The American whaling industry has its roots in the seventeenth century, in small coastal villages on Long Island, New York and Nantucket, Massachusetts, where right whales were so plentiful that they could be caught close to shore and brought back to port for processing. At the height of the whaling industry, however, in the early nineteenth century, large ships would travel the globe for two to three years at a time, killing whales and processing them on board before returning home to sell resulting products. Most important was whale oil, the preferred fuel for lighting American homes prior to gas and electric lighting; it was derived from a whale’s blubber or, in the case of a high-quality sperm-whale oil, from a whale’s head. Flexible baleen from the jaws of whales was also used to make the bones of women’s corsets and a number of other household items. Sailors often passed the time aboard ship by carving designs into whale teeth and bone, an art form known as scrimshaw.
The whaling industry fueled the growth of many New England cities, including Fall River, New Bedford, and Salem in Massachusetts. Crews aboard whaling ships and staff on the docks of whaling ports were remarkedly diverse, employing a large number of free African Americans, including Frederick Douglass after he escaped from slavery. Ships would often supplement their crews as they traveled throughout the world; Herman Melville’s Moby Dick features crew members from the South Pacific, for example. A young Japanese man named John Manjiro eventually rose to the position of first mate on an American whaling vessel and became the United States’ first prominent Japanese immigrant.
After 1860, the whaling industry collapsed rapidly, as oil obtained by drilling in the ground quickly became a less-expensive fuel source for lighting. A more diverse population, however, remained a lasting impact of the whaling industry in Massachusetts, as the example of Manjiro and others shows. Sizable Portuguese and Cape Verdean communities who came first to work aboard whaling vessels stayed to work in the fishing industry. Massachusetts—and the United States—became more linguistically, ethnically, and racially diverse.
Additional resources for research
- New Bedford Whaling Museum. Search the collection of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to find more objects, art, documents, photographs, and maps related to the whaling industry.
- Clip from Down to the Sea in Ships. This twenty-three minute film clip comes from a 1922 documentary filmed on board a whaling ship.
- Maritime Art and History, Peabody Essex Museum. Explore the maritime art collection of the Peabody Essex Museum to see visual representations of New England’s fishing and whaling industries in an era before photography.