Posted: 28th June 2021
This exquisite wooden model from the Hull Maritime Museum collections is of the Hull whaling vessel the Swan. It is just half a metre long but shows in minute detail features from the original ship, including the intricate rigging and the tiny figurehead at the bow (or front) of the vessel.
The actual Swan was built at Plymouth and originally launched in 1767 as a Royal Naval sloop. After serving at various stations across the world the vessel was eventually sold to shipbuilder William Gibson and registered in Hull in 1815, where it entered the whaling fleet.
In 1836, under the command of Captain Dring, the Swan headed north towards Davis Strait with 48 crew members – 24 from Hull and 24 from Shetland – but became trapped in the ice and was assumed lost. Scurvy began to spread amongst the stranded crew, and those that survived had to cope with the loss of friends and colleagues. A party of 14 men attempted to reach a Danish settlement, but in doing so 12 of them were believed to have lost their lives after temperatures plummeted. Enduring the extreme, life threatening conditions of the Arctic was tough to say the least. The crew took some comfort in worship led by one of the Shetland men each Sunday, but survival must have felt like the luck of the draw.
Even well into the spring of 1837, nothing had been heard of the vessel. The families of seafarers and whalers generally accepted they could be separated from their loved ones for months on end. Yet without any means of communication, not knowing whether they were even alive must have been agonising for most. Many perhaps clung to hope, whilst others assumed the worst and felt the need to move on with their lives. The wife of one of the men on the Swan who presumed her husband was dead remarried just days before the vessel finally returned to Hull in July 1837.
On hearing that the Swan was safe and had reached the Humber, thousands of spectators gathered to welcome the whaler home, but 25 men – more than half of the crew – had died. One commentator remarked that whilst some of the survivors looked well, others were noticeably thin. Without doubt they had experienced a terrible ordeal. Newspapers relayed a report from Captain Dring which explained how in May 1837 the few men that could still walk tried to use ice saws to cut a passage through the floe but had to give up, completely exhausted, after three days. Shortly afterwards, just as their food provisions were about to run out, they managed to signal to a ship which was passing 10 miles away and were finally rescued.
For me, the model of the Swan epitomises how unbelievably dangerous the whaler’s occupation was. The Swan was just one of many whalers that had to endure a winter in the Arctic ice. Yet these hardy seafarers went back year after year, and somehow, in often almost hopeless circumstances, they fought their very hardest to survive.
Written by Assistant Curator Susan Capes
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