The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 5

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CAPTAIN ROBERT H. WATERMAN, the first commander of the Sea Witch, had been known for some years among the shipping community of New York as an exceptionally skilful seaman and navigator, but he first began to attract public attention about 1844 by some remarkably fast voyages in the ship Natchez. Captain Waterman was born in the city of New York, March 4, 1808, and at the age of twelve shipped on board of a vessel bound for China. After working through the grades of ordinary and able seaman, and third, second, and chief mate on board of various vessels, he sailed for a number of voyages as mate with Captain Charles H. Marshall in the Black Ball packet ship Britannia between New York and Liverpool. At that time he was counted one of the smartest mates sailing out of New York, and was noted for keeping the Britannia in fine shape, as well as for his ability in maintaining proper order and discipline among the steerage passengers and crew, who were always a source of anxiety and trouble to packetship captains. When his vessel was bound to the westward in 1831, one of the sailors fell overboard from aloft during a heavy gale, and Mr. Waterman saved the man's life at the risk of his own. The cabin passengers of the Britannia presented him with a substantial testimonial in appreciation of his humane and gallant conduct. At this time he was twenty-three years old. Two years later he was promoted to captain, and in this capacity he made five voyages round the globe.

In 1843 he took command of the Natchez. This ship, as we have seen in Chapter III., was one of the full-pooped New Orleans packets, and was built by Isaac Webb in 1831. Captain Waterman took her around Cape Horn to the west coast of South America, thence across the Pacific to Canton, where he loaded a cargo of tea for New York, and made the passage home in 94 days and the voyage round the globe in 9 months and 26 days. In 1844 Captain Waterman sailed again in the Natchez from New York for Valparaiso and made the passage in 71 days, thence to Callao in 8 days, and to Hong-kong in 54 days. She again loaded tea for New York and sailed from Canton January 15, 1845, passed Java Head on the 26th, and 39 days out was off the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the equator 61 days out, arriving in New York April 3d, 78 days from Canton, a total distance of 13,955 miles. Her run from the equator to New York in 17 days, and indeed, this whole passage, was most remarkable, as the Natchez during her packet days had established the reputation of being an uncommonly slow ship. Captain Waterman received a grand ovation in New York upon this record passage from China, and it was suggested that he had brought the old hooker home by some route unknown to other navigators. In 1845-46 Captain Waterman made one more voyage to China in the Natchez, from New York direct to Hong-kong in 104 days, and returned to New York in 83 days.

A series of voyages such as these, by a ship of the type and character of the Natchez, would probably have established the reputation of any one commanding her, and when we consider that "Bob" Waterman, for so he was known, was at this time a young captain of an unusually attractive personality, it is not difficult to understand the pride and admiration with which he was regarded by his friends, of whom he had many, both in New York and in the various foreign ports to which he had sailed. The owners of the Natchez, Howland & Aspinwall, were so favorably impressed not only by his ability as a seaman and navigator, but by his loyalty to their interests, that, as we have seen, they built the clipper ship Sea Witch for him in 1846. While she was building, Captain Waterman married Cordelia, a daughter of David Sterling, of Bridgeport, and Mrs. Waterman was present as a bride when the ship was launched.

In 1849, Captain Waterman resigned from the Sea Witch to take the Pacific Mail steamship Northerner from New York to San Francisco. During the three years that he had commanded the Sea Witch, she had made a large amount of money for her owners, and Captain Waterman had added to his reputation,—so much so, indeed, that certain good people began to say unpleasant things of him. It was alleged that Captain Waterman carried sail too hard, that he exceeded the bounds of prudence in this respect, and kept padlocks on the topsail sheets and packings on the topsail halliards fore and aft; also that he maintained a standard of discipline far more severe than was necessary.

It is probable that Captain Waterman did carry sail rather hard—most American captains who wanted to get anywhere in those days usually did—and as to the padlocks and packings, more than one captain used these precautions to prevent villainous or cowardly sailors from letting go sheets and halliards by the run, when according to their ideas the ship had too much canvas on her. The fact, however, remains that in the eighteen years during which Captain Waterman commanded various ships, he never lost a spar or carried away rigging of any importance, and never called on underwriters for one dollar of loss or damage. The record shows that six of the men before the mast sailed with him upon all his voyages in the Natchez and the Sea Witch, a rare occurrence at that period, or at any other time of which we have Knowledge, and creditable alike to the sailors, the ships, and their commander.

The truth is that Captain Waterman was a humane, conscientious, high-minded man, who never spared himself nor any one else when a duty was to be performed. There are, and always have been, lazy, incompetent, mutinous sailors, a type of men that Captain Waterman detested. They found no comfort in sailing with him, and were glad when the voyage was ended, so that they might scramble ashore and relate their woes to the sympathetic legal "gents" who were usually to be found hanging about Pier 9, East River, when the Sea Witch was reported coming up the bay. We shall hear more of Captain Waterman and his crew on board of the Challenge in a later chapter.

The celebrated clipper-ship captain, Nathaniel Brown Palmer, the first commander of the Paul Jones, Houqua, Samuel Russell, and Oriental, was born in the pretty town of Stonington, on Long Island Sound in 1799, and came from distinguished colonial ancestry. His grandfather's only brother fell mortally wounded at the battle of Groton Heights in 1771, while his father was an eminent lawyer and a man of marked ability.

At the age of fourteen or just as the War of 1812 was fairly under way, Nathaniel shipped on board of a coasting vessel which ran to ports between Maine and New York, and continued in this service until he was eighteen, when he was appointed second mate of the brig Hersilia, bound down somewhere about Cape Horn on a sealing voyage.

These sealing expeditions were also at that period more or less voyages of discovery. For years there had been rumors of a mythical island called Auroras, embellished with romance and mystery by the whalers of Nantucket, New Bedford, and New London, and described as lying away to the eastward of the Horn, concerning which no forecastle yarn was too extravagant for belief. Whaling captains by the score had spent days and weeks in unprofitable search for it. On this voyage Captain J. P. Sheffield, of the Hersilia, landed at one of the Falkland Islands, where he left his second mate and one sailor to kill bullocks for provisions, and then sailed away in search of the fabled island.

Young Nat Palmer proceeded to capture and slay bullocks, and when, after a few days, a ship hove in sight, he piloted her into a safe anchorage, and supplied her with fresh meat. This vessel proved to be the Espirito Santo, from Buenos Ayres, and the captain informed Nat that he was bound to a place where there were thousands of seals, and where a cargo could be secured with little effort, but he declined to disclose its position. The mind of the young sailor naturally turned to the magic isle of Auroras, where, according to the saga preserved beside the camp-fires of corner grocery stores in New England whaling towns, silver, gold, and precious gems lay scattered along the beach in glittering profusion, the treasure of some huge galleon, wrecked and broken up centuries ago, when Spain was powerful upon the sea.

There must have been something about the whale fishery highly inspiring to the imagination, though to see one of the greasy old Nantucket or New Bedford blubber hunters wallowing about in the South Pacific, one would hardly have suspected it, yet among the spinners of good, tough tarry sea yarns, some of the authors of narratives relating to the pursuit and capture of the whale are easily entitled to wear champion belts as masters of pure fiction. Whaling is one of the least hazardous, the most commonplace, and, taken altogether about the laziest occupation that human beings have ever been engaged in upon the sea. Sailors aboard the clippers fifty years ago used to refer to whale ships as "butcher shops adrift," and on account of the slovenly condition of their hulls, spars, sails, and rigging, a "spouter" was generally regarded among seamen as one of the biggest jokes afloat. As a matter of fact the whale is about as stupid and inoffensive a creature as exists, and when occasionally he does some harm—smashing up a boat, for instance—it is usually in a flurry of fright, with no malice or intent to kill. If a whale possessed the instinct of self-defence he could never be captured with a harpoon, but he has evidently been created as he is for the benefit of mankind, and incidentally as a temptation to scribes, from the days of the indigestible Jonah even to the piscatory romancers of our own times.

Well, the captain of the Espirito Santo, after filling his water-casks, laying in a stock of provisions, and giving his crew a run ashore sheeted home his topsails, hove up anchor, and departed. Young Nat took such a lively interest in the welfare of this craft that he carefully watched her progress until the last shred of her canvas faded upon the horizon. He judged by the sun, for he had no compass, that her course was about south.

Three days after the departure of the Espirito Santo, the Hersilia appeared. Captain Sheffield had found nothing and seen nothing, except the cold, gray sky, and the long, ceaseless heaving of the Southern Ocean's mighty breast, a few stray, hungry, screeching albatross, and once in a while, for a moment, a whale, with smooth, glistening back, spouting jets of feathery spray high in the keen, misty air, then sounding among the caverns of the deep. He had returned, like so many other credulous mariners, empty-handed, but he found his young second mate in a white heat of enthusiasm as he reported to his commander what he had learned, and finally, with the hopefulness of youth, declared his belief that “we can follow that Espirito Santo, and find her, too.” And they did, for in a few days she was discovered lying at anchor in a bay off the South Shetlands, islands at that time unknown in North America, though soon to become famous as the home of seals. The officers and crew of the Espirito Santo greeted them with surprise, while their admiration took the substantial form of assisting to load the Hersilia with ten thousand of the finest sealskins, with which she returned to Stonington.

This exploit spread like wildfire through New England whaling ports, and secured Captain Palmer at the age of twenty, command of the Stonington sloop Hero, “but little rising forty tons,” on board of which he sailed again for the Antarctic seas, as tender to the Hersilia, in 1819. Upon this voyage, after calling at the Falkland Islands for water and provisions, they again steered for the South Shetlands, and the Hersilia and Hero returned to Stonington with full cargoes of sealskins.

In 1821, Captain Palmer again sailed in the Hero upon an expedition to the South Shetlands, composed of six vessels commanded by Captain William Penning of the brig Alabama Packet. By this time, however, the seals had been nearly exterminated, and Captain Palmer sailed farther south in search of new sealing-grounds, until he sighted land not laid down on any chart. He cruised along the coast for some days and satisfied himself that it was not an island, and after anchoring in several bays without finding any seals, although the high cliffs and rocks were covered by multitudes of penguin, he steered away to the northward with light winds and fog.

One night the Hero lay becalmed in a dense fog, the cold, penetrating mist drenching her sails and dripping from the main boom along her narrow deck. At midnight Captain Palmer relieved his mate and took the deck for the middle watch. When the man at the helm struck one bell, the captain was somewhat startled to hear the sound repeated twice at short intervals, for he knew, or thought he knew, that the only living things within many leagues were whales, albatross, penguin, and the like, nor did he recall ever hearing that these harmless creatures carried bells with them. The men of the watch on deck were really alarmed, for in those days superstition had not by any means departed from the ocean. The crew had heard of the fierce Kraken of northern seas, and suddenly remembered all about the doomed and unforgiven Vanderdecken, to say nothing of mythical local celebrities, renowned in all the barrooms of coast towns between Cornfield Point and Siasconset Head, nor were their fears assuaged when at two bells the same thing happened again, and so on through the watch.

Captain Palmer, however, concluded that, strange as it seemed, he must be in company with other vessels, and so at four o’clock he left the mate in charge of the deck with orders to call him if the fog lifted, and turned in for his morning watch below. At seven bells the mate reported that the fog had cleared a little and a light breeze was springing up, and by the time Captain Palmer got on deck two large men-of-war were in sight not more than a mile distant—a frigate on the port bow and a sloop of war on the starboard quarter, both showing Russian colors. Soon the United States ensign was run up at the main peak of the Hero and floated gaily in the morning breeze. The three vessels were now hove to, and a twelve-oared launch was seen approaching from the frigate, her crew and officer in the stern sheets in uniform. As she swept round the stern of the Hero the crew tossed oars and the coxswain shot her alongside. She really looked almost as large as the little sloop; at all events the Russian officer stepped from her gunwale to the deck of the Hero. The officer spoke English fluently, and presented the compliments of Commander Bellingshausen, who invited the captain of the American sloop to come on board his ship.

Captain Palmer was all his life a man of purpose rather than of ceremony, though by no means deficient in dignity and self-respect. He accepted the invitation, and giving an order or two to his mate, stepped into the launch just as he stood, in sea boots, sealskin-coat, and sou'wester. They were soon alongside the frigate, and Captain Palmer was ushered into the commander's spacious and luxurious cabin. The scene was impressive; the venerable, white-haired commander surrounded by his officers in uniform, and the stalwart young American captain standing, with respectful dignity, his rough weather-worn sea-dress contrasting with his fresh, intelligent, handsome face. Commander Bellingshausen smiled pleasantly, and taking his guest by the hand, said kindly, "You are welcome, young man; be seated."

After questioning Captain Palmer about himself, his vessel, and the land he had discovered, and incidentally remarking that he himself had been two years upon a voyage of discovery, the commander asked to see Captain Palmer's chart and log-book. These were sent for on board the Hero while an elaborate luncheon was being served, and were afterwards carefully examined. The commander then rose from his seat and placing his hand in a parental manner upon the young captain's head, delivered quite an oration: "I name the land you have discovered 'Palmer Land' in your honor; but what will my august master say, and what will he think of my cruising for two years in search of land that has been discovered by a boy, in a sloop but little larger than the launch of my frigate?" Captain Palmer was unable to offer any information on this point, but he thanked his host for the honor conferred upon him, and for his kindness and hospitality, remaining somewhat non-committal in his opinion as to the old gentleman's qualifications as an explorer.

It may be mentioned that upon all charts this portion of the Antarctic Continent is laid down as "Palmer Land," also that some twenty years elapsed before it was rediscovered by the British explorer, Sir James Ross, in command of the famous Erebus and Terror expedition.

Captain Palmer next took command of the schooner Cadet, owned by Borrows & Spooner, of New York, on board of which he made a number of voyages to the Spanish Main. In 1826 he took the brig Tampico to Carthagena, and upon his return he married a daughter of Major Paul Babcock and sister of Captain David S. Babcock, afterwards famous as commander of the clipper ships SwordFish and Young America, and subsequently President of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Captain Palmer then took the brig Francis on several voyages to Europe, and in 1829 was in command of the brig Anawan, exploring new sealing-grounds among the islands about Cape Horn. In 1833 he took command of the New Orleans packet ship Huntsville, and then of the Hibernia, Garrick, and Siddons. In 1842 and the years following, as we have seen, he commanded the clippers Paul Jones, Houqua, Samuel Russell, and Oriental, and in 1850 retired from the sea.

At this time he was well known, not only among his neighbors and friends at Stonington, but in the great seaports of Europe and China as "Captain Nat," and many of those who talked about what he had said and what he had done were apparently unaware that he possessed any other name. It is pleasant to reflect that the neighboring seaport of Bristol has perpetuated the title in one who is respected and beloved, not more for his genius than for his modesty and reserve.

It was, of course, impossible for a man of Captain Palmer's earnest temperament and varied activities to lead a life of pleasure and idleness, so one of the first things that he did upon his retirement was to take the auxiliary steamship United States from New York to Bremen where she was sold. When some of his friends rallied him, asking whether he considered this giving up the sea. Captain Palmer replied, "Well, I really don't know how you can call a trip like this going to sea."

For many years Captain Palmer was the confidential adviser of A. A. Low & Brother in all matters relating to their ships, which occupied a considerable portion of his time, and while he was a seaman par excellence, he also possessed other accomplishments. He had much knowledge of the design and construction of ships, and many of his suggestions were embodied in the Houqua, Samuel Russell, Oriental, and other ships subsequently owned by the Lows. He was also a fine all-round sportsman, being a skilful yachtsman, excellent shot, and truthful fisherman. Altogether, he owned some fifteen yachts, and he was one of the earliest members of the New York Yacht Club, joining on June 7, 1845. The beautiful schooner Juliet, of seventy tons, designed by himself, was the last yacht owned by him. On board of her he sailed, summer after summer, upon the pleasant waters of the New England coast that he had known from boyhood and loved so well.

Captain Palmer stood fully six feet, and was a man of great physical strength and endurance. He was an active member of the Currituck Club, and at the age of seventy-six, on his annual cruise to the Thimble Islands for duck shooting, few of the party of much younger men held so steady a gun, or could endure the fatigue and exposure for which he seemed to care nothing. Though rugged in appearance, his roughness was all on the outside; his heart was filled with kindness and sympathy for the joys and sorrows of others. His brother. Captain Alexander Palmer, a seaman only less famous than himself, once said: "My home is here in Stonington, but Nat's home is the world." Captain Palmer was deeply though not vainly religious, and was long a warden of Calvary Episcopal Church at Stonington.

In 1876 he accompanied his nephew, Nathaniel B. Palmer, his brother Alexander's eldest son, who was in feeble health, to Santa Barbara, but as the invalid derived no benefit there, they went for the sea voyage to China on board the clipper ship Mary Whitridge. At Hong-kong, Captain Palmer received an ovation, for, while few of his old friends there were still alive, those who were left had good memories. On the return voyage to San Francisco on the steamship City of Pekin, Captain Palmer's nephew died when the vessel was but one day out. This was a terrible blow to Captain Palmer, from which he never recovered. On arriving at San Francisco he was confined to his bed, and although he received every care, he died there on June 21, 1877, in his seventy-eighth year. At the close of a glorious summer day, the remains of the devoted uncle and nephew were laid at rest in the churchyard at Stonington, by the hands of those who had known and loved them well.

Captain Palmer was a fine type of the American merchant seaman of that period, and I have thought it worth while to trace the leading events of his life, because he always seemed to me to be the father of American clipper-ship captains. Probably no one ever brought up so many young men who afterward became successful shipmasters, while his character and example were an inspiration to many who never sailed with him. It is indicative of the broad and far-reaching sympathies of Captain Palmer's life, that not only a part of the Antarctic Continent bears his name—an enduring monument to his memory—but that A. A. Low & Brother named one of their finest clipper ships, the N. B. Palmer, and the famous schooner-yacht Palmer, owned for many years by Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, was also named for him. Few men in private life have had part of a continent, a clipper ship, and yacht named for them.