Whaling: Opportunities for African Americans in a Hard Business
The whaling industry, centered until the 1870s in New Bedford, employed a large number of African Americans. This was in part due to the Quaker tradition of tolerance in the New Bedford area, but more importantly, to the large demand for manpower in an expanding industry requiring unusually large crews.
Some black seamen in the business were Americans, from the Northeast and the South, some were from the West Indies, and a significant group was from the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast. Whatever their origin, black seamen found acceptance as hard workers and skilled mariners in an industry that was physically demanding, dirty, and often financially unrewarding.
When the center of the industry moved to San Francisco in the 1870s, African Americans continued to form a large percentage of the crews. The whaling business was no doubt the largest employer of African Americans seamen on the West Coast until it ended shortly before World War I.