Murder in the Pacific: Whaler Sharon

Sperm whaling (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Howes Norris was married and the father of four when he shipped out as master of the whaler Sharon. He had made quite a few prosperous voyages in the past, hopefully this one would be too. Norris was a hard taskmaster, having already quashed one mutiny, not to mention he turned into a demon once on the high seas.

The Sharon set sail on 25 May 1841 for the Pacific whaling grounds. For the most part the voyage was mundane with very little sperm whales caught. It would be the trend for the next four years. Throughout the months sperm whales had been sighted but none successfully caught. Once whales had been sighted but the capture had been bungled by what Norris referred to as “good for nothing Boatstearers” and on another occasion “a Miserable set of Boatstearers”.  November turned into December and things weren’t looking any better. Norris was getting fed up with his crew and he blamed a lot of went wrong on them. Then he took to beating his steward, George Babcock.

One day the officers overheard a commotion between Norris and Babcock. Norris was whipping Babcock  for some sort of misdemeanor.  When he was unsuccessful Norris ordered the man flogged. After bestowing twenty-four brutal lashes on Babcock, Norris sent the steward back to duty. Instead Babcock found shelter with his crewmates in the forecastle.

Whale attacks (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The trouble was only beginning. When rang for, Babcock didn’t respond. So First Mate Thomas Smith (Norris two Smith brothers-in-law were first and second mate) and Third Mate Benjamin Clough went off to find him. From the crewmen they learned Babcock would not be returning to duty until he was given better treatment. Clough alerted Norris of the trouble. Since they weren’t getting anywhere with talk the threesome went to below to forcefully extract Babcock. But Babcock wasn’t ready to give up. Smith had to pull at Babcock as the latter clung to a berth. Chaos reined as the seamen stood up in defiance to the captain and officers. Finally Norris had had enough. He called for a rope. No one would get it. Clough ended up fetching it himself. A noose was made and slid around Babcock’s neck as his friends called out their protests. Out on the quarterdeck Norris punched Babcock, knocking him flat and then jumped three times on his chest. Next Norris singled out four men for punishment. One sailor was smashed in the face with a hammer Norris was madly wielding. The sailor’s face would never be the same. Then Norris turned back to Babcock. Faced with threats Babcock gave Jack Baker away as another supporter. Norris had Baker shamefully flogged. In the log surreptitious Norris made no mention of the mutiny. He meant to keep it hush-hush like he had his previous mutiny. If everyone had thought these events bad, they would be extremely surprised what the future held.

On another day Norris locked horns over food with Cooper Andrew White. The exchange ended with White’s demotion. As a testament of Norris’ highhandedness, while replenishing stocks in Rotuma fourteen men deserted the Sharon. Norris managed to recruit some men, but he was still shorthanded.

Babcock was now suffering from scurvy among other things. Norris rarely missed a chance to make the steward’s life miserable. He also no longer allowed Babcock food and continued to, in effect, torture the steward. Other crewmen were not exempt from Norris’ wraths. On another occasion a boatsteerer had misunderstood an order and Thomas Smith has begun beating him. Pretty soon Norris had gotten in on it too. He clocked the 19-year-old before demoting him. When a drunken sailor attempted to desert Norris had the man bound and kicked him in the face. The sailor threatened to kill Norris once he was loose. Norris responded by setting the man adrift in a canoe.

Newer whaler (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In late 1842 Norris added another offense to his list. After beating Babcock repeatedly and putting him through various tortures Norris succeed in killing Babcock. The crew had stood by in silent horror. In their journals, Clough and Cooper wrote sympathetically of the steward’s death hoping he had found eternal rest with God away from the cruel and vindictive Norris. In the log Norris noted George Babcock had died suddenly after complaints of cramps. With Babcock’s death, something akin to satisfaction came over Norris. Then he started drinking. Clough noted that Norris was oftentimes drunk.

Before setting sail for New Zealand many more desertion took place and the Sharon was forced to sail shorthanded. Then on 5 November 1842 sperm whales were sighted. As shorthanded as they were, an effort was made to hunt the whales. All of the crew, with the exception of Norris, Manuel de Reis and 3 natives, left the ship to hunt in boats. One whale was caught and the Sharon moved to the dead whale.

Sometime later the boats were still chasing whales when they noticed the ship’s flag was at half mast. They immediately gave up the chase and began pulling for the ship. They were shocked to see the Sharon was sailing away. However, they managed to catch up quickly with the slow moving vessel. In the rigging de Reis informed the sailors what had happened. The natives had killed Norris. De Reis had been waiting for some time for the boats to notice the flag. The natives greeted the boats with an assortment of weapons, hurling things at the two boats. It impossible for the rest of the crew to reclaim the ship. Leaving their comrade in the rigging the boats pulled away. De Reis was working at cutting away sails at Thomas Smith’s orders.

Away from the ship Clough formulated a plan which was accepted. When night came Clough swam through shark infested waters armed only with a knife. He entered the ship through a cabin window where he commenced to loading muskets so he could fire a signal to the other boats. Unluckily for Clough, the natives heard him moving around below and one came below to inspect. After a grisly skirmish, the native passed out. Then came another. Clough shot him. In the process the officer was cut to the bone and bleeding badly. The third also arrived, looked around and then left.

Return of the whaler (Courtesy Library of Congress)

From the boats White heard everything, yet the two Smiths hesitated even as Clough struggled to the deck and called to the boats to come. Finally Clough was able to convince the other officers it was safe to come aboard. De Reis too came out of the rigging. The third native was not found until the next day. He would later be taken to Australia for trial and then released after the Sharon sailed on. Whether he was involved in the slaughter of Norris is not known.

To make a long story short, the rest of the voyage was plagued with bad luck and the crew, was eventually forced to hunt an “inferior” type of whale for oil before heading home where they arrived in February 1845.

Source: Druett, Joan. In the Wake of Madness.

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63 thoughts on “Murder in the Pacific: Whaler Sharon

  1. Between books such as Moby-Dick, the Caine Mutiny and now this, much of the allure of a life at sea would appear to have been overrated. No wonder so many sailors acted like drunked louts when they reached port. They apparently had much to try and block out.

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    • I’ll say. Can you imagine Norris slapping around 18 and 19 year old boys? What is really surprising is how he could act the part of an entirely different person once back on land.

      Yep, no glamour in a sailor’s life (for the most part). Thomas Smith took over as captain in the wake of Norris’ death. He too suffered desertions and marooned some men. I think he was more “understanding” than Norris, but still not someone I would have wanted to ship out with.

      By the way, the book “The Caine Mutiny”, never heard of it. Is it pretty good? It brought back memories of the McHale’s Navy Episode “Novocain Mutiny”. Guess that was a play on the original book title. Thanks for your comment.

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    • A lot of ships’ captains were apparently rather hard-hearted souls.

      I haven’t read all of the Caine Mutiny, but it was written by Herman Wouk, who isn’t too bad as an author. He served in the Pacific during the war, I believe, so there may be some of his experiences mixed in.

      I don’t remember the McHale’s Navy episode, though I’m sure I saw it at some point and guffawed a good bit.

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    • Me too. It’s really a shame it had to end that way. I didn’t include all the horrendous things Norris put him through and quite frankly it’s sickening he could do that too another person. Thanks for your comment.

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    • Wondered about this myself. Unless it was glossed over, I didn’t notice anything about abuse towards his family in “In the Wake of Madness”. He obviously had an image to keep up since he wanted to keep both mutinies quiet. Maybe he just liked tormenting people he wasn’t close to. Who knows what went on his mind?

      Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Howes Norris: Mutiny Crusher! (It’s got a nice ring to it. I can see the movie poster now…I hear the film premiere is in Branson!) Alright, it’s a bit early here in CA & I’m punchy :0 ! I’ll be back in 10 with something intelligent, promise!

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  3. Calling Norris “a character” would certainly be an understatement. “Good for nothing boatsteerers!” Who hates whales? (Well, I guess it doesn’t sound too grouchy considering how much smaller ships were back then.)

    I love your passion for sea-faring history & individuals! Alas, have I ever read a post that didn’t end sadly. Then again, if music hasn’t lied to me, being a sailor or (especially) a sailor’s wife/girlfriend/fiancée never ends well…

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    • Indeed, he was a real “peach”. Since he shipped out at 16-years-old and had worked his way up the ranks you think he would have been kinder to his shipmates, knowing what it was like for them. Or maybe he had gone through some hard times during his early sailing days and decided if he could survive it so could his crew. But if he hated the crew so much he really should have given up the sea earlier and gone into something else…Uh-oh. Do I sound like an armchair-sailor (or a Monday morning quarterbacks)? I promise not to do that anymore. 😉

      Working on that, believe it or not. It seems happy stories are hard to come by or don’t “sell” however. I could raid the newspaper archives and see if there is anything in there.

      Not always since more ships actually stay afloat than sink. 😉 You’ve no doubt heard the story of the M/S Maersk Alabama back in 2009? That ended well (except for the pirates). If you ever read the entire account of what happened you’ll see there was a lot of humor involved, as well. Richard Phillips isn’t one for prose but “A Captain’s Duty” does give one a personal look into what happened.

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  4. You have to remember, most of the common sailors were not “upstanding men”. Most had a dark past. The tale’ss we see in movies and books paint them as wonderful, God fearing, follow every rule of the sea men. They were not. Of a whole ships company maybe only 3 or 4 could read. Sailings could last up to 2 years. It was pretty hard to keep that kind of group “calm” for that long of a time. Often they would not put in to port for months at a time. What would you do if you had been at sea for 6 mths. and did the same thing over and over every day, seven day’s a week? Would you want to go back abord. After the food was not exactly great. It was not an easy task to be a capt. of a ship. AND, not all capt’s. should have been Capt’s…

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    • Hello, Allan. You’re right, of course. A sailor’s life wasn’t a picnic. It had to take a different personality to ship out year after year with no guarantee they would survive. I doubt very much I could have lived in the “historic” conditions. Not to mention it probably wouldn’t have been allowed. Female sailors wouldn’t have been a popular choice!

      And don’t even get me started on the food. 😉 How anyone was able to stomach that so called food is beyond me. Which by the way, food was what had led to the previous mutiny under Norris.

      Thanks for your comment, appreciate it!

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  5. What an awful man! The dialogue between you and Allan about life at sea and the type of person who lived that life interesting. I have no desire to take a modern cruise, let alone have had to cross the ocean back then!!

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    • He was, wasn’t he? Like he had a dual personality.

      Can you believe all the setbacks Carnival Cruise has been experiencing as of late? It’s enough to put many people off from wanting to cruise. Personally, I’d love to be able to sail at least once. Maybe on the QM2 or a freighter.

      Thanks for your comment, Laurie!

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    • What goes around, does indeed come around. It must have been hard on the family though, losing their breadwinner. And then some years later the Norris children lost their mother, as well, and were taken by different relatives. Now being totally orphaned with their father’s untimely death, I would say this was an indirect consequence of Norris’ awful actions. Sad.

      Thank you for your comment, Francesca!

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    • I do not know how captians are these days, but from a retired merchant marine friend, the high seas still have a lot of dicy people out there. Apparently, being “lost at sea” is a euphamism for being tossed overboard for being too unruly or unsavory. A rather quick form of justice.

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    • It’s stories like that which puts a person off from wanting to go to sea. As late as the early 1900s there was stuff like that going on. I remember reading an account where two firemen got into a fight and an engineer went to intervene. He never reappeared. Presumably he had been chucked into a furnace. That’s terrible!

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