Stranded in Spitsbergen

The Muscovy Company sponsored a whaling fleet that set sail on May 1, 1630. This English fleet spent the summer hunting whales off Spitsbergen and Greenland. By August they were ready to return home. On August 15, Captain William Goodlad sent eight men ashore in a shallop to hunt reindeer to supply food for them on their voyage home. These men were supplied with two dogs, a snaphance, two lances, and a tinderbox. While on shore, they killed 18 reindeer and spent the night. The next day the weather turned so bad that the ship had to stay at sea and the eight men were unable to risk sailing their small shallop out to it. They continued to hunt and planned to meet the fleet at Green Harbor. It took the crewmen 17 days to reach Green Harbor and by that time, the ship had already left. One of the eight men, Edward Pellham, later wrote of their experiences. He and his crewmates decided that the fleet was heading home and attempted to catch them at Bell Sound.

Since the crewmen’s shallop did not have a compass or a true navigator, they relied on the experience of William Fakely, a seaman, who had been in the area some five or six times. As they headed southward, they eventually sailed past Bell Sound by ten leagues (34.5 miles). Fakely then suggested they head back northward, but then he looked around and said, “That wee were all this while upon a wrong cours.” On August 28 they once again turned southward. After 21 days at sea in a shallop, they landed at Bell Sound and two men were sent up a mountain to look for the fleet. By that time, the fleet had gone back to England.

The eight crewmen began to despair. They had no large ship for protection against the elements, no pilot, no map, and no compass. In addition, ice was beginning to form on the sound and they had no winter clothing, food, or shelter on land. The crewmen decided to sail back to Green Harbor 16 leagues (55 miles) away and hunt more reindeer for winter provisions. On August 25, they set out for Green Harbor. Once ashore they used the shallop’s sail and stretched it over the oars for shelter. The next day they sailed two leagues (7 miles) and killed seven deer and four polar bears. The crewmen then ate all the fresh meat they could to build up their strength. Two men were left at the camp to process and preserve the rest of the meat while the six others sailed south to hunt more reindeer.

Along the way they discovered another shallop that a whaler had left behind and they put three men in the boat and continued on. After a successful hunt, with both boats full of reindeer, the crewmen anchored them in a harbor and were going to sleep on shore for the night. That evening a storm came up and almost sank both shallops, and sea water ruined some of the reindeer meat. On September 3, they headed back to the base camp.

They returned to Green Harbor and the eight crewmen were lucky to find an existing shelter that Pellham refers to as the “tent.”

This, which we call the tent, was a kinde of house (indeed), built of timber and boards very substantially, and covered with Flemish tyles, by the men of which nation it had, in the time of their trading thither, beene builded. Fourescore foot long it is, and in breadth fiftie. The use of it was for the coopers employed for the service of the company, to worke, lodge, and live in, all the while they make caske for the putting up of the Trane Oyle.

Because of the size of the building, the amount of wood it would take to heat it in the cold winter was unavailable, so the crewmen decided to build a smaller shelter inside the building. They dismantled another shelter nearby that was used as quarters for lands-men trying out blubber on shore. In addition to using the lumber and nails from the shelter, they disassembled try-works furnaces and reused the bricks inside. They also discovered three hogsheads of lime that they mixed with sand from the beach to make mortar.

As some of the crewmen tore down and cleaned the bricks, two of them built two outer walls for the shelter. With the bricks gone, the remaining two sides were made out of timber. They also built the shelter one foot away from the existing shelter wall. They filled the gap with sand, creating a windproof barrier from the cold. The interior shelter was 20-feet long and 16-feet wide. The beds were made of reindeer skins, a small door was fixed, and a fireplace was built.

The crewmen worked at preserving meat for the winter and finding fuel for fire. Seven abandoned shallops were broken up for firewood. On September 12, drift ice began arriving in the harbor. On the pack ice slept two “sea-horses” or walruses. The men gathered their harpoons and rowed out to the ice flow. The walruses did not notice the men and they were easy to harpoon and kill. The crewmen returned to the “tent” and skinned and roasted the meat.

By this point the food stores were so low that the crewmen decided to eat one meal a day and eat nothing on Wednesdays and Fridays except fritters or “graves of the whale” to stave away hunger. They used that dining routine for three months. On October 10, Pellham writes that the sea was frozen and it was bitter cold. Their clothing was torn and in shreds so the crewmen began to make clothes from reindeer skin, using pieces of rope as thread, and carving whale bone into needles. While they sewed, they spent hours talking of home and despairing over their situation.

Then had wee leisure (more than enough) to complaine oue selves of our present and most miserable conditions. Then had wee time to bewile our wives and children at home, and to imagine what newes our unfortunate miscarriages must needes be unto them. Then thought wee of our parents also, and what a cutting corasive it would be to them, to heare of the untimely deaths of their children. Otherwhiles againe, wee revive our selves with some comfort, that our friends might take, in hoping that it might please God to preserve us (even in this poore estate) untill the nest yeare. Sometimes did we varie our griefs,—complaining one while of the cruelty of our Master, that would offer to leave us to these distresses; and then presently againe fell wee, not onely to excuse him, but to lament both him and his companie, fearing they had beene overtaken by the yee and miserably that way perished.

As the food stores were running lower, they went to skipping three meals a week for three months. Meat was roasted and stored in hogsheads for future use. They were lucky that their water was from melted snow, which was plentiful. On February 3, a female polar bear and cub came to the door of the “tent” and the crewmen were able to lance the adult, but the cub ran away. They ate the meat for 20 days and when they ate the liver their skin peeled. By March 1, more bears started to investigate the “tent.” The crewmen were able to kill seven out of the 40 that “came by.” The additional meat allowed them to eat three meals a day, every day. Their strength returned.

On March 16, one of the mastiff dogs went out in the morning and never came back. They never found the dog, its body or discerned what happened to it.

As spring arrived, birds began nesting in the hillsides and foxes began to stir from their dens. The crewmen created a “net” out of bear skin and whale bone to catch birds. They used bird carcasses in traps to catch foxes. Overall they trapped and ate 60 birds and 50 foxes. The crewmen also began climbing a mountain every day or every other day to look for the returning English whaling fleet.

On May 25 they saw two ships in the sound. One ship, from Hull, sent a shallop inland looking for the stranded men. The first thing the crew of the Hull’s shallop saw was the stranded crewmen’s shallop loaded and ready to go hunting for walrus. As the men walked up toward the “tent” they yelled, “Hey!” and Thomas Ayers yelled back, “Ho!” which amazed the rescuers. The men in the “tent” welcomed them in and served them four-month-old roasted venison from a hogshead and a cup of cold water. Pellham says that the rescuers ate it out of politeness. They all returned to the Hull whaler where they were happily welcomed. Three days later the whaling fleet arrived.

The crewmen went aboard the Admiral and met with the fleet commander Captain William Goodlad. Goodlad was happy to see them alive. He paid out of his pocket new clothes for all eight men, which Pellham values at £20. After 14 days of good food and rest, the men were assigned to duties. William Fakely, John Wise, Thomas Ayers, and Robert Goodfellow went to Captain Mason’s ship the Salutation. Mason was the captain who had left them behind last August. Edward Pellham, Henry Bett, John Dawes, and Richard Kellett stayed with Captain Goodlad. Captain Mason, upon receiving the men began to abuse them, calling them “run-awayes,” and was so harsh that Captain Goodlad had the men removed and returned to his ship.

After the whaling season was over, on August 20, 1631, the fleet left for London. All eight men made it home “safe and sound,” and the Muscovy Company rewarded the men upon their return. Edward Pellham wrote and published a report of their experience titled, God’s Power and Providence in the Preservation of Eight Men in Green-Land, Nine Moneths and Twelve Dayes.

Snaphance - Refers to a mechanism that holds a flint that when fired, a spring causes the flint to scrape over a piece of steel creating sparks that ignite gun powder in the pan. The ignited gun powder then travels through a hole in the barrel and ignites the powder in the muzzle. It is the precursor to the flintlock gun. Snaphance also refers to a type of gun.

Fourscore - Four times twenty or 80

Trying Out - Taking the blubber of the whale and melting it in a large kettle or try-pot. The try-pot sits in a furnace called a try-works that is fueled by wood or scraps of whale skin.