The Palmer whaling logbook collection 1820-1833
The team have recently completed the transcription of weather and ice observations recorded in a special collection of logbooks kept by Captain George Palmer (1789-1866) on board the Hull whaling ship, the Cove. This complete run of log-books written between 1820 and 1833 describe the hazards and routines of Arctic whaling at a time when depleting whale stocks in Greenland led to a search for new whaling grounds in the icy Davis Straits and Baffin Bay.
The Northern Whale Fishery; the Swan and Isabella – John Ward
Hazards of ice
The logs follow a similar format to those of the Hudson’s Bay Company and other whaling logs and contain positional information (latitude and occasionally longitude), together with observations of wind force, wind direction and weather. The state of the ice is described on a daily basis, the frequency of which is not surprising given the dangers of sailing in such inhospitable waters. On several occasions in the logs Palmer reports hearing news of whaling ships lost to the ice: On the 9th September 1825, Palmer, having spoken with the Juno of Leith, writes “we were informed of the loss of the Success of Leith and the Lively of Berwick by the pressure of the floes of ice”.
On the 3rd September 1830 Palmer reports “Spoke the Ingria of Hull who gave an account of the Achilles, Progress, Baffin and Rattles lost” and a few days later “Fairy of Dundee gave an account of the Spencer lost” (In fact, this turned out to be the most disastrous season with 19 British whaling ships lost in Melville Bay as they waited for ice to move, so that they might push west)
The Cove itself did not escape bad fortune either for on the 7th September 1829 Palmer writes “One of the men James Watson unfortunately fell with the ice the others escaped by catching hold of each other. All hands was called immediately to their assistance but before any person could get to him he sunk amongst the broken ice to rise no more”
An unfortunate incident occurs on the Cove’s return voyage to Hull in 1828. Palmer notes in his log on the 13th September 1828 “John Scott an Orkneyman died after a short illness” and was buried a few days later on Cape Searle. Whilst this is not unusual, the plot thickens as we later read on the 12th October as the ship arrives into Stromness, “ A Mr Patterson, constable of Stromness, came on board on with a warrant from the Sheriff of Orkney to take James Mays charged with having killed John Scott on board the ship Cove in Davis Straits. The search made for him proved fruitless though assisted by the ships company. At 4pm called all hands aft and the Captain asked the Crew if any of them the least knowledge of James Mayes being on board the ship which they all denied. This transaction was performed in the presence of different witnesses.”
A survey of contemporary newspapers does not shed any further light on this alleged crime and thus remains a mystery, for now!
Life as a whaler was undoubtedly a hard one and whilst there was no mention of the ‘murder’ in 1828, a rather nice insight into happier times is reported earlier in the year in the local newspaper, the Hull packet on 11th March:
“On Tuesday night, Captain Palmer entertained a large party of friends on board his ship, the Cove whaler, in Shields harbour. A great portion of the deck was covered in for the purpose of dancing, which spritely amusement was entered into with the utmost spirit and vivacity. At 12 o’clock the whole party retired to the supper table, which was laid out between decks in a style of elegance quite unparalleled, consisting of every delicacy to please the eye or gratify the palate of the most fastidious. After supper, a humourous and characteristic song, written for the occasion, was sung with great applause. At two, the dance was resumed, and kept up with undiminished spirit until 5 o’clock, when the company returned on shore, highly gratified with the night’s amusement, the hearty welcome of Captain Palmer, and the elegant attentions of his amiable wife”.
The ARCdoc team are extremely grateful to the family of George Palmer, the Scott Polar Research Institute and Bernard Stonehouse for making copies of these logs available to the team.