1838: Benjamin Ellis to Gibbs & Jenney


Headstone of Capt. Ellis

This letter was written by Capt. Benjamin Ellis (1799-1878) to his ship owners and investors, Gibbs & Jenney, of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Benjamin was the son of Ebenezer Ellis (1762-1845) and Priscilla White (1770-1840). He was married to Louisa Damon (1806-1866) and had at least four sons.

Ellis wrote the letter from the Bay of Islands in New Zealand in the midst of a voyage to collect whale oil. The voyage spanned the period from 30 July 1837 to 21 February 1839. [See Log Book of the voyage at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.]

William Le Baron Gibbs was the senior member of the merchant firm of Gibbs & Jenney, originally of New York City, N.Y., and later active at Fairhaven, Mass. His sister, Eliza, married Gibbs’ partner, William Proctor Jenney (1802-1881), in 1827.  Gibbs and Jenny were the owners of another ship named Sharon which was captained by Valentine Pease. It was supposed that Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, based his mentally unstable character “Captain Ahab” on Captain Pease. As an interesting aside, it should be noted that Herman Melville had a cousin named Thomas Wilson Melville who sailed on three successive whaling voyages — the first of which was with Captain Benjamin Ellis onboard the ship Columbus from Fairhaven to New Zealand and return (June 1835 to February 1837).


Whaling Ships at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand

Addressed to Messrs. Gibbs & Jenney, Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Ship Columbus
Bay of Islands, New Zealand
February 15th 1838

Dear Sirs,

The Columbus arrived at this place the [paper torn] with the crew in good health except the steward who has since deserted. On the 4th we had a very heavy gale of wind which caused the loss of 2 new boats. We have on board about 900 lbs. oil — 50 of it sperm. The ship has a bad leak about the stern in rough weather. We have searched but cannot find it. The ship will need caulking soon. Have done part of it and shall do the remaining part when we get in the bay.

The ship did very well in the bays the last season. I am expecting to get a cargo of oil in the bays and the next offshore season. I have a good crew. Our new headers ¹ are not as good as the last voyage. We have sunk 7 whales and cut in 17. ²

Refreshments are very high. Potatoes $25 a ton. We have had very bad weather on the coast and since we have been in here. We are now ready for sea. Shall sail the first favorable opportunity. There has been no late news from any of your ships. I shall cruise for sperm whales a month or two and then go to the bays.

Wishing you health and prosperity.

I remain your most obedient servant, — Benjamin Ellis

¹ “Headers” is the term given the whalers who steer the small boats when closing in on a whale and afterwards killing it.

² To “cut in” means to cut the whale’s flesh into smaller pieces so that it may be brought on board and rendered into oil. When the captain wrote that they had “sunk 7 whales,” he meant that they had harpooned 7 whales but were unable to retrieve them and they sunk to the bottom of the ocean.


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