THE WHALING DISASTER of 1871
Scrimshaw on walrus ivory
Of the thirty-nine American vessels
which sailed into Arctic waters "to chase the bowhead" during the summer
of 1871, only seven heeded the warnings from the native Inupiat that
the season would be unusually short and the winter unusually severe. The
rest – thirty-two of the finest whaling vessels in existence, carrying
1,200 officers and crewmen, and some carrying women and children – elected
to cruise in the treacherous waters of the Chukchi Sea south of Alaska’s
Now, suddenly, all thirty-two ships lay helplessly
trapped or crushed in gale-driven pack ice. To spend the winter in the
Arctic would, the masters knew, be fatal. To refloat the ships before
spring arrived – impossible. The only alternative was to abandon the fleet
where it lay and take to the sea in small boats.
vessels were spread out in a line ranging more than sixty miles south from
Point Franklin. The whaleboats had to be dragged by hand over the pressure
ridges of ice to the lead edge where they could be sailed in the little
open water remaining. Many times the way was blocked by ice closing the
leads and the boats had to be hauled again to open water. Waiting to the
south, free of the pack ice, were the remaining seven ships of the fleet.
The boats reached the rescue fleet safely without the loss of a single
life. The overcrowded ships then made their way uneventfully to Hawaii.
Although whaling in the Arctic did continue for a number of years, the
industry never recovered from this disaster.
The models for the two main panels
in the scrimshaw were steel engravings from an issue of 'Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper', dated December 2, 1871. The engravings on the tusk
show from left to right, (a.) 3 whalers wrecked in the ice, the closest
being the ship JULIAN, master John Heppingstone, her name being legible
on the stern, plus 2 other vessels, the barks AWASHONKS, and EUGENIA. (b.)
overloaded whaleboats under sail moving through a lead in the ice (c.) the
rescue fleet showing 5 of the vessels (d.) a bowhead whale with harpoon
of THE WHALING DISASTER of 1871