Your hearts would be delighted, my dear friends, to look upon the magnificent scene which is spread before us this morning. The pencil of Catherwood § could but faintly portray it, and even Washington Irving would be puzzled to do justice in describing it.—We are in the centre of a noble bay, twenty miles wide by thirty long. Its surface is only disturbed by a gentle breeze, and our good ship makes a pleasant picture in the centre, her white canvass glistening in the sun. Her sails are hardly filled with wind, yet she moves through the water and slightly ripples it at her bows. Around us are six mighty peaks, the tops of which are lost in the clouds. These clouds are of fleecy whiteness, and rise and descend in laziness around the lofty summits of these mountains. At sunrise, they were of gold and azure color, and dazzled the eye with their brilliancy. On our larboard [port] beam is a huge volcano, on an island called Narbrough; the fire is ascending day and night from its crater, and down its side the melted lava is running in fiery streams to the ocean. Sea birds are in large numbers fishing, and flit by our ship, simply turning an eye towards us as they pass, not at all concerned by our visit. On our weather quarter is the ship American of Nantucket, beating to windward, while right astern is another, the Franklin, of the same place, standing out to sea. The hills are burned and scorched in all directions, by lava which has run down from the mountains at some period. A great number of cabbage trees are seen, but other than these, there appears to be nothing but low bushes. No inhabitants are here, and all is still save the roaring of the breakers on the rocky shore, and possibly the barking of a wild dog on the hills. The terrapin here finds his mysterious home, and among rocks and in the deep secrecy of these wild bushes, lays its eggs in the sand, or seeks its food under the shade of the curious cabbage tree. Here for hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years, they live before they arrive at maturity.
§ English artist Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854).
Our visit here is looking for whales and some wood. Presently, our boats will go ashore, and I hope to be among the number who go. My writing was disturbed by the call of all hands, and the larboard and bow boats were lowered to go ashore in search of wood. We commenced pulling up the bay, and pulled eighteen miles before we could find any place where we could land our boats in safety. The shore was iron bound as far as we could see, and tremendous breakers were dashing in their fury over their black sides. Almost exhausted, after pulling without the least cessasion for over three hours, we at last, in a nice little bay, formed by large rocky points, found a sand beach just large enough to haul up one boat at a time on. Having our boats well secured, we jumped out of them in hot pursuit after seal, which were about the rocks in great numbers. Ten of these very curious animals were soon killed; and while some were occupied in cutting and bringing wood to the boats, I was employed in taking off the skins of these amphibious creatures. They were of the hair seal kind, and most of them young pups. They are very like a dog about the head, with flippers which answer the purpose of feet and fins. In the water they are very sprightly, and raise their heads out and look about with an impudence which is unequalled. On land they get along rather clumsily, hopping rather than running. The manner of killing is to hit them a lick on the end of the nose. They live a long time after this, and it pained me much to see them in their death agonies. On the rocks were many large guanos, a shocking looking animal of the lizard species. The evil spirit could not conceive a more horrid sight than one of these. They are about 2½ feet long, their tails making two-thirds of this length, of a dirty black and brown color, with stiff bristles on their back, and a face somewhat like a monkey. Never did I see such dreadful looking creatures, and I cannot at all give you a correct idea of them. I believe they are harmless, and am told they are good for food. Sea birds were very numerous. The noble pelican was there by dozens, so little alarmed by our visit that they could be knocked over in the water with sticks. Boobys and sea pigeons were in large flocks, eating all round the boats the carcases of the seal we had killed. I saw one beautiful bird, somewhat like a partridge, but we could not get at him. A small species of penguins were about the rocks, and swimming in the water in great numbers. One of these we killed, but the plumage was not as pretty as those from more southern latitudes. We killed a hawk of the eagle kind, which was very savage in appearance. All these were killed with sticks, and had we been disposed, we might have filled both boats with such game. We found some wood called mangrove, which was very convenient to the beach, and soon we filled two boats.
At 3, P. M., we were joined by the starboard boat with our dinner, which was excellent terrapin soup and sweet potatoes.—To this we did justice. The little picture which we presented was singularly interesting to me. Around the kids which contained our dinner were seated twelve men, black and white, and of several nations. Under the shade of some small mangroves, we found a shelter from the sun. Close at hand was a small sand beach; on this our boats lay, so that the water could not carry them off. Before us was the little bay, on either side of which were huge masses of lava, black as coal; and all around, save a narrow entrance into this bay, the breakers were dashing with great fury their mighty masses of white water. The deep roar of these “combers” was very deep, and told awfully to us if perchance we should get among them. On the bosom of this bay the great pelican swam lazily about, now and then seizing some fish or a bit of the fat of some of the dead seal which was floating about. The seal would also occasionally raise his head above the water, or climb up the rocks, and roll as a dog does when he feels fine. Smaller sea birds were enjoying the repast we had furnished for them, and were chattering and fighting over the dead seal. The shark was also here, and came up so far on the beach that we killed him with a boat-hook. Hawks were abundant, and one suffered death at the hands of one of us. He was very savage, and fastened his claws to the hands of Jim Hall, a kanaka.§ Behind us was another pretty smooth bay, in which seals abounded. Some birds of the partridge species were noticed among the bushes. Above us was a mighty mountain about 3,000 feet high, the sides of which were black and scored with lava.
§ Kanaka: According to Wikipedia, “ … a worker from various Pacific Islands employed in British colonies … .” This suggests that the unnamed whaler may have been from Australia or some other English colony.
Across the bay was Narbrough, burning and smoking, but in the day time the fire is not seen; at night the great illumination takes place. Nature has here been prolific in its freaks. Seamen call it the residence of the evil spirit, and he could not have selected a better home. All is desolation. A few scattering groves on some of the points of land is all there is green. No sounds are heard, save the noise of the breakers or the splash of a seal in the water. No fresh water save that you have in your boat. At night our ship had reached nearly opposite the bay, about four miles off, and the wind was fair to take us on board. Both boats being well loaded, we left the scene of our day's labor, and soon were safe on board our good ship. We tacked ship, and stood out off [sic, of] the bay with a cracking breeze. Around these islands many whales are taken, but we have not as yet seen any sperm whales. We shall go ashore once more, to wood, at another place, and I hope to see some other interesting sights. The health of our crew is excellent, and our living is fine—terrapin soup three times a day, and plenty of it. Yours affectionately, J. W.
For three days the crew of our ship had been ashore on Chatham Island and brought back with them two or three boat loads of the most desirable animals which abound on these islands. They always came back nearly exhausted, and their feet and hands were well torn with briers. Clothes which were whole in the morning were rags at night, and new shoes were all gone save possibly a small portion of upper leather.—
Hats were shocking bad, and the appearance of all betokened hard service. I should here remark, that for four days, we had been anchored off Chatham Island, one of the largest of the Gallipagos group. Our ship lay about two miles from a sand beach, which had been selected, as affording a good place to land. At 10 a. m. we lowered a boat and pulled ashore, the surf was somewhat heavy, breaking over a reef, but we found the landing very good. Having hauled our boat up alongside the three boats already on shore, our party, consisting of Capt. A., Mr. M., 3d mate, the shipkeeper§ and self, started, just taking a drink of water from the boat kegs on shore. We had provided ourselves with a few oranges and a small flask of lime juice mixed with water. The path took us immediately into thick bushes, many of which were cotton bushes here growing wild, which, saving in the path, were very thick; other bushes were covered with long sharp briars and were entwined all around, so that to force your way through them subjected you to having your hands and ancles torn. A small bush bore red berries which we tasted, but so bitter were they, that our mouths were hours recovering their natural taste. The path soon became very rough and was covered with bits of lava, broken and very destructive from the sharp edges to feet and shoes. Ahead of us was a lofty mountain, and on our right hand another, barren and rough in the extreme. The first two miles went off pretty well, Capt. A. being naturally a fast traveller, led the way followed closely by us, indian file. Mr. M. took with him a tin horn, and as we passed along would blow a blast, hoping soon to fall in with some of our shipmates on the road to the boats. Presently shouts answered our horn, and the chief and second mates of our ship met us, the former had one large terrapin, the second two of smaller size, slung to their backs, behind them was Jackson with a still larger one. They cheered us heartily. We stopped a moment and were directed by them which path to pursue, as our path forked just ahead. They looked very much fatigued and pointed to a still more distant mountain which they had crossed and found terrapin in abundance. They had with them part of a bottle of water and did not need any assistance. Passing along half a mile towards the mountain we met Jim Hall, a kanaka; under a cabbage tree lay Jim with a terrapin of large size and a small one, a heavy load for one man. The tree afforded him some shade, but he was evidently much exhausted. Mr. M. gave him an orange which he ate with much satisfaction.
§ A bit of contradictory information here: Since a Shipkeeper is the person left in charge of a whaling ship when the captain's boat is lowered, that person would not accompany the captain on a shore excursion.
The cabbage tree is a curious shrub growing about 15 feet in height, the leaves are like the prickly pear, of oval shape and about one foot in circumference, of light green color. The trunk is in some cases as large as a man's body, and when cut appears like a cabbage stalk, the outer bark like a pitch pine tree. There is much juice in the leaves, and they afford excellent food for the terrapin. As a substitute for water nothing could be more valuable to this singular animal, for their island home being sometimes for months without rain and no springs of fresh water being found, nature has kindly provided them with this tree, which answers well for food and water. The sun was blazing down upon us and before we were half way to the ground I almost regretted having started. Every moment the road grew more rough and the sharp pieces of lava made serious inroads into the soles and sides of our shoes. We in the course of an hour reached the base of the mountain for which we were steering, rugged indeed was the side presented to us, it rose very nearly perpendicular to the height of fifteen hundred feet, huge masses of calcined lava seemed to form its foundation, and no doubt it had been a volcano, but our time would not permit us [to] ascend to its summit. Just here we met two other of our kanakas, they were boys but each bore his terrapin; one, a very small lad of 12 years, had one of considerable size, and he held it up to our captain with much satisfaction. They had part of a bottle of water with them. On questioning them as to the best spot on which to find terrapin, they offered to go and show us plenty, but we declined, as they had already brought down a load before. After rounding the base of the mountain, we concluded to divide our party, the “old man,” as the masters of whale ships are always called, and myself taking the right hand, and Mr. M. and the shipkeeper the left. We were on terrapin ground and now to find them. We looked among bushes and rocks, but could see none; presently we heard Mr. M. shouting “Town O!” which is a signal when a terrapin is found. We did not join them as they were some distance from them. After looking in vain for some time for the game we were in search of, we travelled on and reached the top of a smaller mountain, its sides were quite smooth, but covered with bushes.—
Having descended on the other side, we reached a valley abounding with rough stones, the passage across, which was very difficult. Bushes full of thorns we met at every step, and if you took hold of them to keep you from slipping from the stones, your hands would be severely lacerated. The ground now rising, led us to a huge crater more than a mile in circumference, and in depth several hundred feet. It presented a singular and grand spectacle, its vast size, the sides and bottom overgrown with trees and bushes, the rough lava, the awful stillness around, all was grand and sublime.—
We were amazed as we stood upon the edge of this mighty work of Him whose skill formed the mountain and the seas. Our heads swam as we looked down its awful depth, the reflection striking us, should we fall, hope would no longer be a virtue.—
From top to bottom it was a straight line, all around was immense blocks of lava, all black as coal. A short distance from this we came to another crater of smaller size, it was overgrown, as the first mentioned, with trees and bushes, and could not have been burning for many years. It was, if possible, still more rough, and we did not dare look at its depth, as the top overhung the opening in part, and one look satisfied us. On the edge of this crater, we each ate an orange, our thirst was very great, but we would not yet taste our water. No terrapin appeared about, and we concluded to descend into another valley of great extent. Having passed this and ascended a rising, we saw a line of cabbage trees, [under one we saw a very large male terrapin, far above our ability to carry, and on looking a little further we found under almost every tree one of the same kind. These huge creatures here sat unconcerned, and it was our impression that there they had been for the last five hundred years. When disturbed, they draw in their feet, drop their lower shell on the ground and make a hissing noise not unlike a snake; they do not offer to bite, neither will they run. Some of them were eating cabbage leaves, which had fallen from the trees. Here, again, how wonderful are the arrangements of Him who provides food but few facilities for obtaining food, neither being able to climb trees or to kill other animals, so slow is their motion. Under these trees, which afford them comfortable shade, they rest, watching the fall of a leaf, and when it falls they eat it; if one should not fall for a month, why he could remain without eating]§, but from paths leading from tree to tree, no doubt they move from one to another. We now went a little further and found two of about the right size. With two bits of canvass, as straps, we fastened their legs and placed them on our backs, precisely as a soldier does his knapsack, the strings passing under our arms. The weight of each was about fifty to sixty pounds. We now having secured our prizes each took a swallow of water. At the first start we found but little difficulty, the path being quite smooth, but soon we came to stones and bushes, and the weight on our backs made us stagger, as we jumped from one rock to another. We lost our way and struck into the thickest range of bushes we had yet met with. It was now three o'clock, the sun blazed down like what—nothing like the sun on the line—our mouths were parched, and each step we took, only led us from better to worse. Every few minutes we would lose sight of each other in the bushes and have to halloo in order not to get lost. We walked about half a mile and then took off our load and rested—again all ready—sharp stones grew more thick, and we were disheartened at losing the path—we altered our course in hopes of meeting a better one, but none could we find—again we rested—
§ Section [within brackets] is included in Kenneth Brower: The Flow of Wildness, Vol. I, p. 72.
I wished the terrapin were all in Jerico, for with or without them, we had at least ten miles to travel before we could reach the beach. Here we concluded to eat our last two oranges, and you cannot imagine our disappointment when on feeling for them, to find that I had lost them from my pocket.— It appears a small matter but I can assure you that their value to us at that time, was very, very great.
Occasionally we would get a glimpse of at the ocean and our ship in the distance, and never did I in my boyish days so long to get home as I now did to be safe on board the good craft. Just now Capt. A. slipped and fell from one rock to another below him, bruising his knee, he recovered himself without any further injury. We could find no traces of a path, and we were about to leave our terrapin behind, but the reflection that all our shipmates would laugh at us, induced us to press on, and if we did fail, to try at least to fall in with some of them and let them see that we had at least tried to do our duty. Here I should remark, that from the time we had landed, until we left in our boats to go on board, we had been followed by a host of large flies of a blueish green color, who, without cessation, would light upon our faces and hands, and particularly the lips, their bite was sharp and it was only by constant brushing that we could partially keep them away. I have seen flies before, but never any that would for so many miles follow a traveller. Often we passed the spots in the sand where the terrapin deposits its eggs, they were nicely covered over and there left for the sun to complete the work of incubation. In size they were a little larger than a goose egg, perfectly round, and the shell the same as that of the fowl.— How long they remain before hatching, I could not ascertain, or how long before the animal reaches maturity.
We now retraced a part of our steps, and struck a path more clear of bushes and clinkers, and found a good path. Here we ventured to take another swallow of water. After another hour’s travel, we met our cooper, one boatsteerer and the steward, so intent were they in pursuit of game, that though we passed within a few feet [of] them and they did not notice us until we “sung out” to them. They had been twice to the boats, each time with terrapin, and told us that we had gone in the wrong direction, that they should soon return to the boats, for their terrapin ground was close by. The cooper gave us a draught of water, each of his party having a full bottle with them. We now started in good spirits and soon fell in with the chief mate, who had brought for us a small keg of water at a cross road, and was waiting for us to come up. He kindly offered to take either of our terrapin for us, and we allowed him to take one from us by turns. We had but five miles to travel, and after winding around the base of the mountain first spoken of, the path was excellent in comparison to that which we had passed over. From his water keg I drank freely, never did water taste so good, lips were parched, tongue dry and swollen.
We soon reached the beach and with some satisfaction lay down our terrapin; they were pronounced of good size, and an old sailor patted me on the shoulder and said well done. The ensign was flying at the mizzen peak of our ship, and looking out seaward, we saw a small brig standing close in shore. As this was just in the midst of the Mexican war, and privateers might be about, the old man gave orders to launch the boats and go aboard. She proved to be a Colombia schooner who visited these islands to take terrapin oil to the Spanish main.—
Our boats brought off that day thirty-seven terrapin, which, with those on board, made one hundred and thirty collected in four days. Some of these were of large size and were carried by three men, some so small that one man could carry two.
It is a happy provision that these animals are placed on these islands; they furnish a most excellent recruit for ships cruising in this part of the Pacific Ocean, and when it is remembered that they may be kept on ship board for six or nine months without food or water—it will be seen that they are almost invaluable. Aye! says the old man, if we only had these in New York to-day, what a beautiful sum they would fetch—and how well they would fill the bellies of some of the hungry men at Washington—and how for four months have we lived on terrapin soup every other day, morning noon and night—sea pies made savory with good things—who would not go a whaling.[?]
The next morning we weighed anchor and stood along to a settlement about a day's sail from where we took our terrapin, and purchased fifty more of large size. The residents here are about twenty in number—the chief man is named Williams,§ an Englishman; his colony is composed of Spaniards and Americans, and two slaves. He visited our ship and received trade for his terrapin, cloth, etc., charging us from 50 to 75 cts. each for them. He has two or three hundred of them always on hand for such ships as may call on him. After a delay of a few hours we stood away for another cruising ground.
§ Possibly Nicholas Lawson, Acting Governor on Charles Island (the modern Isla Floreana). A former governor, José Williams, had fled the island several years earlier; possibly, “Camillas” mixed up the names of Lawson and Williams.