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Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Winter Newsletter from the Butler Point Whaling Museum, New Zealand


Butler Point Whaling Museum, 1840s Historic House and Gardens
"Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.- Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it."
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick 1851)
Takurua KĊrero
Newsletter: Winter 2023
Kia ora koutou

Welcome to our Winter 2023 newsletter

The reappearance of the Matariki star cluster over the horizon last month is a welcome sign that light, warmth and growth will soon be returning.  In pre-colonial times kites, or manu tukutuku, would have fluttered in the skies at this time to mark Matariki.

We think spectacular starry nights are a gift in Doubtless Bay, and in the photo you can see that some of them fell into the water at Butler Point!
In the Garden the normally well-behaved black cows that graze our paddocks must have had a rush of Spring warmth to their heads last week. Under the cover of darkness they enthusiastically trampled a fence and frolicked their way through every inch of the gardens. We found them the next morning smugly surveying the carnage. After an heroic emergency rescue effort, hoof-marks were filled in and torn plants tidied up just in time for a visiting garden group.
Book of the Season
Our dedicated newsletter production team has just finished Tom Mustill’s book how to speak whale.  It is a thrilling investigation into whale science, and reading it has enabled us to update our information; for example how whales hear with their jaws, how spermaceti controls the production of sound, and how whales speak baby talk with their young. Here is a small selection of what we have learnt.
Whales are our distant cousins
Well, very distant cousins. We shared a common ancestor with whales, apes and elephants until 145 million years ago when there was a fork in the evolutionary road. Then around 50 million years ago some mammals, the ancestors of all cetaceans, moved back into the water. They lost most of their hair, insulated themselves with blubber, and their hands and feet turned into paddles.
An x-ray of a humpback whale pectoral fin, the largest and most powerful arm in the history of life on our planet, looks much like a giant version of our own arm. Inside every whale and dolphin flipper is a limb that first evolved to walk on land. The baby pilot whale skeleton in our museum has a bony hand inside its fin that looks uncannily human.
Cetacean senses have evolved differently to our land-based human ones. Sound is everything in their watery world where it travels four times faster than in air.
Whales listen through fatty structures in their jawbones as life underwater has smoothed off their external ears. Their brain translates the sound waves picked up by the jaw into a three dimensional picture of the object ahead.  
Sperm whales have a set of phonic lips under their blowhole which vibrate against each other to create the loudest sound in all creation: up to 230 decibels, louder than a jet engine and heard across entire oceans!  The sound waves created by these lips hit the lower part of the whale’s head, where spermaceti oil acting like a giant lens focuses the vibrations and channels the noise out into the water as an astonishingly powerful click used to scan their world.
An underwater cameraman tells the story of being scanned by a large female dolphin fascinated by the clicking sound his old camera made. She slowly approached him, put her snout against his scuba mask, and buzzed him with sonar for several minutes.  He remembers it as a very pleasant sensation, like a shaken can of soda fizzing in his head, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being interrogated by a seriously large intelligence.
As well as echolocation clicks, cetaceans also produce buzzes, trumpets, creaks and codas, which are an unchanging series of signature clicks like a name they use to identify themselves and each other.  Other patterns of clicks and gaps, like Morse code, seem to carry information vital for sustaining their cooperative lives together.
While Baleen whales are generally loners, toothed whales live in pods: close knit family groups of 15 to 20 made up of mostly females and their young. Mother and baby whales talk in baby babble and whisper to each other when predators are nearby. When mothers go hunting they leave their young in nurseries where other mothers nurse and protect them. There is evidence that sperm whales even provide food for adult whales that are less able to hunt.  Humpback whales have even been known to rescue other species of animals  from killer whales.
Cetaceans are not fish but mammals and cannot breathe underwater. However, whales can go without breathing because they are able to use their flesh as a giant scuba tank. Their muscles contain an enormous concentration of myoglobin proteins that trap oxygen, like haemoglobin in human blood cells. The whale slowly releases oxygen from its muscles over the course of a dive, sustaining it for over an hour. The myoglobin gives their flesh its dark red, almost black colour.
Do whales have conscious thought? Tom Mustill puts the question to scientists. It is very possible. Whales are extremely intelligent with impressive neural systems containing components previously thought to exist solely in humans.
After all the rain the garden is on steroids; bigger, bolder, greener, lusher than ever before, even the freesia buds are enormous.  The pond is full and the frogs are happy.

Artiste in Residence
Professor Vincent Chevillon, from Strasbourg, France, has been in New Zealand travelling our coastlines for seven months tracking whale stranding sites, meeting people, discovering treasures and hearing stories about the enduring legacies of whales.  We were privileged to have Vincent stay with us while he explored the Far North.

The day he departed, we had a visit from a pod of orcas cruising along in front of the Museum....perhaps they had come to say au revoir?

Noho ora mai

The Team

Butler Point
Acknowledgements / References

Mustill, Tom. (2022). how to speak whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication. William
      Collins London

Dixon, Dougal.  (2018). When the Whales Walked. Australian Geographic.

Hakaraia, Libby. (2008). Matariki: The Maori New Year.  Penguin

Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand/

Vincent Chevillon:

Note: the three books pictured above are all available for purchase in our Museum shop.

Copyright © 2023 Butler Point Whaling Museum

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Butler Point Whaling Museum
31 Marchant Road
Mangonui, Northland 0494
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Monday, August 21, 2023

The riotous seafaring life of Rebecca Gavitt


c Ron Druett 1988

Samuel Gavitt was born about 1812 in Rhode Island, the son of Arnold and Mercy Rodman Gavitt.  He married Rebecca Babcock on April 1, 1841 (RIVR)  In the 1850 census for Westerley, Rhode Island, Samuel Gavitt, mariner, was 32, and his wife, Rebecca, was thirty, meaning she was about 21 when she wed.  On 23 March 1851, the Daily Alta California reported him in command of the Ellen Morrison, a merchant bark at the time. How long he had been commanding merchant ships is unknown, but according to a local newspaper some time after his marriage he had headed for California and never returned. (Norwich Bulletin, October 18, 1921)  

Later in the same year he was reported on the Ellen Morrison —1851 — he went to Stonington, Connecticut, to take command of the whaleship Tiger. It was apparently not a happy move. The Tiger left Stonington Septermber 19, 1851, and shortly after that six of the crew mutinied and were sent home for trial. The ship was not reported again until February 18, 1852, when Gavitt made port at Valparaiso. Then he was at Lahaina April 26, to cruise, and Maui November 10. That December the ship was declared full and headed home; arrived May 21, 1853. A short and profitable voyage. Unsurprisingly, Gavitt was given another command, of the Rebecca Sims, and while it is not known if Rebecca sailed on the merchantmen or the whaleship Tiger, she was certainly with him this time.

One of the boatsteerers, Alonzo D. Sampson, who published his whaling memoir, Three Times Around the World in 1867, had a great deal to say about her. Sampson thought Gavitt (he spelled it Gavett) ‘was the best man I ever sailed with. He was too good. He spoiled such of his men as good treatment could spoil.’  By contrast his wife, ‘who sailed with him, was not so popular. In the first place,’ he elaborated, ‘sailors have a prejudice, pretty generally justified, against women on board a ship. They think a woman there is always in the way of somebody, and the Captain’s wife is generally in the way of everybody. For the want of something else to do, she is constantly meddling with matters that she does not understand, and influencing her husband to neglect his duty for her, to shirk the danger and exposure inseparable from a faithful discharge of his office, and instigating him to acts that annoy and irritate the crew.

‘Mrs. Gavett was a fine lady, and a fine-looking lady — all the worse, we thought, for a woman in her position of a sailor. She was unnecessarily haughty, or rather supercilious, towards the men, going out of her way sometimes to intimate her contempt for them. On the other hand we did not lack for ways in which to make her understand we considered her more of a nuisance than otherwise.  We had a story among us, with a great deal of truth I believe, that she was fast, and that the Captain brought her along to save her character and his purse.

‘During the beautiful weather that favored our run to the Cape Verdes, she passed most of the daytime on deck, where a chair was set for her, she not having, in sailors’ phrase, “got on her sea-legs,” if it is not irreverent to suppose that the Captain’s wife possesses these members.’ (pages 78-79)  And, when they arrived at St Vincent in the Cape Verdes, she had the pleasure of being entertained on board the American sloop of war Dale, which was a good augury for the voyage.

However, the ship was storm beset when doubling Cape Horn, and at one stage ‘the whole ship’s company, the Captain’s wife not excepted, were gathered on deck expecting the worst.’ She watched as energetic seamanship saved the ship, and apparently approved when Captain Gavitt treated the crew to as much grog as they could drink. It was not the last emergency, by any means.  The officer on watch mistaking a landmark on entering the harbor of Lahaina in the dark, the ship was ‘brought up all standing’ when it crashed on a sandbar. The shock was tremendous, all the lanterns went out, dunnage clattered everywhere, and everyone rushed up to deck — ‘Among the crowd that stood dumbfounded around the captain was his handsome wife. She seemed to be even worse affected than she had been under far more fearful circumstances in the Strait of Le Maire ... “Oh! Samuel,” she cried in tones of despair. “Oh! Samuel, what shall we do?” To be ready for the worst,’ in case the bottom of the ship was broken, the boats were cleared away.  More energetic seamanship got the ship off the sandbank with no harm done, however, and by daybreak they were anchored off Lahaina.  

Then there was more excitement, as Captain Gavitt raced his ship against the Vesper, having laid a bet with Captain Edward Howes that he would beat him to the ‘fishing’ ground, a race that he won by one day. There, in the Ochotsk Sea, she endured snow storms where the ship pitched madly, and an anxious night when the ship was driven by the ice, with the loss of all her anchors. There were bears to watch, too — bears that came to eat the carcasses of the whales after the blubber had been removed. There was much to watch that was grisly.

In November 1854 they dropped anchor at Hilo, where they stayed two months, and Rebecca could marvel at the current eruption. ‘A stream of lava from one of the many craters started in the direction of the town, but Mr. Coan, the missionary there, went up to the mountain and prayed, and soon after the lava stopped flowing that way.’ From there they sailed to Honolulu, laying off and on outside the port instead of dropping anchor, to deter attempts to desert that ship. As Sampson casually mentioned, there were attempts to swim ashore, but it was often a doomed venture, because of the sharks that swarmed.

At this stage Samuel Gavitt was rather keen to leave Rebecca at the islands, according to this raconteur, but she flatly refused to leave This meant that she was on the deck when they called at the island of Ascension (Pohnpei), where the natives who came on board to trade ‘were dressed in suits of cocoa nut oil, only without a rag of anything else about them, [and] the captain’s wife voted them a great curiosity, and gave them considerable of her attention.’  From there, after a racy encounter with an immense sea serpent (that should be taken with a grain of salt, Sampson perhaps being responsible for the famous fable), the Rebecca Sims called at Guam, where Captain Gavitt found himself in a quandary.

‘Of course it was absolutely necessary that his lady should visit town, and at the same time it was equally impossible to get any other mode of conveyance except on ox-back … Mrs. Gavett, with a bravery that distinguishes her sex when the result sought is a visit, declared her ability to ride an ox, and her willingness to “try it on.” So she went on shore where quite a number of these horned steeds were quietly waiting … An animal was selected rather with reference to steady going than to speed, and a small mountain of folded blankets, which gave him quite a poetic resemblance to a camel, at least in the hump, was strapped onto his back.

‘To this eminence the lady was elevated, not exactly “by a turn of the wrist,” but by pure muscle, and bos was solicited to propel in the direction of town. On the contrary he began a rapid “advance backwards,” until the rider was brought into contact with certain cocoa nut trees … [and] she was wiped off at imminent risk of limbs and neck. The stupid brute, unaware and probably unworthy of the honor intended him, then trotted off for the bush.’ Rebecca Gavitt, though bruised and humiliated, was still determined to go to town, so a couple of poles were fetched, and a chair slung from them, and four natives took up the burden and ‘Mrs. Gavett was borne in state, if not in triumph, to town.’

Captain Gavitt needed a new first mate at this stage, but the one he hired in Guam took a strong dislike to Mrs. Gavitt, and left.  In Manila (where they had carried a theatrical troupe) he hired a Frenchman, Lavalette by name, on the recommendation of Mrs. Gavitt. ‘He may have had any possible number of qualities fitting him for the place, but none of us ever discovered them. Lavalette’s heels [had] turned Mrs. Gavett’s head, and she exclaimed in an ecstasy of admiration, “Oh! Captain, do ship Mr. Lavalette, he is such a splendid dancer!” and that decided the matter.  The dancing master, as we called him, was shipped.’  He turned out to be totally incapable of harpooning a whale, which disappointed Mrs. Gavitt greatly — ‘She was probably at a loss to imagine how a man who danced so well could fail to be a good whaleman.’

They headed for the Hawaiian Islands after another season in the ice, and then sailed from Honolulu on Christmas Day, 1856, to cruise on the way home, arriving at New Bedford May 23, 1857.  The voyage was over, and ‘Alonzo’ Sampson was headed for another ship.  As for Captain Gavitt, as Sampson meditated, ‘I hope he was able to live in some other occupation [as] I certainly think he deserved it.’ And that is what must have happened, as there is no record of Gavitt whaling again. Or of what happened to Rebecca.

So, how true is all this?  There is no Alonzo Sampson on the Rebecca Sims crewlist, but there is a William Sampson, shipped as an ordinary seaman, and authors, like sailors, often sail under false names. The crew of the ship changed constantly, so Sampson could easily have become a boatsteerer (harpooner) as the voyage went on. The dates mentioned in the book are mostly confirmed, too: April 28, 1854, at Lahaina; October 18, at Honolulu from Ochotsk Sea; March 17, 1855, at Lahaina after a cruise; at Shantar Bay October 1855; at Hilo November 9, from the Ochotsk; cleared December 14, to cruise; at Guam in March 1856, then the Ochotsk; took oil from the wreck of the Alexander; Honolulu November 17, also December 12, then home, arriving May 31, 1857. (Dennis Wood abstract) So, while William Sampson was a born raconteur, tempted to embroider his yarn, the substance of his humorous stories of Mrs. Captain Samuel Gavitt is probably based on reality.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Captain of many things


Whaling bark Greyhound.
New Bedford Free Public Library

Timothy C. Allen, born 1821, was ‘killed by a whale’ on August 2, 1852, while second mate of the Sacramento. (Westport Vital Records) Just over a month later, his young wife, Abbie W. Chace Allen, gave birth to a son, named Timothy Chace Allen, after his father. Just two weeks later Abbie, aged just 19, died of ‘bilious fever’ (probably puerperal). The baby was raised in the household of his uncle, Deacon John Allen, and despite his father’s abrupt death while whaling, chose whaling as an occupation.

Timothy Chace Allen first sailed at the age of 15 on the Greyhound, leaving port May 23, 1868. According to the crew list he was five foot seven inches, and had given his residence as Westport. The captain was John Milk Allen, also of Westport.  Just 30 years old (born April 1838), John Milk was the son of Humphrey and Mary Milk Allen, and his wife (who did not sail) was Martha Gifford Allen. It seems apparent that he was a relative, which would have helped Timothy chose that career.

Timothy grew over the voyage — when he shipped again on the Greyhound in 1872 he was 20 years old and  5 foot 11 inches (tall for his time), light-skinned and brown-haired. Again he gave his residence as Westport, and again John Milk Allen commanded — until January 1873, when he left the ship, sick, at St. Helena, and the first mate took over. According to the records, Timothy brought the ship home, a remarkable feat for such a young man, and from then on he commanded the Greyhound over three voyages, 1875 to 1878; 1879 to 1883; and 1883 to 1884.

Rosa Seale, whom he married in 1875, was born on the island of St. Helena on April 10, 1858, the daughter of Henry and Mary Seale. (MSVR, death certificate; the 1900 New Bedford census, which names her Isabella)  Seale was a prominent and respected name on the island, dating back to the first Seales who served with the St. Helena Infantry of the East India Company; while recruited from the regular military, the officers had to be of good reputation and well educated in England.  Major Robert Francis Seale, who had the important post of assistant storekeeper, was also a talented geologist who produced a book of intriguing sketches called The Geognosy of St Helena (1834). Rosa evidently married Timothy on the island, during one of the ship’s frequent visits, there being no marriage record in Massachusetts. She certainly sailed with him: Annie Ricketson on the Pedro Varela, March 12, 1882, noted that her husband Captain Daniel Ricketson gammed with the ship; ‘It was the bark Greyhound, Capt Allen he had his wife.’ (NBWM, PMB 287, 816, 887.)

The bark Greyhound was sold into the merchant trade in 1884, and Captain Allen took the vessel out to Australia with a general cargo, returning to New Bedford with oil in autumn 1885. He then bought a share in the packet schooner Hastings, and took command until 1886, when he decided his seafaring career was over, and applied to the New Bedford Police Department. Starting off as a patrolman, he soon became a lieutenant, and in 1893 he was promoted to captain. It was a post he tried to leave as he accumulated interests in more ships, including the whaler Leonora. His letter of resignation was shelved as he was considered too valuable to be let go, and it was not until 1908 that he finally retired, having insisted that Mayor Edward Hathaway accept his resignation. (NB Evening Standard, January 8, 1908)

Rosa Seale Allen died on February 9, 1917, and is buried in the Abner Wilcox Cemetery, Westport, Massachusetts. On Christmas Day 1918 Timothy wed Florence May Gammans Tripp, of Acushnet.  She was a widow 43 years old, and this was her second marriage. (MSVR) Captain Timothy Chase Allen died April 7, 1923, and is buried with Rosa in Westport. (Obit. Sunday Herald, Boston, April 8, 1923) Florence recovered fast, marrying a widowed bookkeeper, Otis Tuttle, in October the following year. (Many details about the two Timothy Allens can be found on websites administered from Westport, including the facebook page for the Westport Gravestone Cleaning and Restoration group.)

Many thanks to their researchers and also Kiwi researcher Kay Vincent for invaluable help. 

A truly remarkable man. Here as a police captain, metamorphosed from a whaling skipper.