The Voyage of the Diana
by James A. Pottinger - Shetland Life, April 2000
The casual passer-by, noting the ornate marble fountain standing above the harbour at Lerwick, could well be forgiven for assuming it to be one more of the many monuments to seafarers dotted around Britain. He might not realise that this commemorated an epic of endurance and hardship suffered by the crew of a whale ship in the Arctic, an episode in which the following account can give only a mere impression of the suffering and privations endured
Anyone today reading an account of a typical whaling expedition to the Arctic in the nineteenth century, with all the privations and hardships suffered, could perhaps be forgiven for claiming that it was a work of fiction. Nobody surely would willingly offer themselves to the misery and dangers routinely encountered for such a meagre reward.
Apart from the natural and regular hazards of weather and wave, these hardy souls had to contend with conditions so extreme as to freeze the ink in the inkwells, where beef had to be cut with saws; medicines were frozen solid in their vials, helmets froze to men’s beards, and pillows and clothing became solid blocks of ice.
Fishing at any time is a cold, wet business, but when it is carried out for months on end at temperatures well below freezing point, we can begin to appreciate the daily hardships endured by the Arctic whalers. This activity had its origins in the search for whale oil and sealskins, resulting in a large fleet of steam and sail whaling ships making the journey to the Arctic in search of the bounty. Leaving their home ports of Hull, Dundee, Aberdeen and Peterhead, at the end of February they called in at Shetland - usually Lerwick - to augment their crews with men who were naturally adept at small boat handling and boat work
The seal fishing was usually up on the east Greenland coast and in the region of Jan Mayen Island. At the end of the sealing season they would then return to their homeports to fit out for the whaling season and engage crews for the next voyage, to hunt for whales in the Davis Straits. With the ever-diminishing returns caused by over fishing, the trend was to seek ever deeper and further north into the inhospitable waters of the Arctic in the search for their quarry. Reports of many whales in the extreme northern limits of the Davis Straits, by members of an expedition in search of the elusive North-West Passage, encouraged whalers to probe even further than what had been accepted as limits of safe navigation. To reach these waters the whalers were forced to run the gauntlet of drifting ice floes and even bigger icebergs driven by gales, and it was inevitable that many whale ships would come to grief, or spend long periods trapped in the ice.
The whale ship Diana was one such vessel. Her experiences were possibly no different from those of other similar ships apart from the duration of the incarceration, but due to the comprehensiveness of the diary kept by her surgeon, Dr Charles Edward Smith, a graduate of Edinburgh University making his first voyage to the Arctic, we are better informed of the true horrors of her voyage. Moreover there are Shetland connections by virtue of many of her crew coming from the islands, and we have still the well-known monument on the Lerwick sea front in commemoration of the return of the Diana.
The start of the voyage for seals in the early part of the year followed the usual pattern, when the steam whaler under command of John Gravill, got under way and was towed to the mouth of the Humber on 19th February 1866. The first few days of the passage north to Shetland were fair but the remainder was in very bad weather, arriving at Lerwick on 25th February. After their stopover they were ready to get under way by 8th March with a full crew of 51 souls, including 26 Shetlanders engaged as boatmen, harpooners and deck boys. They first encountered the ice on the 22nd, at 69 degrees 45 minutes north. By the weekend the island of Jan Mayen was in sight about 40 miles off. Taking advantage of the good spell of weather the crew were given their allocation of gunpowder, percussion caps and knives. Bullets were cast in the specially shaped moulds to suit the various rifles; the “slop chest” was opened up and the various jackets, trousers and other clothing along with provisions were issued ready for the sealing.
On “speaking” to the whaler Camperdown of Dundee on the 27th March it was learned that some thousands of seals were seen near Jan Mayen Island, all heading southwest. The Diana accordingly altered course in the light of this information.
The weather now turned cold and foggy and with the danger of numerous icebergs surrounding the ship, they raised steam and headed east for comparative safety. By 28th March they were in the open sea.
That same day they fell in with the Windward of Peterhead, who reported only a small number of seals seen. Due to dull weather no sight had been obtained but the captain estimated the ship to be close to the north tip of Jan Mayen Island. They passed through heavy ice and in the afternoon spotted a large pack of male seals following in their wake. This indicated that the females and young were not far off. Later the ship was lying motionless close to the ice pack.
On Friday 30th they had the first warning of danger when the wind increased to a full gale and the solid ice pack was starting to break up and threatening to stove in the sides of the whaler, Things got so bad that it was decided to make ready for abandoning the ship. Provisions were gathered and readied for putting aboard one of the boats, the tackle for hoisting them out was reeved, oars, axes and other gear were put aboard and generally made ready for lowering. Meantime the crew were fully occupied by trying to fend off the more menacing of the ice floes and working the main yards to alter their heading in an effort to dodge the bergs.
Next day brought little relief. Under bare poles the ship lurched about being battered by the ice, the impact only being lessened by continual manoeuvring by the engine and putting fenders and coils of rope over the side. Next day was a repeat, such that the captain called all hands that could be spared to his cabin to join him in prayer and to hope for an easing of their predicament.
It was early evening before the barometer began to rise, and throughout the night the ship gradually eased out of the ice. Next day however the ship was swept by seas over the weather side, the men manning the pumps having to be lashed to the rigging to avoid being washed overboard. To add to the discomfort it was extremely cold, their clothes being frozen stiff and two feet of ice covering the ship’s hull from stem to stern.
By 1st April they were clear and in calm weather. It was estimated that they had drifted nearly eighty miles through the pack ice. Lack of sights meant that the estimated position was between Jan Mayen and the east coast of Greenland. With better weather the Diana was once again turned northeastwards towards the ice fields of Jan Mayen, and during the next eighteen days they were forced through the ice in the search for seals. Few were caught as the main herds proved elusive. Contact with the Kate of Peterhead confirmed a similar tale. The weather alternated between sudden fierce squalls and days of such clarity that the Jan Mayen Islands were seen from very long distances off.
The search for seals continued until 19th April, but when the captain of a Norwegian brig confirmed catching only six seals, it was decided to bear away for Shetland, it being considered that it was now too late in the season to get any young seals. Any further delay would also impact on the subsequent voyage to the Davis Straits for whales. The island of Balta was sighted on the 27th, and next day the Diana berthed at Lerwick as a “clean ship”, an unsuccessful voyage. Whilst this first voyage of the season almost ended in disaster, it was only a foretaste of what was in store during the next voyage to the Davis Straits.
In Lerwick the second mate was put ashore with a wounded knee, and a number of the Shetland men took the opportunity to leave the ship also. No doubt their recent experiences had some influence on their decision.
Second and Fateful Voyage
Fully re-provisioned and coaled the Diana left Lerwick again on 8th May at 3pm under steam with a complement of fifty, reaching open waters at 8pm. The strong southeast wind bore her along with all sail set at a reported 7 to 10 knots, and she passed Cape Farewell, the most southerly point on Greenland, on 17th May. On first impression I would have thought that given the proportions of the Diana this latter figure seems optimistic, and on checking I note that the vessel covered 2,000 miles in under a fortnight. To cover this distance in, say 13 days, gives a daily average of 153 miles, so the Diana must have been averaging something over six knots, a more realistic figure. In the experience of the captain this was reckoned to be the swiftest passage he had made. This same passage normally averaged three weeks at this time of year. A year earlier the Diana took an incredible eleven weeks to travel the same distance - evidence of the fair winds experienced on that occasion.
By the 18th the ship was running up towards the middle of the Davis Straits, and ran 172 miles that day, keeping to the middle of the passage to avoid the icebergs off the Greenland coast, the seas being rough and confused from the meeting of the currents of the Greenland Sea and Straits currents.
All the paraphernalia necessary for the catching of whales was readied; the whaleboats swung outboard and the harpoon guns fixed in position. Ice was encountered by the 20th, and they were off Disco Island on 27th May. Next day the ship met up with the Dundee whaler Polynia. She was able to report that the other whalers close by had caught a number of whales, and the same day the Diana sighted her first whale of the season but was unable to catch it.
Continuing in a northeasterly direction to get across Melville’s Bay as soon as possible - this being the graveyard of many whalers in the past - an unusual amount of ice, a portent for the future, was experienced, and progress was painfully slow. At one point progress was halted, and by this time a group of whale ships had gathered, and in an effort to force a passage the engines were used to propel them in and out of the icebergs. Eventually three of the higher powered whale ships got through, but the Diana, Intrepid and the Wildfire were left behind.
Continuous efforts were made to force a passage. Anchors were sunk in the ice and the hawser brought aboard to the warping winch. Others fended off floes by the use of ice poles, the ship’s engine being run ahead and astern in an effort to break free, however after having only moved about 150 yards their efforts were considered futile, the ice closing ever more tightly. This was off Berries Island.
Next day brought some relief with the ship in open sea and moving freely under sail. This respite was brief as by the 8th of June the wind had shifted and the ice closed in around the ship again. Added to their dismay was the sight of the other ships clearing the ice and sailing northwards.
Passage was continually halted by ice and movement was only possible by the strenuous efforts of the crew. On the 12th they were in the ice-choked waters of Melville Bay, and it was not until the 18th that they reached the normally clear but now ice filled area of the North Waters, their achievement being marked by the traditional whalers’ custom of three hearty cheers and an extra tot of grog served at the capstan.
The seeds of the trials to come were however sown when the Diana had to keep travelling north to avoid the quantity of ice still packing the North Water. In contrast the temperature was high with glassy seas all round. Such heat was experienced that the crew were lethargic and had little appetite. On reaching the West Water however the weather changed, cold and dull with slight snow showers
On the 30th the first whales were caught, the two right whales being brought alongside and flensing was finished by 6pm that day. By 3rd June they were off the entrance of Pond’s Bay, an area usually prolific, but an unusual amount of ice prevented the ship making any progress. A brief interlude of clear water was soon broken when an east wind drove the ice back in the bay and completely hemmed in eleven whale ships, two being nipped severely.
A combination of lack of whales and ice conditions led to the decision to leave the Bay - three weeks of bitter disappointment, such a scarcity of whales never having been experienced by the most veteran of the whalers. They did not all get away unscathed as the Alexander of Dundee had to be hove down to inspect the severe damage on her port side, sections of her hull being distorted and frames broken and internal tanks burst.
In concert with other whaling captains Captain Gravill agreed that further attempts were useless with the amount of ice around and the dire shortage of whales. The end of the season was approaching so the decision was taken to start the homeward voyage and almost the whole fleet returned to Pond’s Bay on 1st August.
Gales and ice hampered their passage throughout. Even in the middle of August Melville Bay was choked with ice, and preparations were often made for abandoning the ship, provisions being made ready for any sudden emergency. The exertions of the crew can well be imagined when it was necessary to warp the ship clear manually and then tow aside lumps of ice that were being borne down on them. By then the level of provisions was causing some concern, and the captain was warning of the possible need of going on short rations.
On the 28th August they fell in with the much more powerful whale ship Intrepid. Captain Deuchars explained that it had proved impossible to travel south along the east side of the Davis Straits, and he had decided to attempt to escape down via the west passage once more. The full import of their situation was gradually dawning on the two captains and serious thoughts as to their survival were being entertained, the state of the food and fuel stores being especially critical.
In appreciation of their predicament there was apparently an understanding that the Intrepid would remain with the Diana offering mutual assistance if need be. After the Intrepid had made fast about a mile further south than the beset Diana the captain again assured Captain Gravill that they would not abandon the Diana in such a dangerous position but stand by as long as possible
Whether by accident or design this promise was to be false, as the Intrepid was seen to force her way through the last obstacle and get into clear water and make her way south. She was soon out of sight, to the dismay and anger of the Diana’s crew who felt that they had been callously abandoned to their fate. This event, on 1st September, was to cause considerable bitterness aboard, and it was considered that Captain Deuchars had abandoned them to their fate. It was later held, in mitigation, that the captain considered that the Diana had already successfully negotiated the worst of the obstacles and would be able to make her way through the ice easily without any assistance from him. It was also recorded that much of the Intrepid’s provisions were spoiled and there were incidences of scurvy aboard.
Whatever the circumstances of her departure it certainly had a drastic effect on the morale of the Diana’s crew who, recognising the ever increasing precariousness of their predicament, voiced their opinion in no uncertain manner as to the callousness of the Intrepid and her captain.
This was brought into sharp focus on Sunday 2nd September when the ice floe under whose lee they had been sheltering broke off and large ice lumps were coming down on them before a strong gale, and within minutes they were nipped in. This meant that the ship was exposed to the full force of the wind and movement of ice, and all efforts, were made to try and moor in the shelter of a solid stationary lump of ice.
Again provisions were gathered and the boats were launched and dragged along the ice to a safe place. Some of the crew struggled with poles and kedge anchors to keep the Diana, in open water, as the rudder was being jammed and the sternpost and planking were under severe pressure by the moving ice. They then tried unsuccessfully to unship the rudder.
With the ship being increasingly squeezed forward and aft, emergency provisions and tools were gathered into the boats and other provisions were stacked on deck in readiness for lowering over the side if the worst came to the worst. By this time the ice was banking up into lumps over seven feel high in packed ridges.
On Monday however the wind eased a little and lessened the pressure of the ice, and immediately all hands were called to retrieve the heavy boats and try and manoeuvre the Diana into a clear area of water immediately ahead of the ship, but by the time everything was made ready the ice closed in again and once more they were made immobile. The exertions of the crew to go through all these actions in the extreme cold and in the teeth of gales and snow showers can hardly be imagined.
Assessing their predicament the captain then ordered that all the provisions be brought aft and secured under lock and key, the total aboard amounting to 13 hundredweight, and thereafter it would be rationed equally, each person receiving three pounds of biscuits each week and three quarters of a pound of salt meat each day, the remainder of the provisions to be doled out accordingly. Tea and coffee were plentiful, but the shortage of tobacco was to cause much craving later.
In the following weeks the hopes of the men were alternately raised and dashed again. With each opening of the ice around the ship the windlass, sails, and ice poles were manned to try and warp into open water but each time they were thwarted by the movement of the ice around the ship and were again hemmed in. On the 9th September they managed by supreme efforts to reach an open lead and the ship bowled along under a gale. Then their efforts on southwesterly and northeasterly courses were blocked by piled up ice despite using the engine and consuming much of their dwindling supply of coal. By this time they were burning some of the staves used to make up barrels to hold the whale oil and some of the spare spars and wood.
They spent a fruitless period of backing and filling but always coming up against an impenetrable barrier of ice whatever direction they headed. On the 21st September the fateful decision was take to play their last card and take the Diana into the ice pack and trust to the Atlantic drift to take them southwards with the hope that they would be free in April next year. The alternative was to winter in Pond’s Bay, which would effectively constrain then for a year. In the circumstances this could only be a Hobson’s choice at best.
With the last of the sun disappearing and short days coming on them the men snugged down the ship for the long wait ahead. The upper masts and spars were sent down and all wood, including the seal clubs, was gathered for fuel, for with no fire they could not melt ice for water. Every opportunity was taken to shoot or trap any birds seen. The cold was getting ever more intense. Whilst lying in his bunk the surgeon noted that his breath was freezing into icicles on the bolts on the deckhead above his bunk.
By the fourth week of October they were opposite the entrance of Exeter Harbour, and in the hope of rousing any of the British settlement known to be there they hoisted burning flares to the mast top, but they passed apparently without being seen.
They were off Cape Mercy and fifteen miles from the land on 5th November. By this time the supply of tobacco had run out and the crew were beginning to show the effects of the short rations. Their discomfort was exacerbated by the effort of having to resort to set off gunpowder charges to break up the more threatening ice which was heaping up along the sides of the ship.
At times the ice pressure was so severe that preparations were made to abandon the ship; severe and frequent gales added to the hazard, and finally their worst fears were realised when it was thought that some of the planking under the bow had been stove in. Fortunately this proved to be a false alarm as the pumps were frozen solid.
On several occasions the boats were put over the side and loaded in preparation for abandonment, and then taken on board again when the situation eased. Lack of sun sights led to the disappointment of finally discovering that they drifted up into Frobisher Bay, instead of being off Resolution Island as they had imagined.
Regularly they tugged at the capstan bars and warps in an effort to move into clear water when the ice retreated. The crew ran backwards and forwards across the ship to impart a rolling motion and kedge anchors were set ahead of the ship. Another measure - to try and break the ice was to put the oldest of the boats ahead of the ship, raise, and lower her with a thump on the ice by means of rope and tackle from the jib boom. Such efforts as they expended on the short measures, led to a request for some added rations. An extra biscuit and a glass of grog was the reward. Many were suffering from the effects of frostbite; any touch on metal took the skin off the exposed flesh.
On Sunday 2nd December they were again in extreme difficulties, and with the sternpost being almost torn away all the provisions had to be laid out on the ice in readiness to leave the ship. Finally everything moveable they thought they might need was laid out on the ice and covered with tarpaulins. But on trying the pumps they found only a foot and a half of water in the hold, so it was decided to go back to the relative comfort of the ship although she had been almost stripped to the bare boards. Exhausted by their labours the crew dossed down anywhere they could. Next day preparations were made to make their potential refuge on the ice more comfortable and permanent. Using spare sails and spars, tents were erected on the highest accessible part of the ice.
Water was found to be entering the ship in a steady stream from somewhere under the fore foot. Lumps of refuse were put over the side in the hope that the current would suck them into the damaged timbers. By this time the men could hardly keep the level of water at bay using the pumps in their weakened condition. On the 5th the ice broke somewhat around the ship, and the backbreaking labour of moving all the provisions back on board was repeated. The pumps repeatedly broke down or iced up, necessitating them to be stripped and cleaned out. By this time many of the crew were more disposed to stay in the relative comfort of the tents on the ice than have to endure the rigours of continual pumping day and night in the freezing cold and swirling snow. The captain was also clearly unwell, suffering from asthma and developing dropsy.
It was a matter of regret that the thermometer they had was only capable of registering as low as minus 20 degrees as it was much colder than that reading.
By the middle of the month the captain was seen to be steadily worsening. Christmas Day was celebrated in conditions of squalor brightened only by portions of plum duff served all round. Some small portions of meat and biscuits had been saved up for the festivities. The Shetland contingent delayed their main celebrations until the old Shetland Christmas of 5th January. Next day Laurence Stewart, a harpooner from Lerwick, was to suffer the effects of overeating, having saved most of his meagre rations for over a week to indulge more fully.
Some of the officers had been taking it in turn to sit up with the captain, but on Boxing Day he passed away peacefully. George Clarke, the first mate was now effectively in charge. The cook was now reduced to four buckets of coal per day, and was using rotten whale flesh dug up from the bottom of the tanks. With less than two weeks supply of coal available no heating was being provided in the accommodation. Bedding above and below was a frozen mass and clothes could stand up by themselves encased in ice. Lighting was now reduced to a small smoky oil lamp. By the end of the year the meagre daily allowance set as far back as 3rd September was reduced even further. Curiously the late captain’s canary and the engineer’s linnet seemed to thrive on the extreme cold.
Early in January the surgeon’s worst fears came to be realised when the unmistakable signs of the dreaded scurvy was evident in the fireman and one of the Shetland contingent, when they began to complain of sore gums. To avoid spreading any further distress the surgeon agreed with George Clarke that they would keep this news to themselves and maintained the fiction that the practice of smoking tea leaves in lieu of tobacco was the cause of the discomfort.
They were unable to dispense the limejuice, as it had frozen solid in the cask, even after having stood next to the cabin stove for over a week. Towards the end of January the ship was still being driven remorselessly in a northwesterly direction, their only salvation would be a strong NW wind to drive them out of their icebound trap.
An unpleasant episode occurred when it was discovered that the bread cask stowed below had been broached, the resultant punishment being that the daily allocation of biscuits be reduced by half a pound until the guilty party owned up.
By that time all the coal had been used and the fire was lit only until noon each day. The cook was now reduced to burning “crang”, the residue of whale meat, and the barrel staves. The cold was even more intense during this period. On removing their boots the men found that the bodily moisture had frozen a layer of ice inside the leather. They were unable to remove their caps on going below until they thawed out as the chinstraps had frozen among their beards.
To compound their misery precious fuel was being used to heat water to thaw out the pumps each day, when the pumps were working the men had to cut deep channels in the solid ice on deck to allow the water to run overboard, left untended the ice soon formed up to the level of the top of the bulwarks.
The next death occurred on the 14th February, when Purvis Smith, a harpooner from Shetland died from the effects of scurvy and general deterioration due to lack of proper food. His disposal posed a dilemma, as there was not even sufficient wood to make up a rough coffin. In the event his body was moved to the quarterdeck until an opportunity arose for possible burial ashore on some rock or island.
Another Shetland man, Mitchell Abernethy, died on the 4th March, and out of the remaining complement of 47 only seven did not show signs ranging from slight to severe scurvy and general debilitation. But better news was that the ship was continuing to drive southwards now, and was now 45 miles north of Cape Chidley, the most northerly point of Labrador.
Underway at last, gradually the clear water was opening up around the Diana, but even so a large amount of ice had to be laboriously cleared away from the starboard side where the water discharged overboard from the pumps had frozen and built up against the side of the ship. By mid morning on the 11th the water was sufficiently clear for the sails to be set, and after setting off a number of explosive charges to free the last of the ice grip on the bow the ship was once more under way, but still had to contend with loose ice bumping along the sides as she made her way southwards.
The temperature was now rising and the crew had to contend with the discomfort of the wet and dampness as all the ice thawed off the deckheads and sides of the ship below. By now the last of many food items and fuel had been used.
Whilst good progress was made the ship was trapped several times. Once, caught aback, she was driven astern into solid ice and the rudder was damaged, with fears that some of the stern planking had been stove in. To try and get the ship clear an anchor had to be set in an ice floe and attempts had to be made to warp her bow around. Even with all hands on the capstan bars no progress could be made against the swell and it was only the fortuitous change of wind from astern that blew her clear. Even now, within sight of clear water, the Diana was being buffeted by lumps of ice despite the efforts to lessen the impact by use of fenders.
It was the evening of Sunday 17th of March before the Diana was finally out of the icepack and all sail was made to hurry the ship on her homeward course.
By now it was effectively a race with death as the majority of the crew were failing, and the additional effort in working the ship was falling on those most able to carry on. After being called on deck to handle the sails or to man the pumps they had only the strength to crawl into their bunks. The worst cases were comatose, unable to help themselves or their shipmates, men continued to die and as the ship had been stripped of everything inflammable no fires could be lit.
At 6pm on 1st April they had their first sighting of the west coast of Shetland, and next day crept into Ronas Voe. Eight corpses were laid out on deck; only two men were fit to go aloft and another two died that very day after arrival.
Their sighting had indeed been fortunate as they had thought first that it was Orkney they had sighted, and wanting to land in Shetland they bore away to the north, all the time sailing up the west coast of Shetland until the mate said that they would make for the first break in the land. By common consent another night at sea would have finished them.
Help was needed from the shore to anchor the ship and, as one would expect every assistance and nourishment was given by the people of the district, especially as it was well known that there were many Shetland men in the crew, and word was sent then to Lerwick for assistance. While the Diana lay in Ronas Voe another three men died, making a total of thirteen fatalities. After spending a week in the voe, during which time coal and other provisions were taken aboard, the Diana then sailed around to Lerwick, thirteen new hands having been engaged.
Leaving Ronas Voe on the 9th they got as far as Tofts Voe, where they anchored for the night before continuing south to spend another night anchored in Dury Voe, then on to arrive at Lerwick on the 11th.
On hearing news of the Diana’s arrival most of the people regarded it as nothing short of a miracle, since all hope of her return had been given up months before. There was still grief to come when it was learned who among the crew had died on the journey home.
Closer inspection soon led to the sombre realisation that here indeed was a sight that the description of Dante’s Inferno could well be applied to. The battered and scored hull, sails in tatters, spars and timber cut up, and the ghastly appearance of the survivors.
It would appear that Surgeon Charles Edward Smith was to a certain degree instrumental for the survival of what remained of the crew. His apparent good spirits and ministrations throughout played a large part in keeping up the morale, and he was prepared to stand by his post on the Diana until the last of the sick men were safely conveyed ashore.
The Diana lay in Lerwick for eight days awaiting instructions from her owners. At that time she was still leaking over 14 inches per hour and the pumps had to be regularly manned. She was then fully provisioned, took on additional coal and sailed south on 22nd April under a new crew and master with only three of the previous crew, including the surgeon, fit enough to make the passage. The remainder had been sent home by steamer and train.
All the deceased were buried in Shetland, with the exception of the captain whose body was left on board the Diana for the return to Hull. She finally docked at Hull at noon on 26th April, the last entry in the Diana’s logbook, fourteen months after the start of the voyage.
No such happy ending however attended the linnet, which met its death when the cage was thrown on board the North boat at Lerwick! The captain’s canary was fortunately brought home to Hull safely.
Dr Smith received due recognition for his efforts when the doctors of Hull, Lloyds underwriters and the Board of Trade all made suitable presentations. In Shetland too the epic was not forgotten, as after the death of the surgeon, Dr Charles Edward Smith, his brother Alderman Frederic Smith, the then Mayor of West Ham, erected a marble drinking fountain at the pier head, suitably bearing the legend “They cried unto the Lord In their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distress”.
Finally a tribute is surely due to the builders of the Diana. Although all whale ships were of necessity sturdily built she took a fearful hammering, and apart from leaks sustained by the relentless pressure of the ice and damaged rudder apparently escaped relatively unscathed.
The list of Shetland men on the final fateful voyage is as follows: -
Laurie Stewart, Mitchell Abernethy (Died), Purvis Smith (Died), Basil Smith (Died), Magnie Nicholson, Magnie Grey (Sen), Magnie Grey (Jun), Peter Acrow (Halcrow?), Peter Robison, Robert Robison (Died), Alexander Robertson (Died), John Thomson (Died), Gideon Fraser (Died), Hercules Anderson (Died), John Robertson, Arthur Yell (Died), Laurence Smith, James Williamson, Peter Shewan, William Shewan, John Hutchison (not Aitchieson as in the book), Robbie Hughson, John Irvine, Christopher Tait, Tom Himsworth (confusion over this person, as he apparently was from Hull), John Hughson
As a postscript, James Williamson, born at Southerhouse in Burra in 1845, who died in 1919 at Houss, was a brother to my great-grandmother Williamina, wife of James Goodlad, about whom I contributed an earlier article to Shetland Life. He recovered sufficiently to continue his career at sea, as confirmed by being at Larvik in Norway on the smack ‘Danish Rose’, where he became the father of a baby girl born there on 8th August 1889 to a local girl. Her great-granddaughter has made a number of visits to Shetland to trace her Williamson relatives.
Christopher Tait, a half deck boy on the Diana, made another 14 subsequent voyages to the Arctic, and was the last living survivor. He died at Aith on 29th February 1940 at the age of 94.
There are a number of artifacts relating to this voyage, and from members of the crew, held in the Shetland Museum at Lerwick
It would be interesting to conjecture that the high level of deaths among the Shetland contingent, a fatality ratio of 34.6% compared to 16% ratio of deaths among the Hull contingent, could be explained by a poorer standard of living and diet in the islands at the time, such as to give a reduced resistance to the cold and onset of scurvy. All through the narrative there are indications that the Shetland members of the crew were the first to feel the effects of cold, hunger and labour in times of distress.
It is doubtful if they suffered anything in comparison to their compatriots as regards victualling on board ship, in fact all the rations were doled out equally among the whole complement without favour when they found themselves in difficulties, so some other reason must be responsible for this apparent disparity in survival rate.
Since writing this article it has been pointed out that when a whaling ship called at Lerwick to complete her crew, all the best accommodation had been secured by men who had signed or at her homeport. Those who signed on at Lerwick had to make do with what was left, in the coldest and draughtiest part of the ship.
The sketch map shows the meanderings of the Diana in an effort to find a safe path out of Baffin Bay during August.
The Diana was built at Bremen in 1840 of 335 gross tons. She was 117ft long, 29ft. beam and 17.5ft deep. Barque rigged, she was brought to Hull in 1856 and placed under the management of Brown Atkinson of that town. She made her first voyage to the Davis Straits in 1856. A 40 HP steam engine was installed by the well-known shipbuilders and engineers Earle & Co. in 1857, being the first Hull whaler to be so fitted.
The above article has been reprinted by kind permission of the Author and The Shetland Times
© The Shetland Times Ltd. and James A. Pottinger