“Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchway and savagely chewing the end of a cigar was the man whose casual glance had rescued me from the sea … my first impression … was … of his strength … a sinewy, knotty strength … a strength we are wont to associate with things primitive … a strength that was excessive and overwhelming.”
So begins Jack London’s description of Wolf Larsen, in his novel The Sea Wolf. Larsen is captain of a sealing schooner in the North Pacific, and with his physical and mental strength rules the ship with an iron hand.
He seems a simple brute, but in fact he is a highly intelligent man with intellectual interests. But he lives as a virtual savage on board his ship, and despises the refinements of civilization. His crew are similarly tough, and life aboard the ship is primitive.
London created this character, and in doing so mythologized the sealing industry and its frontier way of life.
But many claim that Wolf Larsen was not a creation. Rather, they say, he was modelled on the life of a real sealing captain, Alex MacLean. MacLean, based in Victoria in the 1880s, could well have been his model.
He and his brother Dan were legendary for their prowess at catching seals, and for their brushes with the law. Just how wild and brutal Alex MacLean was remains in dispute, with many claiming he was not brutal at all.
But there was still truth in London’s tale. Sealing in the North Pacific was tough and unpredictable, where you could easily win a fortune or lose a life. It attracted those who were willing to live on the edge. Someone who thrived in this industry, such as Alex MacLean, was bound to become a legend.
Sealing began in the North Pacific long before MacLean’s arrival. The prized species was the North Pacific fur seal, which mostly breeds on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, off Alaska. A smaller number breed on north Asian islands. When not breeding, the seals roam the open Pacific Ocean.
Pelagic sealing (or hunting at sea in small boats that were carried on larger ships) had been practised for several years when Alex MacLean arrived. He came from a seafaring family in Cape Breton, and arrived on the West Coast in 1881. Sealing was expanding in the early 1880s, and fur-seal coats were becoming fashionable.
In 1883 the MacLeans, in different boats, made pioneering voyages to the Bering Sea. This was the richest area for pelagic sealing, and both made substantial catches. In 1884 they went back again, and did even better. Alex got 1,754 skins, and Dan 1,954. They went back every year for the next few years. The size of their catches kept climbing.
In 1886 Alex brought in 3,325 skins, while Dan brought in a record 4,256 skins. Also, the number of ships was expanding. Throughout the 1870s there were always fewer than 10 boats out. In 1881, though, it was 19, and in 1886 it was up to 38. It peaked at 124 in 1892. Most of them sailed out of Victoria.
The success of pelagic sealing threatened the size of the land harvest. The American government began to be concerned with the depletion of what it considered to be “its” resource. In 1886, American revenue cutters began to seize ships in the Bering Sea, ignoring international law, which considered any ship 60 miles or more from land as being in international waters.
For sealers, dodging American cutters became a new hazard in their work. This is when Alex MacLean’s “outlaw” reputation began. As well as dodging American authorities in the Bering Sea, some of his activities seemed suspicious. He would sometimes spend more time than normal in port, or land at unusual locations. In the years to come there were many rumours of smuggling, gun-running and poaching. Some of the poaching is documented, but not much else.
MacLean and his family moved to San Francisco in 1890. It was a boisterous, free-wheeling city, with lively action in the saloons.
Part of MacLean’s legend is that he was a hard-drinking, sometimes pugnacious man. This seems to have been generally true. But another part is almost certainly false. He was, supposedly, a brutal, demonic captain on his ships, terrorizing his crews. But the information we have on him is different. Anecdotal evidence depicts him as a stern taskmaster, but no monster.
One documentary source we have is the “Red Record,” published in the San Francisco Coast Seamen’s Journal. This recorded all reported instances of cruel treatment on American ships. MacLean, who sailed out of San Francisco from 1890 on, never made that list.
In 1891, the British and American governments came to an unexpected agreement. In an effort to calm tensions and conserve the seal population, they agreed to a one-year halt to all sealing in the Bering Sea, both on land and at sea.
Russians as well as Americans were strongly protecting the seas around their rookeries. Sealers had to dodge guards when they attempted to seal in forbidden waters.
The MacLean brothers made a co-ordinated raid on Russian rookeries on Copper Island. But the Russians caught Alex and held him for 10 weeks.
The next few years were not easy for MacLean. The prices for fur-seal pelts dropped significantly. He decided to leave the business in 1897.
In 1904 he was lured back to the seal industry to attempt some poaching on an island. But when the sealers attempted to land, the guards opened fire. One of the crew, Walter York, was hit in the head and later died.
Despite this outcome, MacLean gathered a rag-tag crew, and headed out to sea in 1905. American revenue cutters were instructed to intercept his ship and arrest him.
Ironically, it was a literary event, and not the cutters, that ended his voyage. In 1904, Jack London published his novel The Sea Wolf. When the press connected Wolf Larsen to MacLean, they went wild. They painted MacLean as a “pirate,” roaming the seas beyond the law. All the exaggerated characteristics that were Wolf Larsen’s were now MacLean’s.
MacLean’s crew found out from newspapers provided by passing ships. They decided the game was up. They refused to carry on, and forced MacLean to head back to North America. That meant Canada, as MacLean would be arrested in the United States.
He landed at Clayoquot, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. He was fined for customs infractions, but was not arrested, and did not have to return to the United States. In a way he was lucky, but he was bitter at the press. To a reporter he said, “You’ve broken up my voyage — that’s what you’ve done. Things were printed in the newspapers about me, and when the crew read ’em they wouldn’t seal any more …. If it hadn’t been for the newspapers I’d be sealing yet.”
He went on to claim his complete innocence. In 1911, the United States, Great Britain, Japan and Russia established the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, banning pelagic sealing. It was one of the first major international treaties created for wildlife conservation.
MacLean did not long outlive the end of sealing. His family moved up from San Francisco, and they settled in Vancouver in 1906. He had various maritime jobs, such as operating tugs. At one point he was running explosives up the Skeena River. He drowned in an accident in 1914.
The legends about Alex MacLean have grown over the years. But the real man remains elusive.
The scholar Don MacGillivray has done an excellent job of sorting out myth from reality. But in one sense it may not matter. MacLean, with his alter ego Wolf Larsen, has become a symbol of the sealing life.
A tumultuous frontier often spawns larger-than-life characters, who through their exploits define an era. MacLean certainly did his. We will probably never know the real Alex MacLean. But the myth of his life lives on. He highlighted an era and provides us with a way of understanding it. And that, in the end, is all we may ever really care to know.
Stephen Ruttan is the history librarian with the Greater Victoria Public Library. More Tales from the Vault are available at the library’s website, gvpl.ca.
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