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Miniature Portrait of
Captain Lorum Snow

 

 

 

Leonards Boat Shop ca.
1905, Clement Nye Swift

 

 

 

A Look Back at the Whaling Capital of the World

By Adam Halterman

In 1841 author Herman Melville climbed aboard the Acushnet in the port city of New Bedford for a whaling expedition. Ten years later, on paper, Ishmael, Ahab, and Queequeg, in this same port city, boarded the Pequod in search of Moby Dick. In the mind’s eye, mad Ahab leapt upon the forehead of the great white whale and, “as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” Conversely, Moby Dick has fired his own colossal heart deep into the American mind, inextricably linking the historical facts of New Bedford, once the whaling capital of the world, with a brooding mythos that continues to fascinate our imagination.

It is this mix of history, myth, salt, and wind which forms the mystique of New Bedford. It is a place which plots a line from the earliest colonial settlers, through wars and industry, and then off the chart and into the mind, into something deeper which defines the American consciousness in all its struggle, violence, and glory, telling the story of America itself. Just as visitors in days past set off on journeys into deep waters to hunt whales, visitors today embark on a journey into the past and into the mind. The specter of the white whale haunts us still.

The vessel that carries them on this trip is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Here, visitors experience the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of whaling and maritime artifacts in the world. Some 800 paintings, prints, and drawings evoke the color and life of the whaling communities of the past as well as the drama and adventure of the high

   
  New Bedford, MA  

seas. Over 500 harpoons and other whaling implements, worn by salt, time, and the hands of sailors, are on view to capture the imagination. Beautiful scrimshaw objects are on display, delicately carved in whale’s teeth by sailors whiling away the long days at sea. The range of objects is truly incredible in its scope and diversity, containing everything from lamps and navigational instruments, to figureheads and ship models, even a full skeleton of a young humpback whale, which stands as testimony to the animal so many lives revolved around.

Selecting highlights within this collection is difficult, since there is truly something for everyone. The would-be Old Salt, fascinated by the creak and rigging of old ships, will find dozens of fascinating models and half models as well as the world’s largest ship model, an 89-foot, half-scale model of the whaling bark Lagoda. The museum also owns four full-sized whaleboats, allowing visitors to experience a fully-equipped vessel.

For the armchair anthropologist, there are ethnological objects, most of which were brought back by sailors from Pacific and Arctic regions. This extraordinary collection offers a unique look into other cultures while demonstrating America’s constant fascination with what lay beyond the horizon.

There are a number of interesting current exhibits at the Museum this summer. Portraits of a Port: New Bedford

   
  The Sea Chest, 1910, Clifford W. Ashley  

Navigates the World offers a look at the paintings of New Bedford. There are also a number of Melville-related exhibits including A Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World: Melville’s Inspiration Revisited and The Comic Book Art of Moby Dick.

Recently established ongoing exhibits, made possible a successful capital fundraising effort, include a new entrance gallery featuring a 66-foor blue whale skeleton suspended overhead and an exhibit on the ecology of whales.

Researchers and scholars will find the Museum’s research library a tremendous resource. Collected here is over 1,000 ships’ logbook, 15,000 printed books, pamphlets, and broadsides, 500 bound periodicals, 1,800 microfilm reels, 750 charts, maps, ships’ plans, and architectural drawings, letters and diaries of local families, plus records of businesses, maritime trades, schools, and churches. It is truly an amazing collection.

In taking a stroll outside The New Bedford Whaling Museum, visitors will realize that New Bedford is itself a kind of museum. The area was first visited in 1602 by European explorer Bartholemew Gosnold. By 1652 the area, named Dartmouth at the time, was bought from the Wampanoags and settled by 36 colonists from the Plymouth colony. In the coming decade, a brutal war between the Wampanoags and Europeans over the continued theft of native lands would ensue. The resulting destruction of the Wampanoag Federation as a nation and the Pequod Massacre would mark the beginning of the Native American holocaust.

By the mid 18th century New Bedford was purchased and founded by the Russell family. Within fifteen years the Rotch family would move their whaling business to New Bedford and, with experience and innovation, effectively revolutionize the whaling industry, putting New Bedford on the map.

Since the Colonial era, whales had been hunted for their blubber. The blubber was rendered into whale oil for use in lamps and as a lubricant. With such a worldwide demand for

   

 

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  Portrait of William Rotch Jr, 1828, Rembrandt Peale  

fuel, whaling was one of the 19th century’s biggest industries. Whale oil was shipped all over the world from New Bedford.

As the port city rose to dominate the industry, New Bedford made history once again when the first navel engagement of The Revolutionary War took place in Buzzards Bay. The war brought numerous setbacks to New Bedford, the most dramatic being its 1772 torching by British troops.

New Bedford also played an important role in the birth of organized African American nationalist movements in the United States. In 1780 Paul Cuffe, a black Quaker, petitioned the Colonial government of Massachusetts for the right of blacks to vote as taxpayers, a right that was recognized three years later.

New Bedford entered the 19th century as the whaling capital of the world and held that position throughout the coming decades. But events that took place in other parts of the country would dramatically lead to the decline of the industry. The first blow would come in 1849 when California and the promise of gold would lure whalemen to the other side of the country. Ten years later another discovery, this time of petroleum in Pennsylvania, would sound the death knell for the whale oil industry. But New Bedford is a resilient city, and cotton mills, valued at $100,000,000, would soon rise as the city’s next big industry.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is in the center of the historic district where all these events took place. While the Museum’s collection of nautical art does an excellent job of constructing a grand mosaic of coastal New England life, it is the stories behind the works, regarding both the subjects and the artists, that tell the real story of New Bedford. A few of these works are worth particular mention.

Leonard’s Boat Shop by Clement Nye Swift (1905, oil on canvas) is a wonderful depiction of a master boat builder at work. Ebenezer Leonard, after fifteen years as a whaleboat builder, moved his shop to New Bedford in 1852. It was there that he built over a thousand whaleboats. Here, Swift reveals the simple boat builder’s technique of using molds and supports to construct the hull of a boat. On a side note, ships would not have been visible through the window of Leonard’s shop. That was the artist’s addition.

William Allen Wall’s Old Four Corners, New Bedford (ca. 1855, oil on canvas) charmingly conjures up New Bedford at the beginning of the 19th century. Interestingly enough, it was already a scene from the past when Wall painted it in the

   
  Old Four Corners, ca 1855, William Allen Wall  

1850s. This is one of several similar paintings depicting the forefathers of New Bedford. The view is of Main Street, 1807, and the uppermost house is that of William Rotch, Sr. He is pictured in the foreground in his carriage. To the right of the stone post, the two men conversing are Abraham Russell (with the cane) and William Rotch, Jr. Some argue that Paul Cuffe is also in the scene, along with Wall himself.

The dignity and intelligence of William Rotch, Jr. shines through in a stately portrait by Rembrandt Peale (1828, oil on panel). Rotch does, after all, have much to be proud of behind that smug smile. It was he who revolutionized whaling in New Bedford. A merchant, manufacturer, banker, and entrepreneur, it was his business sense that made New Bedford whaling capital of the world.

Loum Snow, who is pictured in a portrait miniature in the Museum’s collection, has a rather interesting tale surrounding him. He was captain of the Ann Alexander which made sixteen voyages to New Bedford between 1820 and 1850. On her final trip the ship was struck by a whale and capsized. Upon hearing the news, Melville exclaimed “Crash! Comes Moby Dick himself. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fifteen years ago…I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.” What a way for poor Captain Snow to be remembered!

A beautiful figurehead, by an unknown shipcarver, depicting squaw sachem Awashonks of the Sakonnet Indians is a reminder of a darker chapter in colonial history: the days of King Phillip’s War. Awashonks, initially inspired by King Phillip’s Wampanoag victories over the Europeans, broke ties with the Plymouth Colony which had promised protection that never materialized. She and her people were eventually won back to the European side and marched against King Phillip, not realizing what effect the fall of the Wampanoag’s would have on the future of the Native American tribes. As if cursed, the ship Awashonks was crushed by ice floes during the Great Arctic Disaster of 1871. The figurehead is all that remains.

All of this history can be seen while walking the streets of New Bedford. The New Bedford experience is made all the more enjoyable by The New Bedford National Historical Park. The city’s historic waterfront has long been threatened by

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  Delicate Scrimshaw work, done to pass the time at sea.  

urban renewal, but in 1996 the beautiful area was saved and the park was founded. 36 buildings have been restored, including such historical highlights as the Seaman’s Bethel (visited by both Herman Melville and his fictitious Ishmael), the U.S. Custom House, the Rodman Candleworks, and the Wharfinger Building. At the center of this historic area is The Whaling Museum. New Bedford makes for a perfect day of indoor and outdoor sights conveniently within walking distance. Whatever your interest, whether you be a scholar, a sailor, or a picnicer, a pleasant visit awaits you.

Not surprisingly, the lure of the sea has much the same effect on today’s visitors as Melville described it 150 years ago: “Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand – miles of them – leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues – north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite.(Moby Dick, p. 22)” The sea-chain is pulls tightest at the shore, and we come. When the wind is blowing just right, visitors can stand, surrounded by the creak and groan of ships, wheeling birds, and dappled rocks, and think to themselves “This is how it was.”

This year is the “Year of Melville” in New Bedford, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick. There will be concerts, lectures, exhibits, tours and special events. For further information visit the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park online at www.nps.gov/nebe.

All photos are courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum unless otherwise noted. For further information on The New Bedford Whaling Museum, please call 508-997-0046 or visit them online at www.whalingmuseum.org.

 

Figurehead from the
Awashonks, unknown ship.

 


 

Engraved Tankard

The Little Navigator, wood carving ca. 1810, attributed to Samuel King
 

.Herman Melville,
author of Moby Dick

   


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