How to Use
Reading 3: Cultural Connections
To successfully hunt whales Captain Penniman had to travel the world's oceans for years at a time stopping at far away ports. These distant ports were sources of supplies, trade goods, and even crewmembers. New men were often needed during the course of a voyage to replace others that died from sickness, injuries, or drowning; or men that deserted ship. In the last half of the 19th century, most whaling ships had a racial and ethnically diverse crew. There were American Indians, free blacks, Cape Verdeans, Azorians, Hawaiians, and other peoples from coastal ports around the world. Frugal Yankee ship owners preferred recruiting men from Cape Verde and the coast of West Africa because they worked hard to save money, could be initially hired for less, and "made for a more disciplined crew." Crewmen from Portuguese West Africa, known as "Bravas," were outstanding whalers and "usually surpassed all others of whatever racial or national origin."¹ Captain Penniman, like other whaling captains, hired the best men he could find.
By most accounts, there was little racial discrimination aboard whaling ships. A man earned recognition for his skills rather than his ethnicity. Men of color occupied all ranks onboard whaling ships, from crewmembers to captains, and owners. For example, the Cape Verdeans acquired old whaling ships either by default or by purchasing them with money they earned as seamen. Eventually, they came to own almost all that remained of the New Bedford fleet. Each person on board was paid a "lay," a share of the profits, based upon their duties aboard the ship. However, those who made lucrative sums of money from the voyages were the captains and the owners, the crew received low sums in comparison.
Onshore industries that supported the whaling and maritime trades also included a sizable percentage of diverse peoples. During the Civil War more African Americans were employed in the maritime trades than any other industry. Shipbuilding, rope, barrel, sail, and tool making were some of these shore-side industries. In 1848, Louis Temple, an African American blacksmith from New Bedford, invented a new kind of harpoon with a "toggle" or swiveling barb that did not pull out of a whale after it was harpooned. This technological advancement improved the rate at which ships caught whales and thus filled their holds with oil and baleen. Frederick Douglass, a famous black abolitionist, was an experienced caulker in the New Bedford shipyards.
The deep sea Yankee whaling industry had distributed newcomers to countries around the world during its two centuries of existence. It added populations of ethnically diverse people to world ports. These newcomers added their own traditions, languages, and culture to each place. In New Bedford, what remained from the whaling industry were the many men from foreign ports that had returned to the city on board their whale ships, found work, and married local women.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Examine Captain Penniman's crew list. How many of the men were from foreign countries? Where were they from? Why do you think the crew was so ethnically diverse? What do you think the letters in the Complexion/Hair column stand for? Why do you think Captain Penniman recorded all of this information about his crew?
2. Why did Captain Penniman hire crewmembers from different ports around the world? How do you think this culturally diverse group of people could work together?
3. How did the whaling industry affect the economic status of people of color, both onboard ship and on shore?
4. Why do you think there were so many African Americans employed in the maritime industry?
Reading 3 was compiled from documents at the archives of New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, New Bedford, MA; The Pennimans: A Cape Cod Whaling Family at Home and Abroad, Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastern National, 2001; and Raymond A. Almeida, "Cape Verdeans in the Whaling Industry" website, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
¹ Raymond A. Almeida, "Cape Verdeans in the Whaling Industry" website, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.