by Brandon Bell
As an enthusiast of all types of Cetaceans its difficult for me to process Whaling and those who participate in the industry. The intellect, curiosity and complex social dynamics of these magnificent creatures in some ways mirror our own as humans. Nonetheless as a ‘student’ of Marine Biology I am curious about the Whaling industry and all of it’s facets. Who participates in it? Is it necessary? Who are its beneficiaries? What is it’s history? My research yielded some very interesting results…
Whaling has existed almost as long as man, and reached its pinnacle in the early 20th Century, it continue’s today in a limited number of countries including the United States. Native Americans living in Alaska have a long tradition of subsistence Whaling and are allowed by US and international law to harvest Whales up to a limited number every year.
As a Black American from time to time I’m curious about the various different industries we have participated in throughout American history, as it turns out Whaling is one of them and our contributions to the industry was quite significant.
During the late 1700’s Nantucket, MA was the epicenter of American Whaling. The strong Quaker influence on the island and emphasis on tolerance meant race relations were vastly improved in comparison to other areas during the time period where racism was more prevalent. As a result it was not uncommon to find many slaves gaining emancipation from their owners and earning a proper living by either owning a business or through gainful employment. Many freed Blacks found work on the High Sea as a sort of refuge, the work aboard a Whaling ship was dangerous compared to working a Merchant ship, but in high demand and proved more lucrative an enterprise for a black man.
Life as a Black Seaman in the Whaling industry had it’s risks as slavery was still prevalent in the south and some parts of England and it was not uncommon for Black Manned ships to be raided on the open sea and the crew kidnapped and reinserted into slavery. Besides this risk, life aboard a Whaler brought many perils such as illness and difficult voyages often lasting 3 years long. The benefits came when Hulls of a surplus of Whale oil was successfully harvested and delivered to port without spoil, allowing for promotion and substantial salary raises to freedmen.
Absalom Boston was such a man. A descendant born free of emancipated slaves he would eventually become a Captain well known in the Whaling trade as the captain of an all black crew regularly bringing successful hulls of oil.
During the mid 19th Century a former slave turned blacksmith by the name of Lewis Temple invented a new and improved Whaling harpoon in what would eventually be known as the new standard equipment for the trade. Temple one of the few freed blacks at the time would go on to operate a successful whaling craft and supply shop enabling him to purchase property to establish a harpoon manufacturing plant.
Looking far south below the US and Nantucket we arrive at Barbados birthplace of William T. Shorey another famous Black Captain. Shorey was respected for his skill in harpooning and leadership, commanding a multi racial crew.
With the advent of steamships sailing ships were rendered obsolete for the purposes of whaling and the late 1920’s saw a dwindle in demand for black seaman. As a result they were forced to accept lesser roles as cooks and stewards.
Regardless of my personal feelings about Whaling I see that it benefited my predecessors during challenging times in early America, it helped some of them establish wealth and a foothold into society as respectable business and family men. Although Whaling continues today it, like American history brings accomplishments and setbacks alike to feel good and bad about.