Edward Swinney, an Irishman serving on the British Navy frigate HMS Gorgon, jumped ship with his friend James Rawlings, a boatswains mate on the Gorgon, in Portsmouth, England on 15 September 1790.
A year after Swinney and Rawlings left her, the Gorgon was a part of the Third Fleet that relieved the starving British penal colony in Australia. On the voyage back from Australia, that same Gorgon picked up the captured portion of the mutinous crew of the HMS Bounty and brought them back to England. Later still, the Gorgon would participate in the Battle of New Orleans.
But Swinney and Rawlings left her before all that happened — for the lure of the whaling ship Kent, docked nearby. Kent was owned by Samuel Enderby & Sons, a famous and wealthy whaling firm based in Greenwich, England.
In chapter 100 of Moby Dick, “Leg and Arm,” the Pequod has a gam off the coast of Patagonia with a whaling ship named the Samuel Enderby. Her captain had lost his arm to the White Whale and he and Ahab have a friendly enough conversation about the whale that has taken a limb from each of them. The master of the Samuel Enderby has no interest in pursuing Moby Dick, though, and thinks that Ahab is mad for wanting to do so.
The Enderbys were
American royalists roundheads; the story goes that they supplied the ships that were boarded in the Boston Tea Party. They had moved to England after the American revolution, hunting whales in the south Atlantic until there were so few left that it drove them to other grounds. Sailing next from Enderby wharf in Greenwich, their ships — including Swinney’s Kent, under the command of captain Paul Pease — hunted whales and seals all over the world. Exploiting newly-discovered lands literally at the ends of the earth, whaling ships like the Kent opened new hunting grounds in the southern oceans, including sub-Antarctic fisheries around New Zealand. In Swinney’s time, the Enderbys had at least 68 whaling ships in their fleet.
In the next chapter of Moby Dick, “The Decanter”, Melville provides a historically accurate portrait:
Ere the English ship fades from sight, be it set down here, that she hailed from London, and was named after the late Samuel Enderby, merchant of that city, the original of the famous whaling house of enderby and sons; a house which in my poor whaleman’s opinion, comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest. How long, prior to the year of our Lord 1775, this great whaling house was in existence, my numerous fish-documents do not make plain; but in that year (1775) it fitted out the first English ships that ever regularly hunted the Sperm Whale; though for some score of years previous (ever since 1726) our valiant Coffins and Maceys of Nantucket and the Vineyard had in large fleets pursued that Leviathan, but only in the North and South Atlantic: not elsewhere. Be it distinctly recorded here, that the Nantucketers were the first among mankind to harpoon with civilized steel the great Sperm Whale; and that for half a century they were the only people of the whole globe who so harpooned him.
In 1778, a fine ship, the Amelia, fitted out for the express purpose, and at the sole charge of the vigorous Enderbys, boldly rounded Cape Horn, and was the first among the nations to lower a whale- boat of any sort in the great South Sea. The voyage was a skilful and lucky one; and returning to her berth with her hold full of the precious sperm, the Amelia’s example was soon followed by other ships, English and American, and thus the vast Sperm Whale grounds of the Pacific were thrown open. But not content with this good deed, the indefatigable house again bestirred itself: Samuel and all his Sons – how many, their mother only knows – and under their immediate auspices, and partly, I think, at their expense, the British government was induced to send the sloop-of-war Rattler on a whaling voyage of discovery into the South Sea. Commanded by a naval Post-Captain, the Rattler made a rattling voyage of it, and did some service; how much does not appear. But this is not all. In 1819, the same house fitted out a discovery whale ship of their own, to go on a tasting cruise to the remote waters of Japan. That ship – well called the “Syren” – made a noble experimental cruise; and it was thus that the great Japanese Whaling Ground first became generally known. The Syren in this famous voyage was commanded by a Captain Coffin, a Nantucketer.
In support of their fleet, the Enderbys established a rope factory at their Greenwich wharf. This ropeworks eventually became a cable-making factory that supplied the first trans-Atlantic underwater cable, which was laid from the wharf itself.
The Enderby family, in the mid-nineteenth century, tried to create a colony far off the coast of New Zealand on an island called Enderby Island (near Norfolk Island). This last effort was a failure and ultimately bankrupted the company. Enderby Island is still there, but still uninhabited.
Alright, so that’s the picture; our Irishman, Swinney, escapes John Bull’s navy for a whaling ship with famous owners.