The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.
When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.
You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?
In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.
J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.
When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.
One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.
On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.
Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?
Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.
Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.
Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!