S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Morrell, Captain Benjamin (geographical exploration)

Born: 5 July 1795, Rye, New York, United States of America.
Died: 1839, Mozambique.

Benjamin Morrell, American ship's captain, explorer and author, was the son of a ship-builder. He first went to sea in March 1812, sailing on the Enterprise with a cargo of contraband provisions for Spain. On the return journey the ship was captured by the British and the crew held in prison in Newfoundland for eight months. In May 1813 he joined the crew of the American privateer Joel Barlow, hoping to see action against the British. However, he was captured and confined at Dartmoor prison until May 1815. He then made a number of deep-sea voyages, all as an ordinary sailor, since his education did not allow him to become an officer. However, when he later shipped on the Edward its captain, Josiah Macy, took an interest in him, taught him navigation, and promoted him until he could become master of his own ship.

Morell then undertook four sealing voyages into the Southern Hemisphere on behalf of shipowners, in the Wasp (1822-1824), the Tartar (1824-1826), and the Antarctic (1828-1829 and 1829-1831). During these voyages he became only the third person to penetrate the Antarctic circle, reaching 70o South. His third voyage started in New York in June 1828 and took him to the south-western coast of Africa. Arriving at Saldanha Bay on 4 September, the schooner undertook a sealing voyage along the west coast which lasted until 27 May 1829, before returning to New York in July that year. Morrell set out on a lengthy fourth voyage that same year, during which he again visited Saldanha Bay and the Cape in March 1831.

Three accounts of these voyages were published under his name, the last two after his death. The first was A narrative of four voyages, to the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, Ethiopic and Southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean. From the year 1822 to 1831. Comprising critical surveys of coasts and islands, with sailing directions... (New York, 1832). Twelve years later an article, "The coast of Africa from the Cape Colony to Ichaboe Island", was published under his name in the Nautical Magazine (1844). That same year saw the publication of Morrell's Narrative of a Voyage to the South and West coast of Africa... (London, 1844). Neither of these two later publications adds to the original account of 1832. Meanwhile his wife, Abby J. Morrell (born Wood), had published her own account of his fourth voyage, on which she accompanied him: Narrative of a voyage to the Ethiopic and South Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Chinese Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, in the years 1829, 1830, 1831 (New York, 1833).

Morrell's account of his third voyage includes sailing directions and detailed observations of natural features along the west coasts of present Namibia and South Africa. This information was sufficiently detailed and original to be included in successive editions of the African Pilot, published by the Hydrographic Department of the British Admiralty. However, it created international interest mainly because he mentioned extensive guano deposits on Ichaboe Island, leading some years later to the "guano rush" of 1843-1845. He also described finding some half a million dead seals on Possession Island, which appeared to have died from unknown natural causes.

Some later authors, including Francis Galton*, questioned the accuracy of Morrell's observations. Fortunately in 1977 an independent account of his last two voyages was discovered which, although unsigned, appears to have been written by John W. Keeler, a seaman who accompanied him. A comparison of the two accounts of Morrell's third voyage was made by Best and Shaughnessy (1979). Keeler's description of the seal deaths on Possession Island suggests that they were killed by humans, and that there were only about 60 000 rather than half a million. Furthermore, his dates for events often differ from those given by Morrell, and suggest that a visit to Walfish Bay and excursion into the interior described by Morrell probably did not take place at all, at least not during his third voyage. It seems as if Morrell wrote his account of this voyage from memory, without reference to the ship's log-book or any other journal. He failed to mention some important events that took place during the voyage, while elaborating or even inventing others. He appears to have been a romantic with a strong urge for exploration and the public acclaim that his discoveries might bring. Hence his version of events is not reliable.

Morrell's later journeys included one to the islands of the Pacific Ocean on the Margaret Oakley, which he is rumoured to have pirated and which was wrecked on Madagascar. After further adventures he died of a fever in Mozambique.

List of sources:
Best, P.B. & Shaughnessy, P.D. An independent account of Captain Benjamin Morrell's sealing voyage to the south-west coast of Africa in the Antarctic, 1828/29. Fisheries Bulletin of South Africa, 1979, Vol. 12, pp. 1-19.

Dictionary of American biography. New York: Scribner, 1927.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Compiled by: C. Plug