins and two of his soldiers arrive in the hut, and in the ensuing fracas they murder her husband, and kill her baby. A gang rape follows, and Clare is left for dead. 

Instead, she survives. Her body is mostly intact, but her mind is damaged. She is set on revenge. 

Hawkins and the soldiers have left the outpost, however. With a small retinue of convicts, they are heading across the interior to Launceston, so that Hawkins can apply for a promotion. Clare is determined to follow and kill them, but to get across the island she needs a Black tracker. It is impossible, otherwise, though she dislikes the idea. The young man who is coopted (Mangana, played with remarkable passion and sensitivity by Baykall Ganambarr) is equally reluctant to be her guide.  He has other priorities -- his father, brothers, and uncles have been murdered by the English, and he is set on his own mission of revenge. What tips the balance of the argument in Clare's favor is that she convinces him that she is Irish, not English, and that she hates the English as much as he does. As she tells him, they share a common history of colonisation and subjugation and misery. 

And there is something more, a mythic connection -- he is Mangana, a blackbird, and she is Clare, the nightingale. The birds that will save them. 


And so the slow chase unfolds, with occasional violent encounters.

This film is not an easy watch, but it is unfailingly gripping. There are moments that stand out:  Clare suffers with her engorged breasts, and Mangana makes her a paste that the women of his tribe used to dry up milk, and performs a smoke ceremony to make her better. Mangana is staunchly grim -- until one of the few moments of kindness breaks down that barrier of stoicism.  A liberal-minded farmer who shelters them for the night insists that Mangana sits at the supper table, and the Aboriginal is so overtaken with emotion that he sobs.They come across a party of settlers with captured warriors, who tell Mangana in the palawa kani language that all of his people are dead. Angered by the unintelligible conversation, the Englishmen shoot the captives, and then cut off their heads, and Mangana and Clare grasp their chance to run away and avoid being captured themselves. But now Mangana's spirit is as damaged and wrathful as hers. 

There is much to shock in this very graphic film, but the shock is justified. It is utterly and absolutely authentic.  All those terrible things really did happen. The Tasmanian natives were wiped out, completely. Their palawa kani language had to be reconstructed by the writers, as there has been no one to speak it for many generations now. Baykall Ganambarr is Yolngu, from the far north of the Northern Territory, meaning that the actor was emotionally almost as far from the scene of action as the fictional Clare was from her home in Ireland. That is a fact that I found starkly revealing in itself.

And the convicts were treated as badly, too, particularly the women. The soldiers were exactly as ignorant and dissolute as portrayed. Bernard Cornwell, in his Sharpe series, set in the Indian and Napoleonic Wars, is equally as unstinting in describing the soldiers of the time, but there are happy overtones in his tales.  There were no happy overtones in Tasmania, Norfolk Island and New South Wales. The soldiers did not want to go there, and no one volunteered. Taken as a whole, and barring many exceptions, they were scum.  

If you don't believe me, read "The Brutal History Behind Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale'."  


Monday, December 11, 2023



I have been watching Swedish thriller series lately.  "A Nearly Normal Family" wasn't bad, with some interesting camera work. It was the story of a family that was desperately trying to support their 19-year-old daughter, who had fallen for the glamor of an entrepreneur who was far too old for her. It was a slow story, but thought-provoking with its undercurrents of rape and drugs. Yes, definitely worth following -- so I followed it up with another Swedish series, "Quicksand" which was about -- guess what -- a family coping with a girl who had fallen for the glamor of a young man whose family was mega-rich, partly because the early part of the courtship took place on a luxury yacht. But then the drugs, rape, and various ways young people can harm each other started to sound and look just far too much like a clone of the first.  Do Swedish teenagers all binge-drink, drug their minds, and rut like rabbits? 

I turned it off and looked for another.  And found the latest Julia Roberts outing, "Leave the World Behind."

Julia is showing her age, but hell, she is a great actress.  Only someone really committed to her craft would allow the makeup department make her look so awful. But it surely suited the part -- of a woman who is successful in her trade of making people buy things they don't really want or need, and has become beyond cynical.  As she says in the opening scene, "I fucking hate people."

So to get away from this ghastly Big Apple scene for a little, she rents an Air BnB that turns out to be a mansion somewhere near the beach in Long Island. Husband is amenable (though a little put out when the liquor cabinet turns out to be locked) and the two kids are fine with it too, as long as they have unlimited screen time. 

But then Things Start Happening.  This is a dystopian thriller where Hitchcock's "Birds" meets Adam McKay's "Don't Look Up," with overtones from Hugh Howey's amazing Wool, Shift, Dust series. It is also reminiscent of an old classic, E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops." Because the machine indeed does stop.

First, an oil tanker steams right up onto the beach where the family are picnicking. Then the TV goes on the fritz, right after flashing a warning of a total and critical emergency, nation-wide.  Phones go off grid after briefly flashing a similar warning. Aircraft come crashing out of the air. Flamingoes blunder into their pool. The back yard is suddenly full of an immense herd of deer. Drones drop pamphlets declaring war on America. Self-driven cars run amok until they crash, in a great scene that is straight out of Howey.

During all this mayhem, two strangers have arrived at the door. They are the actual owners of the mansion, but have trouble convincing the family of that, plus the uncomfortable fact that they are all facing the same emergency.

It's a great movie, with a curiously satisfying ending.  Watch it on Netflix -- but not if you are prone to vertigo.  Some of the camera work is really, really strange.

But then, strangeness is totally appropriate. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023



Capt. James R. Huntting was born in Bridgehampton, NY, on January 21, 1825, a son of Deacon Edward Huntting.  He was a well-known figure in his home town, partly because of his commanding height (six feet, six inches), partly because of his full-lunged voice (he could be heard from one end of the main street to the other), but mostly because of the flamboyant stories told of his dash, strangth, and courage. 

According to the sea reminiscences of William M. Davis in Nimrod of the Sea, Captain ‘Jim’ was perfectly unfazed when a man who had been tangled up in a whaleline was brought on board more dead than alive:

‘… it was found that a portion of the hand including four fingers had been torn away, and the foot sawed through at the ankle, leaving only the great tendon and the heel suspended to the lacerated stump … Saved from drowning, the man seemed likely to meet a more cruel death, unless some one had the nerve to perform the necessary amputation … But Captain Jim was not the man to let any one periash on [such] slight provication. He had his carving knife, carpenter’s saw and a fish-hook. The injury was so frightful and the poor fellow’s groans and cries so touching, that several of the crew fainted in their endeavors to aid the captain in the opeation, and others sickened and turned away from the sight. Unaided, the captain then lashed  his screaming patient to the carpenter’s bench, amputated the leg and dressed the hand.’

Though he went to sea first at the age of 16, little of Jim’s early seafaring career is known, in contrast to his flamboyant record as master. He first went out in command of the Nimrod, sailing in September 1848 and returning exactly two years later, and then took out the Jefferson on two voyages, the first in November 1850, and the second in October 1853. After getting home in March 1857, he took over the General Scott of Fairhaven, sailing in October 1858, and returning in May 1862. His last command was the Fanny of New Bedford, which he took out in September 1864, and getting home to retire in April 1869.

 He married Martha White, the daughter of Deacon John White, who had been born on May 15, 1828. She sailed with him, despite the certainty of grisly sights.  On the Lexington, June 26, 1855, Eliza Brock noted that Capt. Manchester of the Coral ‘reports the loss of ship Jefferson of Sag Harbor, lost in Cape Elizabeth two days ago in the Fog ... all saved, Mrs. Hunting, Captain’s wife, was with him. So much bad news makes me feel sad.’ Unnecessary in this case, for the report was wrong: it was the Jefferson of New London, Captain James M. Williams (who carried his wife and family), that was lost. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2023



Volunteers fight fast fashion
In New Zealand, Far North volunteers are breathing new life into donated clothing.

FIXation, based in Russell, Bay of Islands, is a group of up to 20 local volunteers who fix and resell clothes, with all profits going back into the community.

The initiative began shortly after the 2020 lockdown, when the Russell St John’s Opportunity Shop received 125 bin bags of clothes.

“It was chaotic,” volunteer Lynette Cooper said.

Through the work of the volunteers, just three bags went to landfill. The rest were repaired or repurposed, then sold.

“A lot of the items were polyester, but we decided if they’re not made of natural fibres, we should prolong their lives, because that’s the only way to keep them out of landfill,” Lynette said.

The repairs varied from fixing a hem, darning a hole, sewing a button, or simply giving it a wash. Items beyond repair were repurposed into “rag rugs” or turned into yarn.

“It’s the way we used to live,” she said. “In our day, our mothers made dresses with large hems, so that they could hem them up or down before giving to the next child in the family.

“Then fast fashion took a hold on everyone. Now we’re trying to bring [our mothers’ philosophy] back.”

Most of the clothes are sold, but there are also “koha bins” for people to take as needed.

FIXation also contributes to the community with initiatives such as a fashion show with repaired clothing that donated the profits to the local school. The volunteers also help to teach school children to repair their own clothes.

It also sent 30 pillowcases full of clothing to Vanuatu last year.

While the group is mostly older women, there are also teenagers and a person with a disability who volunteer.

Lynette encourages others to get involved in their community.

“It doesn’t have to be sewing, it could be a community garden.

“I live out of town, and I got used to staying at home, but I decided I needed to go out and be involved in the community.

“The great thing about a small town like Russell is there’s a lot of DIY and people offering to help one another, and doing what needs doing.”

Friday, December 1, 2023



How come I have never heard of this wonderful film before?

An Indie production, Before Sunrise was filmed in Vienna in 1995. It tells the story of two kids, both 23 years old, who meet on a train.  She is French, with excellent English, and he is a broke American, and they are both travelling on a Eurail pass.

She is heading back to Paris, where she is at the Sorbonne; he is heading for Vienna, to catch a plane back home. The plane leaves the next day.

She is seated close to a German couple who are having a massive fight.  Tiring of it, she moves to another seat, across the aisle from the American boy.  They get into conversation, find they both have crazy ideas about the world and life, find they are really compatible. So, the train arrives at Vienna, and he gets off.  Then he has a thought. He rushes back on board, and talks her into spending the night walking about Vienna, and catching the train again in the morning. 

And she agrees!

From then on it is a glorious discovery of Vienna.  The camera does the wonderful old city proud. And its people, too.  There are the two German students who are staging a play.  One is the cow. And then there is the palm reader, who tells them they are strangers on a voyage of discovery. And there is the bar tender who falls for the American's romantic story, and gives them a bottle of wine. And of course they drink it in the park.  And ride a gondola at Prater Park. And dance in the Vienna woods.

I did all that, aeons ago when I was that age, and I went to the opera, too.  Vienna is intoxicating.

The film itself is even more so.  As one prominent reviewer wrote, it is impossible to pick out one magical scene without doing an injustice to all the other magical scenes. The directing and minimalist script  are just perfect. Believe it or not, it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

And the ending is perfect, too.  Apparently it is the first in a trilogy -- Before Sunset and Before Midnight being the next two.  I am not sure I will watch them, as I most passionately do not want to risk spoiling the magic of this one.

Watch it.  I saw it on Netflix.  The best offering this year -- and there have been some good ones.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

The wreck of L'Uranie


This is a rather long post.  But 22-year-old Rose de Freycinet is one of my favorite heroines of the sea.

Gentle young Rose was not even supposed to be there.  Back on September 17, 1817, she had dressed up in a suit of blue frockcoat and trousers, and just after midnight she had sneaked on board the corvette Uranie. This was not because she was naturally daring, or a cross-dresser, but because she wanted to accompany her beloved husband, Captain Louis-Claude de Freycinet, on a discovery expedition to the Pacific.

Rose remained hidden in the captain’s cabin until the vessel was well away from the French coast.  Then her husband made her presence public by inviting the officers, chaplain, and the expedition artist to a tea party where Rose, still in male attire, presided.  According to her, it was a happy occasion.  “I received them with a great deal of pleasure and I had a good laugh listening to the various hypotheses which each one had formulated about my identity.”  And the officers did not seem to mind, either, agreeing one and all that the dainty little lady with the charming manners and very agreeable appearance was a fit companion for her aristocratic husband—though some people said that during mess dinners the conversation about the dining table was more sharp-edged with brilliant wit than it might have been without a woman to impress. 

When the news broke in France, reactions varied wildly.  On October 4, the editor of the Monitor Universel declared, “this example of conjugal devotion deserves to be made public.”  Reportedly, Louis XVIII was amused.  The Lieutenant-Governor of Gibraltar, the first official to receive visitors from L’Uranie, was not, and neither was the French Ministry of the Navy.  Women were not supposed to travel in ships of the State, and yet Madame was there—in male clothing!  It was unsupportable. 

One result of this was that every now and then the artists of the expedition painted the same scene twice, one work being true to life, and the other sans Madame.  This subterfuge was necessary for the official record, Voyage autour du Monde … exécuté sur les corvettes de S. M. L’Uranie et La Physicienne, which was prepared by de Freycinet and published between 1827 and 1839.  Madame herself was embarrassed that her presence was against the rules.  She was not comfortable in men’s clothing.  The only time she was glad of it was when the corvette was pursued by an Algerian corsair.  The prospect of being enslaved was bad enough, but “the thought of a seraglio evoked even more unpleasant images in my mind, and I hoped to escape that fate thanks to my male disguise.”  Luckily, the corsair veered off after counting the corvette’s cannon, and the possibility of the disguise being penetrated was averted.  Then, after a disastrous meeting with the scandalized Governor of Gibraltar, it was decided that she should abandon male dress altogether, much to her relief.

But then, there was the crew.  When Rose first arrived on deck the men were deferential, leaving the lee side of the ship so she could walk in reasonable privacy. They did their best to refrain from swearing, too, but inevitably their self-imposed discipline lapsed, a curse slipped out, and Rose was forced to concentrate her troubled gaze on the water.  This, once noticed, was considered a very good joke, and so from then on the men would swear and sing rude ditties just loud enough for her to hear, while the boatswain tried to shut them up by making violent signs behind her back. 

In the end, Madame was forced to keep out of sight as much as possible.  As the Dictionnaire de Biographie Français remarked afterwards, this was an admirable display of “moral superiority over the crew,” but it did have the disadvantage that it made life on the rolling wave very boring—though Rose herself denied this, declaring she was happy enough with her guitar, her journal, and her sewing.  She revealed herself more frankly when, on September 12, 1819, on departure from Oahu, she noted ruefully that “this part of the voyage will be greatly prolonged.”  Louis had made the decision “in order to collect data on the magnetic equator.  However much I respect science, I am not fond of it,” she complained; “nor am I likely to be reconciled to it by Louis’ prolonging of the voyage, which holds nothing terribly exciting for me.  It is true that this work is one of the main objectives,” she allowed, but it was inescapably boring.  “If only, like so many travelers, we were fortunate enough to discover some new island.” 

Louis had promised her that if they did find an unclaimed dot of land, he would name it after her.  And lo, two months later, in latitude 14º 32’ 42”, they did indeed find an atoll that was so insignificant that it did not seem to have a name—and so Rose had her wish, even though she was not supposed to be there.  “Let’s see, what shall we call it?” the artist, Arago, mused in a letter to a friend, his tongue firmly in his cheek.  “Let it be a flowery name.  Shall it be Green Island, Red Island, or … No, I suppose it will be Rose Island.”

At other times, Rose was terrified to the point of biting her fingers until they bled.  And yet, she never regretted her decision to defy custom and sail with her beloved husband.  She had sailed to be with him, and to care for him when he was sick or weary, and no one could nurse him as she could! In ports (with the exception of Gibraltar) La Jolie Commandante —as the officers dubbed her—was an asset, too, for Madame was a marvelous ambassador, being most loyally French and a natural diplomat. 

While her husband navigated his ship at sea and measured eclipses on shore, with equal élan she threaded her way through colonial jealousies and strange points of etiquette.  When Rose decided not to attend a ball at Government House in Mauritius (because she did not think the expense of a new gown was worth it), she developed a migraine to avoid the social blunder being seen at a dinner party staged by her host that night.  She was equally adept with native peoples.  Rose was amused when the Caroline Islanders burst into roars of laughter every time the corvette’s officers politely raised their hats to each other—”We must, indeed, appear as strange to the natives as they are to us”—and only a little taken aback when a woman in Guam, after complimenting her on her curly hair, offered to come on board and seek out her head lice. 

Dietary customs fooled her completely, especially when Moslem guests left the table in horror after pork was served, but a Papuan pirate chief who “became very attached” to her chairs was immediately presented one.  Another Papuan inhaled all the pepper on the table, ate all their pickles, and asked for “the plate, the glass and the bottle” he had used.  These were gladly given (though she refused him the napkin), for Rose found him such excellent company.  She even maintained her poise when some of the Hawaiian men startled her by throwing off all their clothes, layer by layer, as they got hotter and hotter while working their way through enormous meals.

Her descriptions provide a view of the early nineteenth century that is as feminine as it is French. There was, for instance, the celestial singing at a religious festival in Rio de Janeiro, in which the voices, “though far too sweet and melodious to belong to men, had a virile force and a vigor which were not characteristic of women’s voices.  I was overwhelmed,” Madame declared, and took the first opportunity to ask details.  “The answer”—that the singers were castrati—”conjured up a cruelty I could never have imagined before that day!”  Quelle horreur!  What a waste!  More amusing were the native girls whom a party from L’Uranie surprised bathing in the Marianas, who screamed with embarrassment and flew to cover themselves, but were more concerned with veiling their backs than their breasts.  “Methinks the gentlemen were not tempted to take issue with them on this matter!” And only a Frenchwoman, surely, would slyly remark, as Rose did, that a certain Australian was not just “very pretty,” but had “a ravishing ankle, or so Louis noticed.”


Departing from Sydney on Christmas Day, 1819, the corvette took the deep southern route around Campbell and Auckland Islands. She had developed a leak, but instead of stopping on the way, de Freycinet carried on. They saw their first iceberg on January 21, 1820, and land was sighted on 7 February—spiked with black rocks, and covered with short, dense shrubbery. The following day they rounded Cape Horn in mild, calm weather—”Was this really the notorious Cape?” she asked. As the ship steered north the weather deteriorated, and so they dropped anchor in the Straits of Le Maire. Then, while the naturalists were gathered at the rail, contemplating the lush vegetation and the thousands of birds, the order was shouted to cut the cable. The current was dragging the corvette onto the rocks.

Getting back to sea was no improvement, as the gale rose and tore at the rigging until the last sail was in shreds, making it almost impossible to steer. The ship lunged north for two stormswept days, until the Falklands were raised. Louis decided to head for French Bay (now called Uranie Bay) on the northeast coast of East Falkland Island, where repairs to the ship could be made. They were slowed up by a thick fog, but on February 14, the headlands surrounding the sheltered bay were sighted, and the corvette sailed toward them.  All seemed calm and promising, but then they hit a rock. 

  As Rose described it, they were sitting at the table when the ship stopped in her wake a moment, and then sailed on.  The shock was so slight that nothing was upset, but shortly afterward, water started rushing into the holds.  The gentle blow was fatal, for a rock had pierced the hull. As Rose wrote, it was a dreadful, suspenseful moment—the bay where they had intended to anchor was still some distance away, and the coast around it was studded with sharp rocks.  If only the ship could be kept afloat as far as a sandy beach, then the equipment and natural history collections could be saved before she foundered, so de Freycinet ordered the entire watch to man the pumps, while the others steered the ship and managed the sails.

The operation took ten arduous hours, and all the time Rose was abject with terror.  She shut herself in her cabin, “overcome by the horror of our situation,” and for a while she and the Abbé—the ship’s chaplain—knelt together in prayer, but then she rallied to help the crew bring all the ship’s biscuit to the poop, to save it being soaked.  As the artist, Arago, put it, la pauvre petite “arranged it all with the minutest care.”  Every now and then she could be seen at her window, vainly searching the faces of passing sailors for a sign of hope.  And all the time the men labored at the pump, shouting out crude, wild songs to keep up their strength and spirits.  When Rose cried out that they must put their trust in the holy Virgin, Arago retorted, “In the holy pump, Madame!”

Whatever the focus of their prayers, it worked.  At three in the morning a faint, kind breeze wafted them up onto a sandy beach.  The barren sandhills that dawn revealed did not look promising, but the company took the ship’s altar ashore and said a Te Deum.  Luckily, the expedition carried an abundance of tents, so that a village soon took shape on shore, though in the meantime the company still lived on the steeply canted ship. The next task was to discharge all the scientific material from the holds and cabins of the corvette, and stow it in tents according to order. Providentially, the weather stayed fine.

Four days later, though, the skies blackened, the gale rose, and it poured with rain. The beached ship was battered constantly, and settling further on her side, so that Rose had to go in and out of her deck cabin through a window, as the door was completely submerged. It was time to go on shore, and live in a tent. The canvas house had not been set up properly, however, and so the first night was a torment of being soaked in bed.  When day dawned the first job was to secure the tent, but no matter how tightly it was secured the canvas leaked and their bedding was constantly damp—”We shall be most fortunate if we are not afflicted with rheumatism in our old age.”

It was now that de Freycinet felt very thankful that he had shipped tradesmen in his crew, for he had the necessary carpenters, sailmakers, blacksmiths, and ropemakers to turn the ship’s longboat into a seaworthy craft.  They called the little vessel L’Espérance—Hope.  Hunting and fishing parties were assembled to go foraging in the hinterland, to save as much preserved food as possible.  However, fresh provisions soon became scarce.  For the hunters to track down a wild horse was an occasion for joy, as otherwise their diet was limited to penguins or seal meat, roasted or stewed in water with biscuit crumbs for thickening.  A wild snipe was a special treat.

Incredibly, the scientific work went on. With wonderful single-mindedness, the scientists built an observatory in preparation for an eclipse of the sun on 15 March. The naturalists determined which of the local wild herbs was safe to eat, and so Rose and the Abbé collected celery and purslane for salads to go with the horse meat that the hunting parties carried in.  With joy, Rose found a sack of flour that the Abbé had intended to use to powder his hair, and so the cook was able to bake bread. Some essence of hops that had been procured in Port Jackson was also salvaged, and so Rose took up the role of expedition brewer, making beer by adding sugar. Then a box of 66 cheeses was found, making the occasion for a party. But, as Rose privately admitted, religion was her only real source of consolation.

On March 19, 1820, the sound of “extraordinary shouting” was the signal that a ship had been raised.  Everyone rushed to the top of the sand dune that was closest to the sea, to see nothing at first, but then a sloop coming into the harbor.  Three guns were fired, and a white flag raised, and in due course the sloop arrived—when, with French hospitality, the impoverished settlement offered the newcomers food and drink. “Imagine our joy at the thought that our exile would soon be over!” wrote Rose.  However, they were to be gravely disappointed.

The sloop, it seemed, was the tender of a whaler-sealer that was anchored twenty leagues away.  They had been hunting seals for the past eighteen months, and needed another ten months to fill their lading. Louis de Freycinet told them that he pay the captain well for passage to Rio, but the man in charge of the sloop refused to go back to the ship—he had been given orders to fish for eight days, and he dared not return until he had his catch. Showing him a document from the United States government that enjoined all American ship captains to render any assistance needed had a better effect; grudgingly, the sloop-captain agreed to go back, carrying an officer from the Uranie who would convey de Freycinet’s message.

So off the sloop went, but in no great haste. Frustratingly, the longboat was now ready for voyage, but departure had to be postponed until the American captain’s decision was known. Meantime, too, men were falling sick with colic and diarrhea, probably because they had been eating penguins. Getting desperate as the days dragged by with horrible weather and no news from the sealer, de Freycinet planned how to capture and commandeer the sealing vessel, while Rose agitated about the violence that this would involve. “May God preserve us and bring back the sloop bearing good news!”

A ship finally arrived on March 28—but it was not the whaler-sealer. Instead, it was the 280-ton American merchantman 
Mercury, en route to the Pacific. According to the captain, a man named Galvin, she had struck a leak, and he had turned back for repairs.  And would he carry them to Rio? Of course he would!  But he would need help with fixing the leak first, if the French could assist? That was easy, too.  Louis de Freycinet sent twelve of his best shipwrights on board.

When Rose learned the nature of the Mercury’s cargo, she should have become suspicious—it was cannons, for the Chilean rebellion. Which made matters somewhat inconvenient, as Captain Galvin mused aloud, as he revealed his actual mission.  While it was convenient for him to carry the French to Valparaiso, on the Pacific coast, Rio was out of the question, being an Atlantic port.  Louis offered to pay enough money to cover that loss as well as expenses, but the master only agreed to think about it—though, as the shipwrights reported, Galvin needed help even more than they did, as the weight of the cannon in the hold was forcing the planks of the American ship apart.  And, what’s more, the Americans were short of food. Within days, the American captain was begging for rum, as well as the game that the French hunting parties were bringing in. On the other hand, he was able to give them some medicine.

Then, at last, the sloop arrived, with the news that the sealer-whaler was in the outer harbor. The whaler was the General Knox of Salem, and the captain, named Orne, was willing to carry them to Rio, probably because his voyage had been so poor. The problem was that his ship had been unrigged to make a clear platform for flensing the whales that the sloop brought in, and it would take time and labor to get it seaworthy again. 

And, of course, Orne wanted money—50,000 pieces of eight, or piastres.  Arguing hard, Louis reduced it to 40,000 piastres, telling him at the same time that he had another offer, from the captain of the Mercury. Waving a casual hand, Orne declared he was glad of that, because he did not want to miss out on the whaling season, but nevertheless he kept on bargaining. At the same time, the captain of the Mercury was threatening to leave without them, ignoring the fact that the French shipwrights were still working on his ship.

And so the double blackmail from the two captains continued. Galvin swore he would sail next day unless some cable was sent on board; Captain Orne demanded permission to salvage whatever he liked from the wreck of the corvette, though de Freycinet staunchly refused, saying that it was the property of the French government, and Rose was perfectly sure that the crew of the General Knox would steal everything they could. Then Galvin agreed to take them to Buenos Aires—only half the distance they wanted to go—on the payment of 10,000 piastres.  After another bout of argument, he grudgingly offered to take  them to Rio de Janeiro for 15,000, but then abruptly changed his mind, asking eighteen thousand. “This is an enormous price to pay for the minor inconvenience we shall cause him.  But he is a rogue who is trying to profit from our present predicament,” she angrily wrote.  Meantime, Rose packed boxes, and suffered from the wet and cold, scarcely able to walk because of the agony in her frozen feet. 

Finally, after a great deal of insult and shouting, the company boarded the Mercury, two months to the day since the wreck of the corvette.  “Uranie!  Poor Uranie!  You who were my abode for so long … we must now forsake you for ever!”  Rose’s cabin on the discovery ship had been small enough, but here she was in a cubby hole with much of the scientific collection packed around her, lit only by a small round of glass in the deck overhead, which went abruptly dark every time someone stepped onto it.  Worse still, all her painfully gained courage seemed to be flooding away—just three months ago, she kept on thinking, she was comfortably housed and very well fed, and the voyage was about to come to an end. But now she and Louis were in a tiny cramped room on a miserable foreign vessel, “eating indescribable food with strangers to whom one has to be pleasant and whom I would often like to send packing.”  Little wonder that she could not stop crying.

Fate, yet again, was ironic. The commander of the Scottish brig Jane, a 120-ton whaler that had been at anchor in Berkeley Sound (present day Port Stanley), just along the coast, arrived to declare that he would have been glad to rescue them all at no cost.  This was Captain James Weddell, a man whose naval career had been interrupted by the end of the Napoleonic wars, and who went on to become a distinguished Antarctic explorer.  He was delighted with the “extreme vivacity” of Madame, “who was young and very agreeable.”  Louis presented him with the longboat that the French seamen had worked so hard to turn into a seaworthy cutter, and Weddell christened her Rose.

Finally, on 27 April, the Mercury set sail, still rife with dissension.  Galvin kept on altering his demands, while first the passengers and then the French company threatened to seize the ship.  Finally, the dilemma was settled by buying the ship in the name of the French government, for the same amount of 18,000 piastres that had been bargained for the passage to Rio.  “All this is preferable to coming to blows,” sighed Rose. 

The vacillating, blackmailing Galvin and his unpleasant passengers were set ashore at Montevideo, along with their traps, and the French company sailed on to Rio in their new possession, renamed La Physicienne.  Here, Rose became reacquainted with friends made on the outward passage, listened again to the castrati (this time without a tremor), rejoined society, and refurbished her wardrobe. 

La Physicienne was being repaired and refurbished too . It took over two months, but Brazil’s gallant Minister of Marine would take no payment for it. They sailed from Rio at dawn on September 13, 1820.  And finally, on November 13, three years and fifty-seven days since the night Rose de Freycinet had crept on board, the expedition anchored in Le Havre.  It was a moment that Louis and Rose both welcomed and dreaded, for now they had to face the consequences of their actions.

Louis was court-martialed for the loss of his ship.  The deliberations lasted exactly one hour and a half.  Captain Louis-Claude de Saulces de Freycinet was completely exonerated of all blame, the court finding unanimously that he had done all that prudence and honor demanded.  Rose’s name was not mentioned, her presence being tactfully ignored.  The ordeal seemed behind them.  Rose, who had been pale, yellowish, and sunken-eyed, was once again able to dance all night, and Louis, who had been sick and racked with worry and pain, was back to noticing elegant ankles.  

The voyage, however, was yet to take its tragic toll.  In 1832, when Louis fell ill in a cholera epidemic, Rose was struck down while nursing him, dying within hours at the age of thirty-seven.  Heartbroken, Louis survived for another ten years, but, as a friend remarked, it could not called “living,” for he “only languished.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

"A Fate Worse Than Death"


c. Ron Druett 2000

 The new bride of Captain Alonzo Follansbee got quite a shock when she first viewed the furnishings of the captain’s cabin on his ship. It was May 1837, and she had just boarded the Boston merchantman Logan for her honeymoon voyage. This was where she was to live for many months —and there, facing her as she walked into the cabin, was a complete wall “lined with muskets, pistols, cutlasses and boarding pikes.” 

When she gasped in stunned surprise, her husband merely remarked in a casual fashion that the weaponry was necessary, as they were bound to the South China Sea.  And that was all the explanation necessary. Having read the journals and shipping lists, Nancy Follansbee knew exactly what that destination implied. So, being a practical woman, she took precautions—which turned out to be no good at all.

She found this out, much to her discomfiture, just eleven months later. The Logan was lying becalmed in the Straits, the wind having died. The sails hung as limp as washing on a line, and the ship rolled slowly in the mirror-like turquoise sea. If danger threatened, it was impossible to take any kind of evasive action.  Therefore it came as a most unpleasant shock at dawn on April 22, 1838, when the lookout suddenly hollered that a pirate prahu was bearing down on them.

Pirate vessel in sight!” he shouted. And when they all looked, it was to see the pirate prahu coming up with astonishing speed, paddled by lines of powerful native seamen. “Our cannon, swivel guns and pistols were soon got in readiness,” Nancy Follansbee wrote; “swords, cutlasses, boarding pikes and ammunition hustled on deck ready for them.”

By five in the afternoon the ship was still becalmed and helpless, and the pirates were less than a mile away.  Nancy, however, allowed herself to feel a measure of self-congratulation, because, as she wrote, she “had practiced loading and firing guns and pistols at targets all the way out.”  But that, sadly, was also the moment when she learned it was unlikely to do her any good whatsoever. Her husband grimly informed her that her marksmanship “would be of little use.” Even more depressingly, he went on to meditate in remarkably Victorian terms that once she fell into pirate hands, her fate “would be worse than death.” 

But, by the grace of God, she was spared that melodramatic fate—”a good breeze sprang up, and we were soon out of their reach,” and Nancy sailed on, to become the mother of the first American baby born in the Celestial Kingdom.

"Madam" Nancy Follansbee

The Logan

A transcript of Nancy Follansbee’s journal on the Logan 1837-39 is held at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Friday, November 3, 2023

The Nantucket Cook


Any woman who stepped aboard a ship that was bound to exotic Pacific destinations must have felt a fair number of qualms, shipwreck being one of the foremost.  Death by drowning was dreaded by mariners of both sexes, but being cast away on a tropical island ― where, as was popularly known, free love was practiced ― held particularly dire implications for a decent lady. Cannibalism was another ghastly prospect.  If shipwreck should indeed happen, the best she could hope for, perhaps, was that the island where she was cast up by the sea was uninhabited. 

According to an old sea captain, Roland F. Coffin, this last is exactly what happened to an unnamed seafaring woman.  His story started in the whaleboat where he was one of the oarsmen, at the moment when everyone realized that they’d got lost after being towed a long way off by a fighting whale. After thirty-six hours of sailing and rowing about in a fruitless quest for the sight of a sail, the six men were faint for lack of food and water, so the captain ordered his boat’s crew to abandon the search and head for the distant islet that one of the seamen had glimpsed on the horizon. 

It took all night to work up to the island, so they did not land until dawn. Too small to be charted, it seemed quite deserted, but at least it offered the chance of a drink of coconut milk, if not fresh water. Then one of the boys—a Nantucketer by the name of Tom Bunker—let out a yell that he had scented a spring, and when they followed his lead, they found a pool of beautiful clear water in among some rocks and trees. They drank their fill, then finally straightened to look around.

“Odd thing that there ain’t no birds,” said Tom Bunker thoughtfully. “Uninhabited islands always have thousands of birds”—and, while the others were digesting this strange statement, a solitary figure rushed out of the coconut palms, and then stopped dead, wavering back and forth in obvious uncertainty and disbelief.

“It’s a native,” said the captain. After waving to the others to keep back, he approached the figure in a friendly fashion, doing his utmost with gestures to demonstrate that he meant no harm, and finally the figure allowed the captain to come close.  At which, to the seamen’s surprise, both the captain and the native let out a yell of amazement, and the native began to caper about.

It was then that they found it was a tattered and weather-beaten American female—and a female from their home port of Nantucket, at that. “It ain’t no dream; you are real,” she cried, according to Coffin. “Thank God, I am saved!”

She was the wife of the captain of a whaleship that had foundered on the reef. After being washed ashore, she had found to her horror that she was the only survivor.  Being a resourceful soul, though, she had managed remarkably well.  She had scavenged the wreck for materials for a cabin, and then, having built it, she had settled down to wait for rescue.  She had been waiting, in fact, for five years—but now, by the grace of God, she was saved! 

“Well, as to that, ma’am,” said the captain, and hemmed and hawed a bit—while of course, he said, they would do everything in their power to help her, whether she was saved or not was a matter of opinion, because they were in great need of being saved themselves. Not only had they mislaid their ship, but they were starving, it being a number of days since their last meal.

Though naturally disappointed, the castaway rallied fast.  First, she took them to the little hut she had built, and then she told them to sit down outside and relax while she cooked them some breakfast.  “Of course I didn’t expect company,” she said, so it would take a little while to get things together, but all they needed was to be patient.

And off she went into a grove of coconuts, where Coffin, to his mystification, saw her running back and forth with a lump of wood, hitting the ground every now and then.  He, like the others, did not wonder about it very long, however.  All six men were exhausted after their many hours of pulling at oars, and so they stretched out on the sand for a nap.  And then, as Coffin reminisced, they woke up to “one of the finest smells of cooking I ever smelt.”

Breakfast was stewing in a pot she had retrieved from the wreck five years before, and which was now steaming over a fire. “And if you don’t say it’s a good stew,” she said, “then call me a bad cook.” And then she served out the stew in coconut shell bowls, and it was brown and rich and smelled very savory indeed. 

The men fell upon the food, Coffin reminiscing, “The woman looked on quite delighted for to see us eat, and a-fillin’ each chap’s dish as fast as it was empty.” Finally, she couldn’t persuade them to eat a scrap more.  Then, as she took the coconut bowls away, she observed, “I bet you don’t any of you know what you’ve been eatin’.” 

“Well, ma’am,” prevaricated the skipper, and admitted that he couldn’t rightly guess, though, as he added, “it was a powerful good stew, and shows that you’re a first-class cook, but that of course you would be, coming from Nantucket.”

“Well,” said she, “that there was a rat stew.”  The ship rats had survived the wreck and bred on the island, and because they had destroyed all the birds’ nests on the island, she had been forced to live on those rats for all the five years she had been here.    

Unfortunately for the men, they had to do the same.  Being so resourceful, she gave them a varied menu, of “roast rat, broiled rat, fried rat, rat fricassee, and rat stew,” but, as Coffin concluded, relief was general when their ship found them, and they sailed away, leaving the rats in full possession of the isle.

A version of this story was published in Mains’l Haul, the journal of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, v. 42, no. 4, Fall 2006. The anecdote originally appeared in An Old Sailor’s Yarns, by Captain Roland Folger Coffin (Funk & Wagnalls, 1884) and was retold in The Story of the New England Whalers, by John r. Spears (NY: Macmillan, 1908) pp. 265-272. It is the first yarn in the book of similarly hair-raising yarns about seafaring wives in trouble, Lady Castaways.