01 November 2004

Origins of Nantucket Whaling

Yet it was the Indians of Long Island--not Nantucket--who had taught the pioneers how to whale. According to contemporary accounts, the Indians set out from the beaches of the Hamptons to pursue their prey in dugout canoes, attacking passing whales with bone harpoons that were attached by thongs to "drags" made of wooden floats or inflated deerskins, and then killing them with bows and arrows. Each canoe was crewed by six men--four oarsmen, a steersman, and a harpooner--and the procedure of the chase was the same as that followed by thousands of American whalemen for the next three hundred years.

In the beginning, the European settlers had been satisfied with cutting up carcasses that drifted ashore during storms. The arrival of one of these "drift" whales heralded a village bonanza, because whale oil burned with a much cleaner, brighter flame than tallow, even if the blubber from which the oil was rendered had been rotten. Not only did the pioneers use it themselves, but it could be sold in New York for a gratifying sum. Then, as the Long Islanders noticed the yearly migrations of right whales just a few miles offshore, and learned that the Indians had a tradition of taking their canoes out after them, they took a more entrepreneurial stance. Instead of waiting for the whales to die of natural causes, they hired Indians to go out and kill them, supplying the crews with cedar boats, iron harpoons, and lances, all of which were much more efficient than the dugout canoes, bone harpoons, and bows and arrows that had been the old tools of the trade. The carcasses were towed up to the beach, where the Indians' employers waited with knives and cutting spades to flense the blubber and then boil--or "try out"--the oil in "try-pot" cauldrons that had been set up on the sand. This was known as shore whaling. As time went by, the Indians realized they were in a strong negotiating position. Not only did they become much more expensive to hire, but there were too few of them to meet the growing demand. So the settlers were forced to take a more active role, going out in the boats themselves.

This enterprise proved so successful that in 1672 James Loper of East Hampton was invited to Nantucket to teach the Nantucketers how to whale. Other shore settlements, including Edgartown in Martha's Vineyard, also followed the Long Islanders' lead. Then, in 1712, the Nantucket whaling industry suddenly overtook the rest, after a whaleboat was blown offshore in a gale, and came up with a pod of sperm whales. The headsman, Christopher Hussey, harpooned one, and then the boat outlasted the storm by taking shelter in the smooth waters at the lee of the oily carcass. Once the tempest was over the prize was towed home, to the amazement of all, and with instant enthusiasm a fleet of single-masted craft called "sloops" was assembled and sent out.

The sloops were only about thirty tons in size and were outfitted for voyages that lasted no more than about six weeks, but it was the world's first attempt at a sperm whale fishery. As the whales were hunted farther and farther out to sea, the vessels became bigger, reaching about sixty tons, some of them schooner-rigged. Indians made up part of the crews, the Nantucket shore-fishery having developed in a similar pattern to the Long Island enterprise, and Nantucketers commanded them. Then, as available men became scarce, the Nantucket owners lobbied for Vineyard mariners to make up their crews. And so men from Martha's Vineyard could be found in increasing numbers serving on Nantucket ships. Some even reached the rank of captain.

It was not until around 1738 that the Vineyard commenced its own sperm-whaling operation, and then it was a whale man from Nantucket, Joseph Chase, who led the way, after he moved to Edgartown and took his sloop Diamond with him. Even then it was hard for him to stimulate much local interest. This was partly because Vineyard whalemen were already sailing on Nantucket ships, and partly because of the differing physical terrain of the two islands. While Martha's Vineyard was only marginally fertile, Nantucket was not fertile at all. Nantucketers were forced to find the whole of their living at sea. By the year 1775 Nantucket listed a fleet of 150 vessels with an average burthen of one hundred tons, while the Vineyard could claim just twelve.
SOURCE: In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon, by Joan Druett (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004), pp. 23-25

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