Friday, 23 November 2012

Whaling Journal of Thomas Atkinson of Kirkleatham, 1774

In 1774, Thomas Atkinson was a young surgeon of twenty-one when he took ship in the Hope of Whitby, on a whaling voyage to the Davies StraitsThis is a fair copy of his journal, full of accounts of the fish, the wild cold weather, and his first encounter with the Inuit:

A Journey of a Voyage to Davis’s Straits in the Hope of Whitby
Captain Robert Peacock, Commander
Kept by Thomas Atkinson, Surgeon in the Year MDCCLXXIV


On Sunday the 27th of February at about half past two oClock in the Afternoon we unmoor’d, and about half past three got out to Sea and discharged our Pilot; We had very squally Weather with sharp Showers of Sleet or Rain.

At six o’Clock the same evening I began to be very Sea sick, we having a monstrous great Sea on, occasion’d by the frequent Squalls we had; I continued very sick all that Night and Day following, Nor did my sickness entirely leave me before Wedensday March the second.

On thirsday the third of March the Weather grew more moderate and we had the Sun very bright the greatest part of the Day; by our Observation at Noon we were in the Latitude of 59°-6’ North; the same Night we observed the Aurora Borealis or northern Lights, but never saw any thing of the Kind equal them, they first appeared of a pale Yellow or brimstone Colour, but almost imperceptibly changed from that to a fine purple, they darted through the Heavens as quick as the motion of your Eye, and before they disappeared reassumed their pale Yellow or brimstone Colour again.

The following Night we discover’d Fair Island almost entirely covered with Snow, it bore NbW about seven Leagues distance; but a dead Calm succeeding the rough tempestuous Weather we had hitherto had, we did not pass it before Saturday Night the fifth of March.

Next Morning having a fresh breeze at ENE we were soon out of sight of Land, going at the rate of ten Knots, or miles an hour.

The Day following we observed playing on the Water a great Number Fin Fishes (as they are called by the Sailors) or Grampus’s, a Species of the Whale; It is surprising to see what incredible Numbers of Seafowl continually hover over these Fishes as they swim in the Water, and when he rises to blow one would really imagine they would devour him.

The reason the sailors give for it is this; they say these Fishes when they blow leave a thick Oiliness upon the surface of the Water, and that these birds skim and collect it together with their Bills and in a great measure subsist on it.

We now had the winds pretty moderate, but with continual showers of Snow and Hail, and the Nights some of them uncommonly dark; By Observation we were in the Latitude of 59°-46’ North, and in 20°-4’ West Longitude: Then we parted with the Jenny Captain Banks, who till now had kept us Company.  On Thursday the tenth, in the Morning we discover’d a Sail to Leeward at about three Leagues Distance: At four the same evening we spoke the British Queen from Hull, which was the same Ship we had seen in the Morning.  On Friday Morning we were again becalm’d; at noon we spoke with the Unity Captain Brown, a London Vessel: Both the before mention’d Ships were bound for Davis’s Straits.

From this time we had very contrary Winds, and dark disagreeable weather, with severe Showers of Snow or Hail, which prevented our taking an Observation until Thursday the 17th of March, when we had a clear Day, and by Observation found ourselves to be in the Latitude of 58°-44’ North, and Longitude in 30°-57’ West.

Our fine weather however was but of a short duration, for on Saturday Night we had very strong Gales of Wind at North and NNE, and both Wind and Sea continuing to increase all Night, on Sunday it was so tempestuous we were obliged to lay too under a reeft Mainsail and suffer the ship to drive with the Wind until the Morning; The Sea run so prodigious high, that several Seas we shipped broke almost the height of our mainyard.

We had nothing but thick, squally, and very disagreeable weather till the 25th when it began to clear up, and we saw a sail to the Northward of us.  On the 26th we made the Land, and at 6 oClock in the Morning Staaten Hoek bore NE at the Distance of about 6 Leagues: The Sail we had seen the Day before spoke us, and proved to be the British Queen already mentioned: The same Day about Noon the Mizen Gaff  of a Dutch Man came floating past us, and from that, we conjectured that some Dutch Ship had been dismasted in the Hurricane on Sunday the 20th.  At 1 o’Clock Cape Farewell bore EbN distance about Eight Leagues, the Land appears to be exceeding rugged and Mountanous, and entirely covered over with Snow; We generally kept Land within sight, excepting when we had foggy Weather, or by foreseeing the Danger of a strong Gale or a squally fit of weather, we thought it more prudent to stand farther from it.

On Sunday the 27th we passed by several Islands of floating Ice, the Queen and the Unity being in Company: Several pieces of the ice were near twice the height of our Maintopmasts.

On the 28th it began to blow again with continued showers of Snow.  On the 29th the snow still continuing very thick, and a strong Gale springing up at NbE we lay too under a reeft Mainsail: the Snow still continuing to fall without any intermission, so very thick that we could not see our Ships length before us, obliged us to go under a very easy Sail, in order to prevent as much as possible any bad Accident that might happen by running foul of the Ice.

On the first of April it cleared up again, when we discovered a Sail to the NNEward, the following Day she bore down to and spoke us, she was a Liverpool Ship, called the Golden Lion, Captain Thompson.

We now had the weather so exceeding Cold, and it froze so intensely, that your spittle half a minute after spitting would have been froze, and even in our Beds our breath has been hard froze to our Blankets.  On the 7th of April we fell in with the Ice very thick, in the Latitude of near 64°.00 N and in 50°-58’ West Longitude, the Golden Lion being in Company.

On the eighth we saw Numbers of large Seals playing about us in the Water, and likewise several very large Whales, one in particular being the largest any of our Ships Company had ever seen.

On the 9th we run through several Streams of Loose Ice, and fell in with such swarms of Ducks and other Water Fowls, that where the Water was not cover’d with Ice, it was almost entirely spread over with them; we saw likewise several uncommon Fishes.

On the 10th we made the Land again (having been out of sight of it for some Days) at about 5 Leagues Distance: we kept standing off and on for the Land all that Day and Night, having moderate Winds and clear Weather, the Nights now, not being above an hour, or an hour and a half long, and that not to be called Dark.

On the 11th in the Evening the Watch upon Deck discovered an Indian in his Canoe, a fishing, he had got so near us, before he was perceived by our People, that we could plainly distinguish the manner of his Dress, see all his Darts and Harpoons, and two large Seals he had killed and lashed fast to his Canoe, one on each side: Although there was a pretty great Sea on, he was 6 or 7 Leagues distance from the Land when we saw him, and in all probability had been at a much greater.

When our People halloo’d to him he stood from us but not through any apparent dread or fear, for he frequently laughed and bowed his Head to us, and shewed all the Signs of Joy and Astonishment in his Countenance possible.

On Sunday the 17th went along with our Captain on board the Golden Lion Capt Thompson; Two Indians in their Canoes had left the Ships Side before we got on board, and before we return’d to our own Vessel again, they had visited our people and left them likewise.

As soon as they got along side they called out for a Pipe and Toobac (as they call Tobacco) with which our people soon accomodated them, and gave them Biscuits, Pork &c all which they received with seeming great thankfulness, and as much Complaisance as they were Masters of.

The Day following we were joined by a hull Ship called the King of Prussia in the Latitude of 65°-39’ N; we still kept beating to the Northward, but having the Wind at NNE or NE we neither increased or diminished or Latitude above six or seven Miles for near the space of three Weeks; We had the Wind for the most part very strong, accompanied with Snow, and very Cloudy.

On the 23d we had light Breezes of Wind and pleasant Weather, when we got up our MaintopGallant Mast and Yard.  At 4 oClock the following morning we spoke with the Jenny Capt Banks, the Ship that was to have kept us Company, but which parted with us the Night we passed Fair Island: This Day we unstowed our Boats and got them over the Side, coil’d our boats Lines &c.  On the 25th we joined seventeen Sail, six of them Dutch, the rest English, in the Latitude of 67°-7’ North; here we met with pieces of Ice, some aground in between 50 and 60 Fathom of Water, (by our Sounding) and some of them near twice the height of our MaintopGallant Mast above the surface of the Water.  In the Evening we bore round whalefish Island, the North Side, and discovered the Island of Disko, (a pretty large Island thus named by the Dutch)  It appears to be about twice the height of Huntcliff in Cleveland, but not so rugged.

On the 26th we saw several large Whales playing in the Water, and at two oClock in the Afternoon Thos Stockton struck one of them, at about 4 oClock we killed her handed all our Sails and made fast to a large piece of Ice, as did the Jenny who likewise had got a fish, but the Wind veering about from the SSE to the SSW we were obliged to cast loose and bring too under the Mizen Staysail.

About four oClock the Morning following we took on board us four boats Crews belonging to a Snow of London called the Mentor: they had lost their own Vessel in the Fog, by following a fish they had struck, and which escaped them by breaking their Lines.

On the 28th in the Morning, called all Hands to make clear for flinching, or cutting the Blubber off the Fish.

The following Day we were close beset with the Ice, and having a strong Current from the Northward we drove foul of a large piece of Ice which started the Cathead, and broke off three of our Larboard Timber Heads, but luckily for us we got clear of it without any further Damage.

We were now between thirty and forty Sail in sight English and Dutch, but the far greater part Dutch: Several of them had lost their Bowsprits, and had topmasts rigged in their steads; One of them was run ashore on an Island called by them Honde Island, (by the English Dog Island from the great Number of Dogs with which it is infested) where she was broke to pieces and entirely lost, the Crew saved themselves in their Boats.

Having reached the fishing Ground we continued plying between the Northside of Whalefish Islands and the North East [the writer has written above this, South West] point of the Island of Disko, as did the greater part of between 60 and 70 Sail.

On the 30th of April we struck another Fish, but the Harpoon drawing we lost her.  The latter part of this Month we had very pleasant Weather with light breezes of Wind.

The Fish we killed, produced forty two Butts of neat Blubber, and seven Butts of Crang.

All the time we cruised here we were daily visited by some or other of the Natives in their Canoes, having sometimes eight or ten on board for a Day and Night together; they generally had their Canoes loaden with Seal, Bear, and Dog Skins, which they truck’d, or bartered with the English and Dutch, for any trifleing Article they took a fancy too.  Porringers, Basons, and all sorts of Earthen Ware they were remarkably fond of, and would have parted with almost anything for a few of our English Biscuits. Their Canoes are all very neatly made of Seal Skins, they are in general between eighteen or twenty Feet Long, none of them exceed a foot and a half in Breadth, and not above six or seven Inches in Depth so that every Sea breaks over them, but notwithstanding that, they will venture in them to a very great Distance from the Land, sometimes twelve or fourteen Leagues.

The Sterns of their Canoes are all Ivory or Bone pinn’d on the Skins with small Ivory Pins, and likewise both Ends of their Paddle or Oar in the same manner.  Their Cloathing consists of a kind of Shirt made of Duck’s Skins, they wear the Feathers next their Skin, and over that a Jacket made of Seal Skins with pieces of Ivory hung here and there upon them.

The Natives are all low of stature, the Men all are of a tawny or Olive Complexion, the Women some of them very fair red and white, and their Features very regular and well formed, yet their prodigious broad Faces (especially of the Women) render them very disagreeable.  The Hair both of the Women and Men is black and of a very great length, the Women tie theirs in a large Club upon the Crown of their Heads, the Men have theirs hanging down their backs loose.  The Women never come off from the Land in Canoes, but always in a boat which they call a luggage boat.

It is made of Skins, nearly the Shape of one of our Boats, but some of them near twice the length of ours, Sixteen, Eighteen or twenty Women will come off in one of those Boats at a time, they row themselves, and a Man sits in the Stern to steer her.

They most of them have their Chins stained of a Blue Colour,

The Men all take Snuff and smoke Tobacco.  May the 19th I went on shore with the Mate and three boats Crews, on the Island of Disko, the Snow close to the Waters edge was all traced over with wild Dogs, but we saw none of them, we shot several small Birds, like our English Stints [?] but larger; we saw several Foxes all milk white, and several of what we took to be Beavers. In one place we found a Wooden Post drove into the Ground mark’d with a W, and an E, we supposed it had been a burying Place of the Dutch; we likewise found plenty fine Muscles.

In the Winter Season during the hard Frosts, which renders their Canoes of no service to them by reason of the Water being entirely froze over, they travel over the Ice in Sledges drawn by a Dozen or fourteen large Dogs not unlike bears, only they are of various Colours. They live in Caves in the Winter, twenty or 30 of them in a Cave Men, Women, & Children. In the Summer Season they live in tents made with Poles fixed in the Ground and covered over with Bear, Seal, or other Skins, these they had generally near the Sea side and on the Banks of the Rivers, which we supposed was for the conveniency of Fishing and Hunting, and being very light are easily removed from place to Place, so as to suit there purposes before mentioned.

All the Month of May we had temperate agreeable weather, and it seems to be the height of their Summer for from the beginning of June until the 25 or 26th of the Month (about the time we left the Country) we had very foggy, disagreeable Weather, with Snow, and frequent Gales of Wind.

We kept working between the Island of Disko and the Cost of America [the writer has written above this, James’s Island] until the 8th of June, when we bore away to the Northward as far as the Latitude of 73° 0’ but not meeting any Fish as we expected, on the 17th we bore away for the Southward; on the 18th we sent 5 Boats on Shore to Water, they continued plying to and from the Ship all that Day, The Waters were very sweet and Good, and as clear as Crystal, when the Land was not cover’d with Snow, it was all grown over with short Grass and several sorts of Plants, and some Flowers, we saw no sort of Beasts, nor fowls, except some few Partridge which was quite White.

On the 20th we bore away to the Westward among Loose Ice we saw several large Sea Horses, and Bears upon it; We kept our run to the Westward, till June 26th or 27th, when we bore away for England.

Our Passage down the Straits to Cape Farewell was in every respect worse and more tedious than our outbound one, having continued strong Gales of Wind from the SE Quarter; and generally such Showery, foggy weather that we hardly ever saw the Land for 4 Hours together, but after we had doubled the Cape and entered the Western Ocean, the weather grew more tolerable, but still far from such Weather as we had expected.

We doubled the Cape the 16th Day of July.  On the 18th we spoke the British Queen, three Sail more being in sight a Stern of us.

On the 31st we spoke with the Perseverance Greenlandman Captain Smith bound for Liverpool with 4 Fish.

On the 1st of August we made the Land which by our Reckoning we took to be Fair Island and bore away for it, but by our Observation at noon we found to be the Orkneys, we then brought our Ship by the Wind and bore away to NE again.

August the 2nd at 3 in the Morning Fair Island bore E by S about 6 Leagues Distance.


NOTE: This journal has now been published as a booklet by the Kirkbymoorside History Group

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