Men in Search of Whales
by Bob Brooke
In order to fully understand his or her ancestors, a genealogist must often learn
more about what they did for a living. While some occupations have changed little
over the centuries, others have disappeared entirely. Whaling is one of those
By 1846, whaling was the second-largest industry in New England, with 730 ships and
millions of dollars in profits. At its height in 1857, 43 ports registered whaling
ships in the Northeast. The industry employed more than 10,000 seamen, and thousands
more worked as coopers, carpenters, rope and sail makers, and boat builders.
To get men to work on whaling vessels, owners posted advertisements near port towns:
"Chance of a Lifetime" or "Come See the World." Because of the dangers, small pay
and years at sea, whaling most often attracted men who couldn't find other work-poor
whites, Indians, former slaves.
No work anywhere in America was so integrated, but it was harsh reality and not good
intentions that brought crews together. "Whaling was the most dangerous job on the
sea that has ever existed,"said Michael P. Dyer, curator of maritime history at the
Kendall Whaling Museum, in Sharon, Massachusetts. "There was no romance associated
with it at all. It was brutal. Few men wanted to do it.''
Ships' records tell the day-to-day stories of long voyages, of years at sea, of the
killing and butchering of whales, and of other ships sighted and islands visited. But
they also tell the stories of captains killed by whales, crewmen drowned or their
limbs ripped off by ropes, of ships lost in ice floes or wrecked on uncharted shoals.
The whaling industry, which brought millions of dollars in profits to the Northeast
in less than 30 years before the industry's sudden collapse in the 1860s, was
documented in precise detail. Captains kept journals of exactly where their boats
were, what they saw, how many whales were killed and how many got away.
But captains weren't the only ones who kept records. Often, their wives went along on
voyages and kept diaries. Some crew members also kept diaries showing every event
that occurred during months at sea.
Butchering a whale was ugly, bloody work. The dead whale would be towed alongside the
ship, where its thick blubber would be stripped off with long poles that looked like
spades. The thick, rubbery blubber would be carried over to the ``tryworks,'' where
it would be boiled in large vats, and the oil poured into barrels. The bones would be
shipped to manufacturers for use in such items as shoehorns, gentlemen's collars,
umbrella stays and hoops in women's dresses.
A whalman's pay was abysmal. What a ship brought back in terms of profit depended on
how much oil and bone it collected -- and, specifically, how much sperm oil, which
was more valuable -- and what price it brought at the time. For example, oil prices
ranged from a few cents a gallon some years to more than $2 a gallon in the 1860s,
when whaling was scaled back because of the Civil War.
"Traditionally, the profit was divided into thirds," said Scott. "One third went to
the owners and agents, one third went to upkeep of the ship, and one third went to
the captain and crew. The captain would get a larger share of that one-third than a
crewman. Some crewmen got 1/200th or 1/225th. A captain might get a 10th or a 16th.
But if you were at sea for two years or more, the money wasn't much."
Events conspired to cripple the whaling industry-the discovery of gold in California
in 1848 and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. The former caused a flood
of men who otherwise might have worked on whalers to go west. The latter created a
new supply of oil almost overnight
While the market for whale oil died in the 1850s, the market for baleen --
whalebone -- lived on until 1908. That year, a new type of woman's dress was invented
that didn't need thin strips of whalebone to keep it billowy. And corsets, which used
stays made of baleen, went out of fashion, too. And with it, an industry died.
For more information on whaling, visit the Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon,
MA (781/784-5642 or www.kwm.org), the Old Dartmouth Historical Society Whaling Museum,
New Bedford, MA(508/997-0046, the Nantucket Whaling Museum, Nantucket,
MA (508/228-1894), or the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum, Cold Spring Harbor, Long
Island, NY (516/367-3418).
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