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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Exile Returns

Whaling ships, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1901
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. It was a Saturday night in December [1840]…New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her…. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter two, published 1851)

Leaving the port at Hobart Town, James Gammell “worked his passage before the mast”(1) on an unnamed American whaler. (Hobart’s port, at the mouth of the Derwent estuary, was a well-known calving ground of the black whale.)(2) The voyage to New Bedford, Massachusetts(3), in “this cramped world of the fo’c’sle [forecastle] and the skinning knife”(4) was hardly a cruise. Yet James, better off than he was on the road gangs of Van Diemen’s Land, could at least enjoy a hearty meal each day. Most likely he worked hard during the journey to earn his keep, but this time he was laboring as a free man. While in transit, the whaling ship became its own whale oil factory. The crew would work long and hard at hoisting the whale out of the water before the sharks could consume it. Then came the strenuous task of skinning, dissecting, and rendering tons of whale blubber into oil in big iron pots over the open flame of a brick stove.  The painting of a New England whaler, shown in the previous post, depicts a whaleboat in the foreground conducting the attack, while the whaling vessel billowing smoke in the background is rendering blubber into oil.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, James could have counted himself in famous company with the young Herman Melville, who, at this same time (Spring, 1842), was a crewman aboard the Acushnet on an eighteen-month whaling voyage to the South Pacific.  Melville’s voyage became the inspiration for his novel Moby Dick. (See the 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck, to get a feel for James’ four-month experience aboard the whaler.)

In later years James reported to William F. Wheeler the details of his arrival at New Bedford and his homecoming in New York City:

The news of his escape and that he was coming in on board of a certain vessel reached the town before his ship had touched the wharf.  Kind friends aided him and he hastened by steamer to New York.  Before he landed at that point the boat was boarded by two gentlemen who had come out in a yacht for the purpose, and who insisted on taking the escaped man with them. They proved to be James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.  He was driven to the Astor House, and informed that he was their guest as long as he chose to remain. After a bath, a shave, etc., they took him to a clothing store and dressed him like a gentleman when the party ate a sumptuous dinner, after which several hours were spent in questioning him as to his life in Van Dieman's Land and about the friends he had left there, and the next morning their papers were filled with an account of the interview.(5)

Two New York City newspapers, the Herald and the Tribune, printed notices announcing the arrival on Wednesday, June 22, 1842, of James Gammell, the first of the Patriot prisoners to escape Van Diemen’s Land and reach the United States:

The Herald announces the return to this city of one of the Patriot prisoners sent by the British authorities to Van Diemen’s Land. This escape, fortunate for himself, will not increase the liberty of those whom he has left behind. His name is James Gammell. He is about 28 years of age…he made his escape on board of an American whale ship, and reached this city in fine health and spirits on last Wednesday at high noon, being the first of the American prisoners who has made his escape from Van Dieman's [sic] Land. Gammell says that he left 76 prisoners still there of the patriot army, mostly United States' citizens, and all in bondage, employed by released convicts in various trades.(6)

In his New York Plebeian article James stated, “So far as prudence will permit, I will now state the particulars of my escape.”(7)   He was careful never to reveal, at least in print, the name of the ship that provided his escape, knowing that the captain could incur severe penalties when he returned to Hobart port. Benjamin Wait and Samuel Chandler did the same.(8)   James was also protective of the Freemasons who aided them: “I am not a Free Mason, but many of us were satisfied that it was a real benefit to us that some of our number belonged to that society. [Samuel Chandler was a Freemason.] In what way I may not now state.”(9)
  1. Wheeler, William F. “The Late James Gemmell.” The crew’s quarters were located in the forecastle (in front of the mast,) and the officers’ quarters in the stern.
  2. Hughes, p. 122.
  3. New Bedford, nicknamed “The Whaling City,” was one of the most important whaling ports in the world during the nineteenth century.
  4. Hughes, p. 211.
  5. Wheeler, “The Late James Gemmell”.
  6. New York Herald Times and New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1842.
  7. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 10.
  8. Wait, p.144; Scott, p. 307.
  9. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 4.

Dear Reader,
I have finally caught up with myself.  Everything that I have posted so far, I had already written during 2008 and 2009.  All I had to do was revise and proofread.  Now I am breaking new ground with research and composition, and I'm anxious to get on with it.  The best is yet to come... mostly about James and his family.  So don't give up visiting the blog regularly.  I plan to post something new every week, even if
sometimes only comments and photos, while I work on new text.

Thank you to all of you for your interest and support.  Allow me to make some requests of you.   You can add your own  contribution to this project.  I would appreciate reading your comments about James and the blog, and finding out exactly how you are related to him.  Don't hesitate to identify yourself and to leave comments and questions.  I know that other readers would like to know who else is following James' story.  Your thoughts and family anecdotes would add interest to the whole Gammell/Gemmell story. 

One more thing....  I'd appreciate if you could share any old Gammell/Gemmell photos. 

Back to my research,

1 comment:

  1. Liz, I have so enjoyed reading James' history through your blogs. I look foward to yur continuing posts.

    For any other readers, I am Bary Gammell, great-great-grandson of James, through William, Horace, and then Allen Gammell. First cousin to Liz.