Interpretive Theme: Global Reach

Herman Melville claimed that there was no “single peaceful influence” that had “operated more potentially upon the whole broad world” of the 19th century as “the high and mighty business of whaling.” Melville was referring especially to the rapidly expanding knowledge of the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and to the impact that American whalemen had on the people who lived in those regions. In 1851, the year Moby-Dick was published, more than 20,000 Americans were engaged in the whalefishery. On New Years Day of that year, 474 New Bedford-registered ships were engaged in long voyages; 135 ships departed from the port that year.

The impact of such a large influx of people on the indigenous communities and native ecological systems that they encountered was profound. Animals and organisms were transported from one place to another by the ships, and diseases were inadvertently introduced to native peoples who had no immunities or medicines to combat them. Euro-American technology, materials, alcohol, and weapons were introduced through trade. These factors, combined with zealous missionary activities, dramatically changed the economic and belief systems of native Pacific peoples. The indigenous residents of the Arctic experienced these same impacts and, in addition, were devastated by the whalers’ depletion of the whale, walrus, and seal populations that the residents depended on for subsistence.

New Bedforders first entered the Pacific in 1793, when the Rebecca rounded Cape Horn. By the early 1820s they were on the “Japan Grounds” of the western Pacific, and were beginning to make Hawaii the preeminent Pacific port-of-call. In 1852 more than 150 whaleships made a stop at Honolulu. Contact between Yankee whalemen and native people was intense, sometimes violent, though usually productive for the trade of both parties. Several thousand Polynesian men signed aboard New Bedford ships, with some of them returning to New Bedford. According to Melville, “Feegeeans, Togatabooans,” and other Pacific Islanders could be seen around the port with their “wild specimens of the whaling-craft.” In 1874 the King of Hawaii visited New Bedford, the place where so many of his own visitors had originated.

In their search for whales, American sailors eventually covered the entire globe, in the process charting seas which had previously been unknown to all but the indigenous navigators. In the course of these voyages the sailors stopped at almost every island, looking to restock their supplies of food and fresh water, and even hiring new crew from native population. They brought along goods to trade for provisions and occasionally bartered as well for souvenirs that would document their experiences when they returned home. Today the artifacts that were collected by sailors—and the descriptions and drawings that they entered into their journals—are valued as representations of cultural practices that, in many cases, are greatly altered or extinct. Yankee whalemen were thus both documenting cultural changes and, unwittingly, contributing to them. The exchange of technological knowledge and trade goods did not go one way only. Yankee sailors depended on the good will and hospitality of the people they encountered along the way. In the Arctic disasters of the 1870’s, Yankee whalemen owed their survival to the local people of northern Alaska, who provided then with food and other support. Even in the best of times ships were always in need of fresh water, provisions, and firewood, and in the process of trading for these supplies the ships encountered new information on local waterways, stocks of fish and whales, and methods of catching them. Arctic and Northwest Coast Indian people, for instance, had toggling harpoon heads that might have inspired Lewis Temple’s invention.

Even though New Bedford’s 19th-century whaling technology died out in Massachusetts, it survived where it had been transplanted by foreign crewmen in the Azores and the Caribbean island of Bequia, and where elements of it were adopted by Alaskan Inupiat whalers in the Arctic.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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