Bedford Whaling Museum
With his classic opening
sentence, “Call me Ishmael,” Herman Melville pulled readers into the
pages of Moby Dick, and introduced them to the strange and violent
world of a whaler. This year
marks the 150th anniversary of the rogue white whale and a mad
captain named Ahab.
To fully appreciate the
magnitude of whaling, a powerful industry that took young adventurers to
every corner of the globe, find a copy of Moby Dick and head to the
southern New England coast. New
Bedford, Massachusetts and Mystic, Connecticut offer a compelling look at
this facet of American history and reveal much about the men who left home
for years at a time to “go a-whaling.”
New Bedford was the heart
and soul of the whaling industry. By
the 1850’s, eighty percent of the over 700 whaleships in the American
fleet sailed from here. The
city’s motto, Lucem Diffundo,
“We Light the World,” announced to visitors the importance of
New Bedford’s production of whale oil and clean-burning spermaceti
candles. Whaling and the
international commerce it generated not only supported the nautical
trades, but banks, investment houses, and insurance firms, and made New
Bedford one of the richest cities in the world.
|The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
In spite of its
spectacular success in the first half the nineteenth century, New Bedford
also witnessed the dramatic collapse of whaling in the second half of the
century. With the advent of
petroleum products, the need for whaling began to decline only a few years
after the publication of Melville’s work.
Much of the city’s character has been altered in the intervening
years, particularly under the various urban renewal projects of the 1960s
and 70s. However, once a visitor comes within the historic district
that is now managed as a National Historical Park, New Bedford takes on a
wholly different air. Cobblestone
streets pass in front of the grand structures that so impressed Melville.
Gulls drift over the intersections and sidewalks of Johnnycake Hill, an
area a returning whaling captain would still recognize as home.
The centerpiece of the
historic district is the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which houses the
largest collection of whaling artifacts in the world.
Whaling wasn’t just a profession, it was a way of life that
shaped all aspects of New Bedford society, and in many ways, shaped a
growing nation. Consequently, the museum displays and interprets a broad
range of themes. Exhibits
include a basic introduction to the mechanics of whaling, and a fanciful
collection of scrimshaw, the whalers’ folk art of rendering beautiful
illustrations and objects from ivory.
Glassware, a whale skeleton, the world’s largest model ship, oil
paintings, and the obligatory exhibit about Moby Dick, all vie for
the visitor’s attention. If
you take time to linger, plenty of interesting details emerge from the
assortment: stories of African-Americans who found whaling to be more
color-blind than nearly any other American industry; wives who sailed with
their captain husbands on four and five year voyages; agents and owners
who gambled everything on expeditions to the Arctic, only to have their
investment crushed in the ice.
In addition to the museum,
the historic area also contains the Seamen’s Bethel, or church, that
Melville’s Ishmael visited before traveling to Nantucket.
In a classic example of life imitating art, the bow-shaped pulpit
seen here was originally a product of Melville’s imagination, but a
reconstruction was added in 1961 so that the interior would more closely
match the description found in Moby Dick.
Ishmael also describes the bethel’s memorial to whalers lost at
sea, which is indeed authentic; 150 years later the black and white marble
plaques still retain a quiet power
It needs scarcely
to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage, I
regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened,
doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me, Yes,
Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Spending a day in New
Bedford, visitors can find a variety of other structures related to
whaling: Customs House,
Mariners’ Home, the homes and gardens of wealthy whaling merchants,
nearly everything, in fact, except a whaling ship.
For that, a trip of about 80 miles to Mystic, Connecticut is
Mystic itself was never a
huge whaling center. It gave
up whaling as an enterprise in the 1860s.
But in 1929 the town became the site of the Mystic Seaport, a
museum that grew to include the largest collection of boats in the
country. In 1941, it took responsibility for the Charles W. Morgan,
the only American wooden whaling vessel remaining from the once-mighty
fleet of hundreds.
Entering the Mystic Seaport complex, you can
easily spot the Charles W. Morgan.
Her main mast rises 110 feet above the deck and the ship towers
over everything else in the wharf. Step
aboard, and Melville’s words about the fictional Pequod start to
venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts - cut somewhere on the coast of
Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale - her masts
stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her
ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped
flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled.
The Charles W. Morgan is much cleaner
than the ship of Melville’s creation, but no less noble. Here on the deck it is easy to recognize the romance of
whaling. A little
imagination, and it is possible to envision the ship cutting through the
open seas, with a full complement of white sails snapping, and a sea
shanty carrying over the swell.
Step below deck, and the
daydream shatters like a cheap mirror.
The space is dark and confining.
Only the shortest adults can stand upright.
Down here it becomes clear that the ship was actually a floating
nineteenth century factory, and like many other factories of the day,
workers were given little consideration.
Only the captain’s quarters seem remotely comfortable, but when
compared to the coffin-like bunks of the crew, they seem positively
In spite of the horrid
living conditions, the American whaleship, or “Yankee Whaler,” was a
triumph of maritime engineering. A
marriage of outstanding sailing vessel and factory, the whaler was
designed for voyages of three to five years, and allowed the crew to
process whale oil aboard the ship, thousands of miles from land. Onboard
processing in huge iron cauldrons encased in brick furnaces revolutionized
the whaling industry. Called
tryworks, these cauldrons were used to boil down strips of whale blubber
from a fresh kill. Casks were
made aboard the ship so that whale oil could go straight from cauldron to
the ship’s hull. The
arrangement was sheer genius—by turning a ship into a completely
self-contained factory for extracting oil, the crew was free to travel the
world in search of the most profitable creature on earth: the sperm whale.
After one emerges from the
darkness of the Charles W. Morgan’s underbelly, the rest of
Mystic Seaport invites a day of exploration.
The village area is 17
acres of living history displays, depicting coastal life in New England in
the 19th century. For another
interesting Melville reference, look in the Mystic Bank building at the
display of strongboxes, each one specific to a particular ship. The one marked Acushnet would have contained the
ledgers and logbooks for that particular Fairhaven-based whaleship, the
same one Melville joined as a crewman in 1841, ten years prior to writing Moby
transported with the reflection that I myself belong, though but
subordinately, to so emblazoned a fraternity…Perseus, St. George,
Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there's a member-roll for you! What club but
the whaleman's can head off like that.
Melville wrote of the inherent contradiction
that was whaling, alluring yet wretched, romantic yet dangerous; a very
thin line between adventure and death on the open seas.
Although decades have passed since a New England whaler sailed, the
efforts of Mystic and New Bedford, as well as Melville’s account of
Ishmael, have all ensured the stories of the whalers’ unique livelihood
will be told well into the future.
For more information:
Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
Bedford, MA 02740
Bedford Whaling Museum
Bedford, MA 02740
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Email: Dan Gifford
Dan Gifford is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. Recent
articles of his have appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and AntiqueWeek. Dan is also the Park Expert for VacationCoach.com, where
thousands of subscribers can access his advice for visiting national, state,
and city parks around the world. (More
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