Benjamin Morell made two visits to the Galapagos, one in 1823 and a second in 1825. On the second trip he was captain of the schooner Tartar, seeking new sealing grounds. On 14 February, while anchored in Banks Bay, between Isabela and Fernandina, he and his crew witnessed, and barely survived, one of the most spectacular eruptions in Galapagos history.
On Monday the fourteenth, at two o'clock, AM, while the sable mantle of night was yet spread over the mighty Pacific, shrouding the neighboring islands from our view, and while the stillness of death reigned everywhere about 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 suddently broken forth with accumulated vengence.
The sublimity, the majesty, the terrific grandeur of this scene baffle the description and set the powers of languate 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 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 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 AM, 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, 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 not 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 neighboring ocean. the demon of fire seemed rushing tothe embraces of Neptune; and dreadful indead was the roar 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 AM I ascertained the termperature of the water, by Farenheit's thermometer, to be 61o, while that of the air was 71o. At eleven AM the air was 113o and the water 100o, 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....
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. 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 till four PM, when the temperature of the air had increased to 123o and that of the water to 105o. 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 last announced as the welcome signal for the word, "All hands, unmoor!" This was a little before eight PM. 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 anounced 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 by a fine little easterly breeze, for which we felt grateful to Heaven.
Our course lay sourthward, through the little strait...that separated the burning mountain from Albemarle Island... The Northwest passage...would have been a shorter route to the main ocean; but not the safest, under the circumstances.... I therefore chose to run south..., though in doing so, we had to pass withing about four miles of those rivers of flaming lava, which were pouring into the waters of the bay. Had I adopted the other course...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 favour us with a fine breeze, and the Tartar slid along 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 the time the mercury in the thermometer was at 147o but in immersing it in the water, it instantly rose to 150o. Had the wind deserted us here, the consequences must have been horrible. But the mercy of Providence was still extended toward us -- the refreshing breeze still urged us forward towards a more temperate atmosphere; so that at eleven PM we were safely anchored at the south extremity of the bay, while the flaming Narborough lay fifteen miles to the leeward.
...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 immediately. We now steered for Charles island, which lies about forty miles southeastof Albemarle and came to anchor in its northwest harbor at eleven PM. Fifty miles and more to the leeward, in the northwest, 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.