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Afloat again: last survivor of St Helena’s whaling days

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Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image
Stern of the Charles W Morgan, pictured before re-launch. Click the pic for original image

Well over a century has passed since John Knipe deserted from the crew of a whaling ship at Jamestown, and he is long dead; but far across the Atlantic, that same vessel is being prepared to take to sea once more.

The Charles W Morgan, once a familiar sight in James Bay, has been relaunched at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut after five years of restoration.

The vessel is the world’s last surviving wooden whaling ship: first launched at New Bedford in 1841.

Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr
Charles W Morgan before restoration. Picture by Steve and Sara Emry, via flickr

When her $7 million dollar restoration is complete in 2014, she is due to embark on a commemorative voyage to the great whaling ports of New England, including New Bedford. There are no plans for her to make the dangerous voyage to her old hunting grounds around the islands of the South Atlantic.

Thousands turned out at Mystic Seaport, the vessel’s home since 1941, to see her floated once again on Sunday 21 July 2013.

The final stage of restoration will include fitting new masts.

A deck house built for the wife of one of the ship’s captains will remain on the quayside. Clara Tinkham left the ship at St Helena to find her own way home, unwilling to put up with life aboard a whaler.

The crowd saw Sarah Bullard, the great-great-great granddaughter of original owner Charles Waln Morgan, smash a bottle containing ocean water over the ship’s bow.

Documentary maker Ric Burns praised the preservation shipyard at Mystic Seaport and the organisations in more than 20 states that helped with the restoration of the ship – which had been declared a national historic monument.

First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841
First voyage of the Charles W Morgan, in 1841

He said: “Having taken in and cared for and lovingly provided a home for the Charles W Morgan, the last and only whale ship in the world since 1949, you’ve now done something even more extraordinary: you’ve given her back her wings, made it possible for her to sail again and given her back to the sea.”

While a large team of craftsman has been stripping the decks and steaming great hull planks – some from 200-year-old oaks that were felled by Hurricane Katrina – others have been working through the ship’s records.

Thus we know that a 38-year-old adventurer, listed as John [Knife] Knipe, joined voyage 10 of the Charles W Morgan at New Bedford in April 1875 and escaped ashore at St Helena on 15 November the following year.

His place of residence was listed in the record as Providence, another New England whaling port, and there was a brief description of him: height 5’8″, eyes dark, hair black, complexion dark.

He was one of 24 men who deserted at various ports during that three-year voyage, but there were plenty of others willing to take their place, including six who shipped at St Helena during various calls at the island.

Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry
Refitting masts and rigging is the last part of restoration. Picture: Steve and Sara Emry

Some of those joining the crew at Jamestown over the years would be whaling men looking for a ride home; others might have been islanders prepared to take on the hardships of a brutal trade to escape poverty.

The record for voyage ten lists Jose Cuemintel, a “greenhand”; Antone Vera, a boatsteerer; Adolphus Hayard and William Brown, seamen; Joseph Parry, 4th mate; and George Thomas, “boy”, who shipped at St Helena in November 1876 and was discharged at the island eight months later.

Others followed on later voyages: William J George on voyage 13, George T Samuel on voyage 22, and Thomas Stokes, “preventer boatsteerer” in 1899.

The ship’s voyage of 1856 to 1859 saw three men in their early 20s join the crew at Ascension Island: their names are listed as Joe Ascension, Tom Ascension and Friday Ascension.

The records also contain an account of the ship’s working days by a “grand sailerman” named John Levitt. He described how, by 1913, the ship was laid up, her whaling days apparently over, when she was bought and repaired by Captain Benjamin Cleveland, who hoped to go after sperm whale and sea elephant oil off Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean.

Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch
Model of the Charles W Morgan. Picture: Mary Harrsch

The cost of making her seaworthy was met partly by a film company for a picture set partly on a whaling ship.

The Charles W Moore eventually sailed in 1916, but she began leaking after a storm and eight men deserted at the Cape Verde islands, believing she would sink. Four men were lost when one of the ship’s boats capsized in heavy surf at Desolation.

“Leaving Desolation Island on 12 May,” wrote Leavit, “the Morgan worked northward into the South Atlantic and on 8 August raised the island of St Helena, where she anchored next day.  There she lay for eight days while fresh water was taken aboard, some repairs were made, and the crew was given a chance to stretch their legs ashore, a watch at a time.”

When the Morgan embarks on her 38th voyage in May 2014, after final fitting out and crew training, her goals will include telling the story of different cultures that came together at sea, and of America’s changing attitudes to the natural world.

“The last is the most significant,” says the Mystic Seaport website. “Whales were hunted almost to extinction. Today, America celebrates the whale and works for its recovery. Where once the Charles W Morgan’s cargo was oil and bone, today her cargo is knowledge.”

Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist
Charles W Morgan in 2007. Picture by Ken Mist

St Helena historian Trevor Hearl wrote that St Helena could have much to add to that knowledge.

In a paper re-published in June 2013 in the book, St Helena Britannica, he pointed out that little was known about the island’s biggest source of income after flax-growing.

“Think what must be hidden in St Helena newspapers and archives,” he wrote. “Shipping lists alone would give details of every whaler at Jamestown from 1829 to 1883, perhaps longer.”

The records recall resentment on the impoverished colony at American whalers making fortunes in St Helena’s waters, while efforts to establish a local whaling company failed. In 1882, islanders even watched a visiting ship catch a whale within sight of Ladder Hill Fort.

The trade effectively ended with the coming of the First World War. The Charles W Morgan’s visit to St Helena in 1916 was one of the very last to be made by a whaling vessel, aside from a call by a massive Norwegian factory ship in 1960, bound for a last hunt in Antarctica.

Restoration of the Charles W Morgan
Mystic Seaport launched historic whaling ship Charles W Morgan (news report)
Charles W Morgan – a volunteer’s account of the restoration

AUDIO: new St Helena Britannica is a tribute to island historian

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