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 4 of 5    Next >>

named "stuttering George," had an ill temper. "You knew he was mad when he started to stutter; the madder he got, the more he stuttered."

Several months into the voyage, the crew was allowed liberty in some port-Bement's grandsons believe it was Rio de Janeiro, but, lacking the Morgan's log, we do not know for sure. Fortified by alcohol, Bement obtained a gun and went back aboard to confront Layton. The two men scuffled, and in the end Bement was overwhelmed.

To punish this serious breach of discipline, Bement was strung up and flogged. Then a bucket of salt water was dashed across the raw wounds on his back. Bement later declared that the salt water caused him greater pain than had the sting of the lash. He carried the scars of that whipping on the deck of the Morgan for the rest of his life. Years later, grandson Frank Bement watched his shirtless grandfather chopping wood. On his back, a pattern of criss-crossed scarring stretched from shoulders to waist. In front, horizontal scars radiated from his flank to his abdomen.

Flogging had been legally abolished aboard American merchant vessels in 1850, but corporal punishment remained common on whalers. And what could a whaleman do? He could complain to the American consul in whatever port the vessel next called at, but the consul would uphold the officers in cases involving such a deliberate affront to the ship's discipline.

Bement was admittedly a hard case, but in many ways he typified men caught in a penny-pinching, dangerous, and isolated industry. Considering the cultural differences, language barriers, and daily stresses of a whaleship's heterogeneous crew, it is no wonder that the universal form of communication was strict discipline and punishment.

Although he was described as "pig-headed," "difficult," and a "loner," Bement did make at least one friend on board the Morgan: Cook Crispolo de Aris. During the voyage, de Aris gave Bement two pairs of ebony-colored "rhythm bones" and taught him to play them simultaneously.

Aboard ship, music was important during both work and play. Work songs called chanteys were often used to coordinate heavy or repetitive tasks, such as hauling on halyards to raise sails, pumping the ship, or-until steam donkey engines were added-raising the anchor. Aboard whaleships, the men were allowed little free time except on Sundays and in the two short dog watches between four and eight each evening. But during those times the officers allowed them the privacy of the deck forward of the tryworks, where they could smoke, spin their yarns, sing, and play music without interruption. Some men sang "forebitters," or fo'c'sle, or "main hatch" songs. Others formed impromptu bands with a motley collection of fiddles, banjos, flutes, accordions, tambourines, rhythm bones, and homemade instruments to accompany the singers or play popular tunes of the day. However sullen and desperate Bement may have felt on board the Morgan, rattling his rhythm bones and singing along with the crew would have given him brief release from his cares. 17

On her way to the Pacific, Captain Smith apparently took the Morgan east across the Indian Ocean, where she had frequently whaled in the past. Along the way she took enough sperm whales to make 150 barrels of oil. By late February 1887, she had reached Norfolk Island, east of Australia. She then headed north, anchoring at Guam to resupply in early April. 18

Bement was sent ashore with one of the work parties to bring off water and fresh

* Funding for digitization provided by: Mystic Seaport