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2008 Papahanaumokuakea Maritime Heritage Expedition
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Mission Blog: August 21, 2008
Preliminary Site Interpretation of the Whaling Ship Gledstanes

By Hans Van Tilburg, Historian and Maritime Archaeologist
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Pacific Islands Region

Archaeologist sketching the the ballast area within the deeper groove in the coral substrate.

Archaeologist sketching the the ballast area within the deeper groove in the coral substrate. (Photo: NOAA ONMS)

On our transit south to French Frigate Shoals the expedition blog entries are discussing preliminary site interpretation for four of the shipwrecks we have been studying over the past weeks.  With this third installment, we examine the newly discovered whaling ship Gledstanes, which the team located on the reef at Kure Atoll.

On June 9, 1837, the 428-ton London whaler Gledstanes (built in Leith, Scotland 1827), under the command of Captain John R. Browne, ran aground in heavy surf at 11:30 PM on the eastern reef of Kure Atoll.  The ship had been running south by east under single-reefed topsails.  Three boats were launched, and captain and crew stood off to sea from the wreck until daylight.  Some sources report that two sailors were mistakenly left on board the first night, only to be recovered the following day, intoxicated from liquor in the ship’s stores. The following morning, the spare hands were landed on Ocean Island, and upon returning to the wreck from the lagoon-side, two sailors swam through the surf to the vessel and cut away the foremast, making a bridge across the reef.  Others were then able to board and salvage some of the provisions: 16-18 casks of flour, one cask of salt pork, and a few casks of oily water. 

The next day the ship began to break apart from the heavy surf on the exposed eastern reef.  Once established ashore, the castaways constructed a 38-foot vessel from salvaged materials.  Whale spades were fashioned into axes and adzes for this work, and lances provided augers and chisels.  The compass provided parts for the bellows, constructed on the island by the blacksmiths.  The boat, named Deliverance, was caulked with lime and seal oil, in a manner similar to the chunam caulking used in East Asia.  Deliverance put to sea for the main Hawaiian Islands on October 12, with Captain Browne, the chief mate, and eight men (including two Hawaiian sailors).  They were resupplied at sea by the American ship Timoleon.  Twenty-three castaways remained on the island for more than four months until rescue arrived, finally returning to Honolulu aboard the vessel True Blue on February 6, 1838(Additional information courtesy Rhys Richards of New Zealand.)

During the 2008 maritime heritage survey, divers finally located a scatter of iron ballast lying within a crevice.  Moving towards the surge zone of the reef crest, anchors and cannon and other artifacts soon came into view, including a telltale trypot—a whaling ship had been found. 

The Gledstanes is the only whaler known lost on the atoll’s eastern side, and her position on the reef corresponds to other 19th-century reports.  The 40-50 bars of iron ballast (90 X 15 cm) and heavy chain (links 20 X 12 cm) in the deeper ravines indicate that the ship may have run hard onto the higher coral ridges and opened a substantial portion of her lower hull.  (We find similar iron ballast on both the Pearl and Hermes sites, British whalers from 1822.) 

The anchors, three large iron wooden-stock anchors (length 322 cm), and smaller kedge anchor (250 cm), lie some 80 meters closer to the reef crest, showing where the vessel eventually became permanently lodged.  The four anchors are in close proximity to each other…stored at the time and not deployed, typical for a ship running aground unexpectedly.  The flukes of these anchors, unlike the straight designs of the circa 1800 anchors found on the Pearl and Hermes sites, begin to show a gentle curve…something prevalent in many styles later in the 19th century.

Heavy iron pieces, encrusted into the coralline substrate, may be the try works knees from the brick structure on deck used to render whale blubber into oil.  A portion of a trypot revealing bricks and part of the copper pan or sheathing lies under a deep overhang.  One small cannon (length 110 cm) is also visible, as well as at least one cannonball (caliber 10 cm); early whalers in the Pacific sailed armed.  None of these artifacts seem inconsistent with what we would expect to find on a whaling vessel from the early 19th century.  However, most of the ship has, obviously, disintegrated.  Only the heaviest artifacts have survived the years of exposure to the full force of the North Pacific.  Many of the smaller pieces have been swept away, and all of the organic material is gone.   

Some of the many iron ballast pieces associated with these early 19th century whaling vessel wrecks.

Some of the many iron ballast pieces associated with these early 19th century whaling vessel wrecks. (Photo: NOAA ONMS)

The story of the British whaler Gledstanes does not end with the rescue of her crew in 1837.  Survivors from the wreck of the New Bedford whaler Parker salvaged portions of the Gledstanes five years later.  And when the navy steamer USS Saginaw ran aground at Kure in 1870, the sight of a nearby vessel initially cheered the exhausted crew as the sun rose in the east.  Their joy soon turned sour, for it was the still exposed portions of the whaler Gledstanes, welcoming the new castaways to their island prison.  In fact, they sketched the position of the Gledstanes on a makeshift chart, and this defined our search area, though it took several years for the necessary calm weather and the research schedule of the NOAA ship Hi’ialakai to coincide.  Though there is little left at the site today except for the heaviest and strongest elements, thirty-three years is a long time for any section of a wooden vessel to remain in place in this high energy environment of the atoll, a testimony to the art of the shipwrights from the days of our whaling past. 

To ask us questions, you can email the team at: sanctuaries@noaa.gov and we will answer your questions within the blog, or in a live internet broadcast later in the cruise. Again, stay tuned for details.


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