The Shipwreck and Eventual Rescue of James B. Vincent of the Whaling Bark Napoleon
I wrote some time back about the shipwreck and rescue of the bark Trinity in 1880-1882. I can’t get enough of these stories, so this time I have the shipwreck in 1885 of the bark Napoleon and the eventual rescue in 1887 of one crew member in particular, James B. Vincent.
The Napoleon was, like the Trinity, a whaling bark out of New Bedford. Recall that this was fairly late in the history of whaling. New England whaling had started out in the 17th century with the occasional beaching of a whale, producing a windfall for the local community. It occurred to some clever fellow that they could expedite the process by taking to boats to whack passing whales. So a storied industry was born. By the 1880s the Atlantic was pretty much tapped out for the right kind of whales, known, logically, as “right whales.” (It actually was worse than that. They had long since run out of right whales and had moved down to humpback and sperm whales, and run out of them, too.) Hence these years-long cruises to the other side of the world.
The Trinity of my previous post had headed south. The Napoleon went north. There was a whole fleet that went to the Bering Sea, and even into the Arctic Ocean. But wait, you ask. Isn’t it kind of insane to send these boats all the way around Cape Horn? In the 1880s? The trans-continental railroad had been in place since 1869, when it quite sensibly was put to good use by the Cincinnati Red Stockings to visit California. (This is, by the way, the only baseball reference you will get in this piece, so savor it.) Wouldn’t it make more sense to base the whaling fleet out of San Francisco and ship the processed whale oil to market by rail? Yes. Yes, it would. And there were in fact whalers based out of San Francisco, but New Bedford and Nantucket still sent boats around the long way. That’s path dependency for you.
The Napoleon made Honolulu in February, and really, where else would you want to be in February? After the usual refit (which I assume included whoring, though you never know with those New Englanders), it headed north. Everything went well until May 5, when everything didn’t.
The idea was to hug the edge of the ice pack. The problem with this idea is that the edge of the ice pack doesn’t always cooperate. Winds shift and the pack zigs when you expected it to zag. Wackiness ensues. In this case said wackiness consisted of the bow being stove in and the ship sinking in ten minutes. Hence the mad scramble for the boats, without time for luxuries such as food or equipment.
The thirty-six officers and men were split between four boats. They kept together for a day and a night before being separated in a gale. After four days, two of the boats were discovered by the US Revenue Cutter Corwin. Between them, fourteen sailors were still alive. A fun little detail is that one of the sailor’s feet froze and the captain amputated his toes while still in the open boat. To add spice, the sailor’s name is reported to have been Joaquin Khlus. There has got to be a story behind that name, but I don’t know what it is.
The survivors were taken to the San Francisco on the Corwin, arriving the following October. The other two boats were never discovered, and their crews were presumed dead. That, it was thought, was that, and not particularly unusual for the whaling trade. Then two years later another ship, the bark Pearl, arrived in San Francisco with word of a chip of cedar with a message carved on it:
The exact provenance of the chip is not entirely clear, as accounts differ, but Vincent carved it once he realized he wasn’t going to walk home, and it seems to have been passed along by natives until it made its way to white men. They deciphered the message:
After repeated efforts the characters were interpreted thus: – ‘J B V, B K Nap,” signifies the name of James B. Vincent, who was a season on board the bark Napoleon when she was lost in Behring Sea, in 1885. The Two words in the opposite column are a request that a present be made to the Indian for carrying the news. Give tobacco, or, literally, ‘tobacco give.’ On the reverse side the characters show that Vincent was ten miles (‘M 10′) southwest of Cape Navarin” (New York Herald September 20, 1887)
The message made its way to the Revenue Cutter Bear, the Corwin’s replacement, and off it went to investigate. Where, you ask, is Cape Navarin? Excellent question. It is on the east coast of Siberia. You won’t find the name on Google Maps, even in Russian. Then again, it isn’t given any other name either. Note the charming rusticity. There is what appears to be a hamlet about fifty miles down the coast, and an actual town with an airfield about a hundred a fifty miles to the north. Here is a photo of this tropical paradise Note the charming snow and fog:
Niceties of international boundaries weren’t really an issue here, so the Bear happily puttered around the coast of Siberia. Several days in they found a native who said he had seen Vincent the year before, and would act as a guide.
Late in the evening of the 16th [of September] anchorage was made and an expedition of three men, with two native guides, was sent out with provisions for a week’s search on shore, should it be necessary. The party pulled along the beach in a fog, just clear of the surf, and shortly before 8 o’clock saw a native house on the bank. When nearly abreast several men were seen acting very excitedly, and one of them, the guides said, was a white man, although all were bare-headed and dressed alike. In a few minutes the party jumped into the surf and found the object of their search, the boat was taken into a river close by, hauled on shore and the history was obtained from Vincent of his trials and sufferings. (San Francisco Chronicle September 24, 1887)
The story is pretty impressive. The two boats, with eighteen men, stayed together and were afloat for thirty-three days “during which their only subsistence was two small pup seals that they caught in the ice.” (Mmm… Raw seal meat….) Nine froze to death before the boats finally landed forty-five miles southwest of Cape Navarin. Five men died the next day, “their limbs being so badly frozen that they dropped off.” Three others lasted until the following March before dying of scurvy. Vincent was the only one physically able to go inland and hook up with native deer herders, who took him in.
Vincent was in fine condition physically and seemed to be quite a favorite with the natives, having lived with one family the whole time and subsisted principally on deer meat. Captain Healy [of the Bear] made lots of presents through the party to the deserving natives, and Vincent was brought to the ship, and after his picture in native costume was taken he was bathed, shaved and dressed up and berthed in the wardroom, where he enjoyed all the comforts the ship afforded. (Ibid.)
Sadly, I don’t find that photo on the web. It turns out, however, that a journalist from New Bedford toured with the whaling fleet in 1887 and took pictures. These are in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and are available online. The collection is worth checking out. Here is a representative example:
Vincent was taken to San Francisco when the Bear returned there in early October. I can’t find what happened to him after that. The story was a sensation, but not an enduring sensation. A bill was proposed in Congress to reward the “Northern Indians” for their care of Vincent, and to encourage similar hospitality in the future. I don’t find any report about its being enacted. I’m guessing that once the initial excitement died down the matter was quietly forgotten.
That would seem to be that, but then the story made its way into the popular literature of sea tales, inevitably in elaborated form. The Sea Rovers, by the happily named Rufus Rockwell Wilson, in 1906 added that
While among the Eskimo, Vincent was kindly cared for by an old native, whose wife received him as her son. After a year the husband died, but his last instructions to his wife were to care for and keep their guest until he was rescued. When relief at last came the old woman with tears in her eyes, said that she was ready to die, for she had done as her husband wished. Warm and tender hearts can be found even in Siberian wastes.
I choose to believe not only that this is true, but that the old man and his wife had a beautiful daughter, who was a princess of the tribe. She and Vincent fell in love, because after all, otherwise what would be the point? Vincent went back to Massachusetts and through pluck and hard work and Yankee know-how made his fortune. He returned to Cape Navarin and sought out the love of his life. There she awaited him, spurning all others who would court her. They married and had children. They lived out their days at Cape Navarin, surrounded by many grandchildren, until the Cheka got wind of them and had them all shot. At least that’s the way I imagine it happened. Now you know the rest of the story.