John Rumrill and Herman Melville: Deserters in the South Pacific

Article excerpt

John Rumrill and Herman Melville had a good deal in common. Both were in their early twenties when they shipped from New Bedford harbor on whaleships in the 1840s; both jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands about halfway through their voyages; and both avoided capture by immediately leaving the port town--Melville on foot over the hills to a neighboring valley and Rumrill by stealing a boat and rowing to another island. Rumrill signed the better contract for his whaling services: he was due 1/160 of the proceeds of the voyage, less certain expenses, upon his ship's return to New Bedford while Melville was to receive a 1/175th share. Neither collected. There may be a further connection between Rumrill and Melville. In the third chapter of Moby-Dick when Queequeg is introduced, Ishmael says, "I remembered a story of a white man--a whaleman too--who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them" (NN MD 21). Rumrill was tattooed two years before Moby-Dick was published. Working on the docks in the Marquesas, he met both visiting sailors and passengers, albeit hating the attention they paid to his "disfiguring" facial tattoos. Melville kept up with the shipping world; perhaps his tattooed man is based on stories he heard about John Rumrill.

Here is the story of John Rumrill, the lesser known of the two. (1)

   "YANKEE CANNIBAL KING
   He Was Rumrill of Boston
   He dies in Marquesas Islands Where He Was Shipwrecked
   in 1847
   His Comrades Were Eaten"

These lurid headlines appeared on the front page of the Boston Daily Advertiser of June 30, 1902. Although not particularly accurate (John Rumrill was not shipwrecked, he deserted; he was not a "king"; and he resolutely opposed cannibalism, perhaps because several of his acquaintances were eaten), they do mark a life quite as unique as that of a "Yankee Cannibal King."

On October 20, 1845, John Howard Rumrill, 21, from the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts, signed on as a seaman aboard the New Bedford whaleship Statira and sailed for the Pacific whaling grounds. (2) Seamen's records indicate he had brown hair, a light complexion, and previous whaling experience. (3) In 1845, the United States, the predominant whaling nation, had over seven hundred of the approximately 900 ships in whaling worldwide. New Bedford, by far the largest whaling port, was home to 256 ships, more than the next three (Nantucket, New London and Sag Harbor) combined. (4)

Whaling voyages then averaged forty-two months (Rumrill's voyage of the Statira was just over thirty months, of which he served fifteen), and the life was difficult, boring, and dangerous. Of a sample of 1630 men for whom records are available on thirty-eight voyages, 2.8 per cent died and 23 per cent deserted. The pay, even adjusting for free room and board, averaged less than that of an unskilled farm hand over an equivalent period. One author noted, "The life of the American whaleman was as hard and cheerless as that of any group of free workers in the history of the United States." (5) Captains employed several devices to make escape difficult. They called at small ports which offered little in the way of diversion. In the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, for example, they often put into Lahaina on the island of Maui, rather than the cosmopolitan port of Honolulu, where a sailor could easily lose himself until after his ship departed. In the North Pacific, ships sometimes provisioned at isolated Alaskan fishing villages. In the South Pacific, local chiefs were given a bounty of some $10 for each missing sailor returned to his ship. The money was a significant inducement, and the chiefs usually had little difficulty determining where to look.

The Statira's logbook, kept by the fourth mate, gives details on the summer of 1846, which was spent between the east coast of Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. June 1846 was fairly typical. Seven days were unsuitable for whaling because of fog or gales; the whaleboats were lowered fifteen times; seven whales were captured, two of which escaped when lines parted; and a whale "stove the starboard boat. …