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
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.