Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1431
First published: 1898
Type of work: Pseudofactual account
Type of plot: Adventure romance
Time of work: Late nineteenth century
Locale: At sea
Frank T. Bullen, the narrator
Mr. Jones, the fourth mate
Abner Cushing, a sailor
Mr. Count, the first mate
Captain Slocum, the captain of the Cachalot
By a strange combination of circumstances, Frank Bullen found himself in New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking for a ship. He was only eighteen years old at the time, but already he had spent six years at sea.
He was strolling down a street in New Bedford, intent on a possible berth aboard any ship, for his pockets were empty, when he was hailed by a scraggy Yankee with the inevitable tobacco juice dribbling down his whiskers. Asked if he wanted to ship out, he accepted eagerly without knowing the type of craft or any of the conditions of employment. He accompanied the sharp-featured Yankee to a small, dirty hall where he joined a group of men all bound for the same ship. When he saw the motley crowd of greenhorns, he felt doubts about joining the ship, but there was little chance to back out. After hastily signing the ship’s articles, he went with his mates to the docks.
All of the crew were carefully kept together until they were safe in the small boat. On the trip out into the harbor, Bullen saw with many misgivings the Cachalot, which would be his home for three years. He deeply regretted signing on; the Cachalot was a whaler, and whalers were notoriously the worst ships afloat. The Cachalot did not compare favorably with the trim English whalers with which he was more familiar. She was small, a three hundred and fifty tonner, dirty and unpainted, and quite dumpy looking because she had no raised bow or poop.
Once on board, Bullen’s worst fears were realized. The officers were hard and mean; they carried lashes with them, and a clumsy or slow sailor often felt the sting of a lash on his back. The men needed a great deal of discipline, however, to do a somewhat decent job. Of the twelve white crew members, Bullen was the only one who had been to sea before. The hands were beaten and cursed, and they were not even allowed to rest while they were seasick.
Along with the white greenhorns, there were a score of Portuguese, all experienced whaling men. There were also four mates and Captain Slocum. The captain was a hard driver and a foul talker. The first mate, Mr. Count, was an older man, the only decent officer aboard. The fourth mate, Mr. Jones, was a giant black man.
Because of his past experience, Bullen escaped most of the abuse meted out to his fellows. After the ship had been scrubbed and polished and the men had been licked into shape, he became almost fond of the ship. This feeling was heightened when he learned that the Cachalot was seaworthy in spite of her lines.
To the delight of the Portuguese, the ship was heading toward Cape Verde. At last, the first whale was sighted. Bullen was put into the boat of the first mate and told to mind the sail. The boat came up almost on top of the whale before Louis, the harpooner, threw his great hook. When the whale sounded, the hands paid out over two hundred fathoms of line. Then the whale began to rush away at full speed, towing the boat in his wake. When he slowed down, the boat was brought close enough for the harpooner to use his lance. After a final flurry, the whale died and was towed alongside.
After some months at sea, Bullen had an unpleasant picture of ship’s discipline. Abner Cushing, a Yankee sailor, tried to make some beer in the forecastle. Needing some potatoes for his brew, he stole a few from the officers’ gallery. One of the Portuguese reported the theft to the captain and, as punishment, Abner was strung up by the thumbs and lashed vigorously by one of the harpooners until he fainted. When his punishment was over, he was not allowed to go below but was forced to return to the active work immediately.
The cruise was an ill-fated one for Abner. He was in a small boat when a whale unexpectedly turned and bore down on the frail craft. The line was hurriedly pulled in. Then the whale sounded, and as the line was paid out, Abner’s neck caught in a loop. The weight of the descending whale neatly severed his head.
After the Cachalot had been at sea over a year, Mr. Jones became greatly depressed. He recalled a fortune-teller’s prediction that he would die in a fight with a white man and finally decided that Captain Slocum was destined to cause his death. Deranged, he went on the bridge, wrapped his huge arms around the captain, and jumped with him into the sea. When Mr. Count assumed command, he promoted Bullen to Mr. Jones’s vacant post.
Once Bullen nearly met his end when a harpooned cachalot suddenly turned sidewise and smashed a boat to bits with his mighty tail. His foot tangled in the wreckage, and Bullen went under. When he came up, nearly exhausted, he caught blindly at a rope and hauled himself along until he came to the inert whale. He clambered aboard and clung to the harpoon in the side of the dead whale; but the whale suddenly came to life. When the other boats came alongside after the whale had finally died, Bullen had a dislocated thigh and severe rope burns on each arm.
At last, after three years, the Cachalot’s barrels were full, and the ship headed home around Cape Horn. In good time, the lookout sighted Cape Navesink. With every flag flying, she came into New Bedford. The cruise of the Cachalot was ended.
Frank T. Bullen’s childhood was cruel. Like Charles Dickens, he lacked schooling and was a homeless waif and child laborer in London. He was adopted briefly by a kindly aunt and began to read Milton’s Paradise Lost at five years of age; but the aunt, his solitary childhood friend, died when Bullen was eight years old, and he was cast into the street. Alone in the world with “no-one caring a straw for me,” he trusted God and was signed on an English vessel when he was twelve years old. Bullen spent the next six years at sea. He landed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was eighteen years old and secured a berth on a sailor’s nightmare, a whaler, in this case the “Cachalot,” a venerable tub “as leaky as a basket.”
The Cruise of the Cachalot is a combined autobiographical/fictional narration, which gives an account of a South Sea whaler from a seaman’s standpoint. Bullen also described the methods employed, the dangers met, and the woes experienced by whalers, using a clear style in order not to weary the reader. He scorned padding, sought accuracy of detail, and penned a tersely thrilling story of a voyage around the world that lasted for years. Its many fascinating passages include a description of a cyclone off the remote Seychelles Islands, storms at sea, the vast face of the sea and the sky, a passage through the Sargasso Sea, labors, landings, harpoonings, beatings, and a brush with the Confederate raider “Alabama,” among other adventures. All this was done while pursuing cachalots, or sperm whales, which yielded by-products such as spermaceti and ambergris, mentioned by Shakespeare and Milton. The book’s minor inaccuracies are the inevitable ones produced by its fast pace and man-of-action approach.
Bullen was at first puzzled as to how to write The Cruise of the Cachalot but decided to write it as if he were simply spinning a yarn to a single friend. When this approach met with difficulties, he offered his rich materials to the famous Rudyard Kipling, assuming that the latter could do it literary justice. Kipling declined the material and encouraged Bullen to handle it by himself. After reading Bullen’s manuscript, Kipling wrote a foreword to it that has since been carried in every edition of The Cruise of the Cachalot. Kipling’s foreword describes the book as “immense” and unequaled in sea wonder and mystery. Praising the manner in which Bullen depicted whaling through fresh and realistic sea pictures, Kipling commented that Bullen must have discarded enough material to write five books.