[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’ve AmericanStudied Melville’s novel and other histories and stories related to the book’s ostensible subject, the world of whaling. Leading up to this special weekend Guest Post from a wonderful colleague at the New Bedford Whaling Museum!]
I’ll admit, I never read Moby Dick until I started working at the museum a little over a year ago. Before coming to the museum as the Curator of Social History, I was an anthropology professor who knew nothing about whales and whaling. As with learning a language, total immersion works. I examine every bit of whaling and seafaring history and fiction I can get my hands on. I’ve learned the basics of whale biology and, of course, I became (and am becoming) increasingly enamored with the social history of whalers and a culture built on the whaling industry. At the time the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (now the New Bedford Whaling Museum) was established in 1903 the industry of whaling and the narrative of whaling history were on the decline. Petroleum had been discovered as an alternative to whale oil, whale populations were being depleted, and fewer and fewer working class white men wanted to engage in the dirty and dangerous work of whaling. New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world and its wealthy whaling families steadily switched to cotton production as their major source of income. During and briefly after this decline, stories of whaling became somewhat folkloric and fantastic, and devoid of the danger and brutality of the hunt. The history and global importance of whaling and Old Dartmouth risked being forgotten altogether. This very much troubled some of the descendants of old whaling stock in New Bedford and they established the Old Dartmouth Historical Society “to create and foster an interest in the history of Old Dartmouth” (now the City of New Bedford, Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Westport, MA). That history was whaling.
Currently, the New Bedford Whaling Museum houses all things related to the history of whaling. When you enter the main level, large whale skeletons greet you as they hang from the ceiling (one of them still dripping whale oil after decades!). The exhibits include a discussion of subsistence and indigenous whaling among groups like the Inupiat who still engage in the hunt (last November, I gave students from Barrow, Alaska, an Inupiat village a tour of the museum and they recognized family members in some of our historic photographs from the late 19th century!). We have a half-size model of the whaling vessel Lagoda, the largest ship model in existence, and in that same room, you can travel up to the balcony which takes you on a whaling voyage around the world—from New Bedford to the Azores and Cabo Verde—two locations with their own whaling traditions and from which whaling captains took on crew. Many from the Azores and Cabo Verde stayed in New Bedford and established communities, making the Lusophone community the largest immigrant community in the area. You then travel around Cape Horne and into the Pacific. As noted in Moby Dick, by the mid-19th century, the Pacific became a necessary whale-hunting region. Whaling voyages now averaged 46 months! A recent exhibit of Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington’s The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World captured such a voyage on a 1,275 foot painting (taller than the Empire State Building!). One of the ports of call on the painting is Nuku Hiva, the setting for Melville’s Typee. Although the exhibit is no longer up, The Grand Panorama is currently visible digitally alongside the Lagoda. In the same room, you can see all of the tools of the trade—from lances and harpoons to try pots and strainers. You can also see the products of the trade throughout the museum, such as whale oil (not a pleasant smell—be forewarned!), beautiful pieces of scrimshaw carved during all of those long, boring days at sea waiting to encounter a whale, and strips of baleen (“fun” fact…baleen was sometimes used to beat people—now the phrase “whaling on someone” should make more sense…). And, of course, we have the art of Yankee whaling. There are many more exhibits—some collaterally related to whaling but important to Old Dartmouth History nonetheless—Thou Shalt Knot (an exhibit on Clifford Ashely and knots), Energy and Enterprise which captures the development of industry after whaling, and Captain Paul Cuffe—much more than a whaler, but whaling is part of the Paul Cuffe story. We also have The East Unlocks its Gates—the story of Yankee trade in Asia during and after whaling and our Manjiro exhibit, which focuses on Manjiro Nakahama who was stranded and rescued by a whaling captain from Old Dartmouth and who was instrumental in the story of the opening of Japan.
Since this blog celebrates Herman Melville, it’s worth noting our biggest event of the year—The Moby Dick Marathon. The first weekend of January is dedicated to the novel and includes a 25-hour reading of Moby Dick in its entirety in which participants sign up to read sections of the book. It includes an event where visitors can try to “Stump the [Melville] Scholars,” a dinner, Moby Dick related artwork, and chats and book signings. It also includes a children’s mini-marathon and a 4-hour Portuguese mini-marathon, during which an abridged version of the novel is read in Portuguese. Please join us for the marathon—it’s an amazing event from start to finish!
Currently, the museum is undergoing a transformation of sorts. In addition to the narrative of whaling we’ve also begun to increasingly focus on whales themselves—their biology, conservation, and vulnerabilities. Early next year, we will be expanding an exhibit entitled “Whales Today” that focuses on the vulnerabilities of whales during the heyday of whaling that made them susceptible to hunters and how those same vulnerabilities threaten whale populations today. Commercial whaling, subsistence whaling, activism, and conservation are very much a part of the narrative of whaling and whales today.
On a personal note, in my time at the museum I’ve come to understand the global importance of New Bedford and the whaling industry and its relationship to my own family. I knew my great-grandfather had come to the United States through New Bedford from Cabo Verde in the 1920s—but he somehow ended up in Newport, RI. New Bedford was always a peripheral (if even remembered) part of my family’s history. Growing up I had always heard he came over “on a banana boat,” which was a generic term my grandmother’s and mother’s generations used to talk about the journey from Cabo Verde to the U.S, but also a term other kids used to tease us because we were the children of immigrants. Because Yankee whaling had all but disappeared by that date, I assumed he came over on a packet ship—a repurposed whaling vessel that functioned to carry goods and people back and forth from New Bedford to Cabo Verde. After being at the museum for four months, I traveled to Cabo Verde for the first time (I was actually the first person in my family to return since my great-grandfather arrived in the U.S.) to assist the government in establishing a whaling museum on the island of São Nicolau. When I returned, my great aunt (grandmother’s sister) was asking about my trip and also asked if I could try to find the name of the ship her father came in on because she never knew. She told me all he ever said about it was that “the only reason we [Cape Verdeans] were allowed to stay in America is our ship was destroyed so we couldn’t go home. Everyone scattered and found work here.” After a little bit of searching, I found his name on the register for the bark Wanderer, which ran aground off Cuttyhunk in 1924. This event is often cited as the “official end of Yankee whaling.” Because it was such a famous event—I also found his picture—a picture I had seen a hundred times at that point, but never knew it was my own ancestor until my aunt looked at it and said, smiling, “That one, on the right, that’s my father.” Since that discovery, I’ve come to think of my work at the New Bedford Whaling Museum as the descendant of a whaling family coming full circle.
Akeia A.F. Benard, PhD
Curator of Social History
New Bedford Whaling Museum
18 Johnny Cake Hill Road
New Bedford, MA 02740
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other whaling contexts or connections (or great museums) you’d highlight?]
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