TALE OF A WHALE – AN INDUSTRY GONE
I never read Moby Dick. I don’t suppose many people other than literary academics have managed to finish the lengthy and gruesome details of whaling in the 19th century. However, nearly everybody knows about the story because of a popular movie and many references in literature to the Herman Melville classic.
When Melville signed on to go whaling in the South Pacific in 1841, he spent some time in New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world at that time, where he became familiar with the mixed racial identities of the whalers of the day. They included local Yankees from the whaling ports of New England, free blacks from Africa and Polynesians picked up from prior voyages in the South Pacific. They all coexisted at sea and on shore making New Bedford the most racially integrated city in America.
After the long voyage to the whaling grounds in the Pacific, Melville jumped ship and lived among the natives in the Marquesas until he found passage back to his home in Boston. He had great success with three books based on his experiences among the natives in the South Pacific. He then undertook to write Moby Dick which did not receive favorable reviews. For many years the classic was out-of-print and forgotten until 1926 when it was rediscovered. The historic saga depicted the whaling industry in America from the early 1700’s until late into the 19th century.
I use Moby Dick as the focal point for my travel commentary on the contemporary locations of the famous whaling ports of the 19th century. Nantucket Island is probably the best known although superseded by New Bedford due to a deeper port for the activity of the whaling ships. I was on a small-boat cruise to the New England Islands in 2014 and enjoyed Nantucket the most of all the ports of call. There still was an atmosphere of the colonial whaling days with cobblestone streets, classic federal architectural style and a vast array of maritime souvenirs.
The Nantucket Whaling Museum, although not as large as the museum in New Bedford, is a wonderful introduction to the whaling era. Ever since my youth I had been attracted to sailing ships and exploration by reading other classics, like Mutiny on the Bounty and Two Years Before Mast, both based on historic events. However, I knew little about the whaling industry. I always thought the young men who “went down to the sea in ships” were very brave and venturesome to take on a 2-to-3-year voyage at great risk due to hardships of seamen and vagaries of weather.
When the whaling industry became a principal source of oil for lighting lamps, the native whales in the Nantucket Island area were called “right whales” and were seen frolicking off the shore from the early autumn to the early spring. The Native Americans who lived on Nantucket had been harvesting the whales for centuries and assisted the new English settlers on the island to learn the art of harpooning a whale.
In the late 18th century, all the whaling was done just off shore until the ample supply of whale oil to light the world was wiped out. Then the Nantucket whalers in larger vessels began to look for their prey in the Arctic Circle, along the African coast and as far south as South America. The earliest settlers on Nantucket gazed over the waters as though it was the seagoing cattle range. One of the islanders in 1691 nodded towards the whales and declared, “There is a green pasture where our children’s grandchildren will go for bread,” wrote Nathaniel Philbrick in the Smithsonian Magazine.
As the pods of whales diminished, the whalers found themselves rounding Cape Horn and entering the Pacific for new crops. It is this period that we are most familiar because of the literature published later in the 19th century.
My visit to Nantucket Island was one of the destinations of a small-ship cruise to the islands off- shore of New England. Oher landings during the week cruise included Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, both very popular summer resorts providing daily ferry service from the mainland. Martha’s Vineyard was a bit too 20th century with its multitude of tourist accommodations and without the history of Nantucket.
I also liked Block Island for its picturesque harbor front promenade of Victorian-style hotels and the usual tourist shops. A lasting memory is the popularity of the ice cream cone. Nearly everyone passed on the promenade had one in hand. A two-hour island tour was the best way to see the more remote inlets and lighthouses. Again there is no whaling or other shipping history connected with this small island.
A two day stop at New Bedford was equal to the Nantucket experience with a well preserved waterfront that served the later whaling industry when anchorage and facilities at Nantucket could not support the booming industry. This is where Herman Melville began collecting his material for his Moby Dick narrative. His description of Water Street full of mixed race whaling seamen waiting for the next voyage is described in the book. It was also the jumping off point for Melville’s whaling venture to the South Pacific in 1841.
Among the historic sites in New Bedford are the Seaman’s Bethel, the colonial-style boarding houses and the New Bedford Whaling Museum on historic Johnny-Cake Hill. The museum deserves a full day’s visit with its vast collection of whaling artifacts, including a full size-model whaling ship in the center gallery that can be boarded to see how these whalers had to live for 2 to 3 years on a voyage.
There have been several films produced over the years depicting seafaring life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps Mutiny on the Bounty is the best known having several versions of the historic voyage to the South Pacific and the subsequent exile of the crew to Pitcairn Island. Another popular film based on Melville’s book, Moby Dick, did a credible job of condensing the massive content of the book into a film depicting the whaling industry of the early 19th century.
The latest film released in May 2016 is an account of the actual event of a whale destroying the whaling ship in 1821. In the Heart of the Sea, the script is about Herman Melville interviewing the last surviving seaman from the Essex with flashbacks to the fateful voyage to the far reaches of the South Pacific thirty years prior. Few whaling ships of the early 19th century ventured that far into unchartered waters. Melville used this historic voyage for his fictional tale of the hunt for the giant white whale.
The Essex left Nantucket in August 1819 for what was planned as a 2 ½ year voyage to the Pacific coast of South America. With little success for finding whales, the captain was tempted to take the ship roughly 2500 miles to the west on rumors that the sea was full of whales. This was an immense distance from known shores for whalers, but the venture required returning home with the valuable whale oil.
When the Essex sighted a large pod of whales, the crew was jubilant and set to work harvesting their catch until a giant white whale attacked the whale boats and then the ship itself causing so much damage that it sank. The crew was able to salvage limited provisions and cram into two of the small whale boats that are only 20 feet long. To travel back to the coast of South America was a daunting challenge survived by only eight seaman, including the captain and the first mate. It was a miracle that the starving men survived the 90-day voyage without adequate supplies, seven died from starvation and exposure.
At the inquiry the first mate insisted on reporting the actual cause for the loss of the Essex, but the ship owners’ association opposed that reason. They feared it would threaten the whale-oil trade to suspect that a whale could sink a ship. However the demand for whale oil internationally kept the whaling fleet flourishing until the late 19th century when petroleum was discovered.
This travel narrative turns out to be a tale of the whale. When visiting those ports off of Massachusetts, whaling is still a major tourist attraction. I was inspired to prepare this article after viewing the film, In the Heart of the Sea, and recalling all the historic places during my New England Island Cruise.
Photo by J.P. Ford comparing a human skeleton to a whale display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum