Wednesday 6 November 2019

Whaling Captain from Greenwich

who gained more in six days than others in seven.
by Graham Whyte

This article has been sent to us by a reader in Australia and appeared in the July 2001 GIHS Newsletter

There once was a Captain of a Pacific sperm whaler and a long-time Greenwich resident, whose name was Robert Clark Morgan.  When he was a young man, just appointed to his first command, about ten days before sailing he happened to enter a chapel where a revival service was being held, and the result to him was eventful.

That Greenwich revival service was led by a baker and lay preacher named Mr. Isaac English.  It was his habit when he had set his dough overnight to make ‘a Bethel of his bake house’ - while the process of rising was going on, he lifted up his soul.  One night Robert Clark Morgan, overheard his devotion - paused to listen and was deeply impressed.  The result was that Morgan was happily converted to God and became a devout member of the Wesleyan society in Greenwich. 

He had hitherto been a reckless, boisterous profligate, living without a thought of God, except to blaspheme – but Divine grace now wrought so wondrous a change in him, that when he once more went to sea the old hands could scarcely recognise him for the same man. 

Captain Morgan had sailed for the fishing grounds, when the question of lowering his boats on the Sabbath, should a whale appear all at once started up in his mind.  He regretted that he had not thought of this before, and told the ship owner, Daniel Bennet, how he would act.  He resolved to follow the Divine command implicitly  - but, the crew, were like himself, "on the lay " - that is, they were not paid by wages, but by proportionate shares of the oil captured – so he felt anxious that they might mutiny if prevented from catching whales on a Sunday.

Many weeks passed without a whale sight but at last, one Sunday afternoon "There she spouts!  - There again!" reached the deck from the look-out at the mast-head, and instantly all was activity and bustle.  For one brief moment the young captain hesitated; for the excitement was contagious – but it was only for a moment, and he heard clearly and distinctly the words, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!" and his own voice rang through the ship, declaring that not a boat could leave her that day.

The scene, which ensued, may be imagined.  But the captain was unmoved, and his courageous demeanour at last quelled the riot; but not until he had promised that he would give up to the crew his own shares in future catches an equivalent to their loss. 

“The owner will think nothing of losing his share, of course!" said his mate,  “This will be the first and last vessel you'll ever command of his, at any rate!  Morgan felt the truth of what his mate had said, and that no owner would ever give him a ship to command again.  The mate continued: "You see, Captain Morgan, I have a wife and five children to keep; and if Providence sends us a whale on Sunday, I take it as Providence means us to catch that whale - leastways that's my -“  …… the words were arrested on his lips, and he stood still and motionless ..  "Captain Morgan!  Come here quick, sir, please!  Look!" An expression of alarm, mingled with astonishment and incredulity, overspread his features as he saw the mercury of the barometer rapidly falling lower and lower as he stood.  Morgan jumped up and both bounded on to the deck to summon the crew.  Well was it for that crew that none of them had left the ship in her boats!  Well was it for the ship that all her hands were on board!  For in half an hour all were engaged in a desperate life and death struggle, which taxed every energy, and demanded the utmost efforts of every individual on board.

For three days they scudded before the hurricane; and when it had passed by they found that they had been driven some hundreds of miles beyond the bounds they had set to their cruising ground; but to their intense delight, they discovered that part of the ocean, which the mate had hitherto declared to be one of the poorest, to be in reality one of the best fishing grounds possible.

Scarcely had the weather moderated, when they found themselves in the midst of a whole “school” of sperm whale and two were secured.  Hardly had these been "tried out”, i.e., rendered into oil, when more were seen; and, in short, so fortunate were they, that instead of two, or even three years (the usual time taken to fill a good - sized ship), Captain Morgan's vessel returned to Sydney in ten months!

Captain Morgan invariably adhered to his rule of never lowering on Sunday; and yet (with one exception) no captain in the whole port, on an average of years, brought more oil to his owners than he did.  This exception was an individual who was always extraordinarily fortunate in his cruises.  His name was Harris; and he often jeered Morgan upon the Quaker-like proceedings and Methodistical humbug (as he termed it) of himself and his ship's crew; and in particular he derided the teetotal principles which, after much difficulty and persuasion, Morgan had at last induced his men to adopt.  

Captain Morgan stood first on the list of the men who had brought most money to his owners, even though be had lost many a whale by not lowering on Sunday.

Graham Whyte is from Melbourne, Australia and has a keen interest in Greenwich Industrial History, in  particular, whaling activities from Greenwich. He developed this through  family history

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