I was listening to Rose, who is a local story teller and tour guide. She was telling us about the days of the herring fishery and about Whitby's amusing characters such as "Gravel Arse" the short legged pirate. She told us about the terrible storms that occur every winter and about the way that collier boats would come into Whitby for shelter and beach themselves on the sands in the bay called "Colliers' Hope". Some boats were inevitably swept past the narrow entrance to the harbour and ran onto rocks at the foot of the cliffs. One of those wrecks inspired Bram Stoker's story of Dracula, whose ship foundered on this very shore.
Whitby always had its back to the land and its face to the sea. The route inland is over high moorland and through narrow valleys and it was never the best way to transport anything. The town was more or less cut off from the country and all trade was by sea, or "the whale road". This made Whitby a natural breeding ground for explorers and adventurers like Captain Cook and William Scoresby. Young Whitby men did not "run away to sea", seafaring was probably the future that all of them aspired to and their families wanted it for them too.
When James Bartley sailed out of Whitby on the Star of the East in 1891 he was just a teenager. Getting a berth on a whaler was his ticket to fame and fortune and he was proud and excited.
The whaling industry took men from ports like Liverpool and Whitby around the world, to the Americas, Africa the Arctic and Antarctic and through all the oceans. It's no coincidence that Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands is twinned with Whitby and both sport their whalebone arches as a reminder of those whaling days. And the whales are back. I have watched a pod of long, slim Sei whales from the shore, just a short walk from Stanley's harbour, as they cruised past on the surface, looking very like submarines.
It was to the Falkland Islands that the Star of the East was headed. James must have showed real enthusiasm because the skipper gave him an early opportunity to harpoon a whale himself. He stood at the bow of the light whaleboat that was rowed by six strong men with a helmsman at the tiller. James wedged his knee against the stem post to steady himself as they gained on the whale while it was taking in oxygen to prepare to sound for the deeps again. There would only be one chance so he urged the crew on to get really close before he let go of the lance, but he left it too late. The whale was already committed to his dive and the hump in front of James rolled forward and downwards. Inevitably, the huge tail flukes of the whale came up, right under the boat which was thrown aside like a swatted fly. The other whaleboats closed in and rescued the men from the chilling water, but James was missing.
The story goes that the whale was killed the next day and hauled along-side the Star of the East to be dissected. When they opened the stomach, the crew found their young companion in a sorry state with all of his exposed skin, especially around his face, hands and arms, bleached to a deadly whiteness by the acid in the whale's gut. This was to be expected, but the unique thing about this tale is that James Bartley survived, although he lost his sight and was never able to see again.
Accounts vary on the detail, but it seems that our hero was extremely disturbed by his experience and took weeks, or months, to recover enough to work again, but he apparently did. They say that, when he was at home in England, his mottled, half-eaten appearance terrified children, and even dogs would shy away.
|Sperm Whale, "Thar she blows!" Actually he's a boy.|
|Sperm whale sounding.|
The only whale that could have swallowed a man whole would be a sperm whale, like Moby Dick. Killer whales could eat a man but they are really just big dolphins and were not hunted like the true whales. The baleen whales only have a narrow gullet because they feed on small fish and krill.
I once spent a couple of weeks studying sperm whales off Norway and they are really fascinating. especially since they dive to such phenomenal depths for food. Supposing Bartley's whale was uninjured, it might have taken him down to depth of more than two kilometers. If the journey down didn't kill him, the trip to the surface would have. However, if James had struck a fateful blow before his boat was smashed, the injured whale may have travelled at speed near the surface, which is what they do if pursued.
|Sperm whale painting by Robin Stevenson.|
For a start, it seems that Bartley was from Gloucester, not Whitby, and there is no record of him being on the crew of the Star of the East, which was not a whaling vessel, though it was in the Falklands around the right time. The Star of the East was a British ship from Liverpool but it did not sail from Whitby to the Falklands, but from Auckland, New Zealand.
|Abbey Steps at Whitby.|
At least there is one solid piece of evidence that several sources write about; James' headstone is in a churchyard in Gloucester. The inscription reads "James Bartley- a modern day Jonah. 1870-1909". But I can't find any trace of it. If anyone has seen the headstone and can point me to it, I will go and look. I'm beginning to think he never existed at all!
In the end, I believe you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Just imagine, on a stroll around Whitby's (or Gloucester's) dockside, meeting a lop-sided blind man with ghastly white patches to his skin and perhaps hanks of hair missing. Imagine the tales he might tell to explain his appearance. You might be shocked, even horrified, but also fascinated. Would you buy him a drink? Did he really get that face from being inside a whale or was he scalded by hot oil from the blubber rendering process, or was he, by any chance, an albino?