Communities of Whaling
The preeminence of the whaling industry in the 19th century is still visible in the landscape of the city of New Bedford, and in the diversity of its population. Azorean and Cape Verdean men who were engaged in their home islands to work aboard New Bedford ships established a community here and sent for their families. The Ernestina, the last of the packet schooners that carried Cape Verdean immigrants to New Bedford, still plies the local waters, now providing educational programs.
Whaling was a business that employed large numbers of American Indians and African Americans; their communities are still important in New Bedford and the surrounding region. Frederick Douglass, who came to the shipyards of New Bedford hoping to find work as a caulker, found instead one of his first public audiences. African-American men found opportunities here to rise up through the hierarchical structure of shipboard management to become captains. Many African-American men invested in ships, and the African-American shipbuilder John Mashow owned an interest in each of the ships he built. Lewis Temple, the African-American blacksmith and inventor who revolutionized the hunt with his toggling harpoon, is honored with a statue on the lawn of the New Bedford Free Public Library.
Fortunately, whalemen and their families were interested in preserving the history of the industry while it was still flourishing. Traces of New Bedford’s maritime heritage can be found in the shipboard documents of local captains and their wives, and the ethnological artifacts brought back by them as souvenirs of their voyages. The New Bedford Whaling Museum preserves not only documents and artifacts of the voyages, but of the places visited. The New Bedford Free Public Library, established in 1852, manages a large and important collection of whaling manuscripts, including the registers of New Bedford ships and some 250,000 Seamen Protection Papers, documenting the multicultural workforce. A National Park Service link between New Bedford and Barrow, Alaska, once again ties these two important whaling communities together.
Even as attitudes about whales and the relationship humans have with them have been changing profoundly in recent years, the landscape and institutions of New Bedford allow us to preserve a historical perspective. In its time, whaling was the heart and soul of the city. Not just for wealthy owners, but for workers at every level of society, every rank on shipboard, and every neighborhood in town. As the whaling industry was replaced in its local importance, first by cotton manufacturing, and then by fishing and a growing tourist economy, the knowledge of whaling in the city’s past has always been preserved.