The 1895 Voyage of the A. R. Tucker

Young George Cleveland is shanghaied by an Arctic whaleship and encounters knife-wielding shipmates, shipwrecked sailers and 40-degree-below weather.

The Long Depression, the deep recession which had depressed the nation’s economy for nearly all of George’s life up until now, was compounded in 1893 by an international banking collapse known as the Panic of 1893. The worst economic crisis in the history of the United States up to this point, it resulted in a spike in the already high unemployment rates, peaking at 18% in Massachusetts in 1894.

Nonetheless, a job came to Cleveland rather abruptly in early 1895, probably in New Bedford. According to author Peter Freichen:

“One evening he was hit on the head, securely tied, and thrown aboard a whaling ship setting out for Hudson Bay. When he recovered sufficiently, he was put through the usual ritual reserved for shanghaied sailors; that is, he was roundly beaten by the captain, the first mate, and the boatswain, in that order. This was to prove how much they regretted the manner of recruitment. The reception did serve to bring out the best in the lad, and he soon showed himself to be a very able seaman.”

Even in these extremely difficult economic times, there was one industry where positions were still unfilled: whaling. Conditions and pay were so notoriously awful that even completely inexperienced “green hands” were nearly impossible to recruit. Almost no American willingly signed up to go whaling anymore. Captains increasingly recruited from overseas - from the Azores or the Cape Verdean Islands or Europe.

In the United States, whaling captains short on crew hired waterfront gangs of “crimps” in cities like New Bedford and Boston to lure naïve young men and boys into saloons, boardinghouses, and brothels. Some crimps like the infamous “Shanghai Joe” of New Bedford would then get the boys drunk and trick or intimidate them into signing ship’s articles, entering them into a legally binding contract of service to shipowners desperate for crewmen. Sometimes their victims would be drugged or otherwise rendered unconscious (such as George‘s unfortunate knock), their signatures forged, thrown over some thug’s shoulder, and then thrown into a boat to be sold to an unscrupulous ship captain. They would wake up at sea legally conscripted to the departing vessel. In the 1870s a shanghaied sailor might well awake on a whaler headed to China (hence the term “shanghai“), but by the 1890s those whalers still afloat were more likely headed for the Arctic. Crews tended to be multinational, multiethnic, multilingual, and highly inexperienced, and the discipline doled out by ship’s officers typically ranged from brutal to sadistic. They were underpaid and underfed, and under penalty of law they could not leave the ship before the end of their voyage.

The owners of the vessel on which Cleveland found himself was the Joseph & William R. Wing Company. It was the largest whaling firm in the United States, and among the very last whaling companies operating in the country. The Wings made their fortunes not so much from whale oil and whalebone, but rather from outfitting seamen. Typically, they would indebt a “recruited” sailor for the cost of their clothing and supplies, the cost for boarding them before the ship departed, and then charge substantial interest on these loans.

Cleveland did not have an opportunity to say goodbye to his wife Hattie or his two children, now two and five. On May 4, 1895, he woke up aboard the 92-foot, 44-year-old wooden bark A. R. Tucker of New Bedford, departing from New Bedford on a whaling voyage under the command of Capt. Andrew D. West and the employ of the J. & W. R. Wing Co.

Cleveland was 24 years old (although his age was recorded as 27 in the ship’s registry.) The crew of twenty-five included three other men from the Vineyard: his near neighbor Jesse Smith, 18; Chester H. Robinson, 21, also of Vineyard Haven; and Ben B. Worth, 49, of Edgartown.

Whaling bark Canton, leaving New Bedford.

The A. R. Tucker had returned from Hudson Bay the previous year with a good catch of whalebone, valued at $1.75 – $2.00 per pound, and interest in Hudson Bay whaling had become somewhat revived. The vessel was one of four whalers which wintered in Hudson Bay during the 1895-6 season – the Canton (also owned by the J. and W. R. Wing Co.) and the Era (commanded by Capt. George Comer of the rival New Bedford company of Thomas Luce) were also from New Bedford, together with the whaler Perseverance of Scotland. In the summer of 1896 they were also joined by the Desdemona (Capt. M. V. Millard, owner Thos. Luce) and the Platina (Capt. A. P. Benton, owner J. & W. R. Wing.) The Wings had been approached in early 1895 with a request to assist in the search for famed missing explorer Robert Peary and his party in northern Greenland, but they declined, stating that the Tucker and its crew were not equipped to travel as far north as the Peary party was thought to be. (Peary and his team nearly starved to death, but managed to return to safety on their own.)

The log of this whaling expedition exists at the New Bedford Free Public Library, and Cleveland is not mentioned even once outside of the ship‘s crew register, suggesting that he managed to stay out of trouble and avoided any serious illness or accident. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case of everyone on board.

Instead of heading north into the Arctic immediately, the A. R. Tucker sailed two thousand miles east across the Atlantic and arrived at the island of Flores in the Azores on May 27th. The same day a block fell from aloft and struck English crewman James Breen on the head, “cutting it quite badly” as the captain wrote in his log. He recovered, but remained off duty for more than a week. They stayed only briefly at Flores before sailing in a broad arc to the north, catching a couple of porpoise on the way, and took their first whale on June 9th, some 400 miles north of Flores. They spent a few days cutting the blubber and boiling it before heading deep into the North Atlantic, where on July 1st they caught two more right whales.

By the end of July they headed toward the coast of Labrador, passing many icebergs and “working through ice.” On August second they passed Resolution Island and entered into the Hudson Strait. They met their first Inuit on August 5th while passing the Middle Savage Islands. The natives visited on “fine whale boats” and left the ship by 8pm that evening. They entered into Hudson Bay the second week of August and on August 18th landed on the western shore a little to the south of Depot Island. They soon spotted the other two whalers in the Hudson that season, both cruising near Whale Point, the schooner Era and the bark Canton, and they “gammed” with both. Early in September they also encountered the Scottish whaler Perseverance. On September 22 they began preparations to winter, and on the 23rd anchored.

As winter preparations continued, a fight broke out on the morning of Oct. 5th between C. Mahoney, a 34-year-old from Rockland, Massachusetts, and William A. Dugan, a tall 26-year-old Irishman. The ship’s log records: “At 8 AM Mahoney and William Dugan had a fight in the forecastle + Dugan stabbed Mahoney with a sheath knife under the shoulder blade – the captain had Dugan put in irons – cleared away a place for him in the run.” Dugan remained in irons for a full month while Mahoney’s condition improved, deteriorated, then improved again. Finally, on Nov. 5th, the log reported that they “Let Dugan out of irons today – promised to behave for the rest of the voyage. Mahoney was willing that he should be let out of irons.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were ashore building a house with a sod roof and ice windows, building a sled, and preparing for the winter. The harbor froze solid as the temperatures plunged, dropping to -20 degrees (F) by the end of November. The local Inuit visited the ship often, and polar bears were spotted from the ship. Five of the crewmen became sick, and Mahoney continued to struggle with his wound. The crewmen as well as the local people began to travel to Cape Fullerton and back, carrying letters and visitors from the other whalers that had wintered over. The temperature dropped to 40 below by the beginning of January. The captain clapped another crewmen in irons when he refused to keep the cooking fire going when the cook was sick, but he released him after a half an hour.

As the weather began to warm, the crew began to venture outside more often. On March 2nd the log reported that “all hands out playing ball” when the temperature warmed to an unseasonable 15 below.  At the end of March, the local people caught a walrus, and the crew began preparation for whaling on the ice floes. The first whale was spotted on April 13th, and by mid-May the crew began launching the whaleboats to pursue.

A tragedy occurred on May 2nd when crewman Isaac Simmons, a 26-year-old from the island of St. Helena, according to the log, “dropped dead at 8:30 PM – supposed to have heart disease – he appeared to be all right before that so he could keep to work.”

Another near-disaster occurred after an unsuccessful chase of a whale through gale conditions, according to the log: “…At 6 PM left the boats on the flow with two men to look after them - before we got to the ship the ice which the boats were on broke off and went to sea – all hands went to the flow and launched a boat and went after them. Got to them at 10 PM – got back at 6 AM Sunday.”

As July began, the crew began to saw a canal through the ice to release the bark from its grip. On July 11th they finished the canal and made sail into open water, only for the current to take the A. R. Tucker onto the rocks. As the tide rose they managed to float the vessel and escape to open water. The cruising season had begun.

Whaling bark Desdemona, at sea.

On September 6, the A. R. Tucker was approached by the Scottish bark Perseverance. They had picked up the crew of the wrecked whaling bark Desdemona of New Bedford, crushed in the ice in Roes Welcome. Capt. West agreed to take some of the men onboard, including the second mate. Another portion of the Desdemona’s crew went home on the Era, under Capt. George Comer’s first voyage as master, and a third portion on the bark Canton.

In mid-September the A. R. Tucker left Hudson Bay, returning the way they came through Hudson Strait, and arrived back in port in New Bedford the morning of Oct. 8th together with the rescued crew of the Desdemona. It was reported in the newspapers that it had been an unprofitable season for whalers altogether.

Cleveland had returned to New Bedford after seventeen months at sea. His pay was $162.54.

According to Peter Freichen:

“Back in Boston, there was another week of wild celebration, and then the same process started all over again. A dark night, a sudden clout on the head from behind, a few expert knots around his hands and feet, and a dull thud as he hit the bottom of the rowboat that delivered him, more or less intact, to a new whaler. But Cleveland, young as he was, was an old hand at this. Straight away he assured the captain that he considered the whole shanghai process great fun, and that he was walking up that street just praying for a clout on the head, and that whaling was exactly his idea of a first-class career for a fellow like himself. Naturally this made him very popular with the skipper, the first mate, and the boatswain, in that order.”