Whaling was not a romantic venture by any means. It stunk… literally and figuratively.
“Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” So said Ishmael after sailing in 1841 on the Nantucket whaler Pequod under Capt. Ahab. “Moby Dick,” a novel by Herman Melville of Troy in New York’s Hudson Valley, piqued its readers’ interest in the world of sailing and pursuit of leviathans, those great and plentiful whales of yesteryear.
Ishmael’s adventure on the high seas left him forever immortalized as the sole survivor of a whaling trip gone awry. In this epic sail, Capt. Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the white whale which took his leg created an undiluted raging hate that destroyed himself and his crew. And Melville’s romanticized whaling venture proved the very real fears of family and friends of whalers were not unfounded.
When a whaling schooner put to sea it might be gone for months to a year or more at a time. The trip was both boring and stressful, with frenzied excitement in the chase… but it was also an occupation filled with apprehension by living life so close to the brink of disaster. Even the family left behind lived with constant fear… would their husband, father, or son be coming home, and when?
Mariners and sailors of the open sea, who provided transportation of goods from one area to another, were of the same ilk. It is well-known that they were hardy men of strong stock who braved the raw elements, loading and unloading ships, but they were also a loud and boisterous, fighting and swearing crew. They were the backbone of commerce, providing the necessary resources to move foodstuffs and manufactured goods, but equally ready to defend a ship or nation from attack at a moment’s notice.
Mariners and whalers were vital to a growing world economy then just as today’s sailors or merchant seamen on cargo ships are. And, in a sense, their traffic on the open sea can be likened to yesterday’s teamsters and trains and today’s tractor trailers which have been the mainstay of commercial transportation for the modern world’s products - always on the move.
But let’s imagine ourselves in a New England seaport where we happen to notice a woman standing at an upstairs window, gazing out to sea… watching, waiting, longing and hoping. Her man, the love of her life, the father of her children, is a-whaling. It’s been almost a year since she last saw him. There’s been no word of him or the whaling schooner. But wait… is that a sail peeking over the horizon… could it be his ship, or just another disappointment? She waits, hope building, heart pounding... As the schooner sails into the harbor, she recognizes the sails, the colors, the bowsprit… it’s his ship! But… is he on it, or did he lose his life in the whaling boat? She dashes out of the house, through the busy streets, down to the docks… and finally spies that familiar stride coming toward her, as she collapses into his arms.
In another town, another woman watches and waits for her man… a mariner and landowner, a fairly wealthy man who put to sea from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He’d struck quite a handsome figure when she first met him. Hannah thinks back to those early days and how good he’s been to her. She knows how much he loves her for he’s told her often, and brought treasured gifts from his trips. He’s a good man, everyone likes him, and she’s so proud of him.
Just then, her unborn little one stirs, and his movements bring a smile to her face and joy to her heart as she tenderly draws her shawl a little tighter in the cool air. Comes the summer day in 1755 when her little one is born, and she names him for his father, giving her surname as his middle name, not a typical gesture for Scots-Irish. But, when her beloved John sails back into harbor, his dear wife is not waiting at the dock for him. And little John will never know his beautiful mother who dies soon after his birth. Relinquishing his son to the care of his late wife’s parents, John returns to sea.
Yet, neither will the little lad walk in his father’s footsteps. He will never learn his father’s wisdom… for his father dies at sea in 1758, and there is buried. He may have been part of the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763... or, he may have taken sick and died at sea. We don’t know. And now, orphaned as a toddler, at so tender an age, little John C. is raised by his mother’s parents, eventually marrying his cousin, Hannah, who shared his mom’s name. Within this story are interwoven documented facts of my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, the son of said mariner, John, of Londonderry and its environs in New Hampshire. While John McNeill, Sr. left behind personal belongings (some from his time at sea) and several properties as documented in estate papers, no documentation has been found to prove his own parentage, nor where and how exactly he died.
Though the sea has an unparalleled beauty all its own, it is also unforgiving and relentless. And those answering its beckoning call with efforts to sail its wild forces will either become victor or the defeated.
One of the most illustrious and admirable ancient occupations of the sea was found in the whaling industry. With a knowledge rich in the history of the centuries-old business of whaling, Richard Ellis wrote in “Men and Whales” that “…it is only through the lens of hindsight that the whaleman's job becomes malicious or cruel… Oil was needed for light and lubrication; baleen was needed for skirt hoops and corset stays. That whales had to die to provide these things is a fact of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century life…" (quoted in New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whales and Hunting)
It was a different era than ours. Whales provided much to a civilization which gave no thought to the decimation of such a magnificent creature. Whaling was simply a way of life, meeting life’s necessary accoutrements. Few men beyond the company owners became wealthy from the whalers’ dangerous efforts. For initial research, I turned to the New Bedford Whaling Museum website. (URL at end of article)
Whalers brought home:
1) sperm oil from the blubber of sperm whales; a light straw color, it was used for lubricating, lighting and soap;
2) spermaceti or head oil, particularly from the sperm whale, is a pearly-white translucent waxy liquid at body temperature, the most valuable product used for top-quality candles, medicinal ointment, sizing for combing wool, and used through the 1960s for leather tanning, in cosmetics, textiles, and typewriter ribbons;
3) a darker whale oil from the right, bowhead and humpback whales was used for lighting, lubrication, food, tempering steel, in the headlamps of miners, and in soap;
4) baleen, or whalebone, was made of keratin (in fingernails, hair, hooves and claws) which hangs from the mouth of 14 whale species; it acts as a strainer for krill in seawater, providing many 19th century goods for which today’s plastic or steel has taken over, including buggy whips, carriage springs, corset stays, fishing poles, hoops for skirts, umbrella ribs, etc.; and
5) ambergris (black to whitish gray) which came from the intestines of diseased sperm whales, used as incense and medicine in ancient times, now used primarily as a stabilizer in perfumes.
Many New England ports were home to whalers, most notably Nantucket, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts, while San Francisco, California became the popular base for Pacific whalers. New Bedford was the busiest and wealthiest port along the eastern coast from Maine to Delaware. In 1857, New Bedford’s fleet of whalers peaked at 329 vessels having a collective value of over $12 million, employing over 10,000 men.
From the New Bedford Whaling Museum website, we learn that whaler Benjamin Tucker returned to port in 1851 carrying “73,707 gallons of whale-oil, 5,348 gallons of sperm oil, and 30,012 pounds of whalebone (baleen). After expenses, the net profit of Benjamin Tucker's voyage was $45,320. The usual share for the owners of a ship was between 60 and 70 percent. In this case, between $13,596 and $18,128 would have been left to be divided among the captain and crew for several years of work.”
I was then caught by surprise to learn from a friend that the old North (aka Hudson) River in New York boasted a profitable home port for whalers putting out to sea. Will Van Dorp has traveled New York City’s waterways, Hudson River, Erie Canal, Great Lakes (except Superior), and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He has a captain's license, and works on a passenger vessel as an onboard lecturer. He is also author/photographer of the blog Tugster, with photos and data on tugs and ships in what he’s termed New York City’s watery Sixth Boro. In a recent conversation, Van Dorp shared with me the Hudson Valley Magazine’s April 2012 article on New York’s whaling industry. “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY,” written by David Levine, is an intriguing article which readily sent me off into further research.
New York’s North (Hudson) River provided three home ports to a thriving whaling industry for a good 60 years. It’s believed the North River was so named by the early Dutch who gave directional names to the waterways around Manhattan. To confuse us even a bit, there are maps and old photos which indicate interchangeable usage of North and Hudson River for the entire river’s length. Some retained usage of North River for only the southernmost portion between New York City and northeast New Jersey, while the Hudson River designation was intended for that section of river above and within New York state. A 1990 Hagstrom street map of New York City still labeled it the North River, although Hudson River, in honor of the 1609 explorer on the Halve Maen (Half Moon), has been preferred since the early 20th century.
But, were it not for the British Parliament’s 1766 duties and taxes on their thriving colony’s exports of whale oil, there may not have been a Hudson River whaling industry. Reacting in 1774 to the British Intolerable Acts, the Colonial Continental Congress banned trade with England. Naturally, Britain retaliated by blockading its colony’s ports in New England, including the highly successful port of Nantucket. They captured and destroyed the colony’s ships on the seas, and forced American sailors to work on British ships. The result was that New England’s strangled whaling industry was essentially dead in the water.
As the Revolutionary War came to a close in 1783, enterprising businessmen began searching for new ports and good land away from the effects of war. From Nantucket, Seth and Thomas Jenkins sailed in search of a protected port, well away from marauders of the sea. Finding just what they wanted along the Hudson River at an old Dutch community, they purchased land at Claverack Landing, New York. Renaming the town Hudson in 1785 after the intrepid explorer, Henry Hudson, thirty proprietors (New England whalers and businessmen) laid out the new city and helped establish the shops needed to support a thriving whaling industry. Though the ocean was over 100 miles south, the port soon became “one of the most important whaling centers in the country.” (Levine)
By about 1819 or 1820, however, and just when booming growth marked it as the fourth largest city in New York state, the Nantucket Navigators’ last whaling ship put to sea. A new Hudson whaling company was created in 1829, while competition down river soon saw other whaling companies established. In 1832, both the Poughkeepsie and Newburgh Whaling Companies sent whalers out, while the Dutchess Whaling Company in Poughkeepsie was established in 1833. Yet, by about 1844, these highly profitable inland whaling companies also ceased to exist, and the industry as a whole began its slow decline with crude oil products taking over the market from whale blubber. Though a relatively small city formerly known as Claverack Landing, Hudson had profited greatly from its flourishing whaling industry. Essentially, that growth was relatively short-lived and smaller in volume in comparison to the resurgence of New England’s booming seaports at the edge of the sea.
So, what was involved in whaling to bring the goods back home? Soon after putting out to sea, the men on a whaling schooner typically took 2-hour turns high up “in” the crow’s nest on the mast. (The crow’s nest was a simple structure or platform for men to stand on near the top of the mast to get a good look into the distance.) The job of the man “in” the crow’s nest was to look for the spout of a nearby whale when it came up for air. Knowing that each type of whale had a distinctive type of spout when coming up for air was important in determining whether to pursue or not. And with the shout, “Thar she blows!” the crew was in business.
Passing key information down about the kind of whale and exactly where it had been spotted brought the captain, mates and crew assembling in the whaleboats. The remaining crew, often a cooper (who made and fixed wooden casks), blacksmith, carpenter, cook and steward, stayed behind to care for the ship and be ready for the returning whalers. After launching their small whaleboats into the sea, rowing began in earnest to get the crew as close as possible to their intended prey.
With the captain urging the men forward, their rowing efforts grew quieter the closer they came to the whale. With its keen hearing, they were well aware that as they drew near, they could easily be crushed and drowned by the unpredictability of such a large leviathan. The next danger they faced was in setting the harpoon, or whale iron, into the blubber of the whale’s back. The harpoon was a long iron rod with either a single or double arrow-shaped tip which acted as a hook. Once embedded in the whale, the harpoon’s attached rope, i.e. line, was allowed to play out its slack as the whale took off with a surge.
With the harpoon set in the large whale, the crew rapidly backed their boat away for their own safety. As the wounded whale thrashed about in pain, it could irreparably damage their boat in a variety of scenarios. The whale might escape if the harpoon wasn’t set deep enough. It could also overturn and sink the whaleboat as it thrashed, leaving the men to flounder around at the mercy of the sea until their ship could find them which, unfortunately, wasn’t always the case. It was not unusual to have several or all men lost during this part of the venture.
Then, while the whale swam easily near the water’s surface at speeds of up to 20 mph, the whaleboat began its wild ride, often being helplessly dragged and bounced along at the whim of the whale. Sometimes, if they were taken too far, the mother ship was unable to locate the crew when they didn’t return in a reasonable amount of time. As the whale swam and dove, the line usually “played out so fast that it smoked from the friction.” And, if the whale dove deep and fast enough, the whaleboat could easily be taken down with it and all men lost. Occasionally, a man managed to get tangled up in the fast-moving line and was all too quickly yanked out of the boat and drowned.
As the whale tired, the crew turned the line around a short post in the boat to take up the slack, all the while slowly gaining ground on their victim. The crew would then maneuver their boat closer for the kill. As the men reeled in the line, the harpooner would go aft to steer while the boatheader came forward with a lance. Standing and walking was an extremely dangerous position change in an unsteady boat, leading to the death of one or both men on many occasions. Then, when in position, the boatheader plunged his lance into the heart or lungs to kill the whale.
At this point, the crew again rowed their boat quickly away while intently watching the whale as it thrashed about. When the whale had died and turned over, the men attached a line to a hole made in the tail, and the exhausted crew worked even harder to tow the dead whale back to their ship. Unless the ship was nearby, rowing as they hauled behind them a good 50 tons or more of dead weight meant their prize was by no means easily brought in.
By the late 1850s, harpoon guns had been developed which were much more accurate and able to penetrate deeper than a man’s throwing strength could bury the harpoon. Other explosive devices were used after 1865 in an effort to more effectively and safely defeat the great whales and prevent the loss of life and boat as in years past.
When the crew arrived back at the schooner, the men worked in 6-hour shifts around the clock. They had to complete the next phase as quickly as possible before frenzied sharks snatched up too much of their profit. The whale was attached to the ship’s starboard (right) side with chains as the crew put a “cutting stage” (plank platform) atop the carcass. Next, they stripped thick layers of blubber off the carcass with long spades. Once these huge chunks were cut off, each weighing about a ton, they were hauled up on deck and cut into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Trying out, i.e. boiling or rendering, was the process that extracted oil from the blubber. Initially done on shore, the crew began tackling this job on their schooner by the mid 19th century. Big iron pots were set up in a brick stove with fire beneath the pots. As oil was rendered from the blubber, it was then cooled, put into wooden casks, and stored in the ship’s hold below deck. Typically, one barrel equaled 31-1/2 gallons. Once on shore, this oil would be strained, bleached, and sold as lamp oil.
With little of the carcass going to waste, the head of the whale was prized for it contained oil more valuable than the blubber. The top of the whale’s head held the purest oil called spermaceti, up to 500 gallons, and worth 3 to 5 times more than any other whale oil. The lower half of the forehead contained additional oil which was boiled separately; it was less valuable than spermaceti, but still superior to the oil rendered from blubber. The jaw and teeth were also saved and used by the crew to carve beautiful and delicate scrimshaw in their spare time.
But, processing the dead whale was virtually as dangerous as the hunt had been. As the men worked, there was no way to avoid getting blood and oil on the wooden deck. And, occasionally, someone slipped and fell overboard into the jaws of those ravenous sharks in the roiling waters below. Other crewmembers might be crushed by the huge strips of heavy blubber, or injured by sharp harvesting tools. At times, boisterous waves caused the ship to toss back and forth, sloshing boiling oil onto men, an injury they did not easily recover from, if at all. And, there was even the rare occasion when fire for the rendering process spread and destroyed part or all of the ship. Whaling was definitely not an easy job even for men at the peak of physical fitness.
Once each whale was processed and stored in barrels and casks below deck, the upper deck was scrubbed clean, and the men were back at their posts looking for the next whale. Soon enough, “Thar she blows!” was heard from another watchman, and the entire process began again. When the hold was filled to capacity, at times less so or even empty, the whaling schooner returned to home port for a respite. To more fully appreciate an in-depth experience of yesterday’s whalers, check out the New Bedford Whaling Museum website. The information and illustrations are impressive in explaining a way of life unknown to us today.
But, beyond all the hard work, the whaling ship and her hearty crew retained a certain stench, an odor that never seemed to dissipate. Simply put, whalers stunk! Even though the conscientious crew scrubbed their ship clean after each whale was processed, the malodorous aroma permeated everything. As the New Bedford Whaling Museum website noted, “It was said that a ship downwind could smell a whaleship coming.”
Again, while most whaling schooners remained at sea for many months at a time, some were out for a year or several years at a time. Not an arrangement exactly conducive to quality family life as we know it, theirs was simply an accepted way of life a few hundred years and more ago. Occasionally, rather than remain alone at home for months or years at a time, some women sailed aboard whaling schooners which were then called “hen frigates.” These women, alone or with children, were spouse of the captain or a crew member, and were also lookouts, cooks, and nurse to crew members who became ill or injured.
Obviously, the whaling schooner was a very welcome sight for many reasons as it sailed back into port after its time at sea. As we look back in the mirror of hindsight, we understand the valuable resource whales were to the world’s economy. But, we also realize the extent to which whales were decimated, and greatly appreciate those who began preservation efforts of these magnificent creatures of the sea.
Source information for this article and quotes, except as noted, and illustrations can be found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.
New Bedford Whaling Museum – Life Aboard a Whaling Ship
Hudson Valley Magazine, April 2012, by David Levine, “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY.”
Columbia County Historical Society, Hudson River Whaling: (data and illustrations)
Wikipedia: History of Whaling in the U.S.
For pictures of the whaling industry, see “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story”, by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic: