The Yankee Whaler1750-1865
Hunting on the High SeasAlthough whaling in America existed before the Revolutionary War, it reached its height during the period from 1830 until the Civil War. Prosperous New Bedford, Massachusetts, along with neighboring Nantucket Island and Long Island, New York, was the home of more than 700 sturdy, three-masted whaling vessels and their intrepid crews. Their purpose was to hunt the great sperm whales, which measured up to 60 feet (18.5 m.) in length and weighed as much as 100 tons (90.1 m. tons). The prize was whale oil, the fuel that lit the lamps of the world, and one large whale might yield 90 barrels or more of it. Between 1835 and 1860 the industry's products averaged $8 million a year.
The ships, called "barks," weighed 400-500 tons (365-460 m. tons), and each one carried a huge boiler imbedded in brick on its deck. The boilers were used for rendering, or "trying out," the whale blubber, cooking it until the oil was extracted. Including the cook, doctor, blacksmith, carpenter, and cooper (barrel maker), as well as the officers and crew, each whaler carried about 30 men.
Slung along the decks were the whaleboats, 28 feet (8.6 m.) long, each one manned by a crew of six or seven men, ready for launching as soon as the cry, "Thar she blows!" echoed from the watch. Then, as the boat drew alongside its prey, the captain or mate drew back his arm at the exact, calculated moment and hurled a harpoon, with its cruelly curving hook, deep into the side of the animal. The whale now became a runaway horse, dragging the whaleboat on a mad race through the water, sometimes called a "Nantucket sleigh ride." Occasionally, it turned and tried to grind the boat between its great teeth, or lash at it with its tail and huge, armlike flukes.
The lives of all aboard depended on the skill of the helmsman, but some times even his nerve and coolness could not save the boat. Many lives were lost during these battles between man and the world's largest living creature. If all went well, the whale soon tired and slackened its pace. A lance was driven into a vital spot, killing the animal, and the carcass was towed back to the mother ship. There it was hauled onto the deck and speedily cut into sections, its blubber tossed into the boiler.
Whaling subsided in the 1860s as people turned to fossil fuels kerosene, mostly and electricity. Soon America's whaling days became a part of history, kept alive by such great literature as Herman Melville's novel, "Moby Dick."
Illustration: Whalers harpooning a giant whale, 1862
© 1979. Panarizon Publishing Corp, USA Illust:: Kendall Whaling Museum
Printed in Italy 03.012.01.23