Coffin (whaling family)

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The Coffin family were a group of whalers operating out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Some members of the family gained wider exposure due to their discovery of various islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Family history[edit]

Tristram Coffin, born in 1609 in Plymouth, England, left Brixton, Devonshire, England, for America in 1642, first settling in Newbury, Massachusetts, then moving to Nantucket.[1][2] The Coffin family, along with other Nantucket families, including the Gardners and the Starbucks, began whaling seriously in the 1690s in local waters, and by 1715 the family owned three whaling ships and a trade vessel.[1] In 1763, six men of the Coffin family were captains of ships sailing out of Nantucket, and travelling as far as South America and Greenland.[3]

James Coffin[edit]

On 31 May 1823, the British ship Transit arrived in Batavia, on the island of Java, having lost its master, Capt Alexander, to a whale near Christmas Island. James Coffin was on Java at the time and was appointed as captain.[4]

Later that year, while working in the central Pacific, James is said to have discovered Enderbury Island in the Phoenix group, naming it after the London whaling firm Samuel Enderby & Sons.[5] However, when he described his own discoveries of the Bonins to Arrowsmith and other geographers, he did not mention Enderbury.[6]

Joshua Coffin[edit]

Some records suggest that Joshua, while captaining the whaler Ganges, sighted and named Gardner Island in the Phoenix Group in 1825, probably naming it after U.S. Congressman Gideon Gardner, the owner of Ganges.[7]

Alternative sources claim the island was sighted by whaler Joshua Gardner, also reported to have captained Ganges in 1825.[8]

Reuben Coffin[edit]

Some sources report that in 1823 a "Reuben Coffin" was captain of an American whaler named Transit, out of Nantucket, and was responsible for the discovery of the Bonin Islands.[9] Anchoring unchallenged off Haha Jima, he claimed the islands for the United States, naming them "Coffin Islands".[10]

Owen Coffin[edit]

Owen Coffin (1802–1821) was a teenaged sailor aboard the Nantucket whaler Essex when it set sail for the Pacific Ocean on a sperm whaling expedition in August 1819. In November the next year, a whale rammed and breached their hull in mid-Pacific, causing Essex to sink. Following months in a small whaleboat, members of the near-starving crew finally concluded a member must be sacrificed. They drew lots, which Coffin "lost", and he was shot and eaten.

Various "Captain Coffins"[edit]

Portrait of Captain Abel Coffin, who was involved in bringing the original Siamese Twins to the West
  • Captain Hezekiah Coffin commanded the first American ship to round Cape Horn. He also commanded a Nantucket whaler the Beaver, which, after conveying a load of whale oil to England and returning with a cargo of 112 chests of British East India Company tea, was one of three vessels in Boston Harbour (the others were Dartmouth and Eleanor) which had their cargoes dumped overboard during the Boston Tea Party on the night of 16 December 1773.
  • A Captain Coffin was master of the whaler Baroness Longueville, sailing her on whaling voyage between August 1816 and July 1819, returning to Britain with 600 casks.[11]
  • A "Captain Coffin", master and part-owner of the Thule, Nantucket, after 27 months at sea, struck the "Booby Shoals" on Bellona Reefs, near the Chesterfield Islands on 10 September 1844, and was wrecked; the ship was carrying 1050 barrels of sperm oil.[12] Two boats, manned by 16 men, managed to reach Moreton Bay, Queensland, on 20 September, but a third boat was lost.[12][13] Losing most of their possessions in the wreck, the sailors were replenished by Brisbane residents.[12] Shipping lists show that Coffin, Mr W Thompson and 13 crew members took passage from Moreton Bay on the steamer Sovereign, departing 4 October, and arriving in Port Jackson on 8 October. Capt Coffin left Port Jackson on 17th aboard the schooner Vanguard, bound for New Zealand.[14]
  • After Scotsman Robert Hunter discovered the original "siamese twins" Chang and Eng in Siam in 1824, he partnered with Captain Abel Coffin to sail them to America in 1829. Abel continued touring with the twins, eventually buying out Hunter's share in the business venture.[15] He later received letters from their manager James Hale.[16]
  • Records tell of a "Captain Coffin", whose leg was badly injured in a whaling accident. With no surgeon on board, Coffin ordered his mate to cut off the leg with a knife, threatening to shoot him if he did not obey. He held the pistol pointing at the mate throughout the operation.[17]

See also[edit]



  • Druett, Joan (2000); Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-92451-0
  • Dunmore, John (1992); Who's Who in Pacific Navigation, Australia:Melbourne University Press, ISBN 0-522-84488-X
  • Hearn, Chester G. (2003); Sorties Into Hell: The Hidden War on Chichi Jima, Praeger/Greenwood, ISBN 0-275-98081-2
  • Hunter, Kay (1964). Duet For a Lifetime. London: Michael Joseph.
  • Maude, H.E., (1968) Of Islands and Men: Studies in Pacific History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press
  • Newton, William, (1824), The London Journal of Arts and Sciences available online at Google Books
  • Pedlar, Neil, (1990) The Imported Pioneers: Westerners Who Helped Build Modern Japan, Routledge, ISBN 0-904404-51-X
  • Polynesian Society, (1961), The Journal of the Polynesian Society
  • Quanchi, Max & Robson, John, (2005); Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Pacific Islands, USA: Scarecrow Press, ISBN 0-8108-5395-7
  • Sharp, Andrew (1960); The Discovery of the Pacific Islands, Oxford:Oxford University Press,
  • Stackpole, Edouard A.; The Sea Hunters: The New England Whalemen During Two Centuries, 1635-1835

External links[edit]