A Different Perspective on the American Whaling Industry: An Interview with Steve Purdy
What is your background in researching the American whaling industry?
Following a 30-odd year career in information technology and management consulting in North American and Western European industry, during which time I completed an MBA, I retired and took a part-time position in the Interpretation Department of Mystic Seaport Museum. As a lifelong sailor with an interest in maritime history and a family history in the “Banks” fishing industry, I began gathering knowledge to effectively interact with the museum’s visitors. In a few years, I became the Lead Interpreter for the whaleship Charles W. Morgan.
Much research and writing has been done on the social, cultural, and ecological aspects of the American whaling industry, but relatively little on its financial, political, and diplomatic power. In my free time I started an independent research project to better understand the industry in terms of its impact on the developing American nation using analytical techniques often applied in management consulting.
That required reading and research to interpret the economic picture in the context of cultural history, computer work, and a certain amount of serendipity. In the first decade of the 21st Century, affordable powerful personal computers and relatively inexpensive computer graphics software and printers were just becoming available. That aided research. In quantitative analysis pictures are especially illuminating. The objective was twofold. First, to express the economic data of the whaling industry—the products, their volumes, and their value over time—in graphics and, second, to use the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to convert period dollars to contemporary dollars for better understanding by the public.
For the 1976 Bicentennial research had been done to extend CPI conversion factors back into the late colonial era. There is a practical impact to saying that a gallon of sperm whale oil in the 1850s was worth $55 in today’s money rather than saying that it was worth $2.50 in period money, the cost of a not-very-sophisticated cup of coffee in our day. Analysis confirmed that using the CPI to convert the data for products generally available in the economy from the money of its time to ours does not affect the relative accuracy of the results: it doesn’t. This interview uses 21st-century dollar equivalents unless otherwise stated.
As the graphics emerged, they showed that American whaling in the 19th and early 20th Centuries was not just a social and cultural phenomenon, but an economically powerful industry that waxed and waned based on supply and demand affected by technology, price, and social change. The whaling industry made a significant contribution of capital to the dominance of the U.S. in the Industrial Revolution. The following graphs express this in 21st -century dollars on one page, a total industry value of nearly $11 billion, Sperm oil – 54%, Whale Oil – 36%, Baleen – 10%.
In a paper that you wrote in 2013, you call the whaling industry “The Great American Enterprise.” Please explain.
It appears that the Basques began European commercial whaling in the 15th Century. As the whales played out in the Bay of Biscay there was a nascent whaling industry in the North Atlantic. The coastal nations of NW Europe dominated by the Dutch and English, took over. The settlers of New England understood that whaling was a difficult, demanding, but lucrative, industry. From the start they hoped to exploit it in their new colonies. John Smith, a well-known Mayflower passenger, had been on an expedition in 1614 of which one objective was to investigate the prospects for whaling off the North American coast. When Mayflower anchored at Provincetown another passenger mentioned in his journal that whales abounded and that if the settlers had the proper equipment and skills there was great economic potential. It was inevitable that whaling would be part of the new North American economy.
Native Americans were already whaling, both drift whaling, the processing of dead whales that washed ashore, and harassment hunting of live whales in shallow waters from canoes. Drift and shore whaling, mostly for local use, became ubiquitous in the coastal New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies. Some of the earliest taxation disputes in the new land were over the rights to “found” whales. There were debates over taxation of drift whales by Plymouth Colony. That ended when the local government backed down.
In England found whales were “Royal Fish” by law, “Droits of the Crown,” so the Crown, and potentially the Colonial government, was entitled to a share of every drift or shore-hunted whale in the New World. Colonial Governors unsuccessfully attempted to transfer that practice across the Atlantic by demanding a substantial share of the proceeds of drift and shore whaling. Long Islanders sent a representative directly to Parliament, who successfully pled their case. In the early 18th Century, the Colonial Governor of New York discontinued direct taxation on whaling but continued the requirement for a license and fee. That was a profound compromise by the British colonial government.
In 1641 Thomas Mayhew purchased the Island of Nantucket from the Plymouth Colony for thirty pounds and two beaver hats. In 1659 Baptist Thomas Macy and his wife were living in central Massachusetts as borderline heretics by Puritan standards and ran afoul of religious law by sheltering a small group of traveling Quakers during a storm. The Macys were fined, ostracized, and otherwise persecuted. Thomas Macy and Edward Starbuck bought Nantucket from Mayhew and migrated to the island with a group known as the 'Twenty Purchasers.” Macy's voyage in late fall from the Merrimac River to the island, 25 miles south of Cape Cod, was itself a feat of small-boat seamanship.
The island’s sand-and-gravel soil was not suited to large-scale farming. The soil’s porosity prevented accumulation of water on the surface. Rainfall percolated into the water table. The land was usable for raising sheep, which the settlers turned to with a will. There were ponds and bogs at the surface, but few streams. With near sea level elevations there could be no waterpower or sources of moving water to support a large-scale wool processing industry. Sheep farming continued, but the community turned to whaling, employing experienced Native Americans. Nantucket’s steps into whaling were the beginning of the first globally dominant American industry.
The Nantucketers ranged farther in pursuit of their quarry. In the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, they found the Sperm Whale, a deep-diving, warm-water creature. The Sperm Whale, the only toothed large or ”great” whale, was not unknown, but not common in the established European industry which concentrated on filter-feeding Right Whales and Bowheads, baleen whales, in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Differences in diet and biology make Sperm oil a special product. Why Sperm Whale? When first found, spermaceti, a very waxy and valued oil found in liquid form in a separate case in the whale’s head was thought to be part of its reproductive system, not so, but thus the ‘Sperm Whale’. About 1/3 of the oil of a Sperm Whale is free-standing liquid spermaceti from the case. The rest, still of superior quality, is rendered from the blubber, the layer of fat under the skin, and in other parts of the body.
Sperm Whales had drifted ashore on Nantucket. The islanders recognized the superiority and value of its waxy oil, but thought it was a rare species. The appearance, odor, and consistency of sperm oil vs. baleen whale oil is as striking as its superior performance. In lighting it is like a liquid candle having a relatively bright flame, long burn time, and produces little smoke. It also has superlative qualities as a lubricant. At the height of the industry there were 32 grades of Sperm oil based on color, viscosity, and odor. Whaling agent Charles Morgan was considered an expert ‘grader’. It can be made into spermaceti candles which were a premium lighting product and a major trade item with England. The term candlepower, still in use today, is the light produced by one spermaceti candle. (See the question on ‘Best Whales to Hunt’, below for a description of the characteristics of whale products.) In deeper warmer waters, Sperm Whales were found to be common, but more difficult to catch because of their agility and toothed lower jaw, the teeth meshing with hollow sockets in the upper jaw. The Nantucketers became expert, and the U.S. was globally dominant in Sperm whaling, never to be surpassed in their time.
Circa 1736 there was a market breakthrough. London began illuminating its streets through the night and experienced an immediate decrease in night crime. Paris followed suit and soon large cities had streetlamps. Sperm oil was the preferred fuel because of the brightness of its light and its long burn time. Until later in the 19th Century the ‘old lamplighter’ was refueling and lighting Sperm-oil lamps, eventually kerosene and gas. Demand for Sperm oil escalated because of its special qualities, and its supply became a matter of international economics and diplomacy. Nantucket was the primary source. By mid-18th-century, Nantucketers were Sperm whaling in the Atlantic as far south as the Falkland Islands. The American supply and its origin became internationally significant, a boost to the image and substance of the New England colonies. American whaling agents had direct personal political, financial, and diplomatic relationships in Europe well before Independence. This created an international presence for the American colonies before they became an independent nation.
In the 1750s there was a technical breakthrough. Whalers had been taking blubber ashore to be rendered or “tryed out.” Shore rendering was inefficient and often resulted in poor quality oil because blubber, a fat, deteriorates quickly. The more delay before it is processed, the poorer the resulting oil. The solution was to put the processing facility, the “tryworks,” aboard ship. Nantucketers may not have been the first to attempt shipboard tryworks, but they were the first to apply them successfully and universally. Except for final refining and distribution the entire process could now be done at sea. It became a pelagic industry. That allowed multi-year global whaling voyages. Ships traveled to where the Sperm Whales and others were while still producing a valuable quality product. In 1789 the first whaleship went around Cape Horn to the expansive warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean, an ideal habitat for the warm-water Sperm Whale. The industry leaped in terms of potential supply. For the next 125 years, the American whaling industry supplied 90% of the world’s Sperm oil.
In the 1820s with the explosion of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and the U.S. there was another major market shift. High-quality lubricants that could withstand the above-boiling temperatures, pressures, and rotational speeds of steam-powered machinery were needed. Sperm oil filled the bill. In the mid-1850s it topped out in 21st-century dollars at about $55 per gallon. Too valuable to burn except for specialized purposes such as lighthouse beacons. (See following questions for details of lower-cost substitutes.)
As demand for Whale and Sperm oil increased, whaleships became larger and deeper. At Nantucket there was a 7-foot sandbar at the entrance to the harbor. Deep-draft vessels could not enter. The locals did not have the technology or funds to keep the entrance consistently dredged to greater depths. They tried several alternatives including leaving the ships at Martha’s Vineyard and barging the oil into Nantucket for processing and distribution and lifting ships over the bar with a “camel,” a pontoon arrangement that had its own issues of cost and complexity. None was successful enough to offset the additional cost. The channel was not properly dredged and maintained until much later in the century when federal funding became available.
The Nantucket Rotch family and others had already been working to develop infrastructure for the industry on the mainland at New Bedford and Fairhaven. In addition to a large deep-water harbor, the location provided freer access to labor, timber for shipbuilding, and rail transportation for distribution of the final product. Many of the whaling families moved their operations from Nantucket to New Bedford and it became the new capital of the American whaling industry. Nantucket continued to be a whaling port into the 1870s, focusing primarily on Sperm Whale hunting in smaller vessels, but finally succumbed to market forces.
The industry peaked in the 1850s and its decline was steeper than its ascendance. Within 15 years, 60% of the whaling fleet was retired intentionally or by attrition. The next change in whale product demand was from oil to baleen, which was then called “whalebone”, though not part of the structural skeleton. This product from the mouths of the Right Whale, Bowhead, and all large whales other than the Sperm Whale varies in quality and utility depending on the diet of each species. It is made of keratin, the material of our fingernails and hair. Keratin has both durability and resiliency, properties of today’s plastics, and was used as we now use plastics, buggy whip cores, flat springs, umbrella ribs, collar stays, the interior springs of billiard-table cushions, and many others. Most important in the Victorian era was the stays in women’s corsets. Baleen was a byproduct of hunting non-toothed whales for oil. As demand for oil went down and less hunting was done, the supply of baleen decreased. It became scarce and more valuable. By 1905 its price was at over $150 21st-century per pound. A Bowhead could contain 2000 pounds of baleen. Voyages were sometimes made in the Arctic for baleen alone. The oil was sometimes disregarded, or the raw blubber traded to Inuit populations for labor and supplies. Around 1907, the Victorian style era ended. A principal Paris designer, Paul Poiret, introduced a straight-line couture that required no corsets, a precursor of the flapper era. The baleen market crashed. That spelled the end of the traditional American whaling industry. The last traditional U.S. whaling voyages sailed by 1925.
Why “The” or at least “A” Great American enterprise? Because it was the first American industry that was operated outside the strictures of the English colonial system. Generally, colonies were only allowed to trade within the Empire and most goods that they produced had to go through the mother country and be reshipped from there if they were to be distributed to other economies. The Nantucket whalers made it on their own. They established the international presence of the American colonies as a separate entity well before the U.S. was politically independent. They endured the political, diplomatic, economic, and military difficulties of both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. They were knocked back and each time recovered and expanded their influence. The American whaling industry became minuscule before finally dying out in the mid-1920s. In the interim it had not only provided economic and technical support to the entire country, but perhaps most importantly, an infusion of overseas capital that was a primary contributor to the United States becoming dominant in the Industrial Revolution.
British statesman and orator Edmund Burke stated it well when he spoke in the 1775 Parliament debates regarding the proper attitude of the Imperial government to the restive American colonies. He used the whaling industry as an example of the spirit of American enterprise and its potential benefits for the Empire. His position was that the British attitude toward the American colonies should be conciliatory and that the entrepreneurial colonial spirit should be fostered to the advantage of the Empire:
Look at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the Whale Fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating deep into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson's Bay and Davis's Straits, whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes, and engaged under the frozen Serpent of the South. . . . We know that whilst some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others run the longitude and pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. . . . Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of British enterprise, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it is been pushed by this recent people, people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood.
―Edmund Burke, “Burke's Speech on Conciliation”
Burke failed and more acts were passed to coerce the American colonies into submission, including the infamous Stamp Act, the Restraining Acts, and extension of the Navigation Acts to prevent direct trading outside the Empire. The tax on tea was already in effect and the Boston Tea Party had already happened. Beaver and Dartmouth were Nantucket ships that had brought tea to Boston as a return cargo after delivering whale oil to London. After the Revolution, the first ship to enter the Thames River in London under the new American Stars and Stripes was a shipment of whale oil. Based on rumors that Britain would officially conclude the Revolutionary War by signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and reopen trade, William Rotch dispatched one of his ships, the Bedford, to London with a cargo of Nantucket whale oil. She anchored below the Tower of London. This was the first display of the new Stars and Stripes in England. As the Paris treaty had not yet been signed, the U.S. was not officially a nation. There was confusion over how to clear Bedford’s cargo through customs. The oil was desperately needed. Commercial necessity prevailed. The cargo was admitted, and the ship and her new flag were a popular sensation.
Early in the 20th Century, a new type of mechanized whaling industry emerged in Western Europe. With high-speed powered chase vessels, percussive weapons, factory ships,, and the ability to inflate whales that would otherwise have sunk (see the question on ‘Best Whales to Hunt’, below) all species became targets. The U.S. did not significantly directly participate in that industry but remained as a major consumer of whale products until 1972 when importation was prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act . That is another story.
Our Journal covers a period from 1844 to 1852. How important was the whaling industry to the American economy during this time?
During the1830 to 1860 era, in which about 80% of the total industry revenue was earned, American whaling was in its heyday as the fifth-largest industry in the country. Despite domestic shortages that were driving them out of that market, the national whaling industry was exporting 40 to 60% of its product to Western Europe at premium prices. That generated large amounts of positive foreign exchange needed by the developing industrial economy of the U.S. By the 1860s the whaling owners saw that their existing hunting technology would not be able to supply the exploding lubrication market engendered by the Industrial Revolution at reasonable prices. Although petroleum did not actively enter the market until the late 1860s to early 1870s, other lower-priced alternatives undermined whale oil in the domestic market. The new products did not have the broad-spectrum capabilities of whale oil, particularly Sperm Whale oil, but were adequate for illumination, industrial processes, and lubrication for less-demanding applications at much lower cost. Seed oils were used for low-tech applications and animal oils such as beef and pork by-products became more available at low cost as the meat-processing industry grew. Manufactured coal gas and other coal derivatives penetrated the lower levels of both the illumination and lubrication markets. Petroleum did not save the whales, practical economics did, at least for the interim.
Traditional whaling investors began backing out of the industry in the 1860s, well before petroleum became competitive. They took their capital, which had been accumulated with no personal or corporate income taxes and moved their offices to New York City, establishing Wall Street, then the maritime district, as the new financial district. They became principal financiers of the next stages of the Industrial Revolution, investing cannily and wisely in textiles, railroads, real estate, metals, communications, shipping, mining, metal production, and other up-and-coming industries as well as in petroleum. It can be said that the principal contribution of the whaling industry was not only in its mechanics and what it did prior to 1860,when bridging the need for illuminants and lubricants was essential at the time, but what it did financially following whaling’s decline. The industry’s accumulated capital was deployed to support the progress of the American Industrial Revolution. Whaling investors had established substantial political, diplomatic, and financial connections in Western Europe that allowed them to solicit foreign investment in U.S. industrial development, particularly British investment in railroads and real estate. The story of Hetty Green, ‘The Witch of Wall Street’, daughter of Edward Mott Robinson, the second owner of Charles W. Morgan, can be found elsewhere. Reinvesting her inherited whaling fortune she was reputed to be the richest woman in the world in her day.
Where does the port of New London fit into this economic picture at the time when the Merrimac voyages took place?
As a commercial port, New London, Connecticut, with its natural deep-water harbor at the entrance to Long Island Sound, loomed large in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Boston, Providence, New London, and New York were the principal Northeast commercial ports. The strategic importance of New London in the War of Independence and War of 1812 is not well known but can be found in accounts of local history.
In 19th-century American whaling, over 1,100 whaling voyages originated in New London, fifth in the nation. This figure is higher if New London County is counted, including the 350 or so voyages that originated from Mystic and Stonington. This seems like a large number but is less than 1% of the activity for the century, so was not a major factor in the national whaling picture. Its effect on the local community is a microcosm of what was happening nationally. The city is still rife with street names, locations, buildings, institutions, and organizations that echo the impact of 19th-century whaling.
The story of New London whaling is to be found not only in its operation, but in how the wealth, capital, and jobs it generated supported the development of the city and its environs. It was operating locally in parallel with national growth and development before and during the Industrial Revolution and its role in the economic development of the city was significant. Robert Owen Decker’s Whaling Industry of New London (Liberty Cap Books, 1973) and Barnard L. Colby’s For Oil and Buggy Whips (Mystic Seaport Museum, 1990), among others, provide detailed descriptions of the operation of the industry and its impacts on the city. These books are available in most area libraries. Native Americans played an active role not only from New London, but from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and elsewhere, valued for their traditional skills in hunting and processing large animals with edged weapons and tools. Pacific islanders were often in the crew lists for similar reasons.
Whaling was a risky industry, and the success of a whaling voyage was by no means certain. What were the financial incentives for the owners, agents, and captains? Was there such a thing as insurance for voyages?
Although there were many independent voyages, the predominant method of financing and managing American whaling was a form of private joint venture: the “agent” system. It spread risk among a close group of investors prior to the general acceptance of public stock companies. Well-suited to the closeness of the community nature of the early American whaling business, this method served the industry well during most of its life. The agent was the organizer of the voyage and held a majority interest, as well as at least a partial interest in several ships, which might be his contribution to the support of a voyage. Each voyage venture was accounted for in detail as a separate identifiable entity and was dissolved at its end.
The first U.S. whaling public stock companies were not organized until 1883 in San Francisco. The Pacific Whaling Company and The Arctic Oil Works were incorporated in San Francisco, capitalized at $2 million and $1 million, respectively. Principals and investors in these new corporations, except for Josiah Knowles, originally from New Bedford, who headed both companies, were not whalemen, but businessmen. The investing public saw opportunity in technically updating the tradition-bound whaling industry.
In the agent system investors might be chandlers and outfitters who equipped and provisioned ships, shipbuilders, sailmakers, or others in the maritime trades. Some provided services or commodities for their share in lieu of cash. Direct involvement in the maritime trades was not necessary to participate and there were those who were simply financial investors. The agent recruited the investors, planned the voyage, provisioned the ship, managed the voyage remotely by the best communications available with the captain while it was underway, and brokered the oil on return, for commissions in addition to his direct revenue from shares. Accounts for each voyage were kept in fine detail and are often well preserved, providing a rich financial history and much data yet to be mined.
There were usually 16 to 32 shares in a voyage owned by several individuals. Ownership of multiple shares was common. The agent had majority control. Captains often purchased ownership shares that brought them investment income in addition to their large lay share, an additional motivator, along with whatever other revenue they could gain from a voyage. That might affect the way they managed the voyage at sea. Captains often brought, or acquired on the way, trade goods on their “own account” or the “owners' account.” Any gain from activities on their own account was theirs. In Whale Hunt, his personal account of a voyage on Charles W. Morgan, Nelson Cole Haley, later a whaling captain, provides a colorful description of a night delivery of smuggled tobacco to a customer in the Azores. The captain also sometimes shared in the profits of the slop chest and with the cook in the slush fund, money received for the fat boiled off from the salt meat in the crew's diet. Slush was used aboard ships for lubrication and there was a ready market for it ashore for soap making and industrial use.
There were several recognized whaling “houses” in New London during the 19th Century. Much of the detailed data comes from Custom Houses which cleared the ships out and in on their voyages. The most successful agents managed many voyages over time. In New Bedford for agent Charles W. Morgan, it was 60, for J. & W. R. Wing Company, long-term owners of Charles W. Morgan and agents for over 60 years, almost 250, for members of the Howland family active in the industry from 1818 to the late 1870s, combined, several hundred. There was risk and the expertise of the captains and luck were key. An agent could lose a ship, or have a clean, i.e., empty, or broken, less than full, voyage. An analysis of average profits by voyage for a group of 28 New Bedford agents that organized at least 40 voyages shows that 17 of them achieved profits over time of less than the overall average of 13.7%. The remainder experienced average per voyage career profits of 15 to 59%. The New Bedford Allens were most successful at 59% over 64 voyages. Joseph Knowles II earned 36% on 39 voyages and the Howlands in the 20% range. Agent Charles W. Morgan’s average was 15.5%. Agents that managed less than 40 voyages had an average return of 10.7%. At New Bedford there were only two overall losers in the experienced group; experience counted. Decker and Colby thoroughly cover the situation in New London.
There was also money to be made indirectly from whaling. Those who manufactured or dealt in clothing, supplies, finance, ship building and maintenance, insurance, refining and distributing the oil and other whale products all profited from the industry, some at more than one level. Outfitters, who recruited and outfitted the men, equipped, and provisioned the ships, and provided products for the ships’ slop chests, did well. There was an active cottage industry of women hand-sewing clothing for the outfitters. New Bedford was twice the richest city in the world in per capita assets; the first time directly from the whaling industry and the second from reinvestment of whaling capital in other industries such as textiles. The wealth was not broadly distributed. It was concentrated in the whaling agents and investors and in the traditional whaling families and supporting trades.
Insurance was available from underwriting groups and “companies” like the original Lloyd’s of London model. The agent and the investors decided whether the voyage or certain portions of it were covered by insurance. If an agent sought insurance, an underwriter would seek individuals who were willing to take the risk. They divided the premiums, in the vicinity of 5% of either the value of the vessel, the anticipated value of the cargo, or both, and they proportionally shared any loss. Sometimes agents incrementally added cargo insurance as they received reports from captains of the size and nature of the cargoes. The premium was based on where the ship was expected to go, the projected length of the voyage, the types of whales to be hunted, and current political and social conditions. Under the lay system part of the premiums, particularly on the cargo, might be charged against the crew’s accounts. In wartime premiums increased, but insurance was still available. The role of whaling in the Civil War is another interesting topic outside of our scope.
I have heard about the “lay” system in commercial whaling? What did that mean about payment for the crew?
The lay system was established at Nantucket as the method of compensation in American whaling. It prevailed throughout the traditional whaling era. Roughly two-thirds of the catch was kept by the investors. The distribution of the crew's third was based on a negotiated share, the lay, that reflected the experience and skills of each crew member. It was a motivator in that, in theory, the more product that was taken the larger the crew’s compensation. In England, whaling in the North Atlantic, the crews were paid wages and perhaps a bonus for whales taken. That never seemed to work as well.
The lay was agreed to by each man in writing during the signing-on process. See Moby-Dick for a description of signing on to the Pequod by Ishmael and Queequeg. The “afterguard,” officers and some in skilled positions who lived in the more comfortable quarters in the aft area of the ship, received a “short” lay, less than 1/150, and the seamen living in the fo’c’s’le, before the mainmast at the forward end of the vessel, up to 1/200 or longer. The lay appears to be a fraction, but really means that the worker earns physical ownership of a share of the oil taken. For a 1/100 lay, one of every 100 barrels belongs to the employee. Usually, the agent bought the oil from the crew, but crewmen sometimes had to wait for the sale of the cargo to receive cash. If there was a temporary glut of oil, the agent could refuse to buy, and the crewmen had to find a buyer elsewhere. Conversely, a crewman could refuse to sell to the agent if he didn’t like the price and take his oil elsewhere for a better offer. Those situations were rare, but they did happen.
In Pursuit of Leviathan, Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karen Gleiter (University of Chicago, 1997), contains an extensive analysis of lays and the effect of their manipulation on the industry’s productivity and ability to recruit and retain hands. For the mid-1800s, the authors determine the usual captain's lay at about 1/15, first mate 1/23, second and third mates 1/38 through 1/57, boatsteerers (harpooners) 1/87, idlers (tradesmen): coopers 1/57, carpenter 1/165, cook 1/141, steward 1/135, seamen: skilled 1/151, semi-skilled 1/166, unskilled (greenhand) 1/186. Idlers were not called that because they didn’t do anything. They were skilled tradesmen and did their work as needed rather than being on the 24/7 four-hours-on, four-off watch system of the seamen. Therefore, they were generally able to sleep through the night and were idle at times. The lays cited are for voyages from New Bedford at the economic height of the industry in the 1840s-1860s. From the 1840s forward, effective wages for the seamen living before the mast, were about 60 to 70% of those of similarly skilled workers ashore and other merchant seamen. That for working in an industry heavy on discomfort, deprivation, and danger, and that required being away at sea for years at a time.
Alexander Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery, originally published in the 1870s and republished in 1989 by Castle Books, shows that Merrimac’s 1844-1847 voyage, her first from New London, returned 27 barrels of sperm oil, (the standard whale-oil trading barrel was 31.5 gallons), 2975 barrels of whale oil and 5,000 lbs. of baleen. The estimated total value of the voyage was $36,137 in period dollars, $974, 976 in 21st -century dollars. Estimated earnings for the crew would have been in period$/2008$ ($1 in 1847 = $26.98 in 2008): captain 2409/64998, first mate 1571/42930, second and third mates 769/20744, harpooners 415/11207, cooper 634/17105, idlers (average) 246/6632, able seaman 239/6457, seaman 232/6450, greenhand 195/5242. In addition, room and board would have been at no cost to the crew. It should be recognized that though the CPI converts the theoretical purchasing power of money from one period to another, having cash in hand in an earlier economy where much was done by barter, directly trading labor or goods, may have been more powerful than it seems to us.
The ships were operated aggressively as company stores. During the voyage the crew purchased replacement clothing and equipment—which was often shoddy merchandise—tobacco, and other personal items from the ship's slop chest at inflated prices and paid interest for the duration of the voyage on that and on any cash advances taken against their lay. They also often began a voyage with the debt of what they thought was a “signing bonus,” but was an advance against earnings, and the cost of an “outfit,” needed clothing and equipment, sometimes poor-quality goods, sold to them before departure of the ship. The bonus and outfit might amount to the equivalent of $3,500 in today’s money. Also, certain charges that might be thought to be owner expenses, such as loading and unloading costs, part of the insurance premium, freight charges if oil was shipped home from a foreign port, the cost of the ship’s medicine chest and other expenses were often levied against the crew’s accounts. In some cases, crewmen returned home owing the ship money. Deserters lost their share, which went back into the owners’ portion, and a replacement started with a lay of only the oil taken in the remainder of the trip. The classic text on the inner workings of the 19th-century American whaling industry, written at its close, is Elmo Hohman’s The American Whaleman (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1928).
Merrimac spends much of its time in the Arctic regions of the Pacific Ocean. Were these the best whaling grounds at that time? What were the best whales to hunt?
Best “whales” to hunt:
The 19th-century whaling industry took a wide variety of marine mammals. Just about any voyage that was made to hunt marine mammals was called a whaling voyage. Historian Edouard Stackpole, coined a term as the title of his book, The Sea-Hunters (Bonanza Books, 1953) that better fits the industry than the term “Whalemen.”
There were two very practical criteria rooted in the technology of the day that determined which species of whales were hunted:
- They had to swim at 6 knots or less or they could have neither been successfully chased by a whaleship sailing at 6 to 8 knots, nor hunted from a whaleboat powered by oars and sail.
- They had to have a low enough physical specific gravity to naturally float for some time when dead as the equipment needed to lift them whole aboard ship, or to inflate them with compressed air to keep them afloat as is done by factory ships today, did not exist. The blubber had to be stripped from the whale with the whale floating by its own buoyancy alongside the ship.
Only three whale species fully meet those two requirements. Most likely that is because they are slow swimmers and do not get the same level of exercise that the faster rorquals, such as Fin and Blue Whales, do in swimming at much higher speeds. These species' specific gravity is lower, and they float, at least until they become waterlogged, providing a time window of a day or two for processing:
- Sperm Whale ― The Sperm Whale is the only large toothed-whale. It feeds on squid, fish, and other larger marine organisms. As a result of this diet, its oil is different from that of baleen whales and other marine mammals. Chemically, Sperm-oil is a liquid wax, which gives it superior qualities for both lighting and lubrication. Sperm-oil was therefore sought after and sold at premium prices, usually 2 to 3 times more than other marine mammal oils, which were called whale oil or “train oil.” For lighting it burns with a bright, clear, smokeless, and odorless flame and has a long burn time. It is still one of the best natural lubricants in the universe as it maintains a consistent viscosity over a wide temperature range and not only lubricates well but also is excellent at dissipating heat, all important qualities for a lubricant.
- Right Whale ― All other large whales are baleen whales. They filter feed on small marine organisms such as plankton, krill, copepods, and small fish. Therefore, their mouth structure is different from the sperm whale, which has a long narrow lower jaw with teeth. They have a wide gaping mouth with jaws that contain baleen. The baleen, made of keratin, the material of which our fingernails and hair are composed, hangs at the side of their mouths in long narrow strips and filters out water that enters with the prey, while retaining the food. Baleen, or “whalebone” as it was called at the time, is not bone. It has many of the properties of plastics, durability, flexibility, and resilience, which gave it varying levels of commercial value over time. The Right Whale is a cold-water whale, so its blubber is a thick insulator. Each whale produces a larger quantity of oil than a Sperm Whale of similar size; however, it is a plain oil or fat, rather than a wax, and does not perform as well for either lighting or lubrication.
- Bowhead ― The Bowhead, or Northern Right Whale, is an even larger cold-water baleen whale found in the vicinity of both the Eastern (North Atlantic) and Western (North Pacific) Arctic. A single Bowhead can produce over 200 barrels of whale oil. Its baleen is of the highest quality, fine-grained and flexible, and can be as long as 14 feet. A Bowhead can contain a ton of baleen. The Bowhead was hunted intensively in the Arctic during the ascendancy of the baleen market at the end of the 19th-century and into the early 20th.
Sometimes under the right conditions, primarily shallow coastal waters, whalemen hunted:
- Humpback ― A migratory coastal baleen whale, the humpback has relatively thin blubber of moderate quality. It is a bottom feeder, scooping copepods out of the mud with its baleen, which is short and of poor quality. Its biggest drawback is that it sinks when dead. However, sometimes Humpbacks were hunted in shallow water, retrieved, and processed.
- California Gray ― A primitive species of whale, similar to theHumpback, taken on the West Coast, particularly on its breeding grounds in Baja California.
Others by chance and opportunity ― The Sea-Hunters were opportunists. Occasionally other whale and cetacean species were taken when the opportunity arose, but not as intended targets or in great numbers.
Other Marine Mammals:
- Dolphins, porpoises, pilot whales ― Dolphins and porpoises were taken for oil, sometimes as hunting practice for new crew members, and for food aboard ship. There were specific fisheries for the smaller pilot whales, often called “blackfish,” which was often hunted from shore. Their oil can be mixed with sperm oil without adulterating it. Pilot whale oil was refined for lubricating clocks and instrumentation.
- Pinnipeds, i.e., seals, sea elephants, and walruses, were hunted for oil; ivory and hides also had value. Shore-based marine mammals are easy to hunt compared to whales, their oil was easy to process, of high quality, and their fat has a relatively high yield. There were specific hunting expeditions for these animals. South Atlantic islands, such as South Georgia and Desolation Island, were prime territory for this hunt.
- Seals and sea otters - There is an instance in our Journal where several fur seals are taken for their pelts. The primary market for marine mammal furs was in the U.S., for use in beaver hats. clothing, and robes, and in China. There were expeditions that hunted these marine mammals and then proceeded directly to China to exchange the pelts for trade goods. This was often classed as whaling. New London and Stonington, Connecticut, were significant ports for these activities as was Salem, Massachusetts. Ships on whaling voyages often took furs as well.
The Best Hunting Grounds:
The best grounds depended on what species of whales was being hunted. The Sperm Whale is a warm-water species. The best Sperm Whale grounds in the Atlantic were in the Gulf Stream, the Falklands, off the coast of Brazil, and the Southwest coast of Africa. In the Pacific, the best Sperm Whale grounds were off the coast of Chile and Peru and in the vicinity of the Equator, which was called “sailing the line.” In our Merrimac journal the whalemen, or more correctly the agents, apparently were not interested in Sperm Whales, even though by the 1820s to 1860s Sperm-oil was the premium product. Merrimac sailed straight across to the West Coast of Africa to the Azores, which was typical for any voyage regardless of its eventual destination. The prevailing winds are westerly so heading for the coast of Africa in a square-rigger is sailing off the wind. The circulation of currents in the Atlantic also favors that route.
In the Azores, and Cape Verde, Portuguese possessions, and the Canary Islands (Spanish), archipelagos off the west coast of Africa, whaleships picked up supplies, which they called “recruiting.” It did not necessarily involve recruiting additional personnel, although that was done when a ship left its homeport shorthanded, but obtaining supplies needed for the next stage of the voyage, often done with “trade goods” rather than cash. The ships were provided with items that might be attractive to the native populations. Apparently whatever mix of goods the Merrimac had was not of interest to at least a first group of potential suppliers, so they had to go elsewhere to satisfy their needs. A good deal of the Portuguese-American population that we find in southern New England results from filling out short crews in the Azores and at Cape Verde which had local shore whaling industries. Men from those islands might stay with the vessel for the entire voyage and eventually settle in New England, particularly in the New Bedford area.
The next leg of Merrimac‘s voyage is down the West Coast of Africa around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and south. Heading into cold waters, which is Right Whale and Bowhead territory. Then up past Japan to find Right Whales and Bowheads in the Okhotsk Sea, and on to the area of the Bering Strait. It’s unknown why there was a lack of interest in Sperm Whales aboard Merrimac, though other New London ships were seeking them. Although there was a thriving whale fishery in the Eastern Arctic American whaleships did not transit the Bering Strait into the Western Arctic until the very late 1840s.
The work on a whaleship was very dangerous. In our Journal the seamen got injured frequently and developed other illnesses, broken legs, amputated fingers, dropsy, etc. How did they take care of medical conditions and emergencies?
The captain was usually the doctor. The ship was supplied with a medicine chest, which contained 30 or 40 small, numbered bottles. It also held a book of symptoms. If a crewman had a medical complaint he went to the captain and described the symptoms. He looked up the symptoms in the book and administered a dose from one or more of the bottles. There is an old saw, perhaps apocryphal, of a captain deciding that the patient needed a dose of #15 but that bottle was empty. So, he mixed up a 50-50 combination of #8 and #7 and administered that. That may or may not be true, but it probably reasonably describes the medical situation aboard not only whaleships but many other vessels.. Military vessels normally had somewhat trained and certified ‘surgeons’ aboard but whaleships and other commercial vessels usually did not. The situation was not much better on land. Think of crossing the country on a wagon train. Who is the doctor? Probably the wagon master under much the same conditions.
For trauma, many captains took their responsibility seriously and had additional medical books of the day that described how to do procedures such as amputations, setting broken bones, treatment of serious wounds etc. There were no anesthetics, no antibiotics, no antiseptics. The instruments could have been the tools at hand, the seaman’s knife, the carpenter’s saw and the sailmaker's needle and twine. Survival from serious injury was a matter of the internal constitution and luck of the individual. On the other hand, people were accustomed to not having what we would consider proper medical care and may have accepted death as much more of a part of life than we do. Sometimes crew members were charged for medical assistance, particularly for venereal disease, which was often picked up in, or taken to, ports of call. There are descriptions of this in our Journal. The treatment was mercury, which was expensive and can be lethal. A jug of mercury was carried for that purpose. A crewman that needed that kind of treatment was charged for it against his account.
Our Journal has the following entry:
Monday Nov. 2nd 
Have a fresh whole Sail breeze. At N W x N Steering E S-E -- at 7PM Spoke with Ship Java N-B (New Bedford) (600 bbls) - Capt. Sick – our Capt & Doctor – go on board - & Return at 8 PM With some potatoes and pumkins – The Dr Remained for a few days & we proceed in company & Steer for the Navigator Isleands S by E
Who could the ‘Doctor’ have been? Sometimes an experienced cook took on the medical duties and was called ‘doctor’, but it’s unlikely that there was a trained medical person aboard.
The Journal records a number of times when a crew member was harshly disciplined by the Captain as well as incidents of threatened violence between the officers. Was this unusual? Please explain how discipline was maintained aboard a whaleship.
Variations of corporal punishment were the method of discipline aboard sailing vessels in general. What else was available in that isolated environment? The captain was king and had almost absolute discretion in how discipline would be meted out, including the possible death of crewmen. If charged, he only had to show that his actions were necessary for the safety of the ship and its inhabitants and he was exonerated. Flogging was used aboard both military and commercial vessels until it was outlawed in the U.S. on military vessels in 1850. Commercial vessels followed suit, although flogging is not unknown on commercial vessels later in the century, including whaleships. Corporal punishment could be immediate and less formal, including striking the miscreant by hand or with an implement such as a belaying pin. In whaling and other maritime industries this practice led to the phrase ”bully captains and bucko mates.” Another method of expediting work was the “starter,” a short length of tarred rope with knots in the ends used by mates to emphasize orders.
The quality of crew members, both as seamen and as persons, was increasingly poorer as the century wore on. Shoreside jobs with better wages and living conditions—a 72-hour week with six 12-hour days, but at least Sunday off, and the opportunity to go home when you finally finished work—made seagoing jobs much less desirable. Captains were spending more time keeping the vessel staffed and training green replacement hands than in the pursuit of whales. The situation became increasingly unproductive.
Desertions were a major factor. Even on Charles W. Morgan, which was not a particularly bad ship, desertion rates were running at 60% in a voyage by the late 19th Century. High desertion rates resulted from recruiting “greenhands” desperate for a job who had no idea of what they were getting into and perhaps had succumbed to the attraction of “see the world and make your fortune on a whaleship” and didn’t like what they found. There are several incidents documented in the Journal of men ‘running’. If they ran, they were violating their contract and could be forcibly recovered. If there were financial charges from local authorities for their recovery, they were deducted from the lay. If they were successful in deserting, they lost their lay and had to find their own way home, often by taking a job on another whaleship.
A punishment described in the Merrimac Journals was confining a man in irons on bread and water until he acknowledged his transgression and agreed to behave. Our journalist remarks that the amount of time confined seemed extreme for the nature of the offense. The captain may have been trying to make a point that he was in charge, or just being difficult. This crewman may not have had it so badly as he was confined in a closet in the after part of the ship. The alternative was to be completely isolated in the dank and dark bilge in the lowest part of the vessel. In our Journal the recalcitrant crewmember was taken ashore for judgment by an American consul in Hawaii. Consuls were semi-official officials, often local attorneys, who were working part-time on contract to adjudicate such cases and provide other low-level diplomatic services. In our Journal, the specifics of what the consul may have decided are not stated. However, the crewman came back aboard, was given some additional confinement, supposedly with his assent, and then returned to duty.
In our Journal a mate, Holt, has a dispute with the captain. Officers were generally not given corporal punishment as that would have been detrimental to overall crew discipline. Instead, Holt is ‘broken’, banished from the afterguard officers’ quarters, off-duty, to live and eat where he can. After 4 days he capitulates and is restored in status. Our journalist also has several disputes with the captain, is taken on and off duty, though not disrated, and threatened with discharge. These cases were begrudgingly resolved one-on-one.
The Journal has many references to “gamming” between whaling ships on the high seas. What is a “gam?”
“Gam” has two meanings in the whaling vernacular, both regarding social activities. One is a social gathering of whales, usually Sperm Whales which are particularly gregarious. A group of whales might pause in the north-south seasonal migratory passages, feeding grounds to breeding grounds and back, which occupied much of their lives, and have what appears to be a social, or possibly breeding, occasion. An opportunity for sperm whalers to have a relatively relaxed and stationary group of whales to prey upon.
The second meaning is a social meeting of whaleships. When whaleships encountered each other or ships from the other maritime trades both American and otherwise, they would often “speak” the other ship. Casual encounters in which they verbally exchanged information across the water about the oil they had obtained so far, where they had been successful in catching whales, and possibly exchanged local news or newspapers, perhaps even mail. From whaling centers such as New Bedford, Nantucket, and New London, multiple copies of personal letters and business correspondence would often be placed on several whaleships that were intended to go into the areas where previous voyages had been dispatched in the hope that they would encounter each other and communicate. Our journalist mentions receiving letters and even a package from his wife. There were also mail drops at locations that whaleships frequently visited. Mail could be left in the hope that it would be retrieved by the intended recipients or passed on. Mail was also sent through consuls and missionaries.
For whaleships, a gam was more extended.. The ships ``hove-to” and there would be an exchange of crew members between the two ships via whaleboat. That could happen when the captains of ships knew each other, had a business relationship, or just wanted to spend some time together. It was likely to happen if a captain’s wife was aboard one or more of the ships. That was not especially common. About 5% of the 15,000+ whaling voyages in the 19th Century had a woman aboard. About 750 voyages, perhaps less than some of the maritime cargo trades. Morgan was an exception, having a woman on board for nearly 25% of her voyages. The presence of women aboard whaleships is its own subject. Books have been written on the topic, but it is not within the scope of our Journal.
In an encounter of ships having wives aboard, there would certainly be a gam. It required a transfer at sea of one or more whaling wives from one ship to another in a dignified manner. There was a device designed to do this, the “gamming chair.” Mystic Seaport Museum has an example from Charles W. Morgan. It was a heavily built wooden chair that allowed the wife to be lowered into and removed from a whaleboat intact in full Victorian regalia, hat, hoop skirts, corsets, parasol, etc., without exposing the ankles or anything else forbidden in the mores of the time. Think of descending or climbing a ladder on the side of a rolling ship for comparison. There were also locations ashore, particularly those with American or European missionaries present, where whaling wives could gather to socialize when whaleships were in port.
What happened to Merrimac?
Merrimac was built in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1833. She sailed from there for 10 years. In its history Newburyport actively participated in the ‘triangle’ trade, and in shipbuilding, but not extensively in whaling. Only 10 whaling voyages originated there during Merrimac’s tenure. Most of the triangle trade was conducted in smaller, faster, close-winded schooners. From my experience this small harbor would have been difficult for large square-rigged sailing vessels. The confluence of changing downstream river currents and ocean tidal currents make for difficult maneuvering conditions under sail.
This small city on the south side of the mouth of the Merrimac River had three shipyards, and from about 1832, ‘added numerous ships to the whaling fleet’. The location provided access to ample native shipbuilding timber from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire forests. Merrimac was ship-rigged, i.e., squaresails on all three masts and large for a whaleship at 414 tons. In maritime usage a measurement ton is not a measure of weight, but of interior volume. One ton is roughly 100 cubic feet of cargo space. In 1833, 76 whaling vessels sailed from New Bedford. Only 5 were over 400 tons, most were in the 275-to-325-ton range, about the size of Charles W. Morgan. Although financially successful in Newburyport, bringing in over $4 million in product on 3 voyages, she was sold into New London Registry in 1844. By mid-century we find no whaling voyages from Newburyport.
1844 New London was a growing whaling port with 41 sailings. In the year of Merrimac’s last voyage, 1856, there were 31 New London voyages in addition to a significant number of departures from Mystic and Stonington, in other years a few from Norwich and East Haddam. Merrimac sailed 3 whaling voyages from New London between 1844 and 1853 under command of Captain George Destin, our captain, under management of Havens and Smith. These voyages returned cargoes with an estimated value of $179,000 in period money, over $5 million in current value.
The fourth 1853-55 voyage with the same captain and agent is something of an enigma. The vessel had been re-rigged from a full ship to a bark. That is not relevant to the outcome of the voyage. Many shipowners in whaling and other maritime trades were doing that. Charles W. Morgan, which was built as a ship in 1841 was rerigged as a bark in 1861.The square yards and sails are removed from the aftermost mast, the ‘mizzen’, and replaced with a single large fore-and-aft sail, which is primarily a steering sail. That reduces speed on some points of sail but improves it on others and reduces the amount of skilled labor necessary to manage the ship. On a whaleship it does not reduce crew size, as that is determined by the number needed to man the whaleboats and process the whales. It does reduce the need for experienced seamen in handling the vessel and somewhat lowers the cost of maintaining the rig.
What may have happened can be pieced together from several sources. Starbuck does not mention this voyage at all. Judith Lund’s Whaling Masters and Whaling Voyages Sailing From American Ports (Ten Pound Island Book Co., 2010) is an index of over 15,000 whaling voyages sorted by captain’s name and again by vessel name. It is a monumental work that contains basic information on each voyage and can be used as an index to access other sources, such as Starbuck, that are arranged by port, year of sailing, and vessel name. Lund lists this voyage and names Decker and Colby, the New London authors cited above, as her data sources. They and Starbuck contain more detail. Decker has tables like Starbuck’s for New London voyages only. He shows that on Merrimac’s fourth voyage, which was intended for Hawaii, she returned after less than 2 years with 537 bbls. whale oil ‘(partly Nantucket)’ and no whalebone. Starbuck reports that the whaleship Nantucket, naturally from Nantucket, was on a voyage in the Pacific at that time and ‘sent home 100 whale’, possibly aboard Merrimac. That is a ‘broken’ voyage, one that took few or no whales and was, therefore, a complete loss to the owners. The cause is unknown.
Captain Destin commanded two more whaling voyages. John and Elizabeth, 1855-56, agent Williams and Haven, a marginal voyage to the Indian Ocean, returned 364 barrels of whale oil and 3,000 pounds of whalebone, essentially a broken voyage. Decker estimates that a return of ‘2000 barrels ensured a profit and 3000 an excellent profit’. Whalebone would be in addition. According to Starbuck and Lund, Destin was next assigned by Williams and Haven as the first captain, of eventually 11, on Nile‘s famous 1858 12-year voyage, the longest on record. Decker shows the first captain as William Earle. Lund shows Destin as the first captain, but as leaving the ship and Earle as his replacement. Starbuck also shows Destin as the first captain. It may be that Destin never actually sailed on Nile, so Earle was captain on departure. Lund’s convention of three asterisks indicates that a captain left a ship ‘usually because of illness’, but not necessarily. She shows Earle as a replacement, four asterisks. Destin never again commanded a voyage.
On her final voyage of 1856 for Williams and Haven Merrimac was commanded by John P. Rice, a well-known New London captain, reputed to have caught the largest whale ever in the Arctic area from Isaac Hicks, 337 barrels, probably a Bowhead. He is indicated by Lund as leaving Merrimac in Honolulu, replaced by a Captain Long. Rice’s departure may have been simply a matter of convenience and Long’s role may have been to preside over the condemning of the ship. Rice commanded no more whaling voyages but was appointed Commodore of ‘the old stone fleet’ in 1861, another story on its own, see Colby, Decker, and others.
In December 1858 Merrimac at the age of 25 years, was ‘condemned’ as unseaworthy. Many ships were taken to their structural limits before retirement and that often occurred in a foreign port. About 5% of whaleships did not return from a voyage. Many were condemned or sold in a foreign port rather than ‘lost’. For Merrimac it could have been long-term structural deterioration of the vessel. The use of native materials in her construction rather than importing more durable live oak and longleaf yellow pine from the South and seasoned white oak from Maine as was done in New Bedford could have contributed. Or it could have been damage, perhaps from autumn ice in the NW Pacific. It was a potentially successful voyage, if she had been able to continue hunting. Starbuck remarks that she ‘sent home 22,444 bone’. That had a market value of 22,000 period dollars, 538,000 contemporary dollars. We can estimate that she also took whale oil in the process of getting that whalebone. Colby states a rule of thumb of 17 pounds of bone per barrel of oil for Bowheads and 14 pounds per barrel for Right Whales. She may have taken 1600 barrels, or so, of oil, which was likely sold in Hawaii, not returned to New London. There probably would also have been some salvage value in selling off sails, spars, fittings, and equipment when she was broken up. In the tradition of a sailing ship’s log:
“So Ends the Day.”