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The American whaler Essex, which hailed from Nantucket, Massachusetts, is attacked by an 80-ton sperm whale 2,000 miles from the western coast of South America.
The 238-ton Essex was in pursuit of sperm whales, specifically the precious oil and bone that could be derived from them, when an enraged bull whale rammed the ship twice and capsized the vessel. The 20 crew members escaped in three open boats, but only five of the men survived the harrowing 83-day journey to the coastal waters of South America, where they were picked up by other ships. Most of the crew resorted to cannibalism during the long journey, and at one point men on one of the long boats drew straws to determine which of the men would be shot in order to provide sustenance for the others. Three other men who had been left on a desolate Pacific island were saved later.
The first capture of a sperm whale by an American vessel was in 1711, marking the birth of an important American industry that commanded a fleet of more than 700 ships by the mid 18th century. Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) was inspired in part by the story of the Essex.
READ MORE: Was There a Real Moby Dick?
The Diverse Whaling Crews of Melville’s Era
The ship from Moby Dick was a fairly accurate portrayal of the multi-racial character of American whaling crews before the Civil War.
Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick or, The Whale, is many things. Threaded through its tangle of metaphysics, monomania, and humor is a veritable manual of the American sperm whale fishery. Ishmael’s ship, the Pequod, was a symbolic microcosm. But was its multicultural crew actually an accurate representation of the industry? On the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, let’s take a closer look at these crews.
Native Americans were the first to hunt whales along the coast of what became New England. They showed European colonialists how to do it. When colonialists on Nantucket, the birthplace of American off-shore whaling, started going further out to sea to hunt whales, the original inhabitants of the island were well represented in their crews.
Some of them, as historian Nancy Shoemaker notes, were involuntary, victims of a cruel debt peonage system. Before about 1830, there were cases of natives kidnapped along the southern New England coast and forced to work aboard ships to pay off debts. Others, however, very much wanted the jobs. Shoemaker writes, “Because whaling offered coastal native men the most viable living, many voluntarily went whaling and took pride in their ability to succeed in the this industry.” Native Americans from Massachusetts to Long Island served as petty officers and mates.
Workers processing whale at whaling station via Flickr
At the same time, as historian James Farr writes, “Fugitives of many descriptions made their way to sea, hoping time and distance would hide their tracks.” These included enslaved people. Farr gives the example of Prince Boston, who self-emancipated himself during a voyage. Like other enslaved people, Prince Boston was originally put on a ship to work for his “owners.” But after the voyage, the Quaker ship captain paid Boston directly. Boston’s legal owners sued, and lost in court. Boston then successfully petitioned for formal emancipation. Crispus Attucks was another black whaler, of African and Native American heritage. On March 5, 1770, he was in the city of Boston on shore leave when British Redcoats opened fire on the demonstration he was participating in. He became the first American killed in the American Revolution.
Making a living hunting whales was not easy. As Shoemaker writes:
It meant being away from home for three to four years at a time, tediously trolling the seas in hopes of sighting a whale spout or breach. All while at great risk of being mauled in the jaws of a sperm whale, or, more commonly, falling from aloft, succumbing to fever or scurvy, or returning home empty-handed.
Crew members received “lays,” or percentage shares in the final take, meaning there were chances they’d end up with nothing if no whales were taken and boiled down for their oil. As Farr points out, lays for black crewmembers could be the lowest aboard ship. Crewmembers could also end up in debt because of cheating merchants and rapacious ship owners (most captains were also employees of the owners). “Men of all nations and races were fleeced with the same admirable evenhandedness,” writes Farr.
These were hardly utopias afloat. But Farr quotes John Allan, a black whaleman writing in 1857: aboard ship, there was “no distinction as to color.” Black harpooners, a critical position, were a mainstay of the industry. There were even a few black captains. Paul Cuffee, a son of an Ashanti man and a Wampanoag woman, became a very successful merchant and whaling ship owner. The famed Essex, an inspiration for Moby Dick, was sunk by a whale in 1820: of its crew of nineteen, six were black.
The 1850s saw the peak of the sperm whale fishery, with some 500 whaling ships. One in six men in this fleet was African American. But the end of that decade saw an industry-debilitating financial crisis and the 1859 discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Petroleum would take the place of whale oil. At least for Americans, the commercial slaughter of whales dwindled down until the last whaling voyage in the twenties, precisely when Moby Dick was being revived as a great American novel.
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American vessel sunk by sperm whale - HISTORY
Today I found out about a real life white whale that destroyed over 20 whaling ships and reportedly survived encounters with another 80 or so.
The massive 70 foot long albino sperm whale was named Mocha Dick and was one of the two whales that inspired the novel Moby Dick. Mocha Dick was given his name as he was first sighted off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island the latter “Dick” part of the name is thought to have simply been after the practice of naming certain deadly whales common names like “Dick” or “Tom”. The whalers that first spotted him attempted to kill him, but he survived the encounter.
Over the course of the next 28 years Mocha Dick earned a reputation as one of the most cunning and feared whales in the ocean. During that span, he was spotted and attacked by at least 100 whaling ships. He successfully destroyed around 20 of those ships that attacked him and escaping all but the last.
According to famed explorer and writer Jeremiah N. Reynolds, Mocha Dick finally met his downfall after observing a mother whale whose calf had just been killed by whalers. The mother whale first attempted to herd her calf away from the whalers after it had been harpooned, but soon the calf went belly up. When the whale realized her calf was dead, she turned on the whalers and attempted, unsuccessfully, to destroy their ship. Instead, she herself was harpooned and mortally wounded before she was able to strike the ship.
Upon observing all this, Mocha Dick decided to get in on the fray and also attacked the whaling ship directly after the missed hit by the mother. Mocha Dick successfully destroyed one of the smaller whaling boats, but was injured in the process by a harpoon. Here is the account of what happened after, according to Reynolds who collected the story from the first mate of the whaling ship that finally took down Mocha Dick:
The other whale that helped inspire Moby Dick was a huge sperm whale that destroyed the Essex in 1820 around 2,000 miles west of South America. Herman Melville learned of the story of the Essex when the whaling ship he was on, only 100 miles from where the Essex was destroyed, encountered another whaling ship, which had the son of the Essex’s first mate, Owen Chase, aboard.
After the Essex was destroyed, the 21 man crew took refuge on three small whaling boats that had almost no supplies to sustain them. Their choice at this point was to head for known habitable islands that they feared were inhabited with cannibals, 1,200 miles away, or head for South America 2,000 miles away, but about 4,000 miles by the quickest sailing route due to the winds that time of year. Despite this distance, they chose South America. Ironically, as you’ll read shortly, their choice of not choosing the much shorter route for fear of cannibals, resulted in some of them resorting to cannibalism.
During their journey, they did at one point encounter an island that they more or less stripped of its resources to help sustain themselves. They also left three men behind there, at the time thinking likely to their doom, to help conserve supplies and increase the chances the others would make it back.
What followed was an incredibly gruesome tail. As they traveled, they steadily lost crew due to lack of nourishment. At a certain point, they were forced to give up burying their men at sea and, instead, began eating them and drinking their blood. They eventually even had to resort to not waiting for someone to die, but, rather, drew lots for who was to die and nourish the others with their body.
In the end, 95 days after their ship was destroyed, they were rescued with only five left alive aboard the two remaining small ships (one was lost along the way with the crew never heard from again). Miraculously, the three left on the depleted island, though near death when eventually found, survived the event.
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Please donate to help us consign whaling to history
Sperm whales had already been swimming the ocean for millions of years before the first of our own ancestors had picked up a tool or stood upright. As the largest toothed predators on the planet, with the largest brain on Earth, they knew few natural enemies. Then, in the 18 th and 19 th centuries, they became the target for the first great oil rush, and were hunted down, killed and rendered into oil by whalers from the US, Europe and Russia.
Sperm whales were valued in barrels of oil - oil which lit cities across America and Europe and helped kick start the Industrial Revolution. The tragic irony of this exploitation was that it turned whales, who we now know are both vital to maintaining a healthy planet and one of the most intelligent and culturally sophisticated species on Earth, into greenhouse gases, decimating their populations while contributing to human-made climate change.
‘By the end of worldwide whaling,’ explains WDC ambassador Philip Hoare in his book Leviathan, ’Nearly three-quarters of all sperm whales had been killed, reducing a population of more than a million in 1712 to 360,000 by the end of the 20th Century.’
Today, decades after the ban on commercial whaling came into place, sperm whales are still listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While they are no longer hunted, they are still threatened by collision with shipping, entanglement in fishing gear and ocean warming.
But there is hope. The whaling ships that once set sail from close to our North America office in Massachusetts have now been replaced by whale watching boats. In ex-whaling nations, such as the UK, people appreciate that living whales are of inestimably greater value than dead whales – as individuals, as sources of wonder and as allies in our fight against climate change.
2020 has been a reminder to us all that there are repercussions to harming the natural world – from pandemics to climate breakdown. It’s a lesson we should have learnt from this whale 200 years ago and one that we need to learn quickly, before it’s too late. Because, to paraphrase Ishmael, Mother Nature will stand no nonsense!
Search for #Essex200 to learn more about amazing sperm whales.
Was the whaleship Essex ever found?
Pollard's first ship, the Essex, sank in 1820 after being rammed by a sperm whale&mdashan incident that inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Adrift at sea in small whaleboats for more than three months, the starving crew of the Essex resorted to cannibalism.
Furthermore, who survived the whaleship Essex? On March 17, Pollard and Ramsdell were reunited with Chase, Lawrence, and Nickerson. By the time the last of the eight survivors were rescued on April 5, 1821, the corpses of seven fellow sailors had been consumed. All eight went to sea again within months of their return to Nantucket.
Secondly, did a whale really attack the Essex?
In 1820, a giant sperm whale, apparently 85 feet long (the average is 50ft) attacked a whaleship named the Essex, causing her to sink. Her crew were left adrift in three whaleboats (lighter boats used in the capture of whales) thousands of miles from land.
Was Herman Melville on the Essex?
Attack on the Essex. On November 20, 1820, the American whaling ship Essex was rammed by a sperm whale and sunk. The incident inspired Herman Melville's famous novel Moby Dick. The Essex had left her home port on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, more than a year earlier.
American vessel sunk by sperm whale - HISTORY
This Date in History: November 20, 1820
On this date in 1820, an estimated 80 ton sperm whale attacked and destroyed the whaling ship, Essex, an event that partly inspired the novel Moby Dick. Sailing around 2,000 miles west of South America, the crew of the Essex encountered a huge whale, which they claimed was around 85 feet long, though it should be noted that typical mature male sperm whales only grow to around 60-70 feet long. However, in one instance they did have a good reference point when the whale floated directly under the ship with head to tail lined up with the boat. In any event, when they first saw it, the whale just floated at the surface watching them, then suddenly swam at and rammed the ship.
At this point, their craft was still sea worthy, though damaged, and the whale seemed dazed by the impact. The captain decided not to harpoon the whale because it sat more or less directly under the ship at this point and if it thrashed around, it could do serious damage to the rudder so they let it go. Rather than swim away and leave the ship behind once it recovered, the whale instead chose to only swim away far enough so that it could get a better swimming speed as it went to ram the ship a second time (from about 500 meters away). According to First-mate Owen Chase, one of few crew members to survive the event, the 80 ton whale swam at around 20-25 knots towards the boat. This time, the 238 ton ship’s hull was shattered and the ship began to sink rapidly.
Now that their main ship was destroyed, the crew, consisting of 21 people, took refuge on three small whaling boats that had almost no supplies to sustain them. Their choice at this point was to head for known habitable islands that they feared were inhabited with cannibals, 1,200 miles away, or head for South America 2,000 miles away, but about 4,000 miles by the quickest sailing route due to the winds that time of year. Despite this distance, they chose South America. Ironically, as you’ll read shortly, their choice of not choosing the much shorter route for fear of cannibals, resulted in some of them resorting to cannibalism.
During their journey, they did at one point encounter an island which they more or less stripped of its resources to help sustain themselves. They also left three men behind there, at the time thinking likely to their doom, to help conserve supplies and increase the chances the others would make it back.
What followed was an incredibly gruesome tail. As they traveled, they steadily lost crew due to lack of nourishment. At a certain point, they were forced to give up burying their men at sea and, instead, began eating them and drinking their blood. They eventually even had to resort to not waiting for someone to die, but, rather, drew lots for who was to die and nourish the others with their body. In the end, 95 days after their ship was destroyed, they were rescued with only five left alive aboard the two remaining small ships (one was lost along the way with the crew never heard from again). Miraculously, the three left on the depleted island, though near death when eventually found, survived the event.
Herman Melville learned of the story of the Essex when the whaling ship he was on only 100 miles from where the Essex was destroyed encountered another whaling ship, which had the son of Owen Chase aboard. While this story was the initial inspiration for Moby Dick, other elements of the story were inspired by a real life white whale, Mocha Dick, which also had a propensity for destroying whaling ships and which Melville later learned of (there will be more on Mocha Dick in an upcoming article on Today I Found Out). Interestingly, while Moby Dick today is considered a great work of literature, in its day, it wasn’t very successful and only earned Melville $556.37 and less than 3000 copies were sold over the next 40 years or so before Melville died.
How often do whales attack ships?
Moby Dick, arguably the most famous whale ever, was never real. But the vindictive fictional cetacean was inspired by the tale of a real-life sperm whale, which attacked and sunk the whaling boat Essex in the southern Pacific Ocean on Nov. 20, 1820.
Now, Hollywood is recreating that unusual tragedy. Chris Hemsworth stars in the Ron Howard-directed In the Heart of the Sea, which opens Dec. 11, 2015.
Whales attacking ships are rare — indeed, just a handful of such incidents have ever been documented. Here, two Canadian scientists — Stephen L. Cumbaa, emeritus research scientist, paleobiology at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature and Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior scientist and head of the marine mammal research program at the Vancouver Aquarium — explain the history of whale attacks and what might provoke them.
On the frequency of whale attacks
Barrett-Lennard: The really good, well-substantiated accounts of whales attacking ships date back to whaling days, and there are a couple of classic attacks, one of which is the attack on the Essex that inspired Moby-Dick. What’s amazing to me is that these accounts of attacks are so few and far between. Given all the contact between boats and whales and people and whales, collisions are relatively rare and attacks are extremely rare.
Cumbaa: For the most part, whales are docile creatures and they want to be left alone to pursue their own mating and hunting. Whaling was usually a cold, wet, smelly and dangerous — albeit lucrative — occupation, and fatalities from harpooners getting tangled in lines, or when a whale turned or sounded and came up to smash the small hand-rowed pursuit boats were common. Stories about incidents such as that which befell Essex and similar large ships are very rare. But they are very interesting and compelling.
On why whales might attack
Barrett-Lennard: Being poked by a harpoon is a pretty good incentive to turn on whatever is attacking you. Grey whales can be quite feisty. Male sperm whales can be quite feisty with each other, too, so it’s in their nature, in a sense, to understand and be able to aggressively intimidate rivals. So it’s not really a surprise that if either species was being attacked by humans, by whalers in particular, that from time to time they would turn on their harassers. The surprising thing is that during the commercial whaling era they didn’t do it more often.
Cumbaa: A completely unprovoked attack would be out of the nature of a whale. So I don’t know whether it was mating time or there had been some injury done. For whatever reason, in the case of the whale that attacked the Essex something had gone wrong in the brain. It’s pretty clear it did attack, and it doesn’t appear to have been a result of a direct provocation at that moment.
On why sperm whales are implicated in at least two of the few recorded attacks
Cumbaa: Sperm whales are pretty unique. They grew to very large sizes and they’re certainly aggressive. They’re the largest toothed whale. They’re not as sharp, but their teeth are Tyrannosaurus Rex-sized. They dive down to the real depths of the ocean and hunt giant squid, and there are many, many instances of these whales coming up with big sucker marks on them. These are the largest whales that directly attack big prey.
Barrett-Lennard: Scientists have been struggling to figure out what evolutionary pressure drove their unusually large head shape. One of the theories is that their heads are battering rams, that males in particular use them in contests. I guess we would call these head-butting episodes fighting. It would kind of go along that there’s this pre-adaptation in the case of sperm whales to attack.
On why whale attacks don't happen more often
Cumbaa: It’s an awfully big ocean out there. While there are thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of any one species of whale, when you spread that over the entirety of a whale’s range, even a seasonal range, that’s not a lot of whale per unit of surface area. Today, most ships go in commercial shipping lanes. They try to follow a kind of path, which whales tend to avoid. If they frequently encounter things that are large, noisy and smelly, they’re going to steer clear.
Barrett-Lennard: I don’t really have a good answer for that. What I can say is that whales generally are pretty conservative animals. These incidents of whales being harassed by something on the surface like a boat are really something that’s come up recently in evolutionary history, and it was relatively infrequent, even during the heyday of whaling, for any given whale. Our encounters are infrequent enough that whales haven’t had an opportunity to develop the kind of aggressive responses to human that might actually be appropriate in a lot of situations.
The real Moby Dick: Do whales really attack humans?
The revenge of a whale or an accidental tragedy? A dramatic retelling of the story that inspired Herman Melville's classic novel will be hitting our screens on BBC One this Sunday - but do whales really attack humans intentionally?
Sperm whales are relatively placid mammals and very few incidents in modern times suggest otherwise. They mainly feed on squid and rarely attack, apparently only when mistaking other mammals for seals or prey.
In his 1839 book about the natural history of sperm whales, Thomas Beale, a surgeon aboard a whaleship, described them as "a most timid and inoffensive animal readily endeavouring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance".
But Dr Richard Bevan, a zoologist and lecturer at Newcastle University, suggests that a sperm whale may remember if it was previously attacked.
"I have no doubt that an individual would remember being harpooned and might respond aggressively if it thought that it was threatened," he said.
"On the other hand a large vessel like a whaling boat would probably look like a very large threat, even to a full grown sperm whale, so Iɽ have thought it more likely to have moved away."
But 19th century literature seems to suggest otherwise, with numerous stories of sperm whales attacking ships on purpose. But were they fuelled by threat, hunger or, as in Melville's classic novel, even revenge?
In 1820, a giant sperm whale, apparently 85 feet long (the average is 50ft) attacked a whaleship named the Essex, causing her to sink. Her crew were left adrift in three whaleboats (lighter boats used in the capture of whales) thousands of miles from land.
Alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the men had to decide whether to head for the nearest islands, a thousand miles downwind to the west, or set out on an epic journey of almost three thousand miles to reach the South American mainland.
Fear of cannibals forced them to choose South America, but they never made it.
Of the 21 crew members aboard The Essex, just eight members of the crew were rescued after more than 80 days at sea with an incredible tale of starvation, dehydration and unfathomable, mortal desperation to tell.
Two members of the crew wrote accounts of the failed voyage. First mate Owen Chase's account was a widely circulated story of the time, published just months after his return home. The other, written by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson 50 years later, was not published, but, remarkably, was discovered in an attic in 1960, 80 years after Nickerson's death.
Their accounts differ in places, but what is indisputable is that they both recall exactly how their supposedly "lucky" ship sank. It was stove by a giant whale.
Herman Melville heard this story, met with the captain of the Essex and was inspired to write his classic novel Moby Dick.
Moby Dick was actually named after a real whale, Mocha Dick, first spotted by sailors in the 19th century near the island of Mocha, near southern Chile. Whales were often given pet names by sailors, Tom and Dick were common - though there are no accounts of a Harry.
Mocha Dick was an albino whale, described by explorer Jerimiah N Reynolds as "an old bull whale of prodigious size and strength… white as wool". Legend has it that it killed 30 men and was covered in scars and punctured with spears from previous attempts to harpoon it before eventually being slaughtered in 1838.
Sometimes described as Leviathans, sperm whales truly are creatures of mythical proportions. They have the largest teeth of any whale and live to be more than 60 years old. They can dive deeper than any other sea mammal (around 3km) in order to catch their favourite deep sea food, the elusive squid.
But it is the fact that they have the largest brains on Earth, ones that are more complex - in certain ways - than those of humans, that is perhaps most surprising. Their cerebral cortex is much more convoluted than the human cortex, and they are social creatures with strong bonds, staying in stable social groupings and keeping constant companions throughout their lifespan.
Dr Lindy Weilgart, a research associate in the department of biology at Dalhousie University in Canada, believes that in order "to remember all their complex social relationships (families, more distantly related kin, non-related group members), they require a good memory".
In fact, remembering traumatic past incidents could well have been the trigger for the whale that rammed the Essex.
"Briefly, I do believe a sperm whale is capable of the aggression necessary to attack a ship, especially a mother if her young was threatened," Dr Weilgart says.
"I know whalers in general often harpooned calves but kept them alive so as to attract the rest of the family group which came in aid of the calf."
"They then harpooned those adults", she says, a practice that was "particularly cruel".
However, Dr Bevan suggests that while "the cetaceans do have large brains… this is linked to their ability to process sound rather than being linked to what we regard as intelligence".
Whether they can feel emotions like vengeance, is in dispute. It is possible that the whale changed course underwater at the last minute and unwittingly collided with the ship.
Dr Per Berggren, a lecturer in marine science at Newcastle University and specialist in marine mammals, believes this to be nearer the truth.
"It is perhaps more likely that the ship accidentally hit the whale and sustained a leak large enough to sink the vessel."
But what is remarkable in the case of the Essex sinking, is that the whale came back to strike a second time.
First Mate Chase recalled: "I turned around and saw him… directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed… with ten-fold fury and vengeance in his aspect.
"The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.
"The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock and trembled for a few minutes like a leaf."
Latest research shows that whales are self-aware, sentient and more intelligent than previously thought. They can feel pain and suffering and therefore potentially a level of cognitive function it is also now thought they can even experience feelings of love.
Sperm whales do not have many predators, killer whales (orcas) are known to have attacked sperm whales and occasionally sharks but since the early 1700s by a large the most serious predator of sperm whales has been homo sapiens.
Whaling in the 19th century was a lucrative business as whale oil became immensely valuable for lighting oil lamps and making candles and soaps. More than 900 whaleships were out to sea in the mid-1800s, hailing mainly from American ports, with an average voyage length of three or four years.
By the mid 19th century, whale numbers were depleting rapidly. But with the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859, the American whaling industry had almost completely disappeared by the start of World War I.
Whale hunting is now illegal in most parts of the world (though still practised by some nations such as Norway and Japan) and concerns about the welfare of whales in captivity are currently making waves in the news.
The documentary film Blackfish, about an orca in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando that was involved in several deaths, has recently caused controversy for the theme park. The documentary suggests that keeping the whales in captivity may be causing them to behave psychotically.
Acts including Willie Nelson and Barenaked Ladies have recently cancelled performances at the park in the wake of the film's release. But SeaWorld has issued a detailed rebuttal of claims in the film.
When First Mate Starbuck declares to Captain Ahab that "Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!" it's likely he was telling an awful and haunting truth.
Whether or not the sperm whale that attacked the whaleship Essex on the night of 20 November 1820 did so on purpose, we will never know. But the fascinating and undying rumour of his revenge certainly lives on.
The Whale will be shown on BBC One on Sunday 22nd December at 9pm.
Going north for whales
Since the 1790s, American whaleships had “rounded the Horn” (the southernmost tip of South America) and pursued whales in the Pacific Ocean. As sperm whales became scarcer, whaleships sailed further north in the Pacific. When Thomas Welcome Roys, master of the Sag Harbor, New York, ship Superior sailed into the Bering Sea in 1848, he discovered a large population of bowhead whales and launched the era of Arctic whaling.
Hungry for baleen
Baleen (strips made of keratin that are found in the mouths of baleen whales instead of teeth) was used for:
- Carriage springs
- Corset stays
- Fishing rods
- Frames for traveling bags, trunks, and women’s hats
- Hoops for women’s dresses
- Buggy whips and
- Umbrella and parasol ribs. After the Civil War (1861-1865), demand for baleen increased and kept the whaling industry alive. An increasing number of Yankee whalers made San Francisco their home base for journeys to the Arctic.
A new enemy
Although the Arctic bowhead did not fight as fiercely as the sperm whale, whalemen had to cope with a savage environment. Good timing was critical. Whaleships reached the Arctic in mid-summer when the ice had melted enough to permit passage and had to sail out in late summer to avoid getting trapped in the ice.
In 1871, thirty-three whaleships were lost as ice closed in around them before they could sail south at summer’s end. They were valued at more than $1,600,000 (approximately $13,000,000 in 1982 dollars). Twenty-two of the ships were from New Bedford and represented a loss of $1,000,000. By 1876, as whales were becoming harder to find, the Arctic fleet had only twenty vessels. Twelve ships were lost that year, and there were other, smaller losses to ice in later years. The names of the vessels lost in 1871 were:
Bark Roman of New Bedford
Bark Concordia of New Bedford
Ship Gay Head of New Bedford
Bark George of New Bedford
Ship John Wells of New Bedford
Bark Massachusetts of New Bedford
Bark J.D. Thompson of New London, CT
Ship Contest of New Bedford
Bark Emily Morgan of New Bedford
Ship Champion of Edgartown, MA
Bark Henry Taber of New Bedford
Bark Elizabeth Swift of New Bedford
Ship Florida of New Bedford
Bark Oliver Crocker of New Bedford
Bark Navy of New Bedford
Ship Reindeer of New Bedford
Bark Seneca of New Bedford
Bark George Howland of New Bedford
Bark Fanny of New Bedford
Bark Carlotta of San Francisco, CA
Bark Paiea of Honolulu
Bark Monticello of New London, CT
Brig Kohola of Honolulu
Bark Eugenia of New Bedford
Ship Julian of Honolulu
Bark Awashonks of New Bedford
Bark Thomas Dickason of New Bedford
Bark Minerva of New Bedford
Ship William Rotch of New Bedford
Brig Victoria of San Francisco, CA
Ship Mary of Edgartown
Brig Comet of Honolulu
Steaming to the Arctic
The first American steam whaler, the Mary and Helen, sailed from New Bedford in 1879. As the price of baleen rose during the 1880s, an increasing number of auxiliary steam-powered whaleships joined the traditional fleet in hunting for bowheads. These new whalers could enter dangerous waters and get out again, unlike their sail-powered cousins. They were not invulnerable, however, and the North Star was crushed in ice on its maiden voyage.
Wintering in the Arctic
The usual pattern was to “lay up” Arctic whaleships in San Francisco after they returned from the north in the autumn. Often, a ship was left with only a shipkeeper aboard until it was overhauled in spring for departure directly to the Arctic. However, by 1890 a number of whaleships were wintering in the Arctic.
Preparing for a rigorous journey
A ship had to be in top-notch condition to winter in the Arctic. The entire journey would take two and a half years, so the ship was loaded with tons of supplies, food, and equipment. After sailing from San Francisco in March, the first stop was usually in the Aleutian Islands (an archipelago extending southwest from the Alaska Peninsula), where the ship took on coal and water, then set off on a spring cruise along the Siberian shore, trading for reindeer parkas and sealskin coats, and signing on Eskimos as “ship’s natives.”
Around 1888, whalemen had discovered that Herschel Island in the Arctic had a good harbor and that whales were plentiful in the area. The island was a hub of whaling activity from 1890 to 1908.
Men, women, children, dogs
A whaleship that planned to spend the winter at Herschel Island in the Arctic might carry an unusual crew:
- More than 40 whalemen
- At least fifteen natives to serve as hunters and seamstresses
- As many as 50 huskies to pull dog sleds
- The wife and children of the captain. The winter of 1894-95 was the first season when families overwintered with the fleet. A captain had to pay the shipowners $1,000 for the privilege.
Settling down for winter: After leaving supplies at Herschel around mid- August ships sailed west for a few weeks of hunting whales. As whaling tapered off, the ships headed for Pauline Cove by the beginning of October to prepare for the freeze. The crew covered the ship’s decks with sod blocks and built sod houses for the ship’s natives.
Social life in an isolated place
As the ice closed in, everyone on the ships faced boredom and loneliness from October until the following May – eight long months. With five hundred men housed in close quarters, problems were inevitable. There were reports of drinking, desertion, and fighting, although the men also played baseball and soccer, skied on the ice, and put on plays and minstrel shows.
A soothing presence
The presence of women and children seemed to reduce tensions. The wives organized card parties, dances, birthday and holiday celebrations. The cabins were often decorated with lanterns and colored lights. At one gathering, a three-piece band played and ice cream, cake, beer, and cigars were served.
Preparing to sail again
During the spring, crews prepared their ships for whaling. The ice began to break up in Pauline Cove in the middle of June and by early July, the ships could begin another voyage.
A holiday interlude
The celebration of the Fourth of July on Herschel Island began with dressing the ships in all their flags and firing salutes to begin a day of tug-of- war, races, baseball, and shooting contests for whalemen and native people. After months in the ice, ships usually began their hunt for whales around July 10th.
The end of an era
Arctic whaling represented the last hurrah of the American industry. As the demand for baleen diminished, the industry was doomed. The last American vessel to use whaleboats, the Motor Ship Patterson, made final port in San Francisco in 1928.
Yankee whaling methods in the early 19th century were fundamentally unchanged from those employed by the medieval Norse Vikings, with later improvements by Spanish and French Basques.
The Vikings hunted right whales along shore and devised an arsenal of harpoons, lances, and butchering techniques, with rigorous laws to regulate the fishery. These were adopted by the Basques, who were the first to make long, pelagic whaling voyages offshore: Basque may have been whaling on the Canadian coast even before Columbus reached the New World, and by the 16th century they had set up shore stations on Labrador to process blubber and “whalebone” (baleen). In the 17th century, to facilitate processing blubber on the open sea, the Basques were experimenting with onboard tryworks (oil cookeries). Basque hirelings passed along their time-tested methods to Dutch, British, and other European Arctic whalers in the early 17th century, and it was these same methods that were brought to the American colonies by Dutch and English settlers.
Even at the height of New Bedford’s whaling prowess in the mid 19th century, the basic procedure remained essentially unchanged: ships were sent to the various whaling grounds with foreknowledge of the seasons when whales could be expected to be present lookouts were posted aloft when whales were spotted boats were lowered in pursuit barbed harpoons were used to fasten to the whale the harpooned whale dragged the boat through the water until it tired out, whence it was dispatched with a lance. The carcass was towed to the mother ship, where it was cut in (butchered), the blubber tried out (rendered into oil), and the whalebone (baleen) cleaned and stowed after which the hunt would resume.
Any improvements in the 19th century tended to be refinements of this basic technology, rather than true innovations. However, refinements were many and significant. The ships, barks, and schooners used in Yankee whaling were highly adapted to their special functions, the result of centuries of refinement. Harpoons benefited from improvements in the steel itself and from advances in design–notably the toggling grommet harpoon, introduced circa 1835, and especially the revolutionary Temple toggle harpoon, invented by African-American shipsmith Lewis Temple of New Bedford in 1848, which dramatically increased efficiency and minimized losses. Poison darts, explosive grenades, and heavy ordnance added to the whalers’ arsenal of killing methods. Rocket guns, adapted from military use –long tubes that rested on the shoulder for firing, not unlike the antitank bazookas of the 20th century–were introduced to whaling around 1820. Experimental guns to shoot harpoons, rather than wield them by hand, appeared in England as early as 1731, but it was not until 1837 that British gunsmith William W. Greener produced a truly effective bow-mounted, swiveling harpoon cannon: his Greener gun earned tenacious popularity with British and American whalers throughout the remainder of the 19th century. Competitive devices were invented in New England: shoulder guns, which look like conventional heavy-gauge rifles and fired an exploding bomb lance (New Bedford, 1846) a bow-mounted swivel gun with improved mounting and recoil properties (Norwich, Connecticut, 1882) a combination harpoon, lance, and bomb lance called a darting gun (New Bedford, 1865) and brass and bronze shoulder guns that were characteristically more durable in Arctic cold than their iron and steel precursors.