New Bedford Whaling Museum

I Saw a Ship a-Whaling

New Bedford Whaling Museum offers an impressive collection looking back through history

By Jamie Kimmel

Boat-bonding across generations. Jamie Kimmel photo
Boat-bonding across generations. Jamie Kimmel photo

After heading to New Bedford for the weekend I had so much fun at the New Bedford Whaling Museum I spun off the experience into its own article. This is a truly impressive place to spend time and learn about not only the whalers, but the lives of whales today.

We had quite a colorful tour guide, Larry and boy did we learn a lot from him! He was very personable and seemed to know just about everything there is to know about New Bedford’s history and about whaling.

He started by telling us that the city’s Whaling Museum is one of the top museums in the country. The European immigrants learned a thing or two about whaling partially from the Native Americans who experimented with uses for beached whales. Eventually, harpooning became a more efficient way to acquire whales. There were approximately six men per boat who actually harpooned the whales.

Best case scenario, the whale flees after being wounded and drags the boat for a good 24 hours before tiring out. Once it is fatigued the men plunge the harpoon even further through the blubber and bones to puncture its lungs. Needless to say these harpooners had to be very strong and the statue paying homage to them may as well have been a sculpture of Hercules, he was so muscle-bound.

Herman Melville ended up in New Bedford for a period and wrote the classic book, Moby-Dick, about what happens when the whale doesn’t try to flee. This is very bad news for the whaling crew.

Melville joined a whaling crew and had jumped ship after being terrorized by a rather notorious sperm whale named Mocha Dick. This whale has survived at least 100 other attempts at being hunted by whalers and was first discovered off the island of Mocha, Chile.

Larry teaching us how to use harpoons. Jamie Kimmel photo
Larry teaching us how to use harpoons. Jamie Kimmel photo

Instead of fleeing, Mocha got really angry at being poked and rammed the boat three times. Melville was one of only three survivors from that catastrophe and thought he’d capitalize on whale mania by writing a book about his near-death experience called Moby Dick. Sad to say the book only sold 27 copies during his lifetime.

Whaling became necessary for light, mostly. In the 19th century the blubber from the hunted whales was used for candles and the oil from these creatures was used in lamps and later on machinery and automobiles (sometimes even margarine.) Larry told us the candles made from New Bedford-hunted whales where being sold all over the world and couldn’t be shipped fast enough.

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Corsets made of whalebone. Jamie Kimmel photo

Whaling Made New Bedford Rich
It was because of the demand for whale based products that New Bedford was the wealthiest city in the nation.During the 1840s and 50s whaling was responsible for 20% of America’s economy! Not only were whales used for wax and oil, people started finding more uses out of them.

The baleen of a Bowhead whale was used for brushes, buggy whips, fishing line and corset boning. Baleen is very springy cartilage that larger whales have where their teeth would normally be. These whales tend to feed on krill, so teeth aren’t necessary.

Speaking of teeth, whales’ teeth come in all different shapes and sizes, and strangely enough these were the least valuable part of a whale’s body. Whalers would carve and decorate them into a variety of things to send back home to their wives. You may know this practice as “scrimshaw”.

Some of the really long ones were whittled into elaborately carved canes for the captains or used as legs for chairs and tables. Some of the flatter teeth looked like they could be hollowed out and used as sheaths for swords.

Typical Whalers

Boiling the blubber. New Bedford Whaling Museum photo
Boiling the blubber. New Bedford Whaling Museum photo

We learned that a typical New Bedford whaler was a teenage young man who was probably the second or third son of a farmer (from places like Amherst) who knew there wouldn’t be any land left to inherit from their fathers by the time they died.

Between 28 and 36 men would sail on a whaling ship and no boat ever came back with the entire crew. This is a grim but realistic way of looking at the life of a historical whaler. Not to mention these whaling voyages would set sail for four years! Only the captain and officers were allowed to set foot on land during the journeys to acquire provisions as they knew if they let their crew offshore they would never return.

The blubber of a whale was peeled off in layers below deck and boiled down then stored in barrels. The cooper was responsible for making and repairing barrels and knew who were good harpooners and captains.

Many crews had people not speaking the same language (some Portuguese, Creole, Norwegian, etc.) but the whaling community forged itself to be very close as everyone had to work together and didn’t want to be stuck with an unlucky captain or clumsy rookie.

Our little friend in the whaler's bunk. Jamie Kimmel photo
Our little friend in the whaler’s bunk. Jamie Kimmel photo

In 1859 petroleum was discovered and the whaling industry had to compete with it for providing oil. A year later the Norwegians invented a steam powered harpoon gun. These two factors greatly contributed to a dwindling whaling community of New Bedford.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum started construction in 1902. In 1906, Emily Bourne, daughter of Jonathan Bourne Jr. (a prominent, wealthy investor of the whaling industry) donated the Bourne Building to the museum with a half-scale model of the Lagoda, her father’s whaling ship. However by 1907 whaling had essentially died out as an industry in New Bedford.

The 1920s saw another economic boom for New Bedford and was once again the richest city in the United States. Whaling investors like Bourne and others started investing in the textile and fine cotton industry. Larry emphasized that these investors basically funded the industrial revolution. The cotton and textile peak was even better than the whaling boom in New Bedford.

For more information visit New Bedford Whaling Museum.

bunk light prism
Whaler’s bunk light prism. Jamie Kimmel photo
corset boning
Corset boning
Whale skeleton
Whale skeleton
hungry bird
Hungry bird
Half-size Lagoda replica
Half-size Lagoda replica
old pals
Old pals
Sheath-like scrimshaw
Sheath-like scrimshaw
Sperm whale skeleton
Sperm whale skeleton
Blubber hook
Blubber hook
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