Teaching Guide: Exploring the American Whaling Industry

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, The American Whaling Industry, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Use the text describing how whalers captured and killed the sperm whale, the “skimmer” tool, and the excerpt from Moby Dick to explain how whales were hunted and processed aboard ship as well as what dangers were experienced by those engaged in whaling.
  2. How did the whaling industry change the population of Massachusetts? Why might whaling have been an attractive career for free African Americans or those who had escaped slavery and for new immigrants from Cape Verde? Use the photograph of African American sea captains, the map showing Boston’s top five foreign languages, and the photo of Bishop Charles M. Grace in your response.
  3. Consult the 1918 text about John Manjiro and William H. Whitfield, the photo of John Manjiro and a bearded man, and the map showing currents and whaling grounds. Why do you think that Manjiro and Captain Whitfield are still celebrated pioneers of cultural exchange in both Japan and the United States? What cultural exchanges would likely occur as whaleships traveled around the world?
  4. Examine the photograph of a model whaling ship and whaleboats and the photograph of the whaleship Plantina. How would you describe these ships?
  5. Consider the architecture of the era of whaling in the United States. When you examine the interior of the Seamen’s Bethel, where whalers often worshipped while in port in New Bedford, what elements of the design stand out to you?
  6. Consider the image of scrimshaw carving. Why do you think that pieces of scrimshaw are now considered valuable examples of American folk art?

Classroom activities

Project this image of indigenous women and children in Alaska engaging in the traditional practice of whale hunting for students to view and consider. Remind students that although the American whaling industry was in decline by the end of the nineteenth century, and although whales are now protected by international agreements, nations including Japan and Norway and indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada still engage in whaling. Have students work in four groups to research current whaling in these four areas of the world; each group should then explain to the full class both the rationale for whaling and protests against whaling that have taken place. Ask each group to express an opinion on whether this nation/group’s continued practicing of whaling is justified.

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