Friday, 10 September 2021

The "Diana" Whaling ship - Arctic voyage, 1866-1867

The BBC 2 drama, “The North Water” [which starts tonight], starring Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham is based on a novel by Hull-born Ian McGuire, is a four-part series which tell the story of Sumner, a disgraced ex-army surgeon, who signed up as a ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic in the 1850s.  It recalls the days when Hull was one of the world’s busiest whaling ports.

It immediately brought to mind the wealth of information on the Whaling industry held within the Local Studies Whaling collection [L(WHA)], and in particular, an amazing book by C. E. Smith, titled “From the Deep of the Sea: Being the Diary of the Late Charles Edward Smith, surgeon on the Whaleship “Diana” of Hull at L(WHA).639.281.  In the first part of a four part blog, the Unlocking the Treasures Team set the scene by giving the background to the history of whaling and the start of the “Diana’s” voyage from Hull.

Charles Edward Smith’s diary of an epic voyage undertaken in 1866-1867 by the crew on the “Diana” was edited by his son, Charles Edward Smith Harris, who himself was a surgeon with the Cunard Steamship Company [see photo 1 – Front cover]. 

Photo 1 - Front cover of Dr Smith's Book

In the preface, the Editor acknowledged the assistance and encouragement of Thomas Sheppard, who was the curator of the Hull Museums, in his endeavours.  Smith’s son bequeathed the original journal to Hull Museums in 1953, partly as a debt of gratitude for Mr Sheppard’s support, and as it gave so much detail into life on a Hull whaler at this time.

Whaling is often portrayed in a very romantic way but the reality was the antithesis of this – it was a dirty, grimy, violent business with many hardship endured by the crews and often resulted in loss of life.  The diary is an enthralling read with an incredible descriptive prose which captures the dangers and sufferings of all the crew on the “Diana”.  The “Diana” was a whaling ship that failed to return from Arctic waters before the Arctic winter in 1866-1867 – when she did get free the following spring, less than half her original crew of 52 men survived. In addition to the natural hazards of the sea and weather – Iceberg, huge waves, howling winds – the crew also had to endured extreme temperature which froze medicines in their vials, beef provisions were cut with saws, helmets froze to men’s beards and bedding and clothing became blocks of ice [Photo 2 – The Whaler steaming through the Ice floes].

Photo 2 - Charles Smith's sketch of the Diana steaming thorough the ice-floes

Although the first Hull whaler sailed to Greenland in the 1590s, the full scale industry did not take place until the second half of the eighteenth century.  Whaling provided employment for nearly 3,000 people in Hull during 1820, when 8,000 tons of oil and 403 tons of bone were brought back to Hull.  The “Diana” was going to the Baffin waters for whale oil and whale bone. The oil was valued at £30 a ton, but the bones were worth much more in France, fetching up to £700 a ton.  The French used the bones for making “Ostrich feathers”.  The whale was killed with a lance and the blubber stripped off alongside the ship.  After chopping it into small pieces the blubber was packed into barrels, brought back to Hull in its natural state and extracted for oil in the factories along the river Hull.  This explains why, alongside the crew comprising harpooners, engineer, carpenter, boat steerers and cook, there was a cooper, Joseph Allen.  He was also responsible for the barrels of salt meat and ships biscuits.

The seal fishing was normally up to the east Greenland coast and in the region of Jan Mayen Island.  At the end of the sealing season, they would return to their homeports to fit out for the whaling season and engage crews for the next voyage, to hunt for whales in the Davis Straits.  With ever-diminishing returns caused by over-fishing, ships sailed even further north into the Arctic.  To reach these waters, the whalers would have to navigate through drifting ice floes and icebergs which often resulted with long periods being trapped in the ice or more deadly consequences with many whaling ships being lost with all the crew.

The screw steamship, “Diana”, left Hull under the command of Captain Gravill on Monday 19 February 1866 with a multitude of well-wishers cheering her departure.  The “Diana” had been built in Germany in 1840 and the steam engine had been equipped by Hull’s Earles Shipyard in 1858 making her the first British steam-powered whaler.  After a stop at Lerwick in the Shetlands to augment the crew with men who were naturally adept as small boat handling and boat work.

Born in Essex, with Quaker roots, Doctor Charles Smith was a man of 28 when he signed up for the voyage, and it is intriguing to note that he had not yet completed his medical training. He had enrolled as a student at Edinburgh University but became distracted from his studies by long walking tours through the Highland where he discovered an interest in natural history which would remain with him for the rest of his life. This along with writing humorous verses led to him neglecting his education.  He was keen to fund the rest of his degree himself since he didn’t want to put his father to more expense so Smith decided to sign up as surgeon on a whaling ship. It would give him practical experience as well as an income to fund the rest of his medical training.

On a whaling ship, the ship’s surgeon was responsible for the health of the crew, attending to illness and injury.  Preventing and treating outbreaks of lice, disease and scurvy was a priority, as whaling ships would be at sea for months at a time and the crew needed to remain healthy to maintain the smooth running of the ship as well as the morale of everyone on board.  However the role of surgeon also included keeping the ship’s log and acting as a clerk.

Smith makes it clear from the outset that this diary will not just be a “Mere log”, but an omninim gatherum of all sorts of miscellanies.

The Doctor was a keen naturalist so the original diary contains notes on the bird and animal life of the northern regions.  He also sketched some of the topographical and animal life [See photo 3 – Whitney Seal and photo 4 – Pintail Duck].  

Photo 3 - Whitney Seal

Photo 4 - Pintail Duck

He pointed out that:

My poor drawings, through rude and contemptible, will serve to remind me of my Arctic travels

Smith was also very poetic and descriptive in his diary, bringing the entire trip to life including the hardships and heart-ache – on the first sighting of the Island of Jan Mayen, his entry reads -

Purple clouds lost across and around it, while its deep ravines and gorges stand out in beautiful relief…..The sunlight caused its snowy sides to glitter and gleam against the dark clouds behind it till one imagined oneself gazing upon some terrestrial similitude of “the great white throne” in the Revelation.”

The crew seemed to have tried to make the whaler a more “homely” place – Dr Smith bought his dog, Gyp, on-board whilst Captain Gravill was accompanied by his pet canary who had already made several trips to the arctic!  The engineer brought his linnet on board.  During the course of the tragic voyage, Gyp had to be shot as there was no food to spare to feed the dog.  The Captain’s canary survived but unfortunately the linnet was accidentally killed.

Join us for part two [17 September] when the Whaling ship begins to feel the full force of the Arctic conditions.

Caoimhe West, Reader Assistant, Unlocking the Treasures

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