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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

October 16, 2018: Whaling Histories: Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard

[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 how the divergent whaling histories of two neighboring islands led to distinct subsequent and ongoing identities.
The Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are less than 25 miles apart as the crow flies (although the typical ferry route is apparently more like 70 miles), but when it comes to the history of the whaling industry, the two are much farther apart. As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, for more than a century Nantucket was the center of the New England and American whaling industry, a focus which might well have been precipated by a single event: per island historian Obed Macy and his 1835 book The History of Nantucket, sometime in the mid-17th century a “scragg whale” (likely a gray whale in modern parlance) entered Nantucket harbor and was killed by the early English settlers; Macy and others trace the island’s dominance of the whaling industry from that singular (and quite random) starting point. While Martha’s Vineyard certainly hosted whaling ships of its own, the industry came to prominence significantly later on the island than it did on Nantucket, and was thus always competing with other sizeable fishing trades like that in swordfish. (For a very thorough history of Martha’s Vineyard, see my paternal grandfather Arthur Railton’s magisterial and highly readable 2006 book The History of Martha’s Vineyard.)
Whatever the particular factors that led to Nantucket’s dominance in the whaling industry (not just over its island neighbor but over the rest of the world, at least until the rise of New Bedford that I charted yesterday), by 1851 Melville could write in Moby-Dick’s Nantucket-set Chapter 14, “Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.” That divergence had already by that time produced one striking American historical distinction between the two islands: Nantucket voted to remain neutral at the start of the American Revolution, thanks in large part to its need for shipping access and protection for its whalers; while Martha’s Vineyard joined the rest of Massachusetts in rebelling against the English. But it was in the late 19th century, as the whaling industry began its gradual but irreversible decline (again as I traced in yesterday’s post), that the divergence between the two islands truly began to resonate. Nantucket had by that time also experienced a couple of significant natural events that hastened whaling’s decline there: the July 1846 “Great Fire” that forced many inhabitants to leave the island; and the increasing silting of Nantucket harbor, which made it more and more difficult for large whaling ships to enter (compared to the deep harbor of New Bedford in particular).
When, for both those local and much broader reasons, whaling declined in Nantucket, the island’s dependence on the trade meant it did not have much else to offer residents; most of them left (the island’s population was about 4000 by 1887), and the island remained largely unpopulated and isolated until the mid-20th century. In part because of its more diverse commercial identity, Martha’s Vineyard was able during the same period to shift much more quickly and dramatically, becoming throughout the late 19th century host to a number of resort communities and summer residences. While Nantucket has over the last half-century developed its own such summer and wealthy populations, I would argue that the Vineyard remains far more of a summer resort community; one reason why two of the last four presidents have made it a vacation site of choice, after all. And if so, then the two islands’ divergent, and at least somewhat random, histories with the whaling industry continue to echo significantly down into our 21st century moment.
Next whaling post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections you’d highlight?

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