Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer

Four months before the Battle of the Barges on Lake Borgne, a British force, including the 74-gun Ramillies, the 44-gun Pactobus, the bomb-ship Terror, and the brig Dispatch, appeared off Stonington, Connecticut, the bustling shipbuilding, shipping, and fishing town on Long Island Sound. The British Commodore was Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who, as flag-captain on the Victory at Trafalgar had responded to Horatio Nelson’s dying whisper, “Kiss me, Hardy.”

Carrying out Admiral Cochrane’s grim order to destroy the coast towns and ravage the country, Hardy gave the town inhabitants one hour to leave. Through their magistrates, Stonington’s sea-people and farmers told Hardy to do his worst; should their town be destroyed, they vowed, “we will perish in its ruins.”

Hardy’s worst, it would soon develop, was among the worst examples of Royal Navy gunnery ever recorded. During the three-day siege, more than 50 tons of His Majesty’s hot lead, fire, and iron rained on or near Stonington; but, incredibly, almost no damage was done. Not a single American life was lost in the bombardments, although one of the half-dozen wounded later succumbed.

Lord Nelson, dead those nine years, must have been spinning in his grave as the round shot, bomb, and rocket bombardment plowed the local fields, aerated the lawns, pruned the orchards, and ventilated about 40 buildings—without destroying any.

Word of the siege of Stonington was to delight Americans up and down the seaboard. It would unite in mirth all those who read the advertisement in the New York newspaper: “Just received, and offered for sale, about three tons of round shot . . . very handsome, being a small proportion of those which were fired from His Britannic Majesty’s ships on the un-offending inhabitants of Stonington, in the recent brilliant attack on that place.”

When, at last, the mauled and mortified British slipped away, bearing the 20 British tars who had been killed and the 50 who were wounded by Stonington’s two 18-pounders, Royal Navy gunnery was being immortalized:

They killed a goose, they killed a hen,

Three hogs they wounded in a pen;

They dashed away—and pray what then?

That was not taking Stonington.

But, to the townspeople, it had not really been comical at all. While all could breathe easily as each new Congreve rocket or shell exploded harmlessly, none could be sure that the next round would. Nor could any of the besieged be sure that the ordeal would not continue for three weeks or three months. There were black hours of depression, too, when it seemed that the many fires could not possibly be kept under control; yet, somehow, they were.

Seen in its true perspective, Stonington was not a place where a funny thing happened. It was, rather, the site of one of the most gallant affairs of the war. The courage of its people enheartened their countrymen. Moreover, it disheartened an enemy that had been emboldened by its recent easy possession of Eastport, Maine; and it dissuaded Hardy from more attempts to capture or destroy any of Connecticut’s seaports.

This was the town, these were the people, and these were the times that spawned Nat Palmer.

Commodore Hardy had appeared off Stonington two days before the 15th birthday of Nathaniel Brown Palmer. Born on 7 August 1799, the son of a lawyer, Nat had grown up amid the sights, sounds, and smell of the sea, wistfully watching the last long pulls on sheets and halliards as ships departed from Stonington and nearby Mystic to all parts of the world. At 14, he had gone to sea.

Over the next 36 years, “Captain Nat” became known and respected throughout the port cities of the world, first as a captain of the Western Ocean packet ships Siddons, Garrick, Huntsville, and Hibernia, then as the epitome of clipper ship captains in the Houqua, Samuel Russell, Paul Jones, and Oriental.

Sailor/author Captain Arthur H. Clark revered Palmer because “Probably no one ever brought up so many young men who afterward became successful shipmasters, while his character and example were an inspiration to many who never sailed with him.” One who sailed with him for the first time was Nat’s wife Eliza’s 16-year-old brother, David Sherman Babcock, who afterward became renowned as the captain of the clipper ships Sword Fish and Young America.

To Clark and his The Clipper Ship Era, published in 1910, we are indebted for a description of the breed of captain Nat Palmer exemplified:

Above all things it was necessary that the captains should be thorough seamen and navigators; also that they should be men of robust health and great physical endurance. . . There were frequently desperate characters among the crew and steerage passengers, who required to be handled with moral courage and physical force, while the cabin passengers were usually gentlemen and gentlewomen of good breeding, accustomed to courtesy and politeness, which they expected to find in the captains with whom they sailed. These requirements evolved a remarkable type of men, hearty, bluff, and jovial, without coarseness, who would never be mistaken for anything but gentlemen.

This, then, is what Nat Palmer became. Let us look now at an incident in the Antarctic that helped to shape his life.

At the beginning of February 1821, two ships of Imperial Russia, the Vostok and the Mirnyi, rounded Cape Horn and cruised south into the ice-choked Weddell Sea searching for uncharted land that might prove the existence of the legendary Antarctic continent. Twelve months before, this small squadron, under command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, had explored the islands east of the Cape and was now, a year and a half out of Kronstadt, completing a circumnavigation of the world in the south polar latitudes.

On 31 October, they had weighed anchor out of Port Jackson at Sydney, Australia, and for more than 80 days had been laboring through unknown seas, far to the south of any previous voyagers.

Nine days out of Sydney, the flagship had sprung a leak, and the water pumped out over the lower deck kept the crew’s quarters continually damp and chill. During frequent fierce gales the ships struggled under shortened sail through mountainous waves, sliding down the steep leeward slopes to wallow heavily in the troughs, often heeling over and shipping drenching seas. On Christmas Day, while Orthodox services were being held and the Russians were thanking God for the redemption of mankind and the deliverance of their blessed land from armies of the French invaders, the Vostok rammed over a block of submerged ice that broke the anchor bed, raised the anchor block and spindle, ripped away some of the ship’s protective sheathing, and almost breached the hull. That day the watch sighted almost 250 icebergs before night closed in.

For the next month, only a few patches of fine weather broke an uninterrupted season of snow and mist; and the Russians were ready to alter course for warmer latitudes, lay in at a hospitable harbor for repairs, and set sail for home. Their voyage was already a notable one; they had sighted and surveyed dozens of unknown islands, two of them the first discovered below the Antarctic circle. But they had not yet succeeded in their principal objective: to determine the existence of a continental land mass.

Thus, as they steered southward from the Horn, they were making their last thrust for Antarctica, whose secret had remained hidden behind barriers of offshore ice and the great fogs that drift in from the south. On 5 February, the Vostok and Mirnyi sighted the high cliffs of the recently discovered South Shetlands, their ghostly, snow-clad shores but dimly visible. The wind blew SW by S, and the sea ran a strong swell from the west. The summer temperature stood at 34 degrees Fahrenheit. During the early hours of the night, stars shone faintly overhead through thin clouds, while blacker clouds to the east hid the land. As the heavy dew thickened to a fog, the Russians lay to, to avoid running on the reefs and breakers around the islands. The ships’ bells sounded across to each other throughout the night.

On the morning of the sixth, the Russians prepared to continue cruising to the south. The sun had not yet burned off the fog from the ice-choked straits and, in this desolate sea, there was only the sound of waves slapping against the grinding ice and the cries of sea fowl. Captain von Bellingshausen recalled that, “Round about us birds were diving, penguins were calling, albatrosses, gulls, pintades, blue petrels, and cormorants were flying about in all directions.” As the weather showed signs of clearing, the ships started through a channel between rocky headlands.

Suddenly, the fog lifted to reveal a small sloop in the straits ahead. The stranger sent up the American flag, and the Russian commander, replying with the black and gold imperial eagle, sent over a boat to invite the captain on board. After a brief interval, the deputation returned; and a young man in sealskins climbed over the rail and announced himself as, “Captain Nathaniel Palmer, of the sloop Hero, fleet tender to the sealing expedition from Stonington, Connecticut.”

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

The furrow followed free.

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

The man who stood before the Russian commander was only 21 years old, but he was already hardened by seven years at sea. Nat Palmer was used to sailing at night and in fog, for he had learned his trade as a blockade runner along the coast of Long Island. Born on 7 August in the last year of the eighteenth century, he was only 12 when war broke out with England, and hostile ships blockaded Stonington and its neighboring ports. Mr. Madison’s war was highly unpopular among many of the New England coastal towns, whose trade and revenues were now threatened more by war than they had been by an occasional British impressment. Many of the ports remained neutral, welcomed British frigates, or even paid ransom without protest, while angry talk of secession sounded in the chambers of council and assembly.

The Stonington men were made of sterner stuff. When the British bombarded their town in August 1814, they had manned the shore batteries and had driven off the fleet. Meanwhile there was profit and adventure to be had for a little danger, and damn the British gunboats! So, in 1813, Nat Palmer went to sea; and if his sloop hugged the coast, there were special skills that one could learn better here than out in the mid-Atlantic. Dodging British warships in the dark, navigating by nose and nerves around shoal waters and enemy interceptors, were to prove good preparation for the Antarctic ice. Detection could mean death by broadside or boarding party, or capture and confinement in rotting prison hulks. Palmer soon became a pilot, and after the war, captained a small coasting sloop. Then, when he was but 19, he was invited to sail as second mate under Captain James Sheffield on a sealing expedition to the south polar seas.

American seamen had gone a-whaling since the earliest days of the colonies; but it was not unitl the late eighteenth century, after Captain Cook had discovered that the pelts of fur seals and sea otters brought high prices in Canton, that Yankee crews made sealing a major industry.

The Russians held an exclusive control on the rookeries in their northern Pacific territories, particularly the Pribilofs; but the islands off the southern tip and western shores of South America were the home of millions of seals waiting for those bold enough to take them. The islands were ostensibly owned by Spain, but Argentina and Chile were too feeble to make effective protest against the British and American marauders, although the latter sometimes threatened each other.

Among the Yankees, by far the greatest number of sealers came from Stonington, whose hardy and venturesome captains made many voyages to the South Atlantic and ranged out into the South Pacific. By Palmer’s time, they had been active in this trade for over twenty years, with such success that the familiar rookeries were almost depleted, and new ones had to be found. Profits were so great and plunder so ruthless that over three million seals were exterminated in Alexander Selkirk’s lonely Juan Fernandez islands, while they were slaughtered in the Falklands as spectacularly as the bison were to be seventy years later in the American West.

For over two hundred years, no significant new discoveries had been made of land below Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, aside from Captain Cook’s sighting the snow-capped peaks of South Georgia Island and Southern Tule (Sandwich Land) in 1775. But there were legends of lands lost below the horizon, of the elusive Auroras, thought to have been discovered in 1600, when a Dutch ship commanded by Dirck Gherritz was blown off course to 64 degrees south latitude. Perhaps these were rediscovered in February 1819, when the British brig Williams, under Captain William Smith, came across a chain of subpolar islands running west to northeast, some 400 miles south of Cape Horn. This accidental encounter occurred only because the Williams, en route to the Pacific and Peru, had beaten far south of the usual sea lanes to avoid rough weather. Smith reported his discovery to British agents in Valparaiso and again at Buenos Aires but refused bribes offered by American sealers to disclose the location of the new islands.

It was at this time that Edmund Fanning of Stonington promoted a voyage to find new sealing grounds in the South Atlantic. A successful veteran of 22 years in the sealing industry, a man who had three times circumnavigated the world, Fanning had heard of Gherritz’ voyage and of the Auroras and dispatched a ship to rediscover them. This was the Hersilia. Just built at Mystic seaport, of 130 tons burthen, with special copper sheathing as protection from submerged ice, it was the Hersilia on which Nat Palmer signed as second mate.

Almost three months out of Stonington, the Hersilia put in at the Falklands for water and fresh food. Leaving Palmer and another sailor on one of the islands to procure provisions, Captain Sheffield sailed off in search of the legendary lands to the south. The bleak Falklands were hardly a very hospitable place to be left, but they were visited often enough that Palmer and his companion would soon be rescued if the Hersilia should founder. They had a ship’s boat, their skinning knives, tinder boxes, a couple of muskets, and some of the ship’s supply of firewood. It was common practice for sealing vessels to leave a crew for as long as six or nine months on some island where they would make their kills, salt down the seals, and cure the skins, while the ship explored for other rookeries, leaving additional seamen at likely locations. After a suitable interval, the sailors and sealskins would be picked up.

Many expeditions brought along women to stay at the shore camps, help with the sealing and cooking, and provide companionship when required. Usually there was only one woman per camp, and they were sufficiently in demand that they became well-known at the sealers’ ports of call. While freed from the hazards of stormy sailing, the crews had no easy time of it ashore, with primitive shelter against wind and weather and scanty supplies of food. For the most part they had to forage for themselves and survive on seal meat, penguin eggs, and the flippers of young sea elephants. As a mate, Palmer received some of the ship’s supplies for his brief stint ashore—navy bread and mess beef, with some rum to improve the circulation and warm the blood.

He and his companion set to work gathering vegetables and butchering some of the animals that ran wild on the island. But they were not alone for long, for a few days after the Hersilia’s departure, another ship stood off the island, the Espirito Santo from Buenos Aires, with British papers. When Palmer piloted her into safe anchorage, the crew revealed that they were bound for rich but secret new sealing grounds. Three days later, when the Hersilia returned, Palmer told Captain Sheffield his news and persuaded him to pursue the course taken by the British.

Laying on all sail, the Hersilia came upon the uncharted South Shetlands four days later, where the Espirito Santo was anchored in a natural harbor while its crew were ashore slaughtering seals. The Stonington men needed no invitation to join in the hunt and stopped only because they had insufficient salt to cure a full cargo of sealskins. With 8,868 pelts, the Hersilia reluctantly returned home bearing news of vast numbers of seals remaining on the islands. Her cargo, though only half of capacity, brought an impressive $22,000, for the pelts turned out to be of much finer quality than those of Cape Horn seals.

As the first Americans to visit the South Shetlands, the Stonington men did not intend to sit idly ashore while others profited by their discovery. Promptly on their return, they prepared a full scale expedition of five ships. This time Nat Palmer had his own command, the Hero, fitted out as fleet tender. The Hero hardly seemed the ship to make history, for it was a small coasting sloop similar to those Palmer had sailed through British blockades. The vessel was less than twice the length of a ship’s launch, but her size served well for exploration in shoal and shallow waters, where she could run close inshore. Built 19 years earlier at nearby Groton, the Hero was 47 feet long, 17 feet wide, and six feet nine inches deep for shoal draft. Her burthen was a mere 44 tons. Yet, Yankee privateers smaller than Palmer’s sloop had taken British prizes over ten times their tonnage. For this voyage to the Antarctic, the Hero carried a crew of only five men. Besides the captain, there were the mate, Phineas Wilcox, 28; second-mate Richard Fanning Loper, 21, who later was to become a famous shipbuilder; 16-year-old seaman Stanton L. Burdick; and seaman Peter Harvey, a 31-year-old Negro.

Three of the Stonington fleet sailed in the spring of 1820, but it was not until the end of July that the Hero, in company with Captain Ephraim Williams’ Express, set her sails for the south. Leaving the Spanish Main and summer seas far behind them, they arrived at the Falklands in late October and then set course for Staten Island and Cape Horn. The 45-mile-long Staten Island, off the east tip of Tierra del Fuego, seemed to a later voyager, Herman Melville, “like a pile of glaciers in Switzerland . . . gleaming in snow-white barrenness and solitude.”

In these latitudes summer was but a whisper of wet wind in the long winter whiteness. Here squalls came screaming out of the southwest, spearing seamen with sleet and hail and smothering the decks with snow.

I wish to God I’d never been born

To go a-ramblin ’round Cape Horn.

And many a ship attempting to round the Horn had been chased by howling west winds clear across the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope and had chosen to continue sailing east to seek the South Pacific by way of the Indian Ocean.

In what passed for summer below the Horn, navigation was obstructed by the polar ice pack that broke off from the continental shelf and floated northward into the sea lanes. To find open water and steer a sailing ship through the ice was a difficult and dangerous maneuver, especially in a strong wind, which kept the floes in movement and could block passages or open long leads through the loose ice. Many of these floes were formidable islands, miles in extent and high enough to break the force of Antarctic gales. As the packs ground together, they could trap a sailing ship, crushing its keel or heeling it over so that it jammed, unable to extricate itself.

Less dangerous than the pack ice were the massive bergs rolling in the swell. A ship might pass as many as two hundred bergs a day, of all sizes and shapes, from tables to towering sentinels. Some were like stately galleons, moving majestically through the icy waters. Others were grotesque and misshapen, hollowed with arches and caves into which the surf slammed and roared. Often the ice split with a crack like a cannon, sending large splinters sliding and crashing into the sea. Sometimes hundreds of tons broke off, imperiling ships not only by the danger of their fall but by the immense waves churned in their wake. As they rose and fell, tilted and turned by the tides, the icebergs might be worn away on one side until they capsized and rolled up greenish-blue. Some were covered with bird guano, while others hosted hundreds of penguins flapping their wings or waddling and diving after the ships.

There was abundant life in this wild waste of waters, as ships cruised through schools of blowing porpoises and grampus or killer whales, while overhead wheeled giant fulmars, white-rumped terns, whale-birds, mollymauks, cape pigeons, and light-brown, white-patched Egmont hens. Most majestic was the albatross, “that white phantom [which] sails in all imaginations,” that Melville hailed as “a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime,” and that duller mariners would call a gooney.

In these latitudes, weather was utterly unpredictable, with violent gales followed by dead calm. Often the wind increased so rapidly that it was difficult to shorten sail. There could be simultaneous fog and wind; and even in calms, the currents were strong and the seas ran high. Sometimes the surface was glazed or slick and sluggish as oil, but lifted occasionally by long, slow swells. The skies were usually dismal, with sun and stars rarely visible through a rift in the clouds.

From December to March, conditions were bad enough, with the temperature hovering around freezing; but in the southern winters, the seas south of the Horn were the wildest in the world. Life aboard sailing ships was appalling. There was no escape from the intense, penetrating cold. The wind cut like a blade and sent stinging spray to freeze on the lower rigging and the sailors’ ice-crusted beards. Battering waves broke over the bows and swirled waist-deep into the scuppers, while the driving damp veered drunkenly from rain to sleet or snow or hail. Furling the jib required a certain skill, as the bows plunged under, submerging the clinging seamen and then see-sawing them high into the air and under again, like a ducking stool driving at six knots. Decks had to be shoveled free of snow or covered recurrently with ashes lest their ice-slick surfaces, helped by the abrupt heaving of the ship, send the crew sprawling with broken limbs and cracked heads. With the decks continually awash or frozen over, the crew were at least spared the ritual of scrubbing and swabbing.

But there was no relief from the damp and cold. The pale, infrequent appearance of the sun was too weak to thaw or dry wood, canvas, or men. Despite tarred boots, socks were always sufficiently water-logged to cause frostbite or trenchfoot. Worse than the large, wet flakes of snow was the freezing rain that drenched a man through. Weather seldom permitted clothes to be dried against bulkheads or on lines strung topside, and there was no fire below except for cooking. The only chance for some warmth was to huddle in bed, in dark quarters cramped as a coffin, wrapped in wet underwear and damp blankets.

There was no doctor aboard, no adequate medicine, no way to treat colds or to dry cuts, which would fester in the lingering moisture. Melville recorded that for warmth, “This is the time for oil-skin suits, dreadnaughts, tarred trowsers and overalls, sea-boots, comforters, mittens, woolen socks, Guernsey frocks, Havre shirts, buffalo-robe shirts, and mooseskin drawers. . . . Whatever they can rake and scrape together they put on—swaddling themselves in old sails, and drawing old socks over their heads for night-caps.”

To keep out rain, scupper water, and heavy seas, the forecastle was sealed up like a tomb, where the close air added to claustrophobia. Aside from the strenuous activity of manning the ship, there was no room for exercise, let alone privacy, especially on a sloop as small as the Hero. The only recreation was spinning yarns to while away the watches. There were no facilities for bathing or shaving, unless one desired to douse himself with cold sea water and scrape the brine through his beard.

Cramped and numbed as they were, the crews would stumble about at their work in a semi-conscious stupor, like mechanical toys with disjointed limbs. Their breath was a frosty vapor, and they had to beat their hands together constantly to restore the circulation. Aloft, seamen could not wear gloves; it was impossible to reef the canvas with them or grip the ropes without slipping. Squalls and spray iced the shrouds and yards and made the lines as rigid as strands of cable. Nets and rigging were so slick with snow that top-men sometimes slipped off to be lost overboard or crash to the deck. Often the frozen canvas was almost too stiff to be furled, a job that was even more perilous for men aloft, sometimes at night, in tempests of near-hurricane strength, leaning over the icy yards and supported by only a strand of rope, as they precariously tilted like inverse pendulums over the ship lurching far below. To descend, they must slide down ice-glazed ropes. In less desperate moments, they could shake the snow out of the sheets and chip or scrape the ice, being careful not to slash rigging or canvas. Always the lookouts must keep watch for ice in the offing, and their cries of warning were a restless alarm.

That night off Cape Horn I won’t soon forget,

It gives me the horrors to think of it yet.

We were diving bows under and all of us wet,

A-making twelve knots with the skysails all set.

Why, then, should men repeatedly venture into this white wasteland? These were not Odysseus’ warm, wine-dark seas of the middle world, tempting with sirens and sorceresses, but rather the bitter brine of the Viking and ancient Anglo-Saxon seafarer. To be sure, there were profits: for the owners, perhaps seven times their initial investment, with sizeable shares for the men. But there were other, safer ways to wealth, while many a seaman’s body vanished without even a winding sheet, and old age found few sailors secure.

Yet, neighbors on land might never see more of the world than the adjoining acreage or town market, while New England mariners were at home in exotic ports and used distant seas as their highways. Despite the confinement and discipline of shipboard, there was a wild freedom here and a sense of endurance, of personal, physical accomplishment against the elements that was denied to shopkeepers ashore. The youthful Melville, not yet bound by the badge of a customs inspector, found that “in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns.”

But Palmer was hardly thinking of all this as he secured wood and water at Staten Island. The Hero arrived in the South Shetlands on 10 November 1820, and was soon set to work ferrying sealskins from shore to ship. Hunting was good and the fleet took over 60,000 pelts between November and February. The Hero also acted as commissary vessel to the fleet and shore crews, carrying supplies of navy bread, beans, peas, mess beef, prime pork, codfish, dried corn meal, rice, flour, coffee, molasses, butter, potatoes, four and one-half barrels of rum, four barrels of gin, and two and one-half barrels of Teneriffe wine. Clearly, the Stonington men fared better than the usual sealers.

Having seen to the well-being of the squadron, Palmer sailed off alone to chart the islands and explore for better harbors. Rounding the high cliffs of Deception Island, he found entrance on the south to a sizeable inlet formed by the broken mouth of a volcanic crater. Here was a deep harbor kept free from ice by thermal activity in its waters. This was to become the main anchorage for sealers and whalers in the Shetlands. In later years, supplies were stored here for shipwrecked seamen, and a small church was built. When, almost a century later, Shackleton and his crew were adrift on an ice pack in the Weddell Sea, they thought of making a landfall here and tearing down the church to get timbers for a new ship and to convert its pews into planking for the decks.

The volcanic vapors often created mists, but when weather was clear, lookouts from the Hero’s masthead sighted land a great distance to the south, and Palmer set out to survey it. Between Deception Island and the mainland was a 50-mile strait jammed with drifting ice. Luckily, the usual fog had been blown away by freshening winds. For three days, Palmer cruised along the coast of the Antarctic continent to prove that it was not an island. His log for the third day, Friday, 17 November reads:

This 24 hours commences with fresh Breeses from SWest and Pleasant at 8 P.M. got over under the land found the sea filled with immense Ice Bergs at 12 hove Too under the Jib Laid off & on until morning—at 4 A.M. made sail in shore and discovered—a strait—Trending SSW & NNE—it was Literally filled with Ice and the shore inaccessible we thought it not Prudent to Venture in ice Bore away to the Northered & saw 2 small islands and the shore everywhere Perpendicular we stood across towards friesland Course NNW—the Latitude of the mouth of the strait was 63-45 S Ends with fine weather at SSW.

Prevented from landing by masses of pack ice, Palmer turned his helm north and made a reconnaissance of other islands in the volcanic South Shetland chain. In clear waters, their white pinnacles could be seen from a great distance, standing sheer up from the sea to towering summits as high as 6,600 feet. But they were often enclosed in great fields and floes of ice and by mountainous drifting bergs so that they were concealed from the view of lookouts on the tilting surface of the sea. Some of these islands thrust up a solitary spire, while others presented a range of jagged ridges. When the fogs rolled away, their tops were still lost in the perpetual overcast of clouds.

Even after the islands were sighted, Palmer had to pick his way carefully to find channels not choked with ice. Close inshore the foaming surf broke over low barrier reefs to seethe onto narrow beaches strewn with great rocks from the overhanging cliffs. On some of the shores, innumerable seals were swarming, while thousands of penguins stood by in formal ranks and ponderous sea elephants lay, sluggishly respiring through their eight-inch trunks.

Discovering a strait between Livingston (Friesland) and Greenwich Islands, Palmer ventured in and located on the latter a sheltering anchorage, which became known as Yankee Harbor. On the opposite slopes of Livingston Island was a populous and as yet unspoiled rookery. When he reported this news, the Stonington fleet left its unsheltered cove and shifted its base to Yankee Harbor. Palmer returned to fleet-tending duty.

In the middle of January, he was again released to go exploring and once more coasted southward, crossing the straits to the Antarctic highlands. Here, 500 miles below Cape Horn, Nat Palmer came upon the northernmost tip of the polar continent, a spike of precipitous mountains broken off from the Andes, a narrow peninsula projecting hundreds of miles out from the main land mass. Behind the barrier of ice, strange peaks rose in serried ranks, ridge behind ridge mounting up to a high plateau that led off beyond the southern horizon into an unknown void. Here was a lifeless wilderness of terrifying whitness, the haunt perhaps of some vengeful spirit beckoning the reckless mariner into a vast emptiness, a frozen hell. Astern was 7,000 miles of homeless ocean.

Palmer headed southwest and explored the edge of the peninsula as far as 68°, some 330 miles south of Yankee Harbor.

As the weather closed in, he cruised north again, under light sail and laying to at night, since, as he recalled, “most of the time the mist was so dense I could not see the lookout on the forecastle.” At midnight, between 5 and 6 February, Palmer came on deck to take the watch, and struck one bell. To his surprise, he got an unexpected response. Perhaps it was an echo from the ice. But, at one o’clock:

I struck the two bells that were answered by a human hand; though I could not credit my ears, and thought I was dreaming; excepting for the screeching of the penguins, albatross, pigeons, and mother carys, I was sure no living object was within leagues of the sloop, but the sound of bells continued until the sun lifted the fog. My chief officer, who laughed at the idea of a human soul being close at hand, insisting that the sound was “tricky” called me at seven bells during his watch, saying that voices were heard, and before the trencher board was laid, the fog lifted, presenting to our view a frigate on the starboard bow, and a sloop of war on the lee quarter, with Russian colors flying.

For the earliest and probably best account of this dramatic and unexpected encounter, we turn to Edmund Fanning, who had organized the expedition which was Palmer’s first voyage to Antarctica. In Voyages Round the World (1833), Fanning wrote:

On the Hero’s return passage to Yankee Harbor, she got becalmed in a thick fog between the South Shetlands and the newly discovered continent, but nearest the former. When this began to clear away, Captain Palmer was surprised to find his little barque between a frigate and a sloop of war, and instantly ran up the United States’ flag; the frigate and sloop of war then set the Russian colors. Soon after this a boat was seen pulling from the commodore’s ship for the Hero, and when alongside, the lieutenant presented an invitation from his commodore for Captain P. to go on board; this of course was accepted. These ships he then found were the two discovery ships sent out by the Emperor Alexander of Russia, on a voyage around the world. To the commodore’s interrogatory if he had any knowledge of these islands then in sight, and what they were, Captain P. replied, he was well acquainted with them, and that they were the South Shetlands, at the same time making a tender of his services to pilot the ships into a good harbour at Deception Island, the nearest by, where water and refreshments such as the island afforded could be obtained; he also informed the Russian Officer that his vessel belonged to a fleet of five sail, out of Stonington, under command of Captain B. Pendleton, and then at anchor in Yankee Harbour, who would most cheerfully render any assistance in his power. The commodore thanked him kindly, “but previous to our being enveloped in the fog,” said he, “we had sight of these islands, and concluded we had made a discovery, but behold, when the fog lifts, to my great surprise, here is an American vessel apparently in as fine order as if it were but yesterday she had left the United States; not only this, but her master is ready to pilot my vessels into port; we must surrender the palm to you Americans,” continued he, very flatteringly. His astonishment was yet more increased when Captain Palmer informed him of the existence of an immense extent of land to the south, whose mountains might be seen from the masthead when the fog should clear away entirely. Captain Palmer, while on board the frigate, was entertained in the most friendly manner, and the commodore was so forcibly struck with the circumstances of the case, that he named the coast then to the south, Palmer’s Land; by this name it is recorded on the recent Russian and English charts and maps.

When the fog lifted, the commander of the two Russian ships beheld the tiny America sloop Hero, whose captain, Nat Palmer, pointed to the trio of towering peaks, background, on what is today known as the Palmer Peninsula.

Possibly Fanning overdramatized the Russian’s reaction. In a later, questionable account that Palmer is supposed to have told the American consul in Hong Kong, von Bellingshausen paced the cabin in considerable agitation, asking what his imperial master would think at his having lost the discovery to a boy scarcely out of his teens in a ship little larger than the Vostok’s launch. This version attributes to him a melodramatic and undoubtedly spurious speech in which he places his hand on the American’s head, exclaiming, “. . . my grief is your joy. Wear your laurels. With my sincere prayers for your welfare, I name the land you discovered in honor of yourself, noble boy, Palmer’s Land.”

There was no need for such heroics, for the contrast was sufficiently striking without them. On the one hand was the 41-year-old senior Russian commander, with his staff, in full uniform. A portrait of him done not much later shows him to have aristocratic features, a thin, slightly drooping guardsman’s moustache, flowing sideburns, and dark hair slightly receded from a high forehead. A later portrait of his second in command, Lt. Lazarev, shows a stocky, thin-lipped man with heavy jowls and thick eyebrows, a fleshy Roman nose, and the air of a bantam rooster. Confronting them was the 21-year-old Connecticut captain in a sou-wester and sealskin coat and boots, his thickly-matted beard matching his tangled, unwashed brown hair. He was an impressive six feet tall, and a contemporary described him as being kindly, but having a gruff exterior and appearance “much like that of a shaggy bear.”

The contrast between the ships was equally striking. Dwarfing the 47-foot sloop, with her five-man crew, the Vostok was 129 feet 10 inches long and 32 feet 8 inches in the beam. She carried a total crew of 117, including 15 officers, an astronomer from Kazan University, an artist from the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and two surgeons. The Mirnyi was of 230 tons, 120 feet length, and 30 feet beam, carrying a complement of 72 men, including another surgeon and an Orthodox priest. Both ships were extremely well equipped and victualed.

Von Bellingshausen spoke little English, but Lazarev had served four years in the British Navy and acted as interpreter. Palmer let the Russians copy his charts and told them his was the first ship to circumnavigate the South Shetlands. Von Bellingshausen was quite struck with the size of the Hero; and Palmer recalled that, “It was with great difficulty that I could make the old admiral believe I had come from U [sic] States in so small a vessel.” The interview lasted about an hour, during which lunch was served, probably the cabbage soup, fresh pork, pickled cabbage, lemon juice, and rum punch that was provided on feast days. Then Palmer returned to his ship, rejoined the Stonington fleet, and two weeks later, sailed for home.

But Palmer was not yet through with the polar seas. Now that the Antarctic continent was discovered, the question still remained: What lay beyond? Did the continent cover the pole, or was it, like Australia, simply an immense island with more seas to the south? No traveler had visited the ends of the earth, and who knew what mysteries were hidden behind the mountainous coast, still waiting to be revealed. The unknown still beckoned with an icy hand.

Late in 1821, he sailed again to the South Shetlands. Commanding the 80-ton sloop James Monroe, he went exploring to the northeast, in company with the British sloop Dove, under Captain George Powell. Seals had been all but exterminated, and the frustrated hunters encountered mostly sea leopards. Their main accomplishment was the discovery of the South Orkney Islands.

Two years later, Palmer transported Simon Bolivar’s army from Cartagena to Chagres in Panama and carried back Spanish prisoners from Chagres to St. Iago. On his return home, his ship Cadet ran aground and foundered off the New Jersey coast. Perhaps Nat Palmer had enough of the sea for the moment, for, in 1826, he married Eliza Thompson Babcock; but he was soon sailing again, taking his wife along.

Eliza would stay at home when, in 1829, Palmer commanded an ambitious venture to sail beyond the ice barrier into supposedly warm waters which, some suspected, were open all the way to the South Pole. The guiding spirit in this undertaking was Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an indefatigable propagandist for American exploration in the South Atlantic.

Aided by a wealthy New Yorker, Reynolds outfitted three ships for the Antarctic. Palmer commanded the flagship Annawan, supported by Benjamin Pendleton in the Seraph, both brigs of 200 tons. The third vessel was the 84-ton schooner Penguin, captained by Palmer’s younger brother Alexander.

In the middle of October 1829, they weighed anchor from New York harbor and set course for the south, “expecting to have the pleasure of entering into the South Pole.” But it was also intended that this pleasure would be mixed with business. The three ships were to rendezvous near the Horn at Staten Island and then search southeast for seals before exploring the unknown. The Penguin arrived first; and Alexander Palmer was already busy sealing when his brother anchored alongside at Port Hatches on 5 January. Without waiting for Pendleton, they cruised among the South Shetlands, hunting seals as far east as Elephant and Clarence Islands. For over a month, miserable weather kept them from having much success. On Sunday, 21 February, Nat Palmer stepped from the jib-boom of the Annawan to the taffrail of the Penguin, and spent the day consulting with his brother. They decided to abandon sealing and to sail westward in search of lost islands reported a generation earlier by other navigators on their return from the Pacific.

The voyage was dogged by misfortune from the outset. When the Palmers turned from sealing to exploring, the southern summer was almost spent, and snowstorm followed snowstorm. The shrouds and halliards were encased in ice; and the crew, the blood almost frozen in their hands, often had to spend all night throwing snow overboard to prevent foundering. Every time the ship lurched violently, masses of ice would shake down from aloft. Foul weather reduced visibility to about 100 feet, and the water looked black and thick in the night fog. Often the vessels were trapped in an enclosure of grinding ice in the dark. Shaking out their topsails again, they would pass under the lee of towering icebergs and navigate through loose drifts or around the solid icefields that repeatedly barred their way. Sometimes they struck with glancing blows that damaged the hull. Winds of hurricane strength whipped the seas to fury, sucking away the water beneath one side of the ship and rearing immense perpendicular waves on the other quarter to crash down and drown the decks beneath their deluge. The Annawan and Penguin reeled under such hammering blows. Seething water carried away the taffrail and stove in the boats. And always there was the massive menace of the ice. Many of the crew were disabled; and after weeks of danger in this terrifying, lifeless desloation, the men began to turn mutinous.

In the Antarctic, even the best of navigators needs luck to avoid disaster; the right combination of fog, storm, and ice can make escape impossible. Despite incredible hardships, the Palmers explored the seas between the latitudes of 50 to 63 degrees south and the meridians of 61 to 103 degrees west, yet failed to discover new lands.

To calm his rebellious crew, Palmer abandoned the search at the end of March and bore up the west coast of Chile, looking for seals and taking a number of sea elephants for their tongues and flippers. At the island of Mocha they found droves of wild horses; and here Jeremiah Reynolds learned from a New York whaler the legend of Mocha Dick, the white whale. On his return home, he wrote the story for the Knickerbocker Magazine, where it came to the attention of young Herman Melville, who would transform it into Moby-Dick.

Meanwhile, Palmer’s crew were rebellious again. He put in at Valparaiso and left the more mutinous seamen ashore in care of the American consul. Then he turned for home to salvage what profit he could from the voyage. Pendleton managed to obtain a government indemnity for the expenses of the Seraph.

Palmer made another trip on the Annawan and subsequently left the Antarctic. He thereafter became a captain on the Collins packet line and later a distinguished designer and captain of clipper ships. He died at San Francisco in 1877 on a return trip from the Orient.

It is debatable whether there is any political significance to the Russians’ losing to America the credit for discovering Antarctica. Had the Russians attempted to establish bases there, the Monroe Doctrine might indeed have been invoked, since it was formulated in part because of Russian expansion in the Pacific Northwest. Von Bellingshausen’s expedition, however, was a purely scientific venture, while it was the Yankee sealers who were out for cash and possible overseas bases.

Yet, Palmer had other than material motivations; his venturesome and inquiring mind was never content with the commercial aspects of his voyages but drove him into perilous explorations of the unknown. It is fitting that the beckoning finger of Antarctica is called the Palmer Peninsula.

1 thought on “Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer

  1. Pingback: Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer – faujibratsden

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