[On October 18, 1851, the first edition of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick was published in London (under its initial title, The Whale). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to a special weekend post on a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
On three telling stages in the history of “The Whaling City.”
New Bedford, Massachusetts might be known as “The Whaling City,” but the association of that vital American industry with the southeast MA city was from an inevitability. Much of the first century or so of American whaling was closely tied to the island of Nantucket (one of the subjects of tomorrow’s post), but a single 1765 event began to shift that center of gravity. It was that year that Joseph Rotch, an English immigrant who had become one of the most established and successful names in the Nantucket whaling trade, purchased 10 acres of land in New Bedford and began to move his business there (although his son and grandson continued to run operations out of Nantucket as well). For many years businesses in Boston, Newport, and Providence had monopolized the refining and use of whale oil (as Nantucket did not have the resources to do so), but Rotch’s move allowed him to build such refineries in New Bedford, linking the various sides of the whaling trade in a striking and significant new way. Long before Henry Ford and his ilk, Rotch’s vertical integration of an industry fundamentally changed American history.
The late 18th century “Great Age of Sail” was very good to New Bedford, but it was in the mid-19th century that the next striking innovation pushed the city into an even more prominent place in both the whaling industry and the American landscape. In 1848, ex-slave turned New Bedford blacksmith and abolitionist Lewis Temple (now there’s a premise for a film if I ever heard one, although many details of Temple’s life, including whether he escaped or was freed from slavery, remain unknown) invented “Temple’s toggle,” a new form of harpoon based in part on Eskimo designs but adapted to use a wooden shear pin to brace the spear’s toggling head. Temple’s harpoon would become the gold standard for the industry within a few years, and cemented New Bedford’s place at the center of the whaling trade. Not unlike Eli Whitney’s cotton gin—but with an extra layer of irony given Temple’s own race and personal history—“Temple’s toggle” is a fraught invention, one that principally made it easier to kill and consume large numbers of innocent creatures (a point worth considering throughout the week’s post, to be sure). But you can’t tell the story of America without the story of whaling, and you can’t tell that story without Temple’s invention forming a key chapter.
In many ways that chapter was the industury’s and New Bedford’s high-water mark, however. As early as 1849 many seamen (and ships) left the area to move west as part of the California gold rush, but it was 1859 that really signaled the beginning of the end for the whaling industry. It was in that year that petroleum, which had only recently begun to be refined anywhere in the world, was discovered by Edwin Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania; soon this alternative form of oil would begin to eclipse whale oil around the nation (and world). A subsequent tragedy, the Whaling Disaster of 1871 in which 22 New Bedford whaling ships (among 33 total ships) were abandoned and crushed by arctic ice off the northern coast of Alaska, contributed to the industry’s gradual demise. Yet gradual is indeed the word: America’s largest whaling company, New Bedford’s own J. & W.R. Wing Company, did not send out its last ship until 1914; and the last successful whaling expedition out of the city took place in 1925 when the John R. Manta sailed from New Bedford harbor. Perhaps the end of the industry (and all the shifts that precipitated in New Bedford) was more inevitable than its origins; but like all historical changes, that shift took place slowly and haphazardly, one more complex history captured in New Bedford.
Next whaling post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?
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