Joseph Bement and the Charles W. Morgan - Littlefield, David W.

Log of Mystic Seaport, Vol. 45, no. 2 (Fall, 1993): 43-47.

Go to page:  

<< Previous    Page 3 of 5    Next >>


apparently, installed in the crew's quarters in the forecastle, beneath the windlass it operated. 8

While the Morganwas prepared for sea, the Wings assembled a crew for the coming voyage. For half a century, the labor demands of whaling had exceeded the local supply. Whaling agents had long been dependent on shipping agents, in New York and elsewhere, who rounded up men and sent them to New Bedford. At one time they could easily recruit rural boys with a thirst for adventure. But even with the demand for whalemen far lower than it had been during the banner years of the 1840s and 1850s, it had become harder to fill out crews. By the 1880s whaling crews usually mixed a few naive youths with waterfront derelicts, city toughs, and immigrant laborers of many nationalities.

New York shipping agent D.L. Pearl kept a red-lettered sign outside his office at West and Reade Streets simply stating "Whalers Wanted." He also advertised in the newspapers. In an 1886 ad he solicited "six strong men for a whaling voyage." This was exactly the kind of advertisement Joseph Bement and his friend noticed while reading a magazine in that fall of 1886.9

Joseph Francis Bement, 19, was the son of a New York printer. According to his grandsons, Bement did not get along with his stepmother. To escape her, and imagining that a whaling voyage would be "exciting, romantic, and swashbuckling," Bement and his friend signed an agreement with a shipping agent and soon found themselves in New Bedford. Bement's friend took a look at the Morgan, decided whaling was not for him, and ran.

Bement, however, signed on the Morgan out of "pure stubbornness," driven by the determination not to return to New York and his family and not to be perceived as an impetuous failure. On the ship's articles his last name was misspelled as 'Bemont" He was delighted by the oversight, thinking it would make it that much more difficult for his father to trace him and take him home. Bement also obscured his identity by giving his age as 22.10

Acting as both agent and outfitter, the Wings signed Bement as a greenhand at 1/185 lay. He was assessed for an advance of $95.63 to cover his expenses before actually setting foot on board ship. A "brokerage" fee of $13.00 went to the New York shipping agent. To the Wings he was indebted for $79.73 to cover the cost of his sailor's outfit.11 According to one whaleman, at this period a sailor's outfit would include "a sailor's canvas bag, a mattress, a pair of blankets, woolen trousers, dungaree trousers, a coat, a pair of brogans, a pair of rubber sea boots, underwear, socks, two flannel shirts, a cap, a belt and sheath knife, a suit of oilskins and sou'wester, a tin cup, tin pan, knife, fork and spoon:12

As part of his advance, Bement was charged a board bill of $2.40. New Bedford boardinghouses, which cost $3 to $5 per week, were mere holding pens for recruits waiting to be shipped.

Finally, an assessment of $15.60 covered interest and insurance. Outfitters charged substantial interest on their advances to seamen, claiming they had to carry the debts for years before the ship returned and they could collect from the sailors' pay. Insurance charges were considered necessary due to the high risk involved in lending money to whalemen, especially greenhands.

During their few days in New Bedford, Bement and his fellow crew members were probably watched closely to ensure that they did not run away with their new outfits. Customarily, the crew came aboard on the day before sailing. The ship was then moved away from the wharf and anchored in the harbor to prevent any men who might have second thoughts about making the voyage from going ashore. This did not stop two men from deserting before the Morgan left harbor.13

On board at last, the men could look each other over, and a disparate group they were. Mostly in their late teens and early twenties, the sailors were a mix of New Bedford and Cape Cod boys, greenhands like Bement from Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and more experienced seamen from the British West Indies, the Cape Verde Islands, Guam, Manila, and Norway.14

They could also get a look at their officers: Captain George A. Smith, 58, a native of Eastport, Maine, who had been a whaleman since 1848; First Mate John S. Layton, 41, who came from Albany, Western Australia, (where whaleships sometimes called for water) and would one day command the Morgan; the three other mates and the five boatsteerers; and a crucial individual, cook Crispolo de Aris, a 27-year-old native of Manila. 15

The next day, on 6 October 1886, probably with the help of her new steam engine, the Morgan got up her anchor and headed for sea, towed by the steam tug Charlie and piloted by Albert Church. 16 During the departure, Joseph Bement got into trouble almost immediately. As the Morgan pulled away from friends, relatives, and onlookers, First Mate Layton, "a thorough disciplinarian," ordered the crew to wave and cheer the well-wishers. Bement, who "prided himself on being a rebel," refused. From that moment on, Layton seemed to mark him as a troublemaker.

Bement quickly became disenchanted with life aboard the Morgan. Perhaps because of his attitude, he was hazed and ridiculed during the early months of the voyage. He later remembered the cold coffee and maggoty hardtack served to the crew. Although he had no trouble with Captain Smith, he later told his grandsons that Smith, who was nick-

* Funding for digitization provided by: Mystic Seaport