In the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, there is a gallery of intricately-carved objects made by whaling men. Among the scrimshawed and carved teeth and bone, needle cases, babies’ rattles, serated pie-cutters, umbrella handles and walking sticks, there is a wooden inlaid jewellery box with a mother-of-pearl heart-shaped key hole, topped with a small reclining dog carved from whale “ivory”.
Across the Pacific Ocean in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, there is a scrimshawed whale tooth signed “Christian” showing a harpooner standing in a whaleboat about to fling his lance at a surfacing sperm whale. Behind these two artefacts is the story of a remarkable man, George Henry Parkin Christian. Much has been written about whaling shipowners, captains and even captain’s wives (who often accompanied them to sea) but much less about whaling ship crew. Master mariner and whaler man, Christian’s life spans three Pacific islands – Pitcairn, Norfolk and Raoul/Sunday, New Zealand, the east and west coasts of America and Greenland and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Three generations of my family knew Parkins, as we called him, and my research aims to reconstruct his challenging and adventurous life, from his birth on Pitcairn Island in 1853 to his death on Norfolk Island in 1940 at the age of 86. So far I have discovered a wealth of new stories and connections and a lot of contradictions and puzzles.
As a child I was intrigued by the long wooden handled metal spike in the mahogany and glass cabinet in my grandparents’ dining room in Sydney, Australia, sitting curiously among pieces of carved ivory, Royal Copenhagen china plates, transparent Belleek cups and saucers, intricate enameled birds, Argentinian silver, miniature Chinese vases and other souvenirs of their travels. The spike looked out of place – rough against their delicacy, practical against their decorativeness, a tool to be held and used rather than displayed. This marlin spike was no souvenir however, but a gift to my great grandmother Bessie Bell and her family from the whalerman my family knew as Parkins Christian. The spike was a tangible link to my island ancestors, whose story ranked alongside Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and all the adventurous Enid Blyton books I read voraciously as a child.Parkins had first met my great grandparents in the late 1870s when he came ashore on Sunday (Raoul) Island in a whaleboat from the New Bedford whaler California. Seventy years later, Bessie recalled the tall, darkly handsome man with the “luminous eyes and rich colouring” of his “Tahitian forebears”. He became the children’s hero and best friend for years to come. The night after the California sailed, Bessie’s father Thomas told them the story of Fletcher Christian, the mutiny on the Bounty and the settlement on Pitcairn Island. Not uncommonly, he muddled the generations, with Fletcher as Parkins’ grandfather rather than great-grandfather. Parkins told the young Bells nothing of this dark chapter in his family history, holding them spellbound instead with stories of the Great White Whale, Moby Dick “that bit whaleboats in half and crunched them to pieces in his awful jaws”.
Parkins visited the island several times in the 1880s, moving from the California to other ships and kept in touch with the family for many years. Bessie remembered his visit on the Costa Rica Packet in the late 1880s “the most famous of the veterans of the early South Pacific whaling fleet still under sail”. With a group of sailors, he loaded the whaleboat with kumaras, yams and other produce to carry to Sydney, their destination port, promising to return the next day for more. But unbeknownst to the Bells ashore, some of the crew mutinied while the ship was still anchored off Sunday Island and Christian was viciously attacked. The ship sailed directly for Sydney and according to Bessie’s memoirs Christian never visited again. He joined the Charles W Morgan when she called at Norfolk Island in 1894 and served as first and second mate almost continuously on the ship until 1913 both out of New Bedford and San Francisco. His last recorded whaling voyage was as First Mate on the New Bedford schooner A.M. Nicolson from 1914-16.
After that he returned to Norfolk Island where he helped build, then captained the Resolution, a schooner built by the islanders in a bid to trade directly with New Zealand. He was then 72 years old and still described as “of massive build” by a local newspaper. My grandfather Leslie, Bessie’s second son, recalled meeting Parkins in New Zealand. His mother had asked him to return the marlin spike as she believed Parkins had only left it for safe-keeping. Parkins told him to keep it on condition he didn’t sell it to any Bounty treasure hunters! After my grandfather’s death, my mother passed the spike onto me. It is one of my most treasured possessions!
More on Parkins Christian in my next blog.