From the June 25, 1965 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

A rather slight and old fashioned book with black covers, published in 1856, bears the title The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave, Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape, Written by Himself. The copy of the book was “picked up,” as he himself expressed it, by Bishop James E. Cassidy long ago, and presented to the late George A. Hough.

The point of this particular item was that John Thompson turned up in New Bedford and adopted that device not uncommon at the period of putting himself out of reach by shipping on a whaler. As it happened, the whaleship, the Milwood, sailed under a Vineyard master, Capt. Aaron C. Luce.

The Milwood, a bark of 254 tons, for which Gideon Allen was agent, is listed in Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery as sailing from New Bedford on April 15, 1842. She made port again on Aug. 9, 1844, with 950 barrels of sperm oil.

Here follows the account:

When I reached New York, in consequence of my inexperience I could get no berth on shipboard, as they only wanted to employ able seaman, so I was advised to go to New Bedford, where green hands were more wanted.

Accordingly, next morning, in care of an agent, I started on board a vessel bound for that port. When I arrived there, I was told I could only go before the mast as a raw hand, as a great responsibility rested upon the cook, or steward, of a whaling voyage, one of which places I preferred and solicited.

I soon saw there was no chance for me with that master, so I went to the office of Mr. Gideon Allen, who was fitting out a ship for sea, and wanted both a cook and steward. I approached him with much boldness, and asked if he would like to employ a good steward, to which he replied in the affirmative, asking me at the same time if I was one.

I told him I thought I was. So without much parleying we agreed upon the price, when he took me down to the vessel, gave to my charge the keys of the cabin, and I went to work as well as I knew how.

The Millwood, on which we were to sail, was a splendid vessel, called a three boat ship. She was arranged to carry 3,500 bbls. of oil, with a crew numbering twenty-five hands, with four principal officers, captain and three mates, and three boatswains, who are termed subordinate officers. All things being in readiness, the hands were summoned on board, when, at the pilots command, she was loosed from her moorings at the dock, floated out of the harbor, and with well filled sails, stood out to sea.

Soon after I became very sea sick and unable to attend to my duties. The captain who had been deceived by my sickness, now came into the cabin very angry, and said to me, “What is the matter with you?” I told him I was sick.

“Have you ever been at sea before?” he asked. I told him I never had, upon which he asked how I came to ship as steward? I answered, “I am a fugitive slave from Maryland, and have a family in Philadelphia; but fearing to remain there any longer, I thought I would go on a whaling voyage, as being the place where I stood least chance of being arrested. I had become somewhat experienced in cooking by working in hotels, inasmuch that I thought I could fill the place of steward.” The narrative seemed to touch his heart, for his countenance at once assumed a pleasing expression. Thus God stood between me and him, and worked in my defense. The captain became as kind as a father to me, often going with me to the cabin, and when no one was present, teaching me to make pastries and sea messes.

When we had been about three weeks out, we captured a sperm whale, which furnished eight-five bbls. of oil, which we sent home from Fayal, where we remained just long enough to discharge the oil, and take on board a fresh supply of water and vegetables.

After leaving Fayal, we sailed for St. Paul’s Island, stopping a short time at the Cape de Verdes, where right whales were said to be numerous.

We had now been at sea over two years, and had completed our cargo, all save 50 bbls., when our captain decided to cruise towards home, keeping up a sharp lookout, until we were beyond the whaling ground.

We next stopped at St. Helena, which renowned place I was very glad to see, and took occasion to visit the residence and tomb of the Emperor Napoleon. But I discovered nothing very remarkable at either place, therefore will not weary mu readers with unimportant description. After one week’s stay we left St. Helena for the American coast.

The wind blew so furiously that it sometimes seemed as if the sails must all be carried away; but like a gallant bark, the ship safely outrode the whole, and arrived at New Bedford.

But my bliss was not complete, for I had a family in Philadelphia, whom I must hasten to see, that they might participate in my joy, and unite with me in praises to God for my safe preservation through so long a voyage.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox