Category Archives: 19th Century

Histories of the Forgotten: Whaling

One of the things that I strive to do is to tell the stories of the women and minorities who are often overlooked in textbook accounts of history and science. You’ve probably heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was “borrowed” by Watson and Crick, allowing them to go on to discover the structure of DNA, while she became, for many years, an afterthought in Watson’s seminal book on the discovery-DNA: The Secret of Life. Watson couldn’t even be bothered to remember her name correctly instead referring to her dismissively as “Rosy” a name she never used for herself. Crick, however, would go on to admit that she had been “only two steps away” from the solution herself. She, somewhat luckily, has become a sort of model for the forgotten or ignored in the history of science. We now celebrate her contribution and repudiate the sort of boys will be boys attitude that led her to be left out of the story for so many years. Or at least many of us strive to do that now.

But there are so many other women and minorities who have been all but forgotten in both history broadly and the history of science more specifically. I think that there is a lot to be found in the history of those who have been left in the margins of the history books-if they’re found at all. I’ll try to use the stories of the forgotten as a sort of entry to larger tales. This one will begin with a particular tragedy and move out from there to discuss the history of that quintessential New England trade of yesteryear-whaling.

When the Black Lives Matter movement began, one of the first thing I did was find some websites that told the news from an African-American centered perspective and added them to my Facebook feed, which I use as a kind of RSS feed. One of those is The Root. I’ve always favored non-American sources for the news, such as the BBC, The Economist, and Al Jazeera English but I thought it would be good to expand to outlets that take the perspective of those whose experiences are beyond my direct knowledge.

Anyways, a while back I was interested to read a headline concerning the latest Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea. Despite my rather lackluster feelings for Ron Howard fare-I’d actually considered seeing the movie. I was interested in the fact that this story served as the basis for Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Now, here is where I must confess I haven’t read Melville’s novel, but being born and bred in New England, I do love a good sailor’s yarn about how the sea and its inhabitants are a fickle and dangerous force. And Melville’s tale has been the basis for books that I have read and enjoyed. So it came to me as a surprise to read that there was another, deeper, and infinitely more interesting story beneath this already classic tale of man vs. the sea which had been possibly suppressed. Little was made of the fact that seven African American men had set sail from Nantucket on the whaler Essex and none had survived. Now the fact that this story was left out of the movie, is no surprise at all, Amistad being the exception that proves the rule-Hollywood is not too interested in the African American experience on the high seas. Especially during this era of pre-civil war New England where the realities of the black experience were often much too complicated and subtle to make for good storytelling in the straightforward good vs. evil way favored in film.

In 1819, The Essex set sail from Nantucket to the whaling grounds of the South Pacific. While in the midst of their voyage, in November of 1820, the ship was rammed by a sperm whale over 80 feet long which caused irreparable damage to the hull. The crew scrambled into four small whaleboats and drifted at sea for more than 90 days before the last two remaining crew members were rescued by The Dauphin, another Nantucket whaleship, on February 23, 1821. A few days earlier three other survivors had been rescued by The Indian from London. In all eight would survive the ordeal-these five and three others who had opted to stay on a small island they had discovered earlier on in the voyage. Interestingly, it was the three white men who were not from Nantucket, often referred to as coffs, who had opted to stay on Henderson Island. Coffs were often green and had little onboard experience. They could be from mainland Massachusetts or from New York. The packet ships that brought them to the island were often referred to as “slavers”. These men, as can be imagined, were generally given the lowest jobs and looked down upon by the close-knit Nantucketers who commanded these whalers. In addition, whalers were considered the hardest kind of ship, if merchant ships couldn’t be found, it was only then that one would consider a whaler.

So what happened that led to fact that six African-American men were on the The Essex when it was rammed and that none of them returned? Samuel Reed, Richard Peterson, Lawson Thomas, Charles Shorter, Isaiah Shepherd, and William Bond all perished. The reason? Well that’s a complicated matter of speculation but one worth speculating about nonetheless. Just a quick note, a seventh African-American crew member, Henry De Witt, was on The Essex when it left port. However, for reasons lost to history, he deserted from the crew before they left South America headed for the whaling grounds. This was not an uncommon occurrence for whalemen at the lowest rungs of the ship’s hierarchy who realized how little they were making for risking their lives in the open sea. The fact that he was African-American may have been completely incidental to his desertion.

As the sailors started their ordeal, adrift in the ocean, they first ate what little stores of food they were able to salvage from the wreck. According to a letter written by Aaron Paddack, Captain of the Diana, a whaleship from New York who boarded the Dauphin shortly after it had rescued Captain George Pollard, Jr and Charles Ramsdell; the crew had rescued 600 lbs of bread (in the form of hard tack), a few tools and nails, and as much water as the boats could hold. Most of the bread, however, was contaminated with seawater and they quickly began to die of thirst. Eventually the men turned to cannibalism. The first four to be eaten were all African American members of the crew. In an ironic twist of fate, the crew had voted to avoid setting out for the Marquesas or Society Islands which they might have reached within a month. The reason for this? They had heard rumors that the inhabitants of these islands were cannibals. This was despite the fact that it was known by this time that the inhabitants of the Marquesas were friendly and traders had landed there without incident. Although the wreck of The Essex was considered the Titanic of its day, little was written about the peculiar conditions that led to the procession of events which would end with all African American members of the crew failing to return to home port. Unfortunately, this is not a completely unexpected turn of events. Cannibalism was an unfortunate reality of the sea and most shipwrecked sailors were assumed to have resorted to it if their stores had run out. It was considered a matter of survival and therefore a pardonable sin. In addition, Nantucket had a reputation to maintain and any kind of exposé of conditions on board would be detrimental to the fleet. It was also known that, despite the fact that they could find a sort of equality onboard ship, Nantucketers were not known for their gentle treatment of African American members of the crew. Despite the Quaker nature of most Nantucketers and their abolitionist leanings, they were far from supporters of an equality between the races.

History does not tell us whether or not there was a conscious decision by the men to short the rations of these six men. It does not tell us if it was circumstance or murder that led to these men not returning. But in the very fact that none lived to tell their version of events-one finds the seeds of the idea. Speculation on this front, is simply that, speculation but the fact that little has been made of their deaths is a tragedy that continues to be perpetrated. For me it’s the conscious silence which bothers me. Clearly it’s easier to stick to the facts that are known. However, the African American members of the crew are given less than a minute’s time in Howard’s treatment of the story. A treatment which mirrors the traditional history of the wreck but perpetrates the injustice of not including those six men’s fate in the reckoning of the full story.

This, despite the fact that one of those African American casualties, Steward William Bond, had the presence of mind to salvage two compasses, two copies of Bowditch’s New American Practical Navigator, and two quadrants. Owen Chase, the first mate, would later recall that this equipment was ‘the probably instruments of our salvation.” Bond’s ultimate fate is actually lost to us. His boat was separated from the other two early, and it’s possible survivors never found. One can only hope he avoided the indignity of having been eaten by his fellow crew members. It was Chase, and second mate Matthew Joy, who persuaded Captain George Pollard Jr. to set out for the South American coast-a decision that would cost many lives. In fact, they came within sighting distance of the Society Islands and might have reached Tahiti in a manner of weeks according to the account of Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy whose notebook of the account, written in 1876, was discovered only in 1960 and not published until 1984. The account had been given to a professional writer, Leon Lewis, a New Yorker who had stayed at Nickerson’s boarding house which he ran later in life. For some reason Lewis never published the manuscript and instead gave it to a neighbor. It was in this neighbor’s attic in Penn Yan, New York, sometime after his death that the manuscript was discovered. It then languished for another twenty years until it made it into the hands of Edouard Stackpole, a scholar of the period and of The Essex who realized what it was. It was published as a limited monograph in 1984 by the Nantucket Historical Society.  It is this account which breathes new life into the narrative and which Nathaniel Philbrick used to break new ground in his book, published in 2000, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex from which much of this information is taken and upon which Ron Howard’s film is based. I’d definitely recommend Philbrick’s book. He explores the issues as much as possible given what is known and the book is, with the addition of Nickerson’s manuscript, the most complete treatment to date.

Next I’ll talk about whaling in general. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its decline was only due to the fact that methods of converting crude oil were discovered. The whale was used to create the petroleum products of its day-oil, ‘plastic’ and other products that we now use crude oil to produce, once came from whales.