October 9, 1870
Captain Frederick A Barker of the Japan shipwrecks in the Arctic Ocean in 1870 and is rescued by Eskimo natives who restore the frostbitten and dying men and then feed them a diet of raw walrus meat through the winter, despite suffering from famine themselves. Captain Barker realizes that his whaling and walrus slaugtering had reduced the natives only remaining food resources and wrote to authorites for help.
Arctic Passage, Whaleman's Shipping List and Merchants Transcript Letter
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From Artic Passage Book - Page 135 Physical Hardcover:
Captain Frederick A. Barker of the Japan was one of the few whaling men to cry out against the wholesale destruction of the walrus herds of the Bering Sea. In a letter to the Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants Transcript he warned New England whaling men that the practice "will surely end in the extermination of this race of natives who rely upon these animals alone for their winter's supply of food." 28 If the butchering of the walrus did not cease, the fate of the Eskimo was inevitable: "Already this cruel persecution has been felt along the entire coast, while a wail like that of the Egyptians goes through the length and breadth of the land. There is a famine and relief comes not." 29 Eskimos had often asked Barker why the white men took away their food and left them to starve, and he had no answer to give them. They told him of their joy when the whalemen first began to come among them, and of their growing despair as the hunters began to decimate the walrus. "I have conversed with many intelligent shipmasters upon this subject," wrote Barker, "since I have seen it in its true light and all have expressed their honest conviction that it was wrong, cruel and heartless and the sure death of this inoffensive race." 30 Captains had told Barker that they would be glad to abandon walrus hunting if the ship owners would approve it, "but until the subject was introduced to public notice, they were powerless to act." 31 It would be hard to give up an enterprise that provided 10,000 barrels of oil each season. My advocacy "may seem preposterous and meet with derision and contempt, but let those who deride it see the misery entailed throughout the country by this unjust wrong." 32
Captain Barker was not the only shipmaster to appeal for an end to the walrus slaughter, but he knew better than to most what was happening to northern natives. Barker had taken his Japan into the Arctic Ocean in 1870 and had made a good catch. Whales were plentiful and the weather was good, so Barker was reluctant to return south through the Bering Strait. As the days grew colder and the shore ice thickened, Barker was forced to give up the chase and work the Japan toward the strait. Unfortunately, he encountered heavy fog which slowed his progress, then a storm which buffeted the Japan for four days. On October 9, 1870, the Japan was off East Cape, Siberia, and in serious trouble. "The gale blew harder, attended by such blinding snow that we could not see half a ship's length." 33 Although Barker had taken in most of his sails, the Japan was racing at breakneck speed before the gale. "Just then, to add to our horror, a huge wave swept over the ship, taking off all our boats and sweeping the decks clean." 34
The situation was critical. Barker steered for the beach and hoped for the best. An enormous wave hit the Japan and drove it upon the rocky shore. Miraculously, all the men got ashore safely, but their travails were just beginning. The weather was bitterly cold, and clothing and provisions had to be recovered from the disabled ship. Barker and his men struggled through the surf to the ship and back to the shore again and suffered fearful consequences. All were severely frostbitten, and eight of the thirty-man crew died in the effort. Natives came to the mariners' assistance. Barker was dragged out of the breakers, breathless and nearly frozen, loaded onto a sled, and taken to village. "I thought my teeth would freeze off." 35 Barker scrambled out of the sled and tried to run, hoping the exertion would warm him. Instead he fell down as one paralyzed. The natives picked him up and put him on the sled once more.
In the village the survivors received tender care. "The chief's wife, in whose hut I was," wrote Barker, "pulled off my boots and stockings and placed my frozen feet against her naked borom to restore warmth and animation," 36. With such care the seamen who had not died on the beach recovered. But for the natives "every soul would have perished on the beach... as there was no means at hand of kindling a fire or of helping ourselves one way or the other." 37
Barker and his men wintered with the Eskimos, They had no choice in the matter as the entire whaling fleet had returned south before the Japan started for Bering Strait, It was during these months that Barker leaned someching of the Eskimos' way of life and became their advocate. Except for a few casks of bread and flour that had washed ashore, the seamen were entirely dependent upon their hosts. The men ate raw walrus meat and blubber that was generally on the ripe side. The whalemen did not relish their diet, but it sustained them. Prejudices against a novel food inhibited Barker for a time. He fasted for three days. "Hunger at last compelled me and, strange as it may appear, it tasted good to me and before I had been there many weeks, I could eat as much raw meat as anyone, the natives excepted." 38 Barker soon understood that the natives were short of food. "I felt like a guilty culprit while eating their food with them, that I have been taking the bread out of their mouths."39 Barker knew and the Eskimos knew that the whalemen's hunting of walrus had reduced the natives to the point of famine, "still they were ready to share all they had with us." 40 Barker resolved to call for a prohibition of walrus hunting when he returned to New Bedford and further resolved that he would never kill another walrus "for those poor people along the coast have nothing else to live upon." 41
In the summer of 1871 Barker and his men were rescued when the whaling fleet returned. Some recompense was made to the Eskimos for their charity; they were given provisions and equipment from the ships. The natives plight was observed by other captains too. One wrote a letter to the New Bedford Republican Standard to describe the "cruel occupation" of walrus killing. Most of those killed were females which were lanced as they held their nursing offspring in their flippers "uttering the most heartrending and piteous cries."' 42 Many whalemen felt guilty about this butchery, and they had to have very strong stomachs to carry out the bloody job under such circumstances. "But the worst feature of the business is that the natives of the entire Arctic shores, from Cape Thaddeus and the Anadyr Sea to the farthest point north, a shoreline of more than one thousand miles on the west coast, with the large island of St. Lawrence, the smaller ones of Diomede and King's Island, all thickly inhabited are now almost entirely dependent on the walrus for their food, clothings, boots and dwellings." 43 Earlier there were plenty of whales for them, but the whales had been destroyed and driven north. "This is a sad state of things for them."
Other captains reported that they had seen natives thiry to forty miles from land on the ice, trying desperately to catch a walrus or find a carcass that had been abandoned by the whalemen. "What must the poor creatures do this cold winter, with no whale or walrus?" 45 Such appeals might have been effective eventually, though whether they would have led to a prohibition of walrus killing in time to spare the northern natives from famine is unlikely. But events took an unexpected turn in 1871: The ships which passed through the Bering Strait that season did so for the last time. The entire fleet was caught in the ice near Point Barrow, as the men including the Japan survivors-hunted walrus and whale. Thanks to the Revenue Marine, the seamen were saved, but the ships were lost. This disaster, coming six years after the Shenandoah's destructive cruise, dealt the whaling industry a blow from which it never recovered. But it may have saved the walrus and the northern natives from extinction. It was clear enough to the Bering Sea natives that they had benefited by the loss of the fleet. As an Eskimo or Chukchi of Plover Bay put it to a whaling captain when word of the loss reached Siberia: "Bad. Very bad for you. Good for us. More walrus now." 46