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Sea StoriesSeamen Wintering In Spitzbergen
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Fate Of Seven Sailors Who Were Left On The Island Of St Maurice
The Dutch who frequented the northern regions during the more
favorable season of the year, in pursuit of the whale fishery, became
desirous of ascertaining the state of different places while winter
prevailed. Various opinions were entertained concerning this subject,
and astronomers wished to have their sentiments regarding certain
natural phenomena, either realized or controverted. Besides, a more
important object was concealed under these ostensible reasons, namely,
whether the establishment of permanent colonies in the most remote
parts of Greenland was practicable. A proposal was therefore
promulgated through the Greenland fleet, for seven seamen to offer to
remain a winter in St. Maurice's Island, and also for other seven to
winter in Spitzbergen. We are not acquainted with the inducements
held forth; but it is probable that little hesitation ensued, for we
find a party prepared to winter at the different places specified,
nearly about the same period.
Seven of the stoutest and ablest men of the fleet having accordingly
agreed to be left behind, their comrades sailed from St. Maurice's
Isle on the 26th of August 1633.
The people, two days afterwards, shared half a pound of tobacco, to
which they restricted themselves as a weekly allowance. At this time
there was no night, and the heat of the sun so powerful through the
day, that they pulled off their shirts, and sported on the side of a
hill near their abode. Great abundance of sea-gulls frequented the
island, and the seamen made a constant practice of seeking for
vegetables growing there for salad.
Towards the end of September, the weather began to be tempestuous, and
in the earlier part of October, their huts were so much shaken by
violent storms of wind, that their nightly rest was interrupted; but
they did not resort to firing until the 9th of that month. About a
week subsequent, two whales were cast ashore, and the seamen
immediately endeavored to kill them with harpoons, lances, and
cutlasses, but the tide flowing enabled them to escape.
As winter advanced, bears became so numerous, that the people durst
scarce venture abroad from their huts towards night; but in the day
time some were occasionally killed, which they roasted. Several of
these animals were so strong, however, that they would run off after
being shot through. A great many gulls were also seen on the sea-side
which retired every night to the mountains, their usual place of
The first of January 1634, was ushered in with dark and frosty
weather; the seamen, after wishing each other a happy new year, and
good success in their enterprize, went to prayers. Two bears
approached very near their huts, but the darkness of the day, and the
depth of the snow, rendered it impossible to take them; not long
afterwards the seamen were more successful, and, having shot one,
dragged it into a hut, where they skinned it. From the 1st of February
these animals became very shy, and were seldom seen.
In the month of March all the people were attacked by scurvy, owing to
the scarcity of fresh provisions, and their spirits sunk with the
progress of the disease; only two were in health on the 3d of April,
while the rest were extremely ill. Two pullets were at their request
killed for them, no more being left; and as their appetites were
pretty good, the others entertained hopes of their convalescence. The
whole seldom left their hut to examine the appearance of the sea, or
the surrounding country; but, on the 15th, they observed four whales
in a neighboring bay.
The clerk was now very ill, and died on the 16th, whereupon the
surviving mariners invoked Heaven to have mercy on his soul, and also
on themselves, for they suffered severely. No fresh provisions
whatever were left, and they daily grew worse, partly from want of
necessary articles, and partly from the excessive cold. Even when in
health they could scarce keep themselves in heat by exercise; and when
sick, and unable to stir from their huts, that remedy was at an end.
Disease made rapid progress among these unfortunate people, so that on
the 23d not more than one individual could give an account of the
rest, which is done in these words of his journal: "We are by this
time reduced to a deplorable state, none of my comrades being able to
help himself, much less another; the whole burden, therefore, lies on
my shoulders, and I shall perform my duty as well as I am able, so
long as it pleases God to give me strength. I am just now about to
assist our commander out of his cabin; he thinks it will relieve his
pain, for he is struggling with death. The night is dark, and wind
blowing from the south."
Meantime the Dutch, who repaired in the summer season to Greenland,
became impatient to learn the fate of the seven men left in the Isle
of St. Maurice. Some of the seamen got into a boat immediately on
their arrival, on the 4th of June 1634, and hastened towards the huts.
Yet, from none of the others having come to the sea-side to welcome
them, they presaged nothing good; and accordingly found that all the
unfortunate men had breathed their last. The first, as has been seen,
expired on the 16th of April 1634, and his comrades, having put his
body in a coffin, deposited it in one of the huts. The remainder were
conjectured to have died about the beginning of May, from a journal
kept by them, expressing that, on the 27th of April, they had killed
their dog for want of fresh provisions, and from its termination on
the last of this month.
Near one of the bodies stood some bread and cheese, on which the
mariner had perhaps subsisted immediately preceding his decease; a box
of ointment lay beside the cabin of another, with which he had rubbed
his teeth and joints, and his arm was still extended towards his
mouth. A prayer-book, which he had been reading, also lay near him.
Each of the men was found in his own cabin.
The Commodore of the Greenland fleet having got this melancholy
intelligence, ordered the six bodies to be put into coffins, and,
along with the seventh, deposited beneath the snow. Afterwards, when
the earth thawed, they were removed, and interred, on St. John's day,
under a general discharge of the cannon of the fleet.
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