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New Bedford Whaling Museum
by
Dan Gifford

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 necessary.

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 take form:

Her 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 opulent. 

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 Dick:

I am 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:

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

33 William Street

New Bedford, MA 02740

 

Phone: 508-996-4095

Web: http://www.nps.gov/nebe

 

New Bedford Whaling Museum

18 Johnny Cake Hill

New Bedford, MA 02740

 

Phone: 508-997-0046

Web: http://www.whalingmuseum.org

 

Mystic Seaport

75 Greenmanville Avenue

Mystic, CT 06355

 

Phone: 860-572-0711

Web: http://www.mysticseaport.com

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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 about this writer).

 

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