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The Sacramento Daily Union, May 23, 1866

Honolulu, April, 1866.


The whaling trade of the North Seas - which is by no means insignificant - centers in Honolulu. Shorn of it this town would die - its business men would leave and its real estate would become valueless, at least as city property, though Honolulu might flourish afterwards as a fine sugar plantation, the soil being rich, and scarcely needing irrigation.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce might do worse than make an effort to divert the whaling trade to her city. Honolulu fits out and provisions a majority out of ninety-six whalers this year, and receives a very respectable amount of money for it. Last year she performed this service for only fifty-one vessels - so you can see how the trade is increasing. Sailors always spend all their money before they leave port. Last year they spent $l50,000 here, and will doubtless spend double as much when this year's fleet returns. It is said that in the palmy days of whaling, fifteen or twenty years ago, they have squandered as high as a million and a half in this port at the end of a successful voyage. There have been vast fleets of whaleships fitted out here and provisioned and recruited in a single year, in those days, and everything promises that the whaling interest will now move steadily forward, under the impetus of the long continued high rates of oil and bone, until it eclipses in importance any degree it has ever attained in former times. In chartering vessels to carry home the "catch" of whalers; in equipping them, and supplying and recruiting them- and in relieving their crews of their money at the end of the season, San Francisco might manage to get several hundred thousands a year out of the whaling trade if she could get it into her hands, or a million or so, should whaling again reach its former high prosperity.

It costs from $l,000 all the way up to $20,000 to provision and fit a whaler here for her voyage to the North Seas, including paying off crew, and taking them "by and large," the average is about $6,000 to each vessel. Of the ninety-six ships which go north from here this season, only forty-nine will fit here - the other forty-seven, being the increase in tonnage and on their first voyage, were equipped at home. The home equipment is generally for two full seasons - so Honolulu will not get the job of supplying these new ships for a couple of years yet; but after that she will have their whole custom, unless, perhaps, San Francisco can make a satisfactory bid for the whaling trade in the meantime.

There have been over four hundred whalers in the North Seas at one time in the palmy days of the trade, two thirds of which were supplied in this market, and paid Honolulu over a million for doing it, even at the moderate prices of those days.


Oil is valuable, but whalebone is more so.

Sperm whales are chiefly caught at the "line," or "west'art," as they term it. They do not yield any bone, but the oil is worth from 75 to 100 per cent. more than any other at the present time.

Humpbacks and devil-fish are caught on the coast of California, "between seasons." The yield is called "coast oil." They yield no bone.

Ochotsk whales yield about twenty per cent. less bone than the Arctic whale, and it is worth four to five cents a pound less than Arctic.

The "catch" is a term which signifies the fruits of a voyage. The average catch for three years past of ships sailing out of this port, was about 650 barrels of oil a year to each vessel, and 8,000 pounds of bone.


The Consular prices at which crews of whalers were paid off here in the Fall of 1865 were as follows: Whale oil, 64 cents a gallon; coast oil, 60; sperm oil, 92. Ochotsk bone, 74 cents a pound; Arctic, 78 - in gold. These prices were not one-half what the articles were worth in the Eastern markets - in currency.


The "palmy days of whaling" - the phrase which one hears here as often as he hears in California of matters which transpired "in an early day" there, or in Washoe of "the flush times of '63" - refers to a period some fifteen years gone by. But the "palmy days," in a modified form, lasted clear up to 1853. Let me give a few figures: The fleet brought to this port in 1853 - Oil, 4,000,000 gallons; bone, 2,020,264 pounds. Then for several years the yield gradually fell away, till in 1858 the figures were: Oil, considerable under 3,000,000 gallons; bone, 1,614,710 pounds. Five years after, in 1863, in the midst of the war, the catch had fallen away down to - Oil, 732,031 gallons; bone, 337,043 pounds. Still lower in 1864: Oil, 642, 362 gallons; bone, 339,331 pounds. But in 1865, in spite of the pirate Shenandoah, the trade almost held its own; it had "struck bottom," as we say in Washoe, and was ready to start up again. The yield was: Oil, 621,434 gallons; bone, 337,394 pounds.

These last figures were for sixty seven ships, all told - fifty-one of which went from here. We may look for better results this season, with ninety-six vessels in the fleet; and next year the "palmy days" may come again, for everything that can be turned into a whale ship by any process known to art is being bought up or chartered in the East now for this trade, and in due time the icy solitudes of the North Seas will once more become populous with the winged servants of commerce.


I have talked whaler talk and read whaling statistics and asked questions about the whaling interest every now and then for two or three weeks, and have discovered that it was easy to get plausible information concerning every point connected with this commerce save one, and that was: Why is it that this remote port, in a foreign country, is made the rendezvous of the whaling fleet, instead of the seemingly more eligible one of San Francisco, on our own soil? This was a "stunner." Most people would venture a chance shot at one portion of the mystery, but nobody was willing to attempt its entire solution. The truth seems to be that there is no main, central, prominent reason for it, but it is made up of a considerable bundle of reasons, neither of which is especially important when taken by itself.


1. See how the case stands: In Honolulu it is not a holiday job to ship a crew, natives comprise it chiefly, and the Government frowns upon their employment as sailors, because it causes the agricultural interests to suffer for want of labor, and you see the plantations build up the whole kingdom, while the whaling trade only builds up Honolulu and one or two smaller seaports. So the Government first made the whalers enter into bonds of $100 for each man; that is, to insure the return of that man to the kingdom; the bond was increased, until now it is $300, and shipping taxes of various kinds have been instituted, which amount altogether to about $600 for each man, which must be paid in gold to the Government when the man ships. Ships usually go out under bonds of $3,000 to $10,000 for the return of their crews. The bond system, which was intended to keep the Kanakas all at home, don't work; the whalers still are obliged to take natives or go without crews. So, urged by the agricultural interest, an attempt will be made in the Legislature, which convenes two weeks hence, to pass a bill entirely forbidding the shipping of natives. If this is accomplished it will give San Francisco one good chance to get the whaling patronage- and it is a better and more permanent and safer thing to have than rich but ephemeral mines. In favor of San Francisco, it is acknowledged that as soon as it became the established whaling rendezvous, whaling crews would repair to it, and men could be shipped at small expense and without bonds.

2. It is twenty-one hundred miles from San Francisco to Honolulu - so that these whalers, by coming here, do four thousand two hundred miles more sailing than they need to do, and waste about a month and a half of time in doing it.

3. They cannot insure directly, here. The policies must go all the way to the East, and then maybe the insurance office may approve them and maybe it may reject them, and per chance the ship may be lost in the meantime.

In San Francisco insurance could be directly effected.

4. Here the whole whaling fleet, nearly, is paid off at once, and in gold, and of course exchange goes up to a high figure; started at five or six, last Fall, and went up to ten per cent premium. It stands at two and a half even now, when there is no especial call for money.

In San Francisco it need never go to two and a half at any time. Whale men's bills are the best paper in the country, being always sure and prompt, scarcely a single failure to pay them is recorded.

5. Facilities for transhipment of oil eastward would be much greater in San Francisco than here.

6. Facilities for chartering, equipping, provisioning and recruiting whalers would be much greater and cheaper in San Francisco than here.

7. Here it takes a mild eternity for a whaler or his agent to communicate with the ship-owner at home. In San Francisco, your steamers, overland stages and telegraphs bring them face to face.

I think I have stated the case fairly. In facilities for shipping crews, in economy of time and distance of travel of a voyage, in facilities for insuring, in cheapness of money, in facilities for transhipping cargoes, ditto ditto for chartering and equipping vessels, and ditto ditto for communicating with owners, Honolulu cannot begin to compete with San Francisco.

Then why does the whaling fleet rendezvous in a remote port in a foreign land, instead of a convenient one at home?


I have got the question answered by piecemeal by many different persons, and I will jot down the several items here. They say it is hard to get crews in San Francisco, but they confess that this would not be the case if that city became the established rendezvous. They say men can "run away" so easily there, and put the ship in for their ''home bills," etc., but that here they can't get off the islands. They say the ship is preyed upon by everybody, and fleeced for everything from spun yarn up to salt beef. They say their ships are worn out by "bulling" in the harbor there, but the harbor is smooth and roomy here. And they say, finally (and then the old sea dogs gnash their teeth and swear till the air turns blue around them), that "there's more land-sharks (lawyers) in 'Frisco than there's fiddlers in hell, I tell you; and you'll get 'pulled' before your anchor's down!" If there is a main, central count in the indictment against San Francisco that is it. A whaler can be snatched up ("pulled") by his men and the land-sharks, and hauled into Court in San Francisco with the utmost facility, but they can not touch him here. The lawyer who took charge of a sailor's complaint against his Captain might as well emigrate - he could practice no more in Honolulu. True, when a case is so flagrant that it cannot possibly be overlooked, a sort of trial is sometimes had, but it never amounts to much.

The above are the whaling Captain's arguments - or were, in the first place, but from their mouths they have gone into everybody's else, and belong to nobody in particular now. Then there are other arguments which you hear oftener from other people than from the whalers themselves. For instance, several persons have explained about in this wise: In San Francisco the agent transacts the Captain's business exactly as it is done here, and then brings in a bill, item by item, for commissions - a bill that any man can understand in a minute, and it looks expensive; but here the agent, with fine sagacity, charges no commissions - at least they do not appear on the surface - they are faith fully wrung into the general bill in a sort of "debtor to sundries" fashion, though, and nobody notices it, and consequently nobody grumbles!

Another powerful argument may be stated thus: A whaleman don't amount to much in San Francisco, but here he is the biggest frog in the pond. Up there the agent lets him dance attendance until more important business is attended to, and then goes out with him and assists him in just such of his concerns as absolutely require assistance, and then leaves him to paddle his own canoe with the remainder; but here the agent welcomes the old salt like a long lost brother, and makes him feel that he is a man of consequence and so he is, and should be so treated in San Francisco; and the agent attends closely to all the whaler's shore business, of every kind whatever, if it is desired, and thus the Captain's stay in port is a complete holiday.


If I were going to advise San Franciscans as to the best strategy to employ in order to secure the whaling trade, I would say, cripple your facilities for "pulling" sea-captains on every pretense that sailors can trump up, and show the whaler a little more consideration when he is in port. All other objections will die of themselves.


A nucleus is already formed up there. Swift & Allen have opened a branch of their New Bedford house in San Francisco, and their ships (they have eight at sea now) will rendezvous there hereafter. They are going to add several vessels to their fleet this season. Sixteen whalers, and possibly many more, will rendezvous at San Francisco this year. Those Captains who have tried that port during the past two years are satisfied with it all but one or two, who have been "pulled."


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