Daily Archives: October 5, 2019

Inside the New Bedford Whaling Museum – Rhode Island Monthly

The museum tells a fascinating tale of our relationship with whales and how a once-prosperous industry brought wealth to southern New England.

February 18, 2019
Kaitlyn Murray

As my Jetta rumbles down the narrow, weathered cobblestone streets lining the little port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on an overcast afternoon, I get a sudden, overwhelming urge to tell passersby to “call me Ishmael.”

Never mind that Moby Dick was one of my least favorite reads from freshman year English, or that the idea of drifting out to sea for any period longer than an afternoon is my worst nightmare. The name just feels appropriate given my destination: the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

If you’re unfamiliar with the historic locale’s story, let me catch you up. New Bedford was quite the whaling hotspot back in the day.

“If you look at New England’s history from a mariner’s point of view, geography shaped everything,” says Michael P. Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “The Acushnet River was handpicked by English mariners exploring the new world as early as 1602. Between the area’s layout and wind patterns, they knew it was the perfect setting for a seaport and therefore a big draw for commerce and culture.”

While the early explorers’ line of thinking was correct, it would be another fifty years before Plymouth Colony settlers would acquire the surrounding 115,000 acres from the Wampanoags and dub it Old Dartmouth. It would then be another century before Bedford Village (a.k.a. present-day New Bedford) would emerge as a separate entity. By the mid-eighteenth century, neighboring Nantucket had already established itself as a leader in the whaling industry, but while Nantucketers owned and manned the ships, merchants from Boston, Newport and Providence were the ones who controlled the catch. This meant that “outsiders” set the prices of the incoming oil, bone and other whale byproducts, and they also had a monopoly on foreign export routes. Come the 1760s, however, the people who participated in the actual labor of whaling — read: sailing out to sea, hunting the whales and processing them — had grown weary of being underneath someone else’s thumb.

“They wanted to skip over the middle guys completely,” Dyer explains. “So, they just simply set up their own village.”

The move was led not only by prominent Nantucket whaling merchants like Joseph Rotch, who had the finances to build ships and outfit crews, but also Newport Quakers like Samuel Rodman who had the knowledge and experience to pursue whaling, refine the oil and make marketable products like spermaceti candles, a semi-liquid found in a sperm whale’s head cavity. The waxy substance was perfect for creating candles, making it a hot commodity before the age of electricity and thus helping to spur sperm whaling into a major industry.

“And it was completely an American invention, the idea that you can sail out into the deep ocean, kill a sperm whale, pull the blubber off, chop it into pieces, put it in the furnace, boil it into oil, put the oil in casks, put the casks in the hold of your sloop and then continue on your way until you’re full,” Dyer says. “You didn’t have to return to shore after each kill; it was all done at sea. And then, neither the British nor anyone else quite knew how to refine and press the oil, but Newport, Nantucket and Bedford Village figured it out and perfected it.”

Unlike Nantucket, however, which solely focused on hunting sperm whales, Bedford Village decided to add other species to their catch.

“Right whales are very large filter feeders, and the baleen found in their mouths is limber and flexible. It has all kinds of industrial purposes,” Dyer explains. “So, Bedford merchants targeted these animals because they knew the market; they knew that they could go out on short voyages to the coasts of South America and Africa, hunt them and sell the oil and baleen all the while still sending out one or two vessels on long voyages for sperm whaling.”

By the time New Bedford was formally incorporated as a city in 1847, it had surpassed Nantucket and all other whaling ports in size, tonnage of its fleet and value of its catch, whaling in virtually every corner of the world. By the mid-1850s, there were 350 whalers registered in New Bedford alone.

But then, less than a decade later, came the decline. Other industries rose worldwide (i.e. gas, coal, textiles), while the value of whale oil slowly dwindled. And with fewer fortunes being made from whaling, fewer men took to the sea, instead opting for factory work. Nowadays, commercial whaling is no longer a thing — it was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 due to major population declines — but the New Bedford Whaling Museum is dedicated to keeping the industry’s history alive. In fact, they’ve made it their mission to share the global story of human interaction with whales.

…(read more).

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America: Eric Jay Dolin

A Los Angeles Times Best Non-Fiction Book of 2007
A Boston Globe Best Non-Fiction Book of 2007
Amazon.com Editors pick as one of the 10 best history books of 2007
Winner of the 2007 John Lyman Award for U. S. Maritime History, given by the North American Society for Oceanic History

“The best history of American whaling to come along in a generation.” ―Nathaniel Philbrick

The epic history of the “iron men in wooden boats” who built an industrial empire through the pursuit of whales. “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling. Eric Jay Dolin begins his vivid narrative with Captain John Smith’s botched whaling expedition to the New World in 1614. He then chronicles the rise of a burgeoning industry―from its brutal struggles during the Revolutionary period to its golden age in the mid-1800s when a fleet of more than 700 ships hunted the seas and American whale oil lit the world, to its decline as the twentieth century dawned. This sweeping social and economic history provides rich and often fantastic accounts of the men themselves, who mutinied, murdered, rioted, deserted, drank, scrimshawed, and recorded their experiences in journals and memoirs. Containing a wealth of naturalistic detail on whales, Leviathan is the most original and stirring history of American whaling in many decades.

The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation

George Washington’s place in the foundations of the Republic remains unrivalled. His life story from his beginnings as a surveyor and farmer, to colonial soldier in the Virginia Regiment, leader of the Patriot cause, commander of the Continental Army, and finally first president of the United States reflects the narrative of the nation he guided into existence. There is, rightfully, no more chronicled figure.

Yet American history has largely forgotten what Washington himself knew clearly: that the new Republic’s fate depended less on grand rhetoric of independence and self governance and more on land Indian land. Colin G. Calloway’s biography of the greatest founding father reveals in full the relationship between Washington and the Native leaders he dealt with intimately across the decades: Shingas, Tanaghrisson, Guyasuta, Attakullakulla, Bloody Fellow, Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, Red Jacket, and Little Turtle, among many others. Using the prism of Washington’s life to bring focus to these figures and the tribes they represented the Iroquois Confederacy, Lenape, Miami, Creek, Delaware Calloway reveals how central their role truly was in Washington’s, and therefore the nation’s, foundational narrative.

Calloway gives the First Americans their due, revealing the full extent and complexity of the relationships between the man who rose to become the nation’s most powerful figure and those whose power and dominion declined in almost equal degree during his lifetime. His book invites us to look at America’s origins in a new light. The Indian World of George Washington is a brilliant portrait of both the most revered man in American history and those whose story during the tumultuous century in which the country was formed has, until now, been only partially told.