New Bedford whaling stretched ’round the world to the frigid waters of the Arctic, the South Seas, Alaska, the South Seas, South America to Hudson’s Bay. Fishermen of every race and color lived and died to light up the world with whale oil. Whaling made great fortunes for a few upon the grueling hard work of brave sailors who stood the rolling decks and chased the largest mammal on earth with a strong arm and a sharp spear. They were a religious lot as they faced each new voyage with a prayer that they might return. Their wives and families had to be independent and strong as they too prayed their men would return.
Many of the citizens of this town are descendants of these whalers. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when the old buildings and warehouses were degrading, and progressives anxious to tear them down, the citizens managed to save the the essential aspects of the still working, 13 block waterfront. It is now designated as National Historical Park Massachusetts. The park designates preservation and protection but individual groups own and operate the buildings, including the best Whaling Museum in the world.
Great leviathan skeletons hang three floors above the open gallery below. Difficult to photograph as you can imagine.
A small blue whale, only 48 feet long, washed up on shore approximately 10 years ago. It sits next to a whaler small boat, the kind the whalers used to attack the giants. The bones were soaked in cow and elephant manure to draw the oil out of the bones. New Bedford was used as the setting for the book, Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
Tools of the trade were simple. These shoes were worn by men expected to climb aboard the slippery giants as it was winched aboard and cut up for rendering. They needed weather hardy clothing, knives, spears, perhaps a bible, paper, pen, tobacco and gloves.
Quarters were tight. The beds so short, we wouldn’t be able to stretch out in them. The area was stifling hot and had to enclose their sea chests containing personal belongings. The sitting area, just the free flooring space, was approximately ten by eight. Most spent their free time on deck during the day.
Many artistic renderings of what it was like to be a whaler. The danger, the drama of the hunt and the high seas. But the real story is told in the sailors journals through drawings, plaintive prayers, letters home,
Boredom between sightings gave them time to write, draw and carve. The scrimshaw collection in this museum is vast and of high quality. Carving helped while away long confined hours. The sailors told stories, played cards and sometimes fought with their mates.
Portrait of a “Friend”. Many Quakers settled this area, and some Ship Captains were Quakers as well. They often faced a conflicting conscience about how little their men were paid and how they lived aboard the ships. The Friends played a significant role in New Bedford. They paid Blacks equal wages. They didn’t sneak in a bit of illegal slave trade on their boats when they ranged afar, as some did. And, the underground railroad flourished here with much help from the Friends.
The story of the escaped slave Frederick Douglass is here, the only known painting of him; his growth as a great orator and champion of freedom. There are great anecdotes here from his children.
With 500, and later over 600 boats sailing from New Bedford alone, with nearby whaling in Nantucket and whaling in Monterey and Carmel California, the whales were hunted to scarcity. The Whalers from New Bedford challenged the waters of the Arctic with help from the Inupiat Indians of Barrow, Alaska. The Norwegians also launched a huge whaling industry. And, in recent years, Japan. They’ve finally quit hunting whales within the last four years.
But, it was petroleum saved the whales from outright extinction, and the people of New Bedford have saved this wonderful place for us.
The cobblestone streets have been preserved. A walk around the district has many historic buildings.
This bank building, for instance. It was two banks. The Captains entered on the right. The skilled laborers on the left. Two banks in one and the same building.
The Mariners home, The Seaman’s Bethel, (house of God). More on the Bethel another day.
The last old time whaling boat The Ernestine, that sailed from New Bedford sits unfurled in the harbor.
This is a fantastic museum of a major world port. When the whale hunting slowly gave way, the city turned to textiles and a major glass industry. All is here to learn from and enjoy.