Freed from the Ice: The Last Entry of the Logbook of the Whaler Swan

April 2021

The whaling ships Swan and Isabella in the arctic, with polar bears and seals by John Ward of Hull (1798-1849)

Regular listeners will know that over the past few months we have been reading extracts from the logbook of the whaler Swan of Hull at the start of each episode (with the exception of the Iconic Ships and Great Sea Fights special series). The Swan became trapped in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in the autumn of 1836.

These readings come from a transcription of the logbook held in the archives of the Caird Library In the National Maritime Museum in London. – the transcription has been made especially for this podcast – you are the first people ever to hear these words read aloud. This podcast episode is, itself, a little piece of maritime history.

The episode presents the final entries in her log, in April 1837. Little is known about what happened next but it is clear from the log that they had very little time left. She was discovered by a fleet of whaleships. Ten sailors were put on board her to navigate her home, along with fresh provisions. From her original complement of between fifty and sixty men—including some men of a wrecked ship whom she had taken onboard in the previous summer—only seventeen men were alive when she reached Lerwick. She finally made it back to hull in July 1837, long after she had been given up for lost.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Today’s episode is a dedicated episode to the last entry of the logbook of the whaler, The Swan, of Hull. Those of you who are regular listeners will know that we have been reading extracts from her logbook at the start of each episode, just with the exception of the iconic ships’ episodes, and the great sea fights series. These readings come from a transcription of the logbook held in the archives of the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in London. The transcription was made especially for this podcast. And so, you the listeners were the first ever to hear these words read aloud; that makes this podcast itself a little piece of maritime history. We began her story in October, on exactly the same day that she became stuck in the ice off the west coast of Greenland in 1836. And we have followed it through to now – to the middle of April, which is when her logbook ends. The last we heard they had just recovered their crew members from their failed attempt to secure help from land. Daniel Knight, one of the few men who survived the attempt to reach land, is seriously injured. It’s been a truly terrible week, and they are being teased by ice breaking all around them though their ship is still beset, and scurvy is now killing the crew fast.

    Whaler Swan

    Wednesday 12th of April. First part of this day commences with strong breezes. The ship drifting past another berg within five minutes’ walk of us. Latter part light winds the waves of water being skimmed over with bay ice. The thermometer ten below zero. Daniel Knight’s leg amputated this morning.

    Thursday 13th of April. Light winds and clear weather the ship being quite stationary. Middle and latter part light breezes ship driving north. Our situation and prospects compel us to diminish our weekly allowance of bread to half a pound, yet so blind with some of our men to their own interest that this prudent measure was regarded by them with dissatisfaction and they had that stupidity and un-thoughtfulness to ask for more. Daniel Knight, whose leg was amputated yesterday morning, is doing well but the chance of saving the other is very little – the inflammation extending itself very fast. Latitude by observation 70 degrees by 12 north.

    Sunday 17th of April. Strong breezes and fine clear weather. The ship drifting off to the westward. A great lane of water has broken out south of us but the ice in which we are froze up is quite stationary. Latitude by observation 70 degrees by 13 north.

    Tuesday 18th of April. Light breezes and fine clear weather. A 270-gallon shake cut up this day for fuel. A few minutes before 12 this night Lawrence Duncan, Shetlander, expired having lingered a long time in a complete state of debility. Latitude by observations 70 degrees by 12 north.

    Wednesday the 19th of April. Light breezes and fine clear weather. A 260-gallon shake, number 41, cut up for fuel. Average of thermometer twenty degrees. At 8am Daniel Knight’s remaining leg was amputated there being no chance of saving any part of the foot. This afternoon James Jameson, Shetlander, died in the last stage of scurvy. Thermometer twenty-six.

    Thursday 28th of April. Light winds in fine warm weather. At noon called all hands and interred our poor shipmates. Middle and latter parts fine weather. The carpenter employed in making a jib boom. A 260-gallon shake cut up for fuel.

    Friday the 21st of April. Light winds fine weather. The ship driving north very slowly. This afternoon Robert Brady, Seaman, died of scurvy and such was the filthy state of his bedclothes that they were thrown overboard.

    Sam Willis

    That was the very last entry for the logbook, and little is known about what happened next. What we do know is that she finally escaped the ice and fell in with a fleet of whale ships that spring. Ten sailors were put on board her to navigate her home, along with fresh provisions. From her original complement of between fifty and sixty men, including some of a wrecked ship, whom she had taken on board the previous summer, only seventeen were alive when she reached Lerwick, when she finally made it back to Hull in July 1837, long after she had been given up for lost. We know that some of the men actually held out until they sighted land and died only then. One sailor who heard of this wrote: ‘I knew two men of her crew very well. Smart fellows they were and good semen, and they both died just within sight of home. I have sometimes wondered at it, and I never could well make it out why, after holding out so long, they gave in – then perhaps hope kept them up. And then when their desire was like to be fulfilled, it was too much for them. And they so weak.’

    We’re pleased to have finished reading this logbook and will certainly bring you more historical sources over the coming weeks. Before we go, we’ve had some fascinating queries posted on our free forum – you can find it that’s the website of the Society for Nautical Research. From Kevin Stall, we’ve had this query about navigation: “When working on a Masters I took a class on early Alaskan history. I was fortunate to find a record of the daily noon sightings, and at the time, I was working with Lat-Long on AutoCAD. I plotted the entire trip and found a few strange entries. A few of the positions were impossible. We knew exactly where she was on several of these occasions. The ship was anchored in the Bay of Kayak Island, but on her second day, the noon sighting placed her 60 miles inland. On another occasion, the sighting showed the ship on the other side of the Aleutian Islands. The ship, St. Peter never went to the north of the Aleutians chain. I know that errors are common in sextant, but when the ship is anchored in the same bay for three days and the second sighting shows them 60 miles inland, but the third one shows the correct location. Why would a captain record such an obvious error? Does anyone have any ideas?” That’s an absolutely great question. I love that.

    Another from Jane Wickenden: “I’m researching a surgeon in the Royal Navy on the West Africa station between January and June 1845. How was his will deposited with his nephew’s law firm in Adelaide, South Australia in mid May 1845? His service record does not indicate that he was ever on the Australian station. I’m assuming he wrote a new will when the news of his mother’s death on the 11th of December 1844 reached him. I’ve read Brian Vales article ‘The Post Office, the Admiralty and Letters to Sailors in the Napoleonic Wars’; New South Wales and Tasmania were on the package ship route by 1835, but not South Australia, as far as I can see.” An interesting one there from Jane about post reaching Australia.

    And finally, a query from David Manly in response to our recent podcast episode on the various sinking’s during the Falklands War. David writes, and this is just in part: “As someone with deep interest in the Falklands campaign for 40 years, and in a professional capacity for over 30, I was keen to see what Paul had uncovered through his extensive use of Freedom of Information requests, and I was not disappointed. It is an excellent piece of work. The chapter on the loss of Sheffield was of particular interest. I was pleased to see reference to the MOD paper that re-evaluated the loss of Sheffield but surprised to see the revaluation result that the Exocet warhead most likely did detonate as being in doubt.” Now, David goes on to conclude: “With the benefit of modern verified and validated analysis codes coupled with trials and operational evidence that was not available to the Board of Inquiry at the time, a very strong case supported by technical peer review was made that the Exocet that hit Sheffield did indeed detonate as designed. And indeed, that is now the line that is briefed in the Royal Navy’s command warfare course and the Ministry of Defence’s various survivability courses to designers and planners in the MOD and UK industry.” Well, fascinating stuff there.

    Do please also enjoy everything else we have to offer on the Society for Nautical Research’s website including over a century of articles from the Mariner’s Mirror Journal. Do please find us on social media: please follow us, please leave a review on iTunes. It makes a huge difference to the popularity of the podcast. But best of all, please do join the Society for Nautical Research and your subscription fee will go towards publishing the latest and the most important maritime history and towards helping to preserve our maritime heritage.