A whaling story set during the 2008 recession.
Here's Brian Morris's story for WCAI on the Charles W. Morgan's return to New Bedford.
Music featured in this episode:
"The Bold Harpooner," "Cheer Up, My Lively Lads," "Yankee Whalermen," and "The Wounded Whale," arranged and performed by Craig Edwards, all downloadable free of charge. Plus, check out Craig's takes on "The Whalemen's Lament" and my personal favorite, "This World Of Misery."
On August 25, 1924, a whaling ship called the Wanderer left New Bedford, Massachusetts. Crowds lined the shore to watch the sails fill with wind. For years and years, whaling money made New Bedford the wealthiest town in America. But that industry was dying. This was New Bedford’s last whaling voyage. We don’t know what those spectators thought, but a local paper gives some idea:
“With her disappearance all of the once glorious fleet of New Bedford whalers will have faded into ghost ships or been reduced to sad, silent hulks, neglected except by the casual visitor.”
The Wanderer set sail on Monday. On Tuesday, it crashed, just a few miles out, off the island of Cuttyhunk. Tourists and locals alike flocked to the island to watch sailors hurry cargo ashore before the Atlantic knocked the ship apart. One newspaper editorial ran:
“There is something pathetic in the fate of whalers as they have rotted away at the New Bedford wharves. … Torn to fragments on the rocks of Cuttyhunk by that angry ocean she had often braved, [the Wanderer’s end is nobler] than that of dying by inches in the slack waters of a harbor.”
Thus New Bedford whaling ended, with this scene of unambiguous ruin. There was no doubt in the mind of Colonel Edward Green.
“On the day following the recent storm I looked over the bay with a pair of powerful glasses which I had frequently tested by focusing on the … Wanderer. … I could not pick her up. She was gone.”
“Then and there at that moment,” Green later wrote, he saw that the whaling industry would vanish. He took it hard. Whaling had made Green rich, by way of inheritance and smart investment on the part of his mother, Hetty Green, who was for a time the wealthiest woman in America. Seeing that the family industry was history, Colonel Green made a choice. Another New Bedford whaler, a ship called the Charles W. Morgan, bobbed in a nearby harbor, “dying by inches.” Colonel Green bought that ship, brought it to his house, stuck it in the sand, and opened it as a museum.
Jamie Jones: And he insisted that alongside where the Morgan was going to be installed, there be barrels of whale oil, that were constantly renewed with fresh whale oil, that they would constantly rub into the surface of the barrels to make sure that the scent of whale oil remained fresh.
That’s writer Jamie L. Jones, whose book tells this story.
JJ: And so the old-timers from New Bedford—as they would walk by the Morgan they would pass these casks that were scented like fresh whale oil, and they would have this experience that would bring them back.
Back, by way of smell, to the vanishing world of whale oil.
JJ: The way I introduce whaling to my students is as a form of 19th-Century energy.
At its peak whaling was fifth among U.S. industries. Whale oil lubricated machinery, and so quite literally ran the American industrial revolution. Whale oil also lit street lamps.
JJ: The light that whale oil produced was supposed to have been wonderfully colorless, like a bright white light. A lot of newspaper editorial writers on both sides of the Atlantic actually remarked on how, thanks to whale oil, city streets are becoming places where people can be out at all times of night, and move around comfortably and safely. Whale oil is really part of the shift of the population away from rural areas to urban centers.
From our petroleum world, it’s hard to see the world of whale oil, but it’s worth looking closer.
JJ: If you think about whale oil as an analog to petroleum—we’re really only one energy source away from whale oil today.
And, thanks to west-coast whaling, we ran on whale oil longer than you might think. Here’s Fred Calabretta, Curator of Collections at Mystic Seaport.
FC: Whale oil was used in automatic transmissions until the 1970s. In cars. Because it performed well when it was hot. My understanding is that it was the standard. If you went to the automotive department at Sears in 1970, and you bought a quart of fluid for your automatic transmission, much of what you’re getting in that container is whale oil.
JJ: Another persistent rumor about whale oil is that it’s still used today to lubricate the Hubble Space telescope. Because whale oil retains its viscosity at very, very low temperatures, so it’s perfect for a kind of machine with moving parts in space, where it’s very cold.
This Hubble rumor is false, but NASA’s lunar orbiters did take pictures on magnetic tape, for which the medium binding magnetic particles to the tape itself, was whale oil. Studios recorded music onto magnetic tape, too. Almost all early Beach Boys tracks, for example. That, too, is the sound of whale oil. I’ve been thinking a lot about how it feels to live within a particular energy system, how we experience a system as sights, sounds, smells, even tastes. As someone who really, really hopes our world someday runs on wind, solar, geothermal, I think it’s really important to try to imagine what that world would look like. And I think that stepping outside the petroleum economy, even for half an hour, might help us see it. So here’s a whaling story that begins in January of 2009, amid the largest economic recession since the Great Depression.
Steve White: And if you think back to that that period of history, it’s not a period of time where we feel happy or warm.
That’s Steve White, President of Mystic Seaport, the Museum of America and the Sea. His tenure at Mystic’s helm began right around the first serious plummet of that recession, which hit nonprofits very hard. Steve inherited the project of restoring the Charles W. Morgan, the whale ship Green saved.
SW: And we hadn’t raised all the money for it. The economy was falling apart, and we had to do something.
Like Colonel Green, Steve made a choice. Faced with financial disaster, Steve decided that Mystic needed to take its largest and most valuable artifact back to sea, under full sail. Mystic would call the campaign “The 38th Voyage,” since the Morgan had done 37 voyages to date. If this move wouldn’t raise enthusiasm for the restoration, Steve figured, what would? Long story short, it worked. They raised the money, finished the restoration, and added modern amenities like fire extinguishers. On May 17th, 2014, crowds lined the banks of Mystic River, cheering as the ship left the harbor for the first time since 1941.
SW: We move away from the dock, headed down the river. It’s, oh my god, here we are. There were a couple of moments onboard when I have to confess, I felt a little anxious. At the mouth of the river it’s very shallow. A lot of silt has built up there. And sure enough, as we got to the mouth of the river, as we’re trying to jockey into position, we got a little sideways and we got stuck in the mud. And, and, so there was that moment of, oh my gosh, this is not good. I’m standing next to our state senator and I’m saying to him, “This is not good.” But in thirty seconds we pushed through the muck and all was well.
Craig Edwards: Here’s a rowdy one. “It’s advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo: / Five hundred young Americans, whaling for to go. / Cheer up, my lively lads, in spite of stormy weather! / Cheer up, my lively lads, we’ll all get drunk together! / They take you to New Bedford, that famous whaling port, / Where they’ll give you to a landshark to board and fit you out. / They’ll take you to a tavern, a while there for to dwell. / The thieves there are thicker than the other side of hell.”
The Charles W. Morgan set sail for New London, bearing artists, scholars, musicians, scientists, and other “38th Voyagers” that Mystic invited aboard to document and interpret the voyage for posterity. Jamie Jones was one of them.
JJ: It was a full-body experience. I got horribly seasick on the Morgan. Horribly seasick, horribly seasick.
PG: What’s it like to be seasick aboard the Charles W. Morgan?
JJ: It gave me a lot of compassion for the people in the past. I don’t think by virtue of being a professional sailor in the nineteenth century you were immune from seasickness. Melville and other people write about this feeling a lot, and what it was like to have to work when you’re sick. The feeling of seasickness was also embarrassing, you know? I know what all the parts of the ship are called. I know where it’s gone. I’ve read its logbooks. I know about its history. When I got aboard and I was seasick, I just felt like that expertise was knocked completely out from under my feet.
CE: “Now you’re out to sea, my boys, the wind begins to blow. / One half of the crew is sick on deck, the other half sick below. / You’re standing by the galley with an eye out for the mate. / When you smell the salt horse cooking and up comes all you’ve ate. / Cheer up, my lively lads, in spite of stormy weather! / Cheer up, my lively lads, we’ll all get drunk together!”
From New London the ship sailed to Newport, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew met the vessel anew on the open ocean.
Mary K. Bercaw Edwards: We have talked for years about how she was kind of big and fat. And we were always saying she only went three to five knots, which is a little better than three to five miles per hour. And nobody told her, so very first day, first sea trial, she hit seven and a half knots.
ME: And after that she went faster and faster. We, I think the fastest we got was 8.3 knots, but she certainly could’ve gone faster than that.
That’s Mary K. Bercaw Edwards. She’s a professor of English and foreman of Mystic’s Demonstrations Squad. Her husband, Craig Edwards, provided me with all these amazing sea chanteys. As far as the sounds, sensations, and smells of whaling, there’s a great deal we don’t know. New England whaling mostly predates photography, and far predates color film. But we do have one text to which scholars love to turn for sensory detail.
ME: We’ve got a lot of Moby-Dick–heads. That’s not our term. We usually say Melvillians or Melville scholars, but it’s when other people are like, oh, look, the Moby-Dick–heads. We’re like, oh, great, could you come up with a better name for us?
Mary K. showed me the Morgan’s try-works, the huge metal pots between the foremast and mainmast, where whalemen melted blubber into precious oil.
ME: The little bits of blubber that don’t get cooked down are put underneath and cooked using this as, like, a fireplace.
CE: “Now the trying-out begins, you’re working night and day. / When you’re done it’s fifty cents apiece on the hundred-and-fiftieth lay. / Cheer up, my lively lads, in spite of stormy weather! / Cheer up, my lively lads, we’ll all get drunk together!”
Starting in the 1700s, try-works allowed whalers to perform this task without returning to land, as a result of which the industry boomed. Whalers could spend years at sea. The Morgan’s try-works are cold, but we know how they smelled because Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick imparts a wealth of sensory detail.
ME: Melville says, “It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.”
Herman Melville: “Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment. It is an argument for the pit.”
ME: So it’s hard to tell, but it really smells badly.
HM: “With huge pronged poles [the harpooneers] pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces.”
From Melville we learn not just what happened in the try-works, but what might have happened around them. He writes that whale men would lounge near the try-works and tell stories while staring into the flames.
HM: “As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.”
It’s not hard to understand why Melville’s scene is not particularly cheerful, nor why so many sea chanteys include incitements to cheer up. Though whaling made men like Colonel Green wealthy, it was terrible for the people who worked on the ships.
JJ: Whaling was a form of extremely exploitative labor. It was brutal. It was dangerous. You could be lost at sea. You could be abandoned. You could be spilled into the ocean by a whale. You could arrive back at port after a five-years’ voyage—which is a feat of survival, by the way, just to make it back home—and you would be broke and in debt and forced to enlist and ship on the next whaling voyage that went out. And you’d be once again on a dangerous, miserable voyage that didn’t really hold any promise for you of enriching you.
Mary K. showed me the cramped sleeping quarters where the whalemen slept, and where the 38th Voyagers slept also.
ME: This is where twenty-four men lived.
PG: Wow. This is nuts.
ME: The mast goes right through the middle. You notice there’s no table. You would’ve just sat on a sea chest or on the edge of your bed to eat. It would’ve been very crowded. And hot. They would’ve spent most of their time in the tropics.
It was a space not much larger than the back of a U-Haul. This is where whaling men spent their nights on voyages during which they were more isolated than astronauts. Mary K. made sure I understood that these quarters weren’t tiny because people were smaller back then. They were tiny because the owners of these whalers wanted as much space as possible in the hold for oil.
CE: “Now our ship is full of oil, and homeward we are sailing. / A wine we’ll glass, a round we’ll pass, and damn this blubber-whaling! / Cheer up, my lively lads, in spite of stormy weather! / Cheer up, my lively lads, we’ll all get drunk together! / They promised you a bonus for ever whale you’ve spied. / Your bonus you will get, my boys. Of course, when pigs can fly!”
The ship sailed next for Martha’s Vineyard. Throughout the restoration, Steve and his team had debated where to go, but one destination was obvious.
SW: Where would you go? You’d go home. Take her home to New Bedford, where she was built in 1841.
Back to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Colonel Green got the ship in the first place.
SW: Number one whaling port in the country, if not the world.
In essence, the Morgan followed the money. Here’s what Herman Melville wrote about New Bedford’s heyday:
HM: “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
In 1841, the Charles W. Morgan became one of about 2700 whalers to sail the globe, bringing vast sums of money back to New Bedford. The whaling industry peaked just after the Morgan began sailing. From there, it was downhill, thanks to petroleum. In 1859, Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania, and many others followed.
JJ: It was easier to get at. The technology was developing very quickly. And it produced a much, much, much, much higher volume of oil than anyone had dreamed of in the whale fishery.
By the Great Depression New Bedford was floundering.
JJ: It became a tourist attraction, as did Nantucket, because the fading of economic grandeur, the visibility of poverty, the breakdown of ships, was seen by a lot of tourists as picturesque.
This is the origin of the quaint, sunbleached, paint-peeling New England aesthetic.
JJ: Old fishermen with white beards sitting by the dockside in a picturesque New England town, those are unemployed people.
Jamie suggested thinking about such images as nineteenth-Century examples of the petroleum-world phenomenon of “ruin porn.”
JJ: The last couple years I lived in Michigan and spent a lot of time in Detroit, and there was a steady stream of out-of-town visitors who came to Detroit to photograph the abandoned auto plants. The dynamic between those visitors who are coming to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of these abandoned sites of industrial production and these visible signs of poverty—the dynamic between them and the people who live in Detroit, who are grappling with unemployment and underemployment, who are grappling with the loss of city services, the breakdown of local government systems, was quite dramatic and quite damaging and quite violent.
As I walked around New Bedford with Mike Dyer, senior maritime historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, he pointed out the many large, columned buildings populating the city center, all former banks that outlived whaling, now either shops or unused space.
MD: The twentieth century was brutal on an awful lot of nineteenth-century New England. These cities, they just crumbled, and some just never came back. Today, the city has a lot of heart. We’re still a highly profitable—I think the single highest profit grossing fishing port in the USA, due to the scallop industry.
Mike, along with Mary K. and Steve White, experienced the Morgan’s return to New Bedford harbor from the deck of the ship.
SW: It begins when we sail through the hurricane barrier. They were shooting off canons from the park, the shores just packed with people.
ME: There was a huge spectator fleet coming in, there were helicopters overhead. All these whaleboats had rowed out to greet us. People were lining the barrier. And we went to the dock. There were just masses of people.
MD: I was sort of awestruck, actually. I was pretty quiet. People were glowing. When we got to State Pier, two of my colleagues, Melanie and Arthur, actually sort of jumped the rope line, and were right there. And I can’t describe the look on their faces. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen pure joy before. As encompassed as it was. And it’s no exaggeration. It was pure joy.
SW: And from that moment until the moment we left, there was nothing but gratitude.
MD: The people that came through were just really excited.
The city of New Bedford organized lectures, concerts, dockside exhibits, opening and closing ceremonies.
SW: So it was almost like the Olympics.
Despite the withering July heat, over twenty-eight thousand people from New Bedford and environs walked the Morgan’s decks.
SW: It made all of the effort, everything we did, so worth it. To see the joy in their faces, tears in their eyes.
CE: “I’ve been a sea-cook and I’ve been a whaler-man. / I can sing, I can dance, I can walk the jib boom, / I can handle a harpoon. I cut a fine figure / Whenever I get in a boat’s standing room. / We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true Yankee whaler-men, / We’ll rant and we’ll roar on deck or below, / Til we sight Gayhead off old Martha’s Vineyard. / Straight up the channel to New Bedford we’ll go.”
JJ: Something that came up a lot was, the hope that a lot of local politicians have that New Bedford will become a hub of wind energy development.
Here’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren:
EW: It is great to welcome the Charles W. Morgan home. It is a reminder that New Bedford was the city that lit the world. And that’s going to happen again. We’re here to celebrate New Bedford’s past, but also New Bedford’s future. New Bedford is going to be the home to wind energy that is going to help light the world again.
PG: Do you think it’s inevitable that we’re going to at some point aestheticize oil rigs? Is it possible that that’s how we deal with stuff like that? How we deal with parts of our culture that we just take for granted, and then when we no longer need them, their obsolescence has its own kind of, like, importance.
JJ: We already aestheticize so much about petroculture. We aestheticize the experience of driving. I mean, that’s a kind of beautiful, iconic, and in some ways explicitly American experience.
Jamie turned me onto a book called Living Oil. The author, Stephanie LeMenager, lays out this idea that living within an energy system means seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and breathing the world that system makes possible. Depending on when you’re listening to this, you probably grew up living oil. I certainly did. And I have to say, I love some aspects of living oil.
JJ: Living oil feels like the exuberance of taking a road trip, or of lifting off in a plane.
It feels like learning to drive with my mom, passing thirty miles per hour for the first time and feeling as if the car would shake itself to pieces. It feels like reading Jack Kerouac in high school, or the cumulative weeks of podcasts I’ve listened to while driving.
JJ: It also feels like watching oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico.
In trying to imagine a post-petroleum, maybe even post-nuclear world, trying to imagine how it would feel to live solar or wind, it’s odd to think of absence making the heart grow fonder. But in a way, I can already see it. It’ll feel like reliving whaling from the deck of the Morgan. At the New Bedford wharf, on the pages of Moby-Dick, or in a song.
CE: “Wounded and sore, yet with strength undiminished, / Wildly he thrashes the sea in his ire. / A lance to his life and his struggles they are finished. / Slowly he sinks with his chimney on fire.” And that was actually the traditional cry when they saw him spout blood, they’d yell, “His chimney’s on fire!” “Now hear the joyful shout burst from each seaman stout, / Drowning the ocean with its thunderous roar. / See from his spout all the red signal flying. / Slowly he dies and his troubles are o’er.”
There’s a one last chapter. The Morgan sailed on from New Bedford, out to Provincetown and then Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the tip of Cape Cod.
ME: We went specifically to Stellwagen because we knew the whales would be there.
SW: So the whales showed up. Humpbacks, minkes, and finbacks. And there was a mother and her calf that were very curious about the whale boat.
ME: When we got close, we hove the vessel to, and then lowered the whaleboat down, and just rowed close to the whales. Lowering with the whales, that was amazing, but it was also a little terrifying. And I hadn’t expected that. I thought it would just be cool. I thought it would just be, you know, on the coolness factor, off the charts. Which it was, but there was also a little fear there. Just made you realize how small and vulnerable you felt in the whaleboat, compared to the size of the whale.
JJ: Something that I know that environmentalists and marine biologists and whaling historians are really interested in thinking about is how and whether people who worked in the whaling industry were aware whether they were depleting populations of whales. I’ve come across a lot of log entries, whalemen writing about how the whales were getting wily, and smart. And I think that’s a funny way of imagining serial species depletion. That, in fact, the whales are still there, but they’re just running away. My honest belief at this point that we did not utterly extinct the whales is because a new energy source was developed that seemed cheaper and more available. And frankly that makes me very pessimistic. I don’t believe that we’re going to develop a new energy source because we ought to, because climate change is driving us to. I believe we’re going to develop a new energy source when a very acceptable and cheap and easy and profitable alternative emerges. And that makes me very scared. I believe that we would have fished those whales straight into oblivion. Like, directly, completely, utterly into oblivion.
There are gentle contradictions, if you know where to look for them. There’s a scene in Moby-Dick where the whalers find themselves in a rowboat at the calm center of a massive, circular pod of whales. The whalers put aside their harpoons and sit in their boat observing whale cows and calves idly oblivious to the bloody chase.
“Far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their newborn sight. And thus did these inscrutable creatures at the center freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”
March 7, 2016