Bibliography Texts

Narrative of Four Voyages

Capt. Benjamin Morrell. Jun.

This page contains excerpts from Morrell's Narrative describing visits to Galápagos on his first and second voyages (ships Wasp and Tartar, respectively). An asterisk indicates a footnote in the original text. Insertions by the present editor are indicated by a dagger (†) footnote, or a phrase or date [in brackets].

First Voyage: Chapter IX

September 17th [1823].—Having received on board a sufficient supply of such vegetables and other refreshments as our circumstances required, together with an adequate quantity of wood and water, we took our leave of the friendly inhabitants of Tacames, and directed our course to the Gallapagos Islands, where we arrive on the 3d of October.

This archipelago is situated under the equator, about two hundred and twenty leagues west of the American continent, between the meridians of eighty-nine and ninety-two, west of Greenwich. It comprises a large group of uninhabited islands, which were first discovered by the Spaniards, and afterward explored by those celebrated navigators Vancouver, Colnett, and Hall, to whom we are indebted for an accurate knowledge of their several situations. Thirteen of these islands, being the principal ones of the group in size and importance, have been named as follows:—Chatham, Hood's, Charles's, Indefatigable, James's, Albemarle, Narborough's, Abington, Bindloe's, Tower's,† Wenman's, Culpepper's, and Barrington's.

† This is the first known usage of “Tower” (or Tower's, etc.) for the modern Isla Genovesa. It may be that Morrell mis-read “Dowers” on a Fyffe or Vandermaelen map.

The name of this archipelago is derived from the Spanish word “galapago,” a fresh-water tortoise, and it was given to these islands because they abound with the largest class of those animals, a species of terrapin, to which Commodore Porter gave the name of “elephant tortoise,” as their legs, feet, and motions strongly resemble those of an elephant. “Many of them,” says he, “are of a size to weigh upwards of three hundred weight; and nothing, perhaps, can be more disagreeable or clumsy than they are in their external appearance. Their steps are slow, regular, and heavy; they carry their bodies about a foot from the ground; their neck is from eighteen inches to two feet in length, and very slender; their head is proportioned to it, and strongly resembles that of a serpent. But what seems the most extraordinary in this animal, is the length of time that it can exist without food; for I have been well assured,” continues the commodore, “that they have been piled away among casks, in the hold of a ship, where they have been kept eighteen months, and when killed at the expiration of that time, were found to have suffered no diminution in fatness or excellence. They carry with them a constant supply of water, in a bag at the root of the neck, which contains about two gallons; and on tasting that found in those we killed on board, it proved perfectly fresh and sweet. They are very restless when exposed to the light and heat of the sun, but will lie in the dark from one year's end to the other, without moving.”* †

* See Porter's Journal, p. 47.

† Morrell's page reference is to the abridged 1823 British edition. Refer to the 1822 edition for Porter's actual account.

I shall embrace this occasion to add my feeble testimony to the correctness of Commodore Porter's statements generally, during his interesting and glorious cruise in the Pacific Ocean, in the years 1812, 1813, and 1814. His descriptions of various parts of the coast and islands have much assisted me in my subsequent visits to the same places, and may be depended upon as correct, particularly as regards his remarks on the Gallapagos Islands.

There is no doubt that these islands are all of volcanic origin; and have, generally speaking, always been barren, with the exception of a kind of stunted brushwood that grew upon them. But of late years they have become more fertile, both the upland and valleys being now tolerably well wooded, over a good and rich soil, which wants nothing but a more liberal supply of moisture. The sides of hills near the shore are covered with prickly-pear-trees, upon which the land-tortoises feed and thrive in a most wonderful manner. These animals grow to even a greater size than that mentioned by Commodore Porter, as I have seen some that would weigh from six to eight hundred pounds. They are excellent food, and have no doubt saved the lives of thousands of seamen employed in the whale-fishery in those seas, both American and Englishmen. I have known whale-ships to take from six to nine hundred of the smallest size of these tortoises on board, when about leaving the islands for their cruising grounds; thus providing themselves with fresh provisions for six or eight months, and securing the men against the scurvy. I have had these animals on board my own vessels from five to six months, without their once taking food or water; and on killing them I have found more than a quart of sweet fresh water in the receptacle which nature has furnished them for that purpose, while their flesh was in as good condition as when I first took them on board. They have been known to live on board of some of our whale-ships for fourteen months, under similar circumstances, without any apparent diminution of health or weight.

The Gallapagos Islands have been so frequently and so accurately described, by navigators who have visited them solely for that purpose, that I do not deem it necessary to detain the reader with any remarks of my own, except to refer him to the following authentic works, in which he will find all the necessary sailing directions, in connexion with such other information as may assist a stranger in exploring this interesting archipelago, viz. Nora [sic, Amasa] Delano's Voyages, Vancouver's, Colnett's, Hall's, Porter's Journal, &c. †

† Refer to Bibliography for information about these authors.

December 2d.—We remained among these islands about two months, during which period we took about five thousand fur-seal skins; when, finding that these animals had abandoned the shores, we thought it time to abandon them also. Accordingly, after taking on board one hundred of the elephant tortoises, which completely covered our decks, we got under way on Tuesday, the 2d of December, at two P. M., and took our departure from Charles's Island, shaping our course for that of Juan Fernandez, once the solitary residence of Alexander Selkirk, alias Robinson Crusoe.

This celebrated island bears about south-south-east from the Gallapagos group, distant seven hundred leagues.

Second Voyage: Chapter V

February 6th [1825].—Having examined this island [Cocos Island] to our satisfaction, and taken on board a plentiful supply of cocoanuts, we sailed for the Gallapagos Islands on Sunday, the sixth of February, with the wind from east-south-east, attended with light rain. On the following day we took the wind from north-north-east, with much rain; this was succeeded by variable winds until we arrived in latitude 2° 0' N., long. 89° 0' W., when we took the wind from south-east, with fair weather.

February 10th.—On Thursday, the tenth, at six, A. M., we arrived at the Gallapagos Islands, in Banks's Bay, and anchored in Albemarle Basin, in four fathoms of water, sandy bottom. At eight, A. M., the boats were sent in search of fur-seals; but soon discovered that we had reaped the harvest in the previous voyage; for there were very few fur-seals to be seen around the islands. In a few days we commenced gathering terrapins, or elephant tortoise.

February 14th.—On Monday, the fourteenth, at two o'clock, A. M., while the sable mantle of night was yet spread over the mighty Pacific, shrouding the neighbouring islands from our view, and while the stillness of death reigned everywhere around us, our ears were suddenly assailed by a sound that could only be equalled by ten thousand thunders bursting upon the air at once; while, at the same instant, the whole hemisphere was lighted up with a horrid glare that might have appalled the stoutest heart! I soon ascertained that one of the volcanoes of Narborough Island, which had quietly slept for the last ten years, had suddenly broken forth with accumulated vengeance.

The sublimity, the majesty, the terrific grandeur of this scene baffle description, and set the powers of language at defiance. Had the fires of Milton's hell burst its vault of adamant, and threatened the heavens with conflagration, his description of the incident would have been appropriate to the present subject. No words that I can command will give the reader even a faint idea of the awful splendour of the great reality.

Had it been “the crack of doom” that aroused them, my men could not have been sooner on deck, where they stood gazing like “sheeted spectres,” speechless and bewildered with astonishment and dismay. The heavens appeared to be in one blaze of fire, intermingled with millions of falling stars and meteors; while the flames shot upward from the peak of Narborough to the height of at least two thousand feet in the air. All hands soon became sensible of the cause of the startling phenomenon, and on recovering from their first panic could contemplate its progress with some degree of composure.

But the most splendid and interesting scene of this spectacle was yet to be exhibited. At about half-past four o'clock, A. M., the boiling contents of the tremendous caldron had swollen to the brim, and poured over the edge of the crater in a cataract of liquid fire. A river of melted lava was now seen rushing down the side of the mountain, pursuing a serpentine course to the sea, a distance of about three miles from the blazing orifice of the volcano. This dazzling stream descended in a gully, one-fourth of a mile in width, presenting the appearance of a tremendous torrent of melted iron running from the furnace. Although the mountain was steep, and the gully capacious, the flaming river could not descend with sufficient rapidity to prevent its overflowing its banks in certain places, and forming new rivers, which branched out in almost every direction, each rushing downward as if eager to cool its temperament in the deep caverns of the neighbouring ocean. The demon of fire seemed rushing to the embraces of Neptune; and dreadful indeed was the uproar occasioned by their meeting. The ocean boiled, and roared, and bellowed, as if a civil war had broken out in the Tartarean gulf.

At three, A. M., I ascertained the temperature of the water, by Fahrenheit's thermometer, to be 61°, while that of the air 71°. At eleven, A. M., the air was 113°, and the water 100°, the eruption still continuing with unabated fury. The Tartar's anchorage was about ten miles to the northward of the mountain, and the heat was so great that the melted pitch was running from the vessel's seams, and the tar dropping from the rigging.

In order to give the reader a correct idea of our situation, it will be necessary to remind him of the relative position of these two islands. Albemarle Island is the most extensive of the whole Gallapagos group, being about ninety miles in length from north to south, narrow and nearly straight on its eastern shore; but on the western side it hollows in from Christopher's Point on the south, to Cape Berkley on the north; and within this space lies the island of Narborough, its eastern point approaching nearest to Albemarle. The Tartar lay in a cove of Banks's Bay, on the western shore of Albemarle, directly opposite the north-east point of Narborough; and this cover could be approached from the north-west through Banks's Bay, or from the south-west through Elizabeth Bay.

Our situation was every hour becoming more critical and alarming. Not a breath of air was stirring to fill a sail, had we attempted to escape; so that we were compelled to remain idle and unwilling spectators of a pyrotechnic exhibition which evinced no indications of even a temporary suspension. All that day the fires continued to rage with unabating activity, while the mountain still continued to belch forth its melted entrails in an unceasing cataract.

The mercury continued to rise until four, P. M., when the temperature of the air had increased to 123°, and that of the water to 105°. Our respiration now became difficult, and several of the crew complained of extreme faintness. It was evident that something must be done, and that promptly. “O for a cap-full of wind!” was the prayer of each. The breath of a light zephyr from the continent, scarcely perceptible to the cheek, was at length announced as the welcome signal for the word, “All hands, unmoor!” This was a little before eight, P. M. The anchor was soon apeak, and every inch of canvass extended along the spars, where it hung in useless drapery.

All was again suspense and anxious expectation. Again the zephyr breathed, and hope revived. At length it was announced from aloft that the lighter canvass began to feel the air; and in a few minutes more the topsails began gradually to fill, when the anchor was brought to the bow, and the Tartar began to move. At eight o-clock we were wafted along by a fine little easterly breeze, for which we felt grateful to Heaven.

Our course lay southward, through the little strait or sound that separated the burning mountain from Albemarle Island; my object being to get to windward of Narborough as soon as possible. It is true that the north-west passage from Banks's Bay, by Cape Berkley, would have been a shorter route into the main ocean; but not the safest, under existing circumstances. I therefore chose to run south, to Elizabeth Bay, though in doing so we had to pass within about four miles of those rivers of flaming lava, which were pouring into the waters of the bay. Had I adopted the other course, and passed to the leeward of Narborough, we might have got clear of the island, but it would have been impossible to prevent the sails and rigging taking fire; as the whole atmosphere on the lee side of the bay appeared to be one mass of flame. The deafening sounds accompanying the eruption still continued; indeed the terrific grandeur of the scene would have been incomplete without it.

Heaven continued to favor us with a fine breeze, and the Tartar slid through the almost boiling ocean at the rate of about seven miles an hour. On passing the currents of melted lava, I became apprehensive that I should lose some of my men, as the influence of the heat was so great that several of them were incapable of standing. At that time the mercury in the thermometer was at 147°; but on immersing it into the water, it instantly rose to 150°. Had the wind deserted us here, the consequences must have been horrible. But the mercy of Providence was still extended towards us—the refreshing breeze still urged us forward towards a more temperate atmosphere; so that at eleven P. M. we were safely anchored at the south extremity of the bay, while the flaming Narborough lay fifteen miles to the leeward.

Here the temperature of the air was 110°, and that of the water 102°; but at eight o'clock the next morning, the 16th, there being no abatement in the rage of the vomiting volcano, the heat had increased to such an alarming degree that we found it necessary again to get under way, and abandon the bay entirely. At twelve meridian we passed the south point of Albemarle Bay, called Christopher's Point, at which time I found the mercury at 122° in the air, and at 98° in the water. We now steered for Charles's Island, which lies about forty miles south-east of Albemarle, and came to anchor in its north-west harbour at eleven, P. M. Fifty miles and more to the leeward, in the north-west, the crater of Narborough appeared like a colossal beacon-light, shooting its vengeful flames high into the gloomy atmosphere, with a rumbling noise like distant thunder.

February 17th.—Having taken on board two hundred and ninety-four terrapins, that would average about twenty-five pounds each, we got under way on Friday, the 17th, at two o-clock, P. M., and commenced a cruise in search of Gallego, said to lie in lat. 1° 42' N., 104° 5' W. After cutting the ground up in the above-mentioned parallel, and from 100° to 110° west, I was convinced that no such island existed within many leagues of the situation which had been assigned to it. We therefore bore up, and steered for two clusters of islands, which were said to lie in lat. 16° and 17° N., and in long. 133° and 136° W., with a fine breeze from east-south-east, and fair weather. Before we bore up, however, we tried the current, and found it setting about west-north-west, at the rate of two and a half miles an hour. The sea was here literally covered with pumice-stone, some pieces of which were quite large, supposed to have been ejected from the volcano of Narborough.