Whaling: The Industry’s Importance To Diversity And Wealth  

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Before the industrial revolution, when the New England states relied on the ocean for their profits, large ships sailed far and wide in search for one of the oceans grandest creatures. While the Southern states made their living off of their farm-land, along the East Coast, one major contributing industry was whaling. Beginning in the 1600s in Norway, whaling quickly spread to modern day Spain where it became a large scale organized operation. No country made as large an impact, however, as the United States. Very large in places like Nantucket and New Bedford, whaling contributed to a large section of the economy, providing a multitude of products ranging from lantern oil to umbrellas. It also provided a majority of the workers from the area as well as many people from different countries and cultures with work, either on the boats or in the factories, making products. Whaling acted as a mixing pot for these different cultures and brought in a flood of wealth with lasting effects on the area. 

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The Whaling Industry provided an important contribution to the wealth and diversity of the New Bedford and Nantucket region. Whaling provided ports and towns with extensive jobs and labor, which made whaling the basis of life for much of New England, particularly in New Bedford. When it was in its prime, whaling provided people around New England with over seventy thousand jobs, which many families poured their life into. Hunting whales was only one tiny segment of the bigger industry that built this area, but it was definitely the most important. There was a lot of work that went into sending a whaling vessel on a voyage beyond just a captain and a crew. This process started after a vessel came back from a voyage. An agent would purchase it and make necessary repairs. Then he would select a captain and his 4 officers. There were around 33 people on one voyage, some to command and some there for the dirty work. 

During the Golden Age of Whaling, which occurred between the mid-1840s through the 60s, ports in places like New Bedford had around 330 ships in their fleet. In the year 1857, New Bedford’s most profitable year, these 330 ships brought in twelve million dollars. The overall population of New Bedford at this time was around 16,000. With 33 people to each ship and around 330 ships, that is a large portion of the population dedicated to the whaling industry. This doesn’t even include the number of people working on land for this industry. Taking into consideration the sheer mass in numbers of ships with the number of crew members that were needed to man each of these vessels, it is very easy to see that the whaling industry was a main source of jobs and in turn, profits. There was a lot more to whaling than just the hunting. Back at home, the ports bustled with activity and factories were in a frenzy to produce merchandise to sell from the slew of whale products that were being hauled in from the sea. 

There were a lot of different products that came from whales that cities became very reliant on. A few of which, mainly whale oil, spermaceti oil, and baleen were important for use in cities along the coast. Whale oil was used mainly to lubricate machinery. When larger machines started making an appearance in everyday life in cities like New Bedford, it was vital to keep them running well. This was the oil found when rendering the fat of whales such as the sperm, right, humpback, bowhead, and grey whales. However, there was also another very important product found in sperm whales specifically. This was spermaceti oil. This oil was found in a mysterious organ in the sperm whale’s head and was collected as a fuel. It was used widely for light, known around the world for its smokeless candles. And finally, whalebone, or baleen, was used for a wide range of industrial products. Once dry, it was extremely flexible, with a consistency of plastic. This made it perfect for things like umbrellas, whips, and corsets. With all of these products in high demand, many people had to organize factories to produce and make a profit. Without a massive workforce, there would not have been as large of a whaling industry. The mass of people needed to supply the whale products and then the separate but equal number of people needed to turn these products into useful items was vastly extensive, but the industry profited exponentially because of it. In the year 1853, “the fleet killed more than 8000 whales to produce 103,000 barrels of sperm oil, 260,000 barrels of whale oil, and 5.7 million pounds of baleen, all of which generated $11 million.” Eleven million dollars in one year can provide a lot of support for a city and it was profitable years like this that held the economy together, as life was based on whaling for many years. Whaling was very important for the wealth of the area in this way. 

New Bedford and Nantucket were making enough profits to have a lasting impact on the area. There were many effects of the whaling industry that expanded well beyond wealth. With wide-reaching boundaries and the entire ocean to travel, whaling vessels went far in order to catch their prey. People all over the world saw an opportunity in whaling. They knew how successful it was and the wealth attributed to the hunting of whales. So, in order to take advantage of this, many different cultures came to New Bedford to seek opportunity on vessels leaving ports. A ship crew list from the Bartholomew Gosnold has a section labeled “place of birth” which makes it evident that people on whaling ships were not even close to almost all from the United States. Around half of the people on ships were from places like Portugal, England, Ireland, Germany, France, and Scotland. The boundaries of the whaling industry were endless. The ships traveled all over the world and even added to their crew in different countries. Dean Hantzopoulos, a certified history teacher and graduate of the University of Rhode Island writes in one of his articles, “Crews were composed of Yankees from New England and Long Island, Native Americans, African Americans, Cape Verdeans, recent immigrants from many countries, and indigenous people from various ports of call on the whaling routes in the Pacific.” He also goes on to talk about how it was not unlikely that these crews were composed of a majority of foreign immigrants. All of these people coming from different countries added to the mixing pot that was New Bedford and Nantucket. The diversity of our culture in the area is very much related to the whaling industry, which attracted a lot of people to the area. 

There was also a lot of diversity relating to black and white mixing. After the African American slaves were freed in 1865, many went to work on whaling vessels and even treated as equals. Any man who was able-bodied enough to aid in killing and harvesting whales was respected enough to be considered equal. There were even multiple captains owning whaling vessels in New Bedford. Due to the fact that many people in New Bedford and Nantucket were Quakers, and Quakers were against slavery, African Americans were accepted more than in other places. This acceptance also lead to whaling ports becoming important stops for slaves along the Underground Railroad, before slavery was abolished. Along with African American acceptance, there was a distinct cultural link with Native Americans in the area, who also had a large role in the whaling industry. These two races could even go as far as to own ships. There was even one shipowner, Paul Cuffe, who was born to a Native American mother and an African American slave father. This diverse work environment was certainly ahead of its time, and there’s no question that it had a major impact on the long-lasting effects of whaling on the area. In certain times of war, the strength of the whaling industry was tested. With British naval warships taking control of whale ships and employing them under the king during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the industries income fluctuated. There was no consistent income and with the return rate of the whaling ships slowly declining, the dependency of this industry was revealed. During the Revolutionary War, Nantucket took a big hit. With ships constantly being taken over by the British, there were a lot of lost seamen. Over 1200 disappeared with their boats and cargo. Along with this, there was a massive loss of boats, with one Captain William Rotch losing a total of 12 throughout the war. Alexander Starbuck, a Nantucket native born in 1841, wrote in his book, “Of the little over 150 vessels owned there in 1775, 134 had fallen into the hands of the English and 15 more were lost by shipwreck… the direct money loss exceeded 1,000,000.” This loss of boats, crew, and cargo was devastating to Nantucket, but the largest impacts from war were during the War of 1812. Nantucket at this time was far ahead of New Bedford in terms of size of their fleet, but after they were once again strangled, they fell behind. Alexander Starbuck also wrote about the War of 1812 and its impact in Nantucket. Again did war put an effectual stop to the pursuit of whaling from every port of the United States save Nantucket, and again were the inhabitants of that town, knowing no business except through their shipping, compelled to strive to carry their commercial marine through the tempest of tire as free from complete destruction as possible. Without the whaling industry, as Starbuck goes to explain, Nantucket was struggling to stay afloat. A lot of places along the coast were able to halt whaling, emphasizing their other successful industries to make a large profit, but the Nantucket area was not able to do this. There was no other predominant industry in the area to rely on. 

Over the course of the war, Nantuckets fleet dropped in numbers almost half, going from forty-six all the way down to twenty-three. This larger loss of ships was enough to almost completely destroy the Nantucket whaling industry. There was a comeback, but this area never made it back to its original glory, and especially never surpassed New Bedford again. When the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814, effectively ending the war, whaleships were able to make it back to port. On July ninth, 1815, the first whaleship returned to Nantucket harbor since the beginning of the War of 1812. This ship, carrying 100 barrels of whale oil, was able to kickstart the industry again. It was New Bedford, whose comeback after the war was inspirational. Building its armotta from ten to thirty-six in just five years, it was on its way to greatness. Sperm hunting bounced back up to the top industry and by 1841, with seventy-five whaling ships sailing in and out of New Bedford harbor, it was “fast becoming one of the wealthiest [cities] in the nation.” The whaling industry was the foundation of the New Bedford, Nantucket area and was a major support system for the economy as a whole. It is very easy to tell, especially from what happened in Nantucket during times of conflict, that without this industry, the legacy that New Bedford holds, would have been lost. 

The New Bedford and Nantucket whaling industry holds a legacy in history that will live on forever. This area lived through its glory days through most of the 1800s, but every story must come to an end. There were many causes of the decline of the industry, but the leading two were the discovery of petroleum, and the rise of worker wages during the industrial revolution. With a new source of energy, this new oil petroleum, whale oil slowly became obsolete, being much more expensive to get. And with the prices of hiring seamen rising as well, many of the bigger captains and agents sailed over to places like Norway, where hiring a crew was still very cheap. Even though this decline of the whaling industry opened the way for other industries in New Bedford that were centralized on land, there was no returning this city to its former glory. While the industry did live though, it was the central support in a complex structure. The industry was able to not only support this area financially but make it extremely wealthy with one simple industry. It brought together people from all over the world to work together to complete this task and sustain their families with influxes of wealth. The New Bedford and Nantucket whaling industry acted as an important, if not vital part of our area’s history and played a major role in our areas wealth and diversity, with lasting effects even to this day. 

16 August 2021

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