Why black whales are called “right whales”

By Michael P. Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum

By the early 20th century, black whales, Eubalaena spp, had come to be uniformly called “right whales” due to centuries of confusion between the English, American and French languages, the laziness of whalers, the assumptions of historians, and a severe shortage of animals in the North Atlantic useful for comparative anatomical study at the height of the age of taxonomic nomenclature in the mid-nineteenth-century. It came about in this way.

Whaleman Daniel C. Whitfield of Newark, New Jersey drew this picture of a black whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Mass., 1856-1859. KWM #1033

Whaleman Daniel C. Whitfield of Newark, New Jersey drew this picture of a black whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Mass., 1856-1859. KWM #1033

Long plates of baleen and no dorsal fin are the principal defining anatomical characteristic of the sub-order of Cetaceans, the Mysticeti, those whales commonly described as “right whales.” From the traditional American viewpoint, right whales are not a species but a group. American whalers’ terming animals right whales, were simply referring to “right whaling,” the process of hunting an animal with quality, marketable baleen and often a large quantity of oil in their thick blubber. American whalers differentiated between right whales and bowheads, but called the process of hunting either “right whaling,” and took shortcuts in their logbook and journal entries terming any animal not a bowhead a right whale. American whalers sometimes called right whales “black whales” in these entries. The British completely distinguished between the two as early as the 1790s when they began their whale fishery on the coast of Australia.
To the British and the French the “right whale” was generally the animal that we know today as the bowhead. For much of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries this animal was commonly called the Greenland whale, the Mysticete, the Arctic whale, Balaena mysticetus; and also the term Baleine franche.

"La Baleine Franche," engraving of a bowhead whale printed by Frault, 37 Rue Saint Andre des Arts, after Robert Benard from L'Abbe Bonnaterre, Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique de Trois Regnes de la Nature (Paris, 1795). NBWM #2001.100.6340

“La Baleine Franche,” engraving of a bowhead whale printed by Frault, 37 Rue Saint Andre des Arts, after Robert Benard from L’Abbe Bonnaterre, Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique de Trois Regnes de la Nature (Paris, 1795). NBWM #2001.100.6340

This latter term, French in its origin, meant the true whale or even “baleine vertitable,” the real whale, and was applied equally to both species in natural history illustrations of the period. This is the whale appearing in book illustrations and natural histories as far back as the 1670s. Eubalaena spp. does not begin to regularly appear in natural history illustrations as a distinct species until 1874 when Charles Melville Scammon included a chapter on the “The Right Whale of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” in The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874).
When 19th century taxonomists began described these animals the array of names and descriptive terminology was bewildering. Documentation was weak, reliable description was almost exclusively confined to whalers, and the various species of right whales were not distinctly separated as species until the 1860s. When whalers wanted to be specific about which right whale they were hunting, then the terminology and naming got even more complex. Some names stuck and some fell away. Greenland whales, Balaena mysticetus, the European preferred whale of commerce for centuries, were a “right whale” and were commonly called Greenland right whales or Arctic right whales, or even just “the whale.” French naturalists including P.J. van Beneden recognized that Americans later came to call them bowheads, a name that stuck probably because it described a distinct characteristic of the animal, much like the hump of a humpback or the contents of the nose of a spermaceti whale.
Eubalaena glacialis, the “black whale of the Americans” was another right whale, but not preferred for European commerce at any time since the 15th century Basques. This was a little-known animal uncommonly encountered by whalers until the era of colonial American settlement put mariners directly into their migratory habitat around Cape Cod and New England. This animal was hunted by Americans for a relatively short time, less than one hundred years, but certainly not to the exclusion of other whales, as the commonly held definition of the name implies. If their behavior today is any guide, these animals rarely stranded or drifted ashore unless sick or injured. These were often called “black whales” by the British and “seven-foot bone” whales by Americans. To refer to these animals as black whales today is to employ a distinct descriptive characteristic with plenty of historical precedent that enables them to be identified and thought of as a species, separate from the group.
A “right whale” is any whale species with long slabs of marketable baleen. Known historically to American commerce as “whalebone” and to the English of the seventeenth and eighteenth- centuries as “fins,” baleen is a keratin-based adaptation consisting of long, overlapping plates growing from the roof of the whales’ mouths, finely fringed along the inside edge, enabling the animals to feed by filtering organisms from sea water. Baleen plates vary in size from species to species growing to between six and thirteen feet long in mature animals. When feeding these whales sometimes cruise steadily along the surface of the sea and along the edges of ice fields grazing on immense blooms of plankton known historically as “brit” or “whale feed.” After filling their mouths with water and plankton they use their immense lips and tongues to dispel the water and then lick the food off the inside edges of the baleen. This behavior made the animals conspicuous to mariners, and their migratory patterns and general habitats were often close to shore where they were both observed and hunted. The family Balaeinidae, these oft-named “right whales,” includes four species, the bowhead, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica). Each possesses these long plates of baleen although the longest and most valuable baleen plates to commerce came from the bowhead whale.
Modern authors who describe the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, in nature guide books, web sites, history books and even scientific papers commonly assert that because right whales floated when dead, lived close to shore, were slow and easily approached and provided large quantities of oil, meat and baleen that whalers called them “right whales” as they were the “right whale to catch.” This definition has persisted, in the U.S.A. particularly, throughout most of the 20th century.
Sir William Henry Flower (1831-1899), director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, first used the phrase “the right whale to catch” in 1898. The full quotation is:
… long distinguished by practical whalers as right whales, as they are, compared to all others, the right whales to catch being of far greater value.

Significantly, Flower did not at the time of his writing acknowledge E. glacialis as a distinct species. The right whales to which he is referring are Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead and Eubalaena australis, the Southern right whale:
Of the right whales there are two perfectly distinct forms,
though whether each of these represents a single species, or
can be subdivided into several, is still a matter of uncertainty,
and for our present purpose of little importance, as if minute
investigation can prove that they are separable, they are most
closely allied and perfectly similar to all ordinary observation.
The two forms, which I shall speak of as species or kinds, are
the Greenland or rather Arctic right whale (Balaena mysticetus)
and the southern right whale (Balaena australis).

As Flower’s language indicates, the English usage of “right whale” referring to the bowhead is incontrovertible. Although most English sources simply refer to the bowhead as “the whale,” the “Greenland whale” or the “common whale,” Flower’s differentiating the “Arctic right whale” underscores his perception that whalebone whales as a group were considered “right whales.”
Attempting to explain and describe the reasons behind why the whale is called the “right whale” without the systematic parsing of old texts has contributed to assumptions made about the commercial exploitation of one species of animal (Eubalaena glacialis) in particular to the exclusion of others. Unwittingly, E. glacialis (as well as the southern and North Pacific species) become entwined with a separate species (Balaena mysticetus) blurring the ability of historians, scientists, ocean resource managers and the public to understand the full extent of potential issues surrounding their management.
The bowhead whale itself has a long history of exploitation but also of study by English whalers and naturalists. Most famous of these was whaling master and author William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857), who wrote a precise description of the bowhead whale in his two volume work An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (Edinburgh, 1820), after his experiences hunting them in the waters of the Greenland Sea between eastern Greenland and Spitzbergen Island in the early nineteenth century:
“Balaena mysticetus: – The Common Whale, or Greenland Whale. This valuable and interesting animal, generally called The Whale by way of eminence, is the object of our most important commerce to the Polar Seas – is productive of more oil than any other of the Cetacea, and, being less active, slower in its motion, and more timid than any other of the kind… is more easily captured.”

Scoresby’s quote was repeated often – indeed, for decades his observations on the fauna of the Arctic regions were the last word in Arctic reference. Books like the popular and influential On the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales by Robert Hamilton, published as part of Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library (Edinburgh, 1837), and John Godman’s American Natural History (Philadelphia, 1828), among others relied upon Scoresby often reprinting whole passages of his writing.
His work was truly respected by his peers and remains so today. In addition to commanding several commercial whaling voyages from Hull, U.K. he studied briefly under naturalist Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University, corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks and John Hunter, and contributed information to other Arctic marine mammal naturalists including Everard Home, based largely on his observations compiled on his whaling voyages. Scoresby uses other names for the bowhead whale including the “Common Black Whale” and the “Great Northern Whale.” Even Scoresby, however, struggles with the separate identities of the bowhead and the North Atlantic right whale:
The Balaena mysticetus and the Balaena nordkaper, for instance, are considered by Linné as varieties only of the same animal. La Cepède makes them two species. No, La Cepède’s figure of Balaeine franche (mysticetus), has not its counterpart in nature; but his Balaeine nordcaper is a fair representation of the mysticetus.

In this particular incidence La Cepède was right and Scoresby was wrong. The Nordcaper and the bowhead are two separate species. The Nordcaper, or North Cape whale was for years synonymous with today’s Eubalaena glacialis. It was so-named as being encountered off the North Cape of Norway although Scoresby claims never to have seen one. By the time of Scoresby’s writing in the 1820s E. glacialis was very seldom seen and the likelihood of his even being familiar with it was small.
Numerous sources, however, including those devoted entirely to the subject such as William Dewhurst’s Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834), use the term “Greenland right whale” to describe the bowhead, although other natural histories like Thomas Bell’s A History of British Quadrupeds (London 1837) refer to Balaena mysticetus as the “true whale,” the “common whale” and the “Greenland whale.” Scoresby’s influential description comes very close to Flower’s common “right whale to catch” scenario, and it seems to provide convenient answers to the evidently perplexing question of “why is it called the right whale?” Between the two of them, Scoresby and Flower, the originations of the idea “the right whale to catch” seem definitive. Understanding then, how and why the phrase came about, is simply the culmination of hundreds of years of confusion over the precise identification of E. glacialis as a species in comparison to a well-known and well-described commercially significant animal.
In the literature of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries scientists and natural historians strove to document whale species taxonomically and were analyzing all of the various derivations of the names of these animals. The American zoologist Joseph Bassett Holder (1824-1888) compiled one particularly excellent synopsis where he makes the distinction between “right whales” generally as a group (“this Right Whale”) and the black whale specifically, as Eubalaena glacialis:
This, the Black Whale so called of the temperate Atlantic, was lately introduced to science as a re-discovery. After a lengthy period of well nigh total extinction, the species is now manifestly increasing in numbers As is now well known after a long continued confusion of specific characters and consequent misunderstanding, this Right Whale is the one which our forefathers found abundant along the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to Florida. It is the one first hunted by the Cape Cod and Nantucket whalers and is not the one now and latterly captured in the Arctic seas. At the commencement of the American Revolution the Black Whale had been so persistently pursued that there remained in our waters seemingly no more to capture. Indeed the species was near extinction. It was now that the New England and New Jersey whalers pushed northward and discovered the great Arctic Right Whale As they found a prey affording them more oil and larger baleen, they were content; leaving others to settle the question of identity. The science of cetology was not then greatly advanced; it remained therefore for naturalists of a later period to fairly establish the characteristics and relative position of each species.

Quite in opposition to Holder’s synopsis (and almost uniquely in this study), U.S. Fish Commission agent Alonzo Howard Clark (1850-1918) completely distinguished right whales from bowhead whales in his 1887 analysis of the American whaling industry:
The right whale (Eubalaena) is found in various parts of the world… This whale, of which there are several species in the different oceans, must not be confounded with the bow-head, inhabiting much colder waters, the bow-head being an ice whale and the right a temperate whale…

Clark’s report is among the most frequently accessed documents relative to American whaling history, having been widely disseminated as a government document and subsequently reprinted. In this instance, Clark mistakenly segregates the species involved in “right whaling” adopting the more generic terminology common to the fishery but less useful for specific identification.
Biologists Randall R. Reeves and Robert D. Kenney finally broke with the commonality of describing the “right whale to catch” in 2003 writing in a major marine mammal encyclopedia: “many early writers considered “right” to connote “true” or “proper.” Reeves and Kenney’s new definition helps to refine not only the question of naming but also elevates the place of the Mysticetes historically as these were long considered the whales of commerce and people paid attention to them. One may well ask what characteristics a “true” or “proper” whale may possess, which in this case may be answered in a word, baleen. True whales or right whales were those animals with long slabs of marketable baleen.
Yet even while this characteristic was accepted as a commercial criterion for classing the animals, their actual naming and identity has long remained a challenge to virtually everyone who has attempted it. As late as 1932, the whaling historian James Travis Jenkins opened “Chapter 2 – The Nordcaper,” of his book Whales & Modern Whaling with a nomenclature-rich synopsis: “The Nordcaper, Sarda, or Atlantic Right Whale (Balaena australis) was the first to be the subject of a regular fishery, that of the Basques.” Jenkins’ chapter, which starts off confusing Eubalaena glacialis with Balaena australis, nonetheless serves as a solid synopsis of the accepted perceptions of the animal and its history at the mid- twentieth century. In it he covers Basque whaling for bowhead whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Norwegian whaling records for E. glacialis around Iceland in the late nineteenth- century, and Scottish whaling records from the early twentieth- century, all good information. His chapter is particularly useful as a yardstick for gauging the degree of understanding that fisheries managers had in the mid-twentieth century.
At the time of Flower’s writing in 1898, however, the populations of E. glacialis had been stultified over tens of thousands of years through habitat degradation brought about by ice-age glacial recurrences, predation by orcas, competition from bowhead whales for preferred habitat and, ultimately, over- hunting of populations already stressed by natural habitat challenges. Flower’s exclusive descriptions of the bowhead whale and the southern right whale reflected the serious nature of how small the North Atlantic right whale populations had actually become at the turn of the twentieth- century. Fifty years earlier the New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling master Daniel McKenzie confirms this scarcity categorically in a letter to the Director of the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1849, indicating that “throughout my whaling history I never did – nor never expected to find right whales on the outward passage till I reached Latitude 30° South.”
So what really happened to E. glacialis? Is it possible that between circa 1640 and the mid-18th century American colonists killed so many animals that they were erased from the North Atlantic entirely, or were so reduced in their numbers that they were seldom even seen? American biologists William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill certainly believed so, writing in 1982: “Right whales were found in large numbers in the Cape Cod area until about 1730 (Allen 1916), but this stock was systematically reduced by shore whaling that took all that could be caught, including cows and calves.”

The modern wholesale and exclusive adoption of “right whale” as the common name for Eubalaena glacialis underscores the implication that our oft-repeated definition that the name fosters. Because these were the “right whale to catch,” catch them they did and thus the population was radically reduced. As we have seen, however, this assumption shortcuts the facts of many historical sources and takes a giant leap across an entire ocean and the entire species of Balaena mysticetus to which the term was originally applied. Further, it implies an overt concentration by hunters on one species when several were both available and exploited. It likewise demands a simple association for why there seems not to be a robust population of Eubalaena glacialis in the world today – American colonists killed them all. Curiously, and in parallel to the American experience, British colonists in New South Wales, Australia did not call the similar animal that they encountered there and hunted extensively the “right whale.” They called it the “black whale” and also exploited them thoroughly.
One significant difference between the black whale of the North Atlantic and that of the south (Eubalaena australis) is that the southern stock had a much larger population (some estimates place it as high as 90,000 animals) that managed to survive heavy, sustained, sophisticated hunting pressure for well over one hundred years. E. australis was hunted from the coasts of Brazil and Argentina to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the entire Southern Ocean by Americans, French, Australians, British and others. These were a targeted species by whaling agents intent on keeping quantities of oil and bone on their wharves and ready for the market. Whaling badly damaged this population as well as E. glacialis but the pressure was enormous in comparison.
American colonists did undoubtedly kill a lot of E. glacialis. One commonly cited source indicates that in January of 1700 “the boates round Cape Cod Bay killed twenty-nine whales in one day.” Even such concentrated efforts on a stock of animals locally concentrated in the bay, however, could only have damaged the population permanently if they were limited in their population numbers to start with, but, as Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Glover M. Allen, observed in 1916: “The accounts of this important industry that have come down to us are barely sufficient to reconstruct an outline of it.” The historical documentation upon which Allen’s observation was made has hardly changed since his writing in 1916.

The same sources that Glover Allen, Frederick True and Joel Asaph Allen reference in their works have only been augmented sparsely by primary whalemen’s accounts, and these only serve to underscore the high quality of the research in the first place. Yet despite accounts “barely sufficient” to outline the early history of colonial whaling assumptions have persisted that these were the “right whales to catch.”
The main points of this history to which Glover Allen refers, are that American colonists began processing “drift” whales that washed ashore dead or stranded themselves on the beaches of Long Island and Cape Cod in the mid-seventeenthth century shortly after colonial settlement. Today such “drift whales” occasionally turn up in the traditional regions, like Cape Cod, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket and Long Island. These consist mostly of fin whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins. The only right whales that wash ashore dead are those that have succumbed to ship strikes (hit or run over by a large vessel) or those that have become entangled in fishing gear and died. As few right whales drift ashore today, and other whales species do, this begs the question of what type of whales drifted ashore in the colonial era? Does the negligible number of drift right whales today simply reflect the fact that there are not that many of them and that the population is mostly healthy, or, does it suggest that there were once many more right whales and they were often unhealthy or, that few right whales ever washed ashore or stranded in comparison to other species?
The species of drift whale are not always identified in the historical sources being commonly called simply “whales,” or “a whale.” By the end of the seventeenth- century actual shore whaling was common from the coasts of New Jersey to Cape Cod Bay. In this fishery whales were spotted from lookouts posted along the beaches, and boats were launched to hunt the animals. Again, however, the problem plaguing so many definitive conclusions about these animals and their pre-exploited population levels is that the targeted species are not always positively identified, although records of baleen being harvested suggest that these were E. glacialis.
Off-shore voyages commenced by the early eighteenth- century and these voyages included sperm whaling. By the mid-eighteenth- century fleets of off-shore whaling vessels from a host of small ports were hunting in the Atlantic between the Azores and the Davis Straits as well as into the Caribbean. Joel Asaph Allen, Curator of Birds and Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, summed up this history writing in 1883 that E. glacialis “was lost sight of [by the British] as a commercial animal, except on this side of the Atlantic… it was practically unknown to science , till the researches of Eschricht and Reinhadt, published in 1861, led to its rediscovery.” He noted that until 1861 the species had been generally confounded with B. mysticetus.”

“Copia al Natural del Ballenato...” lithograph by Gordon, circa 1854. “The beautiful lithograph of Dr. Monedero”, described by Daniel Frederick Eschricht in his 1860 treatise Baleines franches du golfe de Biscaye. In this paper, Eschricht is the first to distinguish between E. glacialis and B. mysticetus. He accomplished this by studying the skeleton of this whale. It temporarily became known to science as Balaena biscayensis as it was recovered at San Sebastien in the Basque country in 1854. NBWM #2001.100.6149

“Copia al Natural del Ballenato…” lithograph by Gordon, circa 1854. “The beautiful lithograph of Dr. Monedero”, described by Daniel Frederick Eschricht in his 1860 treatise Baleines franches du golfe de Biscaye. In this paper, Eschricht is the first to distinguish between E. glacialis and B. mysticetus. He accomplished this by studying the skeleton of this whale. It temporarily became known to science as Balaena biscayensis as it was recovered at San Sebastien in the Basque country in 1854. NBWM #2001.100.6149

American adoption of the “right whale” in relationship to Eubalaena glacialis stems from the writing of the Massachusetts jurist Paul Dudley (1675-1751), who penned an essay for the Royal Society in 1724-1725 entitled “An Essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the spermaceti whale.” In it he describes “only such whales as are found on the coasts of New England,” including “the Right, or Whalebone Whale.” That Dudley is referring to E. glacialis and not some other species is confirmed by his description: “their scalps are sometimes found covered with thousands of Sea-lice.” These creatures also known as the whale louse, Cyamus ovalis, are a particular type of parasitic crustacean best known to inhabit the barnacle-like callosities distinctive of the Eubalaena species.

Throughout (and importantly to this discussion), Dudley refers to these whales as “right or whale-bone whales.” Dudley’s identification of E. glacialis as the right whale appears to be the origin of the American identification of E. glacialis as the right whale, yet Dudley himself seems to have derived his knowledge of whales from others. His informants included the Reverend Mr. Greenleaf of Yarmouth on Cape Cod and Mr. J. Coffin from the island of Nantucket. The Reverend Greenleaf could certainly have had solid knowledge of whales as the region of Cape Cod Bay in his immediate vicinity was the location of some of the earliest American whaling and also where, starting around 1662, portions of every whale “as by God’s providence shall be cast upon any of the shores of this Township” were allotted by law for the financial support of the clergy. One would imagine that he had firsthand knowledge as being a clergyman it was in his vested interest to do so.
Curiously, there was no guarantee that the whales encountered in Cape Cod Bay would be E. glacialis however. Humpbacks, minke whales and even fin whales were also hunted if they made an appearance. Dudley’s examination and description of the sperm whale is far more detailed than that of E. glacialis, and significantly he references that these are “more gentle fish” that “seldom fight with their tales.” He then goes on to describe the destruction and danger common to hunting “the whalebone whale.”
The wonderful, and even prodigious Strength of this Creature, which lies principally in their tails, that being both their offensive and defensive weapon. Many Instances of this Kind I have had from credible Persons, who were eye-witnesses; I will mention but a few. A boat has been cut down from top to bottom with the Tail of a Whale, as if cut with a Saw, the Clap-boards scarce splintered, tho’ the Gunnel upon the Top is of tough Wood. Another has had the Stem, or Stern-post of about three Inches through, and of the toughest Wood that can e found… cut off smooth above the Cuddee, without so much as shattering the boat, or drawing the nails of the Clap-boards. An Oar has been cut off with a Stroke upwards, and yet not so much as lifted up out of the Thole-Pin…

The baleen from these animals had been of commercial importance for over six hundred years, even being illustrated by the natural philosopher Ulyssis Aldrovandi (1522-1605) as a discrete product of commerce in his work De Piscibus Libri V, et de Cetis Lib. Unus (Bologna, 1638). Known since the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) who first described it in his Historia Animalium, “mysticeti” was construed by scholars to mean “mustache,” a direct, if apocryphal allusion to the long, hair-like fringes of these baleen plates which are visible as the whales feed. Thus, Western European knowledge of baleen-bearing whales is ancient indeed and naturally that knowledge was carried over to the settlements in the New World. The exploration and ultimate settlement of the coast of New England by Europeans coincided with the advent of European commercial whaling ventures to the Arctic. 1602, the year that Bartholomew Gosnold (1572-1607) visited Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Buzzards Bay was the same year that the English Muscovy Company began whaling around Spitzbergen Island. Over the next two hundred years English, Dutch and other European nations would greatly expand their whaling adventures around Greenland and by the mid-eighteenth- century Americans would be cruising the waters of the Davis Straits as well.
Extensive documentation and description of American whaling is available for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries. In this documentation are hundreds of accounts written by whalemen confirming that right whales of the genus Eubalaena do not float after being killed any more or less than other commonly hunted species like bowhead or sperm whales. In point of fact, they were well known by whalemen to be more likely to sink than other species. In Nimrod of the Sea (New York, 1874), whaleman William Morris Davis wrote: “A peculiar feature in right-whaling is the considerable number which sink upon being killed. This rarely occurs with the sperm whale.” In a classic demonstration of how far removed American whalers had become from the origins of the language that they commonly used, Davis goes on to describe how American right-whalers in the Sea of Okhotsk failed to even recognize the bowhead whale as a species worth hunting. They had forgotten where the term “right whale” had come from and used it solely to describe Eubalaena spp.
Further, these “black whales” were frightfully dangerous to hunt, especially females with calves, and provided less oil of a poorer quality and shorter baleen than bowhead whales, the preferred whale of commerce for European nations from the seventeenth- century and earlier. By the 1830s Americans began targeting black whales on the Northwest Coast and these North Pacific whales were accounted particularly dangerous. Author and whaling master Charles Melville Scammon (1825-1911) called the right whale of the Pacific North-western Coast “the most vicious of their kind.” He was, of course, referring to the animals’ behavior when attacked as, like most whales, these are normally quite placid and inoffensive creatures. He does clearly differentiate between the Bowhead, or Great Polar Whale and the Right Whale of the Northwestern Coast.
Some instances from whalemen’s descriptions where events are completely at odds with the accepted “right whale to catch” definition emphasize the danger of the hunt as well as the unpredictable nature of whether the carcasses will float or not.

The bark Vermont of Mystic, Connecticut, for instance, while right whaling on the Northwest Coast lowered boats for whales forty-eight times between May 13 and July 10, 1844. They only managed to kill seven whales, two of which sank, the remainder of which fought back destroying whale boats and gear, smashing up crew members and ultimately escaping. Another whaleman’s account of right whaling on the Northwest Coast is even more specific: “This day raised a whale ¼ of a mile from the ship. Lowered down and struck him. After a 4 hour tow succeeded in killing him, but he sunk like a stone, lost 50 fathoms of tow line and 5 irons.” The Reverend Henry T. Cheever (1814-1897), writing for the newspaper The Friend in 1849, observed: “These huge Northwest whales are more vicious and less easily approached after they are struck than the whales of other latitudes. It is considered no disgrace to be run away with by one of these jet black fellows.”
By the 1870s, the term “right whaling” was terminology ubiquitous in the fishery for voyages targeting whalebone whales. It was applied equally to bowhead whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Western Arctic as it was to right whaling on the Northwest Coast of North America or to the Brazil Banks. From a commercial or voyage management point of view large slabs of baleen were the target regardless of the species that supplied it. Additionally, while American whalers and whaling agents recognized a difference between the bowhead and the black whale, one having very high quality baleen and one shorter, poorer quality baleen, the species were not completely identified as separate in natural history texts until the middle of the nineteenth-century.

As late as 1880, taxonomists were struggling with what to call these animals. Gabriel E. Manigault, curator of the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, described a whale that entered the harbor at Charleston in his paper “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880,” concluding that “the Black Whale of this coast is now considered to be the same animal as the Biscay Whale.” He goes on to determine that “there can be no doubt that the four specimens of the Black Whale already specified are entirely distinct from B mysticetus and B. australis…” and that these were the animals described by Dudley that were pursued by new England whalers for oil and baleen.
Whaling agents did, however, distinguish carefully between the quality of the oil (commonly termed “train oil,” or “common whale oil”) and baleen of bowhead and right whales in the marketplace further adding weight to the argument that “right” connotes whalebone gained from true and proper whales and nothing more. In an 1855 business letter relating to the sale of two lots of whalebone New Bedford whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr. noted that “Polar” baleen taken from bowhead whales was worth more in the market than “South Seas” baleen taken from black whales: “Sperm Oil is now selling here for 180 cents pr Gall, North West Whale Oil 72 cents, Polar bone 45 cents, So. Sea do. [ditto] about 40 cents.”
In 1908, Joel Asaph Allen (1838-1921) wrote an article for the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History entitled “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies.” It is a thorough summary of the history of right whale systematics, an immensely convoluted subject, but one in which he clearly describes the process of identifying and describing Eubalaena glacialis scientifically. His work established a strong platform from which to think about these problematic animals and his fine synopsis, “Recognized as different from the Greenland whale by whalers of the 17th and 18th centuries,” outlines many of the most important sources in English that serve as the basis of the scientific understanding of Eubalaena spp.
He quotes the earliest printed references including those of Thomas Edge (English Muscovy Company factor, fl. 1611-1622) whose “Description of seuerall [sic] sorts of Whales and the manner of killing them” includes the Sarda which is characterized as being smaller than the Greenland whale having shorter baleen and producing much less oil. This is explained much later by Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809-1894), a Belgian zoologist and paleontologist who, along with the French paleontiologist Paul Gervais (1816-1879), wrote the major work of whale anatomy, Ostéographie des cétacés vivants et fossiles (Paris, 1880). Van Beneden noted: “There exist two species of true whales (Right Whales) in the North Atlantic and on the coasts of Greenland, – one the common whale, called also the Greenland whale, and the other the Sarde or Nordcaper.” He noted also that the latter “is the same species which visits the coasts of Europe in winter and the coasts of America in summer.” Hans Egede (1686-1758), the eighteenth-century Danish missionary to Greenland, is also quoted but he underscores that European whalers did not purposefully pursue E. glacialis: “His fat is tougher and harder than that of the Great-bay Whale (bowhead); neither are his barders or bones (baleen) so long and valuable, for which reason he is neglected.” Egede makes another significant observation, being “informed on good authority” that the Greenland whale is “de store Havle af den rette sort, som har store barder,” (the large whales of the right sort, having large whalebone). Perhaps most significant of all is a passage “traced back to the celebrated Kongespeil (Mirror of Royalty) of the 12th century where we learn that this “sletbag” of the old Icelanders was really a whalebone whale (and therefore as a whalebone whale with a finless back, a right-whale).”
The scientific nomenclature and systematics, while useful, are of lesser importance to the analysis of why the animal today known as the “right whale” came to be known thus. More important is an analysis of the language of the literature written about the animal, and the language of whalemen and Allen gives a good background. For instance, he quotes the eighteenth-century chroniclers of the American colonies, William Douglass (ca. 1700-1752), and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813). Douglas in particular gave an early account of the New England whale fishery that seems completely at odds with most modern descriptive attributes of E. glacialis:
The New England true whale is the same with the European North-cape whales, are not easily killed being agile and very wild: the Dutch do not fish them… the whale-bone whales killed upon the coast of New England, Labrador, and the entrance to Davis-straits, are smaller; do not yield exceeding 120 to 130 barrels of oil, and of nine feet bone 140 lb. wt. they are wilder more agile and do fight.

Douglass clearly differentiates the right whales by geographical locale and emphasizes the commercial value of the bowhead whale significantly calling it the “true whale”:
The most beneficial is the black whale, whale-bone whale or true whale, as they call it, in Davis’s-straits, in N. lat. 70º and upwards. They are very large, some yield 150 puncheons, being 400 or 500 barrels of oil, and bone of eighteen feet and upwards; they are a heavy loggy fish, and so do not fight.

By interpreting this definition or description of right whales generally as best represented by authors of the period as bowhead whales, the idea is upheld that the whales are slow and easily captured as well as being a preferred commercial prey species.
To in turn apply that definition to Eubalaena glacialis and ascribe the current plight of the imperiled population of animals to overhunting for the reasons described seems misleading. As the above passages suggest, to many commercial whaling nations, Eubalaena glacialis was, in fact, the wrong whale to hunt. If American colonists hunted these animals, which they undoubtedly did, their endangered status and lack of recovery after two hundred years of not being hunted at all can only be explained and understood by means other than researching historical records to determine the number of whales taken. The historical records while unequivocal on several points of geography and species targeted, ultimately seem insufficient to explain the suppressed and slow recovery of the species. Hence the significance of current research into the DNA of E. glacialis. The plight of Eubalaena glacialis is perhaps best understood by looking much further back in time, specifically ten thousand years ago when a major mega-fauna collapse in North America saw the elimination of many terrestrial species of large mammals. Perhaps there is an analog in this whale species that lives so close to the coast.
The language of American whalemen is revealing and lends itself to adoption by convenience as opposed to any specific intent as far as hunting is concerned. On May 21, 1769, Captain Peter Pease set sail onboard the schooner Squirrel from Bedford Village in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on a whaling cruise to the Davis Straits. On the 24 of June around latitude 63º north he recorded that he “saw three right whales.” On June 27 he recorded “at four past meridian spoke with [Captain] Nathaniel Coleman, “a cutting a seven foot bone whail.” Throughout this cruise Pease specifically records seeing finbacks, humpbacks, spermaceti and right whales. That he made a distinction between “right whales” and “seven-foot bone whales” suggests that he was describing two different kinds of animals yet in later entries he refers to right whales and “seven foot four inch bone whails” in the same entries (ODHS #458B) Significantly, Pease mentions seeing several other vessels and he cruised in company with one or another colonial American vessel throughout his voyage. It must have been a good whaling ground.
Likewise, Peleg Folger of Nantucket in 1754 described three separate species of whales commonly hunted on the coast of Labrador. These included the right whale, the spermaceti whale and the humpback whale. It is unclear whether he is describing the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) or the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), or whether he even distinguishes the two.

1. A Right whale is a very Large fish (for the most part); they are somewhat hollowing on their back, being all Slick and Smooth and having no hump at all as other whales; their bone (of which is made Stays and hoop’d petticoats) doth grow in their mouth, the upper end or Butt growing in the Gum of the upper jaw. Their tongue is monstrous Large and will commonly make a Tun of Oyl; their bone is from 3 to 12 feet long according to the bigness of the whale and is all the teeth they have. They have two Spoutholes and make a forked Spout whereby they are distinguished from other whales at a Distance.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s Ishmael calls right whales “inferior creatures,” and “commonly disdained” by sperm whalers. Indeed, his character Stubb describes the right whale as a “foul lump of lard,” hardly attributes consistent with “the right whale to catch.” That right whales were a major target species of 18th and 19th century American whalers is obvious. That they were the preferred species for anything other than cheap oil and generally marketable baleen remains doubtful. When Thomas Welcome Roys finally penetrated the Behring Straits in 1848 he ushered in the great era of American whaling in the Western Arctic. This fishery was universally described as “right whaling” despite that fact that it was a bowhead fishery almost exclusively.
In the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript (June 13, 1854) an article appeared that “the Nantucket Inquirer announces that a large right whale was seen near that island Friday spouting lustily. Preparations were made to attack him on Saturday morning, but at that time he was nowhere to be seen. Our Nantucket friends were never very successful at capturing right whales. If the animal wanted to be caught and cut up, he should have come to New Bedford.” The great fortunes of New Bedford whaling agents were made hunting Eubalaena species. These, however, were not the North Atlantic right whales that 19th century whalemen were hunting, they were southern right whales and North Pacific right whales, two entirely different species. By cruising in the South Atlantic along the coasts of South America and Africa masters could fill up their vessels and return to New Bedford within two years, often sooner. This exploitation of a large population resource allowed New Bedford to market a great deal of cheap oil and keep the markets trading while their longer sperm whaling voyages were at sea.
By the time most of the important New England whaling ports came to their height North Atlantic right whales were hardly to be seen. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792 that Americans were led into whaling by “the whales which presented themselves on their coasts…” and that these whales, “being infested, retired from the coast.” By “infested” Jefferson is referring to being harassed by hunters. Paradoxically he goes on to describe sperm whales “of a different species from that of Greenland, which alone had hitherto been known in commerce.” Greenland whales have always been synonymous with Balaena mysticetus and it would be extraordinary indeed if bowhead whales were encountered on the coasts of New England. Importantly, however, Jefferson then makes the distinction that Yankee whalers “found a third species of whale” on the Coast of Brazil which they called the “black or Brazil whale.” This is Eubalaena australis, the southern right whale. Whether Thomas Jefferson was truly well informed about the details of the Yankee whale fishery is doubtful as other 18th century sources indicate that local Cape Cod whalers did call these animals right whales, but they also called them true whales, bone whales, black whales and North-capers.
Frederick W. True (1858-1914), Head Curator of the Department of Biology at the Smithsonian Museum, for instance, wrote in 1904, “The Atlantic right whale known to American whalers was called by them the black whale in allusion to its color.” He includes in his “Chapter III-A Review of Cope’s and Scammon’s Species” the following synopsis of nomenclature: “Genus BALÆNA Linnæus. 1. Balæna cisarctica Cope. 1865. “The Black Whale of the Whalers of our Coast.” which Cope believed “was an animal distinguishable from the species frequenting the coasts of Europe, and not because it was a rare American form unknown to whalers and others whose business was with the sea.” Cope believed that this species (late identified as E. glacialis) “may readily occur on the European coast ; and is no doubt allied to or the same as the species pursued by the Biscayan whalers.” Cope’s observations helped to solidify the idea that one distinct species of black whale was endemic to the North Atlantic.
Cope’s theory of the range and distinction of species as far as E. glacialis is concerned remains debatable today. As the population of E glacialis is small (currently about 450 animals) estimates of its possible pre-hunted range are currently being researched one American whaleman was unequivocal in his ideas about the animal:
“The Black, or Right Whale is generally found in high latitudes from 30 degrees to 55 degrees both north and south. They are scarcely ever found any great distance from the land; and in the calving season the females seek out some sandy bay where the water is shoal, smooth and clear. Here they keep their young until able to face the rough weather outside. They generally go in pairs & are very vicious, especially when protecting their young, they will fight while life remains in them, & a great many lives are lost in capturing them… they disappear in the winter seasons.”

In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence indicates that “right whale” is a generic term for the Mysticeti collectively. Further, the description of these as being “the right whales to catch” appears to have been derived from English sources and applies solely to Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead whale. The genera Eubalaena and its three species have long been known as the “black whale” having very different commercial properties from the bowhead. By applying the definition of “the right whale to catch” to Eubalaena glacialis historians, scientists and the public have been led to believe that the wholesale targeting of this species is the reason for its currently small, almost stagnant population. Not only does the historical record not definitively support this, but current research into the DNA of this species points in a very different direction as well. These animals were not particularly targeted by early Basque whalers, Dutch commercial whalers, or by the English, who each sustained very large and successful commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic for well over one hundred years. The American whalers, who targeted humpbacks, sperm whales and bowhead whales as well as black whales, are thus credited with the near extirpation of an entire species in less than 100 years, a scenario that seems unlikely for the short period that organized, sophisticated whaling was taking place in the coastal waters of the colonies. For all of these reasons, it remains vital to preserve whatever populations of Eubalaena glacialis exist. Renaming them “black whales” may help to pare down the connotations of language further enabling our understanding of the creatures and freeing us to seek new answers to their complex population predicament.

NOTES
P.J. van Beneden, Histoire Naturelle de la baleine des Basques (Balaena biscayensis),
(Mémoire présenté à la Classe des sciences dans la séance du 11 May 1886, p. 27.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, eleventh edition (1911), distinguishes between bowhead whales and right whales calling the former “right whales,” and the latter “black whales.”

See: Richard Ellis, The Book of Whales (New York, 1980); Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995); “Right Whales: Worldwide Status,” The Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Cambridge, 2001), etc.

William E. Schevill and Karen E. Moore specify the right whale as peculiarly American, “the nordkaper, or right whale of American usage.” Schevill and Moore, “Townsend’s unmapped North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). In: Breviora: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Number 476 (29 April 1983), p. 4.

Flower, Sir William Henry, Essays on Museums and other Subjects Connected with Natural History (New York, 1898), p. 194.

Ibid. p. 194.

See: Elizabeth Ingalls, Whaling Prints in the Francis B. Lothrop Collections (Salem, MA: 1987), pp. 21-66 for a large selection of pictorial works of English whales and whaling. Many of these historical prints have captions many of which differentiate the spermaceti whale from other whales but do not separate right whales into species. Eubalaena glacialis does not appear in Englaish pictorial sources as a hunted species.

William Scoresby, Jr. An Account of the Arctic Regions, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1820), pp. 449-450.
See also: William Scoresby “Account of the Balaena Mysticetus, or Great Northern or Greenland Whale.” In: Memoirs of the Wernerian Society, Vol. 1 (1813), p. 578. Scoresby’s description of baleen is exceptionally detailed: “To the upper jaw is attached the substance called whalebone, which is straight in some individuals, and in others convex. The laminae or blades are not all of equal length : neither are the largest exactly in the middle of the series, but somewhat nearer the throat ; from this point they become gradually shorter each way. In each side of the mouth are about 200 lamina? of whalebone. They are not perfectly flat; for besides the longi tudinal curvature already mentioned, they are curved trans versely. The largest laminae are from 10 to 14 feet in length, very rarely 15 feet in length. The breadth of the largest at the thick ends, or where they are attached to the jaw, is about a foot. The Greenland fishers estimate the size of the whale by the length of the whalebone : where the whalebone is six feet long, then the whale is said to be a size fish. In suckers, or young whales still under the protection of the mother, the whalebone is only a few inches long. The whalebone is immediately covered by the two under lips, the edges of which, when the mouth is shut, overlap the upper part in a squamous manner.”

Henry William Dewhurst, The Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834).

Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales.” In: Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May 1, 1883).

A. Howard Clark, “The Whale Fishery. 1. – History and Present Condition of the Fishery.” In: The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Prepared by George Brown Goode, Section V, History and Methods of the Fisheries, (Washington, 1887), p. 15.

Reeves, Randall R., and Robert D. Kenney, “Baleen Whales: Right Whales and Allies.” In: Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation, edited by George A. Feldhamer., Bruce C. Thompson and Joseph A. Chapman. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 425.

William Henry Flower, surgeon and zoologist with a special interest in comparative anatomy, created a hierarchy of commercial value as far as “whalebone” or baleen was concerned putting rorqual baleen at the lowest value and bowhead baleen at the highest: “there is a gradual transition, through the rorquals or finners, the humpbacks, the southern right whales, up to the Greenland whale, which exhibits this structure in its greatest perfection, both for the purposes it serves in the animal economy, and for the uses to which it has been applied by man.” Essays on museums and other subjects connected with natural history (New York and London, 1898).

James Travis Jenkins (1876- ) was Superintendent of the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries Committee, regulating the fisheries on the Welsh and English coasts until 1943.

Toolika Rastogi, et al. “Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic.” In: Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 82, No. 10 (October 2004), pp. 1647–1654.

“An 1849 statement on the habits of right whales by Captain Daniel McKenzie of New Bedford.” In The American Neptune, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April, 1954), p. 139-141. The letter was in preparation for Maury’s important “Whale Chart of the World,” published in 1852.

, William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill, “Observations of right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, in Cape Cod waters.” In: Fishery Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1982), p. 875.

Robert Montgomery Martin, History of the British Colonies: Possessions in Africa and Austral-Asia Vol. 4 (London, 1835), p. 363, “the black whale is found in abundance along the coast of New South Wales.”

Rhys Richards, “Southern Right Whales: Original Global Stocks.” IWC Workshop on Right Whale Stocks. Capetown, March 1998.

Glover M. Allen, Monographs of the Natural History of New England: The Whalebone Whales of New England, Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (September, 1916), p. 145.

Joel Asaph Allen, “The Right Whale of the North Atlantic,” in Science , Vol. 1, No. 21 (June 29, 1883), p. 598.

Paul Dudley, “An essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the sperma ceti whale,” in: Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 33 (1724-1725, pp. 256-257.

John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver, Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America’s First Whalemen (Yarmouthport, MA 2004), pp. 77-78.

Ibid, p. 136

Dudley, pp. 263-264.

The dearth of descriptive accounts of Eubalaena glacialis from the American whaler’s viewpoint is because little descriptive writing survives from the greatest period of their exploitation, the late 17th and 18th centuries. The best accounts of the behavior of hunted right whales come from whalemen who were hunting the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) although some 17th century European sources give important insights into right whale behavior.

Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874), p. 69.

For a complete analysis of the evolution of the nomenclature identifying Eubalaena glacialis as distinct from Balaena mysticetus see: Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales…” in American Museum of Natural History Bulletin No. 4 (May 1, 1883). For a more up to date synopsis of cetacean nomenclature see: Philip Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966).

G.E. Manicault, “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880.” In: Proceedings of the Elliot Society (September 1885), p. 100-101.

Old Dartmouth Historical Society Mss 18, Bourne Letter book, 1854-1856

William Henry Flower, ed. Recent Memoirs on the Cetacea by Professors Eschricht, Reinhardt and Lilljeborg (London, 1866), p. 13.

Joel Asaph Allen, “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies,” from Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XXIV, Art. XVIII (April 8, 1908), pp. 281-284.

William Douglass in his book A summary, historical and political, of the first planting, progressive improvements, and present state of the British settlements in North-America (Boston, 1755)

Ibid.
“Our genetic data from the single historic right whale bone that we have identified (from about 1565) suggests that even before commercial whaling began on this species in the WN Atlantic they had very low genetic variation. Our current theory has been that they must have suffered (like you suggest) during previous ice ages, which might have eliminated critical feeding or calving areas.” Private correspondence from Brenna McLeod, Ph.D of Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. See also: Brenna Mcleod, et al. “DNA profile of a sixteenth century western North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).” In: Conservation Genetics, Vol. 11 (2010), p. 339.

Remarkable Observations: The Whaling Journal of Peleg Folger, 1751-54. Edited by Thomas Philbrick. Nantucket, MA: Mill Hill Press, 2006, p. 44.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (New York, 1851), chapter 73.

American whalers in the Western Arctic also targeted gray whales.

A comparative survey in Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery (Waltham, 1876) of the returns of Nantucket and New Bedford between 1823 and 1855 clearly indicates that New Bedford vessels returned vastly more whale oil and whale bone than Nantucket vessels, even at the height of the Nantucket sperm whale fishery. Whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr., among the most successful American whaling agents ever suggested that Nantucketers were nto as interested in right whaling as they were in sperm whaling. “We don’t think much of Sperm whalemen from Nantucket for the North whaling…” (Jonathan Bourne, Old Dartmouth Historical Society MSS 18, Letter book, 1858-1859, July 1, 1858).

Thomas Jefferson,

Frederick W. True, The Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic…(Washington, 1904), p. 249.

Ibid., p. 78-79

Daniel C. Whitfield, journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Massachusetts, 1856-1859. KWM #1033. Held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

History of seafood marketing in the Port of New Bedford, Massachusetts

Arthur P.  Motta, Jr.
Curator, New Bedford & Old Dartmouth History.HaddockFilletWrapSeal

In August 2014, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law aimed at creating a “coordinated program to market seafood landed in the commonwealth and to take other actions to increase consumer demand and preference for local seafood products, to support the commonwealth’s fishing and seafood industry and the residents and communities that benefit from these activities.” More than seven years in the making, the promotional effort officially kicked off on August 7 at the 2016 Boston Seafood Festival with the launch of the Seafood Marketing Steering Committee. This is welcome news for the state’s seafood industry. As the state’s efforts gear up, it may be useful to review briefly a few of the public/private seafood marketing initiatives of the past, which were developed to address specific consumer preferences.

John_Linehan_by Paul Swain_2010090

John F. Linehan (1922-2016) photo: Paul Swain

Promotional efforts in the Port of New Bedford have periodically been undertaken over the years to position the city’s various seafood products for greater consumption in existing markets and to stimulate growth of new markets. These initiatives have variously been tried by municipal officials and their harbor agencies, industry groups and regional business organizations. These initiatives were enthusiastic but limited by the financial resources available, which restricted market penetration beyond the immediate region. Only the multiyear effort during the late1950s and ‘60s to increase the retail market for scallops had a transformative effect, which continues to sustain New Bedford’s working waterfront to the present day. It was conducted in part by the late John F. Linehan (1922-2016), a trailblazer in seafood marketing. Due in part to his early efforts and others that followed him, New Bedford ranks as the top commercial fishing port for the 15th consecutive year with a dollar value of $329 million for the landed catch (Standard-Times 10/29/15).

New_Bedford_#1_bumper_Sticker_2001

City of New Bedford bumper sticker, 2004.

Although the scallop fishery was known to exist in New Bedford as early as 1883, its localized consumer base was limited by product life and seasonality due to weather conditions, which affect harvest. With the introduction of refrigerated trucking in the early twentieth century, new markets began to develop in New York and New England. However, seafood consumers who were more accustomed to buying cod, haddock and other ground species as well as traditional shellfish such as lobster and clams, were reluctant to try scallop “meats,” due in part due to their shape, which looked to some like a strange byproduct of the catch. A 1939 article in a New York newspaper noted “Even those who have eaten scallop with a smacking realization of their goodness have harbored a vague belief that the small, soft round scallop, which bears no outward likeness to crab or oyster, fish, lobster, shrimp or clam, was punched in a faintly deceptive dodge out of some fish or other with a circular metal device.”

Renowned marine biologist and ocean conservationist Rachel Carson took the issue of scallop underutilization further in her 1942 seminal report titled Food From the Sea: Fish and Shellfish of New England for the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service Conservation Bulletin. She noted “Only the large muscle that controls the shell movements is eaten. This muscle (called the “eye”) comprises only a small proportion of the total weight of the meat. The remainder is discarded or used as bait or fertilizer, although it is good, edible meat. In Europe the entire scallop is eaten, and there seems to be no good reason why it should be wasted here.”

Pearl_of_the_Atlantic_ad_1963In the early 1960’s an advertising campaign funded in part by the New Bedford Seafood Co-Op included the production of a film documentary titled “The Pearl of the Atlantic” which introduced markets beyond New England to the scallop with comparisons to meat, extolling it as “an excellent buy because there is no fat or bone to be weighed and paid for. High in protein and minerals; low in fat, low in calories and sodium. They’re a fine nutritious food for a balanced diet.” The Seafood Co-Op with the New Bedford Exchange Club launched in 1958 the New Bedford Scallop Festival as a major promotional vehicle for the fishery. Large tents were erected at Marine Park on Pope’s Island for the annual August event, due to the island’s high visibility to motorists and vacationers via US Route 6, the major interstate artery to Cape Cod and the Islands. The marketing included a cartoon mascot, Sammy Scallop, who boasted a top hat and pearl tiepin. Festival publicity subcommittee co-chairs, Charles E. Sharek and Otavio A. Modesto along with John F. Linehan – general manager of the New Bedford Seafood Producers Association – worked with a Hartford, Connecticut Sammy_the_Scallop_Says_1963advertising executive Tom McFarlane to develop the Sammy mascot, which was joined by Susie Scallop. Festival expenses were underwritten in part through the advance sale of certificates, “shares purchased by festival boosters,” which could be purchased in denominations of $5, $10, $25, $50 and available at multiple banks and businesses throughout the city. Mathias Bendiksen and Robert Selig comprised the Festival Certificates subcommittee, promoting them as a community minded effort to “help defray costs of putting on the effort.” The names of businesses and individuals who purchased certificates were published in the newspaper and on festival programs.

Sharek, a city pharmacist and active Exchange Club member, advanced the idea of jointly “holding a seafood fiesta to salute the fishing industry” with the New Bedford Seafood Producers Association. Sharek noted to the press, “After approval from the club aims committee we met with John Linehan… and we agreed adoption of the general theme, “Scallop Festival,” would be the most appropriate and have the best promotional potential.” He added that scallops were the chosen focus because “At that time, the Seafood Council was devoting most if its energy promoting this particular commodity.

New Bedford Scallop Festival at Marine Park, Pope's Island, New Bedford, c.1960

New Bedford Scallop Festival at Marine Park, Pope’s Island, New Bedford, c.1960

By 1963, the 22-member committee was headed by John Carew, vice-president of the Goodhue Lumber Company and a past president of the Exchange Clubs of Massachusetts. Roy F. Mason and Patrick L. Sweeney were vice-chairs. Melvin E. Fryer was site director and Omer E. Raymond was festival adviser. The large group included business leaders from almost every sector of the community. Subcommittees included Finance, Food Procurement, Equipment Procurement, Supplies, Utilities, Tents, Tickets, Certificates, Publicity, Beauty Pageant, Entertainment, Boat Rides, and Dismantling & Storage.

As John Linehan explained in a recent interview for this article, “In 1957, the New Bedford Seafood Council and the then New Bedford Seafood Co-op were off-shoots of the Seafood Producers Association, which was comprised primarily of the boat owners. The business of seafood was multilayered – with a company operating multiple subsidiary companies, which, due to the tax advantages realized, handled the buying, processing, and selling of seafood separately.”

Until the Scallop Festival, little in the way of cooperative promotional campaigns to stimulate overall sales or grow new markets for the port as a whole was undertaken. In many instances the various fish processors and producers of seafood were fierce competitors. An early attempt to simply brand all port products with a byline was initiated by the New Bedford Seafood Council. “Sea Harvest of the Great New Bedford Fleet” was a slogan, which the Council invited all local processers to include on their packaging and promotional materials. This effort was not widely adopted.

New Bedford Fillet Co. wax wrapper, c. 1955-60 (collection Arthur Motta)

New Bedford Fillet Co. wax wrapper, c. 1955-60 (collection Arthur Motta)

Many New Bedford seafood companies pursued individual branding. The New Bedford Fillet Co. dispensed their product in printed wax paper wrappers while extolling the convenience of ready to cook fillets. The 1950s was a decade of rapid growth for the New Bedford scallop fishery and several promotional activities were orchestrated to promote scallops through the New Bedford Seafood Association, according to John Linehan. “The first year there was $12,000 for advertising and we had to prove that it would work, but the budget was not enough to enter the New York City market, so it was launched in Hartford, instead. There we saw a 500% increase in sales. The next year they had $40,000, which allowed them to break into the New York market. Promotional activities included direct outreach to food editors via luncheons in Manhattan. French chef André Surmain was hired as a consultant and with James Beard arranged the gourmet scallop dishes for these parties. After that, scallops really took off,” Linehan said.

The other major challenge was price stability, Linehan explained. “We tried to establish a flat market rate of around 45¢ because scallops were about 30¢ a pound in the summer and 60¢ in the winter.”

New Bedford Seafood Council branding sticker, c. 1975-80. Designer: Clement E. Daley.

New Bedford Seafood Council branding sticker, c. 1975-80. Designer: Clement E. Daley.

In the 1980s a new branding campaign was initiated by the New Bedford Seafood Council with the slogan “The New Bedford Fisherman – He brings out the best in seafood.” The effort included print advertising and collateral such as decals, labels, bumper stickers and billboard graphics, created by artist Clement E. Daley. In a boarder way, the 1980s also saw a statewide campaign touting the value of Massachusetts products coupled with community pride messaging under the umbrella slogan “Make it in Massachusetts.” Funded by the Massachusetts Department of Commerce during the Governor Edward J. King Administration, the campaign included 30 and 15-second TV commercials featuring large Massachusetts-based corporations such as Polaroid, John Hancock Insurance and State Street Bank with voiceovers proclaiming they were “Making it in Massachusetts” and accompanied by a jingle soundtrack. TheMake_It_In_Mass_LOGO spots also included aerial footage of communities with large urban renewal projects underway, such as Fall River’s Battleship Cove district. While these efforts did not rise to the level of branding, they set a precedent for state-funded promotional activities for products and services.

Developing new consumers for currently underutilized species as a sustainable growth strategy harkens back to Rachel Carson’s concerns more than 70 years ago, and points to a comprehensive marketing approach with all the producing ports of the Commonwealth.

In 2009, the Standard-Times reported a “proposal, put forth by Rep. James Cantwell, D-Marshfield, would create a 13-member panel that would be tasked with investigating the feasibility of a statewide coordinated seafood marketing program… The commission, he said, would be made up entirely of volunteers and would require no state funding.” Near the end of 2013, it again reported: “The bill calls for a seafood marketing program to be set up within the state Division of Marine Fisheries. The lawmakers say the goal is a coordinated approach that will increase demand for seafood and consumer preference for products from the state’s own commercial fishing and seafood industry…. The legislation reflects the recommendations made by the Special Commission on Seafood Marketing in its July 2013 report.” (Dec. 27, 2013)

In the 188th Massachusetts General Court (2013-2014), the bill (S.1979) sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Bruce Tarr, Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral and others called for the program to “be established within the division of marine fisheries (DMF) a coordinated program to market seafood landed in the commonwealth and to take other actions to increase consumer demand and preference for the said local seafood products and support for the commonwealth’s fishing and seafood industry and the residents and communities that benefit from these activities.” A new draft of the bill was substituted (S.2422) on December 31, 2014. According to Rep. Cabral’s office, “Language to create the Seafood Marketing Program was included in an Economic Development Bill passed by the Legislature… Chapter 287 of the Acts of 2014.” The work of the state’s new seafood marketing initiative should ensure that New Bedford is a primary beneficiary.

New Bedford Harbor. (Photo: Arthur Motta)

New Bedford Harbor. (Photo: Arthur Motta)

Quasimodo: The Museum’s Humpback Whale

Story by Lauren Coombes, Education Intern.

The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) skeleton that hangs in the Jacob’s Family Gallery is a 37 foot long male nicknamed Quasimodo, whose estimated age at time of death was 3 years old. He was found in 1932 and was first hung in the museum in 1936. This is his story.

Quasimodo's ribs, on Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM Collection. 1988.6.338.b

Quasimodo’s ribs, on Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM Collection. 1988.6.338.b

On December 29, 1932 Captain Ralph W. Wood noticed a mysterious black object floating off Noman’s Land, an island 3 miles off the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard. He lived on the island with his family and they were the island’s only inhabitants. Captain Wood then took his powerboat Flit out about a mile from the island and discovered that the object was the carcass of a humpback whale. As he arrived, so too did the U.S. Coast Guard. Captain Wood convinced the Coast Guard to help him tow the whale to land, citing it as a menace to navigation. From there they attached a four-inch hawser to the carcass. The whale was difficult to move and, “three such hawsers were snapped before the whale could be beached on the Noman’s Land shore!”

After towing it to shore they fastened the whale to a large rock. Soon after, a nor’easter then tore the whale from the rock, throwing it farther up shore and past the high water mark. The carcass was then left until August, 1933 when Wilbur G. Sherman, an old-time whaleman from New Bedford heard about the whale and arranged a meeting between Captain Wood and William H. Tripp, curator for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. John B. Smith, a scientist connected with the Boston Museum of Natural History accompanied Tripp on his August visit to the island. Mr. Smith determined that the specimen could be salvaged and set up in a museum. Mr. Tripp then convinced the Historical Society’s board to purchase the whale. Mr. Tripp made the voyage to Noman’s Land accompanied by Captain Wood, Bertrand T. Wood (Captain Wood’s son), Mr. Sherman, Lester Brownell, George T. Plummer and Paul Lynam.

Bones and tent on shore of Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.306

Bones and tent on shore of Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.306

Throughout September the crew attempted to strip Quasimodo of his blubber, take out his bones, and tag them so they could easily be put back together later. Bertrand Wood kept a detailed journal, similar in style to that of a sea log, of the stripping and cataloguing process. He gave members of the project names that would befit a whale ship. Mr. Tripp was the Commodore, Ralph Wood was the Captain, Bertrand Wood was the first mate, Mr. Sherman was the official whale-cutter, William L. Pierce was the assistant cutter, Herbert Wood was the assistant cutter, and Jerome Fraser was the cook. As they took apart the whale they found that two finger bones were missing, and a news article also reported that the Atlas, the first vertebra of the skeleton, was also missing and never found. Though it is confirmed that the finger bones were in fact missing, there appears to be a proper fitting atlas on our skeleton.

The process of cleaning the bones was the next step and they were buried at Horseneck Beach in Westport, MA for 6 months. They were then uncovered, scraped, and reburied for another 6 months. This burying of a skeleton in sand was not an unusual way to prepare it. The location of the burial was kept confidential and was constantly under watch to prevent thieves and pranksters. After they were uncovered and scraped for the second time, they were left to bleach for several days in the sun, on the roof of the Museum. After the bleaching process was complete the skeleton was assembled and was hung in the Bourne Building in 1936. And curator Tripp quoted “We are no longer a whaling museum without a whale.” The whale was then taken down and reassembled in the 1980s near the theater, and with the completion of the Jacobs Family Gallery in August 2000, it now has its official home.

Quasimodo's spine on shore of Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.301

Quasimodo’s spine on shore of Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.301

There is no confirmed cause of Quasimodo’s death, but one possibility is that he was killed by an orca (killer whale). This is due to the fact that Quasimodo was found without a tongue. It is a common behavior of orcas to bite off the tongues of other whales and leave them to die. Curator Tripp drew this conclusion when he examined the whale on his first visit to the island. Although not common in our coastal waters, orcas can be found off our coast. At the time this story was being written (summer 2016), an orca had been spotted by a fishing charter operator off the Massachusetts coast.

According to a recent NOAA report, there are fourteen humpback whale distinct population segments (DPS) that have been identified around the globe. Of those fourteen two are classified as threatened, the Central America DPS and the Western North Pacific DPS. An additional two groups are classified as endangered, the Arabian Sea DPS and the Cape Verde Islands/ Northwest Africa DPS. The current population is estimated to be 70,000-80,000, which is still less than 50% of their pre-whaling population. Though their biggest threat of commercial whaling no longer affects this species, they face many other significant threats. These threats include: entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, harassment from whale watch boats (especially in countries with little to no regulation), noise pollution and habitat impacts.

Works Cited

The Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill A Newsletter from the Old Dartmouth Historical Society & Whaling Museum Fall 1987

The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA Friday, July 17, 1987

Wood, Bertrand. Legends and Stories of Noman’s Land Island. (Jewett City, CT, 1978).

Our Latest ‘Whaling Voyage’. The Standard Times, New Bedford, MA Oct. 15, 1933.

The Standard Times New Bedford, MA, September 16, 1933.

NOAA Fisheries “Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Updated July 12, 2016. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html

 

Learning About Whales: From Challenging Research Comes Great Discoveries

The recent discovery of a new beaked whale species, one that was believed to be a variant of a previously described species, is a reminder that our understanding of cetaceans is still limited. Humans have revered whales, and hunted whales, for centuries. They’ve been woven into folklore and turned into a variety of products. But, they are difficult to study. They spend most of their lives below the ocean’s surface and don’t speak human. Conversely, we can’t hold our breath for very long and we don’t speak whale.  So, getting to know them well is a challenge.

Researchers have gotten creative and collaborative, developing satellite tags that attach via suction cup, using drones fitted with bridal veil to catch whale’s spray when they exhale, collecting and analyzing fecal matter and using DNA technology to confirm, or reclassify, the existence of a new species.  That is the case with the as yet unnamed new species of beaked whale. It has been interesting to periodically check in on the web site of the Society for Marine Mammalogy to see what they list as the number of whale, dolphin and porpoise species (about to become 90 again), and to read the logic regarding their decisions.

Here’s a quick peek into some other recent discoveries:

Cuvier's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Cuvier’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) has the deepest dives (9816 feet (2992m) and 137.5 minutes) of any marine mammal. A team of researchers, led by Gregory Schorr of Cascadia Research Collectives, made this discovery in 2014 after sifting through 3,700 hours of data collected with satellite tags. (Gregory Schorr, PLOS One, March 2014).

Another species of beaked whale, now known as Deraniyagala’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula), was confirmed in 2014. This species was originally given this name in 1963, but was reclassified in 1965 as a gingko-toothed whale (Mesoplodon gingkodens). A review of DNA and physical characteristics, led by Dr. Merel Dalebout of Univ of New South Wales, Australia, led to the proper taxonomic recognition and placement of this species. (Merel Dalebout, Marine Mammal Science, February 2014).

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpbacks whales, arguably the most recognizable type of whale, are a global species. We now know that their cultural habits and migration patterns have led to genetic diversity. A team led by Dr. Scott Baker from Oregon State examined 2200 biopsy samples of North Pacific humpbacks. Their research has determined that there are five distinct humpback whale populations in the North Pacific. This new information may prove critical when decisions are made regarding the level of protection these animals receive.  (Scott Baker, Marine Ecology – Progress Series, 2013).

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville's beaked whales.

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville’s beaked whales.

Whales are adaptable, intelligent animals.  One impressive example of this ability to adjust behavior to maximize survival is exhibited by the Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris).  In an effort to avoid predators like the orca, Blainville’s remain silent until they reach a depth of 560 ft (170m), at which point they will begin to communicate and echolocate to hunt. Orcas tend not to dive to these depths to find food. (Natacha Aguilar, Marine Mammal Science, July 2011)

Blainville's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Blainville’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Most of the recent discoveries of new cetacean species involve animals with teeth. The one exception is the Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), first classified in 2003. This whale was previously thought to be a variant of the Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni). It is definitely a distinct species. This National Geographic story provides some great photos and information about this whale. Featured in the article is Dr. Salvatore Cerchio who was a panelist here at the NBWM two weeks ago when we aired the film, Sonic Sea.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Along with this new knowledge of existing species, fossil species are being discovered on a regular basis. Two species of dolphin, Echovenator sandersi, (Morgan Churchill, Current Biology, 2016)  and Isthminia panamensis (Nick Pyenson, PeerJ, September 2015) have been unearthed and described.

An important transitional species, from 27 million years ago, that had both baleen and teeth, Sitsqwayk cornishorum (Carlos Mauricio Peredo, Papers in Paleontology, July 2016) adds to our understanding of the evolution of baleen whales. Lastly, a re-examination of a fossil skeleton found 90 years ago, has led to the introduction of a new genus, Albicetus, (white whale), into the sperm whale family tree. This whale lived between 5.3 and 23 million years ago.

Pieces of whaling history were pictured in the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.”

Detail view of the port of New Bedford with the Seamen's Bethel flag flying at left and the Greek Revival steeple of the First Christian Church clearly visible at right. NBWM #1918.27.1.2

Detail view of the port of New Bedford with the Seamen’s Bethel flag flying at left and the Greek Revival steeple of the First Christian Church clearly visible at right. NBWM #1918.27.1.2

By 1848 when Benjamin Russell painted the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World,” New Bedford was a rich, successful, and world-famous mercantile seaport. With resulting pride the city’s citizens began to take a satisfied, if reflective, view of its progress. Colonial Bedford Village was founded in 1765 specifically to pursue commercial whaling, and in 1848, Yankee whaling generally, was well over a century old. After such a long time, the trade had a history, and Russell explored some of the more prominent stories of that history in several of the Panorama’s scenes. Arguably his interpretation of a whaling voyage in the 1840s was steeped in the industry’s larger historical context.

Although he focused on American whaling, he was not alone in broadcasting his perspective on New Bedford’s history. At 1850 the two-hundredth anniversary was approaching of the signing of the 1652 deed  by the Wampanoag tribe granting colonial settlers the lands of the Old Dartmouth region. Local New Bedford artists like William Allen Wall took a fresh view of formative colonial historical events, including the 1602 landing of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold at Smoking Rocks, the 1635 story of Governor John Endicott and the Red Cross, and in 1853, Wall painted “Birth of the Whaling Industry.”

The firm of Britton & Rey of San Francisco produced this lithographic print of Wall's "Birth of the Whaling Industry." It appeared in Charles M. Scammon's Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) under the title of "A Whaling Scene of 1763." It is a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original paining which is currently owned by the New Bedford Free Public Library.

The firm of Britton & Rey of San Francisco produced this lithographic print of William Allen Wall’s “Birth of the Whaling Industry,” for Charles M. Scammon’s Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) under the title of “A Whaling Scene of 1763.” It is a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original paining which is currently owned by the New Bedford Free Public Library.

This painting (and the above print) shows a makeshift oil refinery along the shores of the Acushnet River around 1763. In a statement about it, Wall wrote in 1853: “seated upon the frame of a grindstone… is seen in his broad-brimmed hat and Friendly coat, the founder of New Bedford and the father of her whale-fishery, Joseph Russell.” He included many rich details including a Native American trader, a black hostler, laborers, oxen, the try-house with a sperm whale jaw on the roof, and most importantly, a sloop careened on shore flying the red ensign of the British merchant service. He described the sloop as “undoubtedly the workmanship of some Old Dartmouth mechanic.”[1] The “Friendly coat” is a direct reference to the typical plain Quaker garb of the period, but overall Wall is harkening back, he’s acknowledging the history of the Old Dartmouth Region within the Massachusetts settlement story. Wall adapted these stories, recognized them as significant, and interpreted them, not in the European tradition of history painting from classical themes, but rather as history painting from American themes.

William Allen Wall, "Endicott and the Red Cross," 1853. Oil on canvas, 49 x 60 inches. NBWM #1987.19.1

William Allen Wall, “Endicott and the Red Cross,” 1853. Oil on canvas, 49 x 60 inches. NBWM #1987.19.1

His oil painting “Endicott and the Red Cross,” is another example. Here, Wall folded local history into the story of events that had taken place in Salem, by deliberately painting a persecuted Quaker in the place of the persecuted Catholic of the actual event. In 1635, there were no Quakers. The sect had yet to be formed in England when the Puritan Massachusetts governor, John Endicott, in his fury with the perceived popish policies of Charles I, took his sword and cut the cross out of the English flag. By replacing the Catholic with a Quaker sitting in the stocks, Wall called attention to the later Puritan persecution of Quakers, making a larger statement about the evolution of colonial history in Massachusetts. He was evidently proud of New Bedford and its achievements, prominent citizens, beautiful locale and thriving harbor, and the mid-century mark seemed to have worked on the Wall and others profoundly.

Another significant addition to the story of New Bedford’s historical celebration came in 1858 when Daniel Ricketson, Henry Thoreau’s friend, and New Bedford’s resident Transcendentalist, penned the first history of New Bedford, appropriately titled, The History of New Bedford: Bristol County, Massachusetts. Ricketson had been thinking about the history of the region and its place in American history for years. He structured the book in such a way that it covered the story of Native Americans and King Philip’s War, early settlers, early whaling, and the American Revolution. It served for decades as the sole history of the region. In 1859, New Bedford painter Albert Bierstadt also painted a version of Gosnold’s landing at Cuttyhunk.

Bierstadt painted "Gosnold at Cuttyhunk," in 1858 for an exhibition of American paintings at the Boston Athenaeum in 1859. NBWM #1904.63

Bierstadt painted “Gosnold at Cuttyhunk,” in 1858 for an exhibition of American paintings at the Boston Athenaeum in 1859. NBWM #1904.63

There was a sense of growth and maturity on the part of both the community and the nation. Ricketson summarized this feeling in the introduction to his history: “While other nations are boasting of their antiquity, and exulting in the mysterious deeds of their ancestors, we pride ourselves in the recency of our origin, and the well-known achievements during the struggle for liberty, as well as for the rapidity of our increase.”

Albert Bierstadt would shortly leave New England entirely and travel out across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and beyond, seeking to capture on his canvases the wonder of the wild landscape and its Native people, and something of the new American spirit of destiny. Benjamin Russell also tapped into the feeling of history and civic accomplishment in several of the scenes that he painted. His obvious historical perspective lends some strong clues to the sort of narrative that he told when the traveled with the Panorama.

In the opening sequence of the Panorama Russell gives pride of place to the ship William Hamilton, built at New Bedford by Jethro and Zacharaiah Hillman to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. NBWM #1918.27.1.9

In the opening sequence of the Panorama Russell gives pride of place to the ship William Hamilton, built at New Bedford by Jethro and Zacharaiah Hillman to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. NBWM #1918.27.1.9

The first and most obvious example is his view of the whale ship William Hamilton outfitting in New Bedford harbor. The ship, built to the order of Isaac Howland Jr. & Co. at the Hillman Brothers shipyard in New Bedford in 1834, was named for an apocryphal Cape Cod figure of the mid-seventeenth-century who was said to have been the first American colonist to harpoon a whale. Naming a ship from an American whaling legend confirms the awareness of history that ran deep in New Bedford’s whaling community. Russell then went on to highlight a number of the 316 ships registered in the New Bedford port district at the time. Being a shrewd businessman, he included as wide a variety of house flags of New Bedford merchants as he could when he painted these ships. These merchants were, after all, potential patrons for his paintings.  Curiously, he also chose to paint and name the ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn.

Ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. The Lyra was built at Fairhaven by Reuben Fish to the order of John & James Howland in 1822. NBWM #1918.27.1.75

Ship Lyra of New Bedford rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.      NBWM #1918.27.1.75

The Lyra was built at Fairhaven to the order of John and James Howland in 1822. She sailed on a two-year sperm whaling voyage to the South Pacific that same year under the command of Reuben Joy, Jr. It was the Lyra’s fate to sail in consort with the ship Globe of Nantucket, Thomas Worth, master, upon which the famous and dreadful mutiny occurred on January 26, 1824. Reuben Joy was among the last to see Captain Worth alive, for in the night the Globe’s boatsteerer Samuel Comstock killed the captain with an axe. His fellow mutineers assisted Comstock in the murder of the ship’s officers. By daylight Comstock and the mutineers had control of the ship and were sailing it for Mili atoll near the Marshall Islands. Most of the mutineers who landed with Comstock at the island, revolted and murdered him, and most of them were, in turn, themselves killed by the Native islanders. Two men who landed at the island survived, neither of them mutineers, Cyrus Lay and William Hussey. They were rescued a year later by a U.S. Navy expeditionary force, the schooner Dolphin under the command of Lieutenant Commander John Percival, dispatched to the islands to round up any remaining crew of the Globe.

Fifteen years after the mutiny on the Globe, William Comstock published an account of his brother Samuel's life and the story of mutiny. William was also onboard the Globe at the time and the story of the murder of the captain and officers left little to the imagination.

Fifteen years after the mutiny on the Globe, William Comstock published an account of his brother Samuel’s life and the story of mutiny. William was also onboard the Globe at the time and his graphic telling of the story of the murder of the captain and officers left little to the imagination.

The mutiny on the Globe sent waves of horror through the whaling community and the event resonated through the popular memory for years. It was a significant part of the impetus behind the formation of the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen in 1830. The preamble to the 1831 First Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the New-Bedford Port Society included the following insightful paragraph:

“Experience has placed the proposition beyond question, that on pecuniary grounds merely, it would be good policy to attempt seriously, the moral improvement of the men who navigate our vessels, and win their cargoes from the monsters of the deep. – Not to advert particularly to the horrid catastrophe that took place on the ship Globe, of Nantucket, or to other cases, where plans of a similar character have been at least meditated, how many voyages have been injured or ruined, by the desertion of sailors, or the misconduct or intemperance of the master, or officers?”

Russell’s inclusion of the view of the Lyra rounding Cape Horn evidently allowed him to expand upon the story in his narration of the Panorama. It was undoubtedly a riveting tale guaranteed to capture the attention of the audience. He followed up the Globe story with a more contemporaneous one, the mutiny on the ship Sharon of Fairhaven.

Russell's view of the re-taking of the ship Sharon of Fairhaven from the mutineers by the crew members in the whaleboats. NBWM #1918.27.1.122

Russell’s view of the re-taking of the ship Sharon of Fairhaven from the mutineers by the crew members in the whaleboats. NBWM #1918.27.1.122

The mutiny on the Sharon took place in the Central Pacific near Ascension Island in the Caroline Islands, in November of 1842. Around this same time, Benjamin Russell himself was whaling around the coast of Australia onboard the Kutusoff. The story quickly made the rounds of the fleet. Unlike the mutiny on the Globe, where the Nantucket-born ring-leader planned the whole affair beforehand, the mutineers on the Sharon were not even white men, they were three islanders, “Kanakas,” who had shipped onboard at Rotuma (Grenville) Island in April of that year to replace several crew members who deserted. These men  rose up in anger against the captain, Howes Norris, and decapitated him with a cutting spade. Norris, by all reports, had treated the crew very badly for most of the voyage, and may have been drunk at the time of the mutiny. The mutineers seized the vessel but a quick-thinking young fellow, Manuel dos Reis, the acting steward at the time, scurried aloft and began cutting up the rigging so that the ship became unmanageable. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew, who had all lowered for whales, attempted to re-take the ship under the cover of darkness which they succeeded in doing. The third mate, Benjamin Clough, was badly wounded in the fight but two of the mutineers were killed and the third taken to Sydney, Australia for trial. Clough was later honored by the owners with a presentation sextant and command of the Sharon on her next voyage. He went on to command another four whaling voyages.

Among the more unique views of the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket is Benjamin Russell's interpretation. Unlike the majority of popular, published versions of the event, Russell painted from the perspective of a whaleman, and while he was not a witness, was better able than most other illustrators to capture a believable sense of the scene. NBWM#1918.27.1.101

A unique view of the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket is Benjamin Russell’s interpretation. Unlike the majority of popular, published versions of the event, Russell painted from the perspective of a whaleman, and while he was not a witness, was better able than most other illustrators to capture a believable sense of the scene. NBWM#1918.27.1.101

If the story of the Sharon constituted more-or-less current events, Russell also harkened back to the most famous event of all (to date), in American whaling history, the wreck of the ship Essex of Nantucket. As has been told many times, the ship Essex under the command of George Pollard was struck by a large sperm whale on the “Off Shore Grounds” in the southeastern Pacific off the coast of Peru in November of 1820 and sunk. The crew took to the whaleboats and suffered unimaginable horrors and deprivations as they strove to survive on the open ocean. Of the crew of twenty men, eight survived. Captain Pollard and one seaman, Charles Ramsdell, were two of the survivors having been in the whaleboat for 90 days.  The wreck of the Essex was a high-profile event in American whaling history, indeed in popular culture as well. The story was published in a number of books about sea-faring adventures, so it’s no wonder that he illustrated it so effectively.

Other events are not so well-known, but are nonetheless picturesque. Among the Panorama scenes of the fabled Polynesian islands is one that shows a whale ship close in to shore tied up to a palm tree. The story originated in an August 16, 1824 letter written by Captain Richard Macy, master of the ship Maro of Nantucket, to a prominent island citizen Josiah Hussey. Macy wrote describing Eimeo Island, one of the Society Islands about twenty miles west of Tahiti:

I entered the harbor on the North side of the island, which is not to be surpassed for access, and safety by any harbor in this ocean. I took my ship 2 miles up this beautiful harbor (entirely landlocked) and tied her to an old tree. The scene that surrounded me was truly romantic.[2]

In one of the more beautifully composed scenes in the whole Panorama, Russell shows a whale ship tied up to a palm tree in the heart of the exotic islands of the Pacific. NBWM #1918.27.1.145

In one of the more beautifully composed scenes in the whole Panorama, Russell shows a whale ship (presumably the ship Maro of Nantucket) tied up to a palm tree in the heart of the exotic islands of the Pacific. NBWM #1918.27.1.145

Captain Macy, at the time, was exploring the Society Islands and the vast waters to the west. He wrote: “Impressed with the strong belief that great numbers of sperm whales existed among the islands of the Pacific… the Society, Friendly, Feejee and Caroline’s, I resolved to spend three months among those islands.”[3]

Many of the islands of the Pacific had achieved fabled status well before Macy visited them. It was their fame that provided Benjamin Russell fodder for his whaling voyage round the world story. Islands like Pitcairn, Juan Fernandez, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii were fabled to Western mariners. Russell included them all, as these were indeed the stuff of legends. Who hadn’t read of Robinson Crusoe marooned at Juan Fernandez, or heard of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty with the mutineers sailing to remote Pitcairn and settling there? The death of Captain James Cook at the hands of the Hawaiian Islanders at Kealakekua Bay was common knowledge, especially through maritime communities. Cook’s Voyages had been published in many editions and were easily and widely available. Herman Melville himself perpetuated the exotic romance of the Pacific with his novels Typee (New York, 1846), and Omoo (London, 1847). In the Panorama Russell told all of these stories but he told them through the lens of the American experience.

Detail showing the settlement of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers at Pitcairn Island. Note the "celebrated banyan tree" in the center of the landscape and the cultivated fields surrounding it. NBWM #1918.27.1.84

Detail showing the settlement of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers at Pitcairn Island. Note the “immense banyan tree” in the center of the landscape and the cultivated fields surrounding it. NBWM #1918.27.1.84

When Russell painted Pitcairn Island, he painted it almost completely from the description published in Captain Frederick Beechey’s famous Pacific exploration narrative, Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Strait (London, 1831):

“Immediately round the village are the small enclosures for fattening pigs, goats, and poultry, and beyond them the cultivated grounds producing the banana, plantain, melon, yam, taro, sweet potatoes, appai, tee, and cloth plant with other useful roots, fruits, and shrubs, which extend far up the mountain and to the southward; but in this particular direction they are excluded from the view by an immense banyan tree, two hundred paces in circumference, whose foliage and branches form of themselves a canopy impervious to the rays of the sun Every cottage has its out house for making cloth, its baking place, its sty, and its poultry house.”

This superbly rendered scene of a ship foundering off Cape Horn was probably meant to represent an actual event although what that event was remains unknown. In this scene the dismasted ship is flying the American flag upside-down as a signal of distress. Note the single man standing at the stern of the sinking ship as the whaleboats wait alongside to effect a rescue. NBWM#1918.27.1.74

This superbly rendered scene of a ship foundering off Cape Horn was probably meant to represent an actual event although what that exact event was remains unidentified. In this scene the dismasted ship is flying the American flag upside-down as a signal of distress. Note the single man standing at the stern of the sinking ship as the whaleboats wait alongside to effect a rescue. NBWM#1918.27.1.74

Other scenes of the Panorama lend themselves to speculation about his intent. He had obviously crafted an illustrated narrative with a story to accompany the pictures. While the text of the narrative has not survived (or at least has not yet come to light), so many parts of the story can be guessed from actual events, that other parts may represent events remembered by him but which time and contextual separation have forgotten. One such scene, that may represent a known event, is the view of a dismasted ship foundering off Cape Horn. It appears from the action that one man is left onboard and about to leap into the water, while the whaleboats from a passing whale ship are rescuing the remainder of the crew. Such an event did happen. In May 1832, the ship Science of London left Hobart, Tasmania bound to London. In June, the ship was dismasted in a storm, and lost the lifeboats and four sailors about 350 nautical miles (402 statute miles) from Cape Horn. The ship Warren of Warren, Rhode Island rescued the fifteen survivors and the ship was abandoned. Benjamin Russell himself had business and family ties to Warren, Rhode Island and he died there in 1885. It’s possible that he was illustrating the wreck of the Science.

Much of what Russell conveyed through his monumental pictorial overview of the American whale fishery he either witnessed or experienced himself. A great deal of it, however, he gleaned through conversations with other people and possibly research like old newspaper accounts, published narratives and the like. We know that he owned copies of important whaling books of the period including J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (New York, 1846), because his signed copy is in the New Bedford Whaling Museum library. How he developed some of his ideas remains to be researched, but his intent seems to have been to cover American whaling not only from its current status as he experienced it, but also as an industry with a strong heritage. His emphasis on these events as well as those of the storied islands of the Pacific Ocean serve to put the growing American whaling industry on an equal footing with the European influences of the eighteenth-century.

[1] Richard C. Kugler, William Allen Wall, An Artist of New Bedford (New Bedford, 1978), p. 23.

[2] American Activities in the Central Pacific, Vol. 4, Moorea #2, p. 637.

[3] Ibid.

Changing places: Some technical whaling highlights from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848-1851.

The great appeal of the Panorama, at least as far as the newspaper reviews are concerned, was not the actual whaling scenes, but the scenery. The views of the islands including the volcano at Fogo, Cape Verde, drew the most admiration, at least from one reviewer from the New York Courier in 1851, who called the view “sublime.”

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, "burns continuously," and may "sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues."

View of the eruption of the 7000 foot high volcano, Pico do Fogo, Cape Verde Islands. In April of 1847 the volcano erupted spectacularly and it is this event that Russell and Purrington captured in the Panorama. Neither artist actually witnessed the eruption, however the island of Fogo, according to books of sailing directions for the North Atlantic, “burns continuously,” and may “sometimes be seen at the distance of 34 leagues.”

The same reviewer commented favorably upon the “graphic and life-like” view of New Bedford Harbor and the “magnificent” rendering of the harbor at Rio Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

View of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro.

While the reviewer determined that the whaling scenes were “sprightly,” little more is said about the industrial aspect of the whaling subject. This is a pity, really, as few Americans outside of a few established New England whaling ports, even New Yorkers living in one of the world’s great seaports, had any idea about the actual techniques used by whalemen in both ship management and hunting.

While a ship at sea is generally acknowledged a beautiful thing its management was little considered by those who did not participate directly in the proceedings. As far as the sailor’s themselves were concerned, their labors were performed out of sight of all but their fellows under exceptionally difficult conditions for hours, days and weeks at a time during voyages that could last years. Ships were out of sight, and therefore largely out of mind to most people, unless there was some compelling reason to think about them, such as having a loved one onboard, an expected letter from overseas, or a monetary investment in a voyage or cargo.

Details like this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, lowering boats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few others document lowering boats including the handling of the ship while lowering for whales. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could easily be required to kill a particularly large sperm whale.

Details from the Panorama, such as this scene showing a full-rigged whale ship hove-to, and lowering the whaleboats for an enormous sperm whale fighting in the background, serve to make Benjamin Russell among the great American whaling illustrators. Few other artists document lowering boats including how the ship was handled during this operation. Likewise, Russell creates a common tableaux, where several boats could be and commonly were required to kill a particularly large or dangerous, “ugly,” sperm whale.

Benjamin Russell, however, documented whaling directly from his experience; hence his whaling scenes serve a larger purpose, both at the time they were painted and today. Even in New Bedford in the 1850s, some of the most accomplished artists in the city, never having gone a’ whaling themselves, had a hard time capturing the essence of the hunt. Two of these painters, Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford, for instance, undertook in the early 1850s to make a mass-market print of sperm whaling, however, it was poorly received in New Bedford and Benjamin Russell was called upon to assist them in elements of proportion, whaling and nautical details, points of naval architecture, etc. The resulting prints were among the most solid representations of the industry done by Americans.

"Sperm whaling No. 1 - The Chase," 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

“Sperm whaling No. 1 – The Chase,” 1862. Lithograph by Albert Van Beest and R. Swain Gifford corrected by Benjamin Russell. 2001.100.7088

As far as his work on whaling scenes in the Panorama is concerned, he transcended the usual broadside ship view, or other simple perspective of whaling so common to most whalemen’s illustrations. He drew his ships from a variety of perspectives and with a reliable attention to accuracy. He also focused on other little-documented details of the hunt. William Morris Davis, whaleman and author of Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman (New York, 1874), commented favorably on Russell’s art:

“There have been lately published by Benjamin Russell, of New Bedford, two illustrations representing both the sperm and right whale-fishing, which gives and accurate idea o the the general features of the business, both in the boats and onboard the ship. The illustrations show the positions of the boats in the contest, and of the ships, and in cutting-in, etc. Mr. Russell himself was a boatsteerer; and, guided by several years’ experience, his artistic skill has embodied in the small space of two pictures the most correct idea of whaling which I have seen.”[1]

One good example from the Panorama is his view of the boat-steerer and boat-header exchanging places in a whaleboat that is fast to a whale. This oft-described oddity of the whaling trade has no pictorial parallel. The description appears in many whaling texts, including this one from Reverend Lewis Holmes that appears as “A Brief History of Whaling,” in The Arctic Whaleman; or, Winter in the Arctic Ocean (Boston, 1861):

“When, however, the whale becomes so exhausted, having been perhaps harpooned by some other boats, that the warp can be hauled in, and the boat or boats approach the whale again, the lancer [boat-header], who is generally one of the mates of the ship, exchanges places with the boat-steerer, and takes his position at the bow of the boat, with a lance ten or twelve feet long.”[2]

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

In this extraordinary detail from the section of the Panorama documenting right whaling on the Northwest Coast, Russell shows the age-old tradition of Yankee whalers where the harpooner and the boatheader exchange places in the boat when the animal is ready to be lanced to death. This is a unique whaling image.

Close-up detail of the above scene.

Close-up detail of the above scene showing the men exchanging places.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, in his fundamentally critical fashion commented not only on the practice, but upon its disadvantages to the success of the hunt:

” Again, if the dart be successful, then at the second critical instant, that is, when the whale starts to run, the boatheader and harpooner likewise start to running fore and aft, to the imminent jeopardy of themselves and everyone else. It is then they change places; and the headsman, the chief officer of the little craft, takes his proper station in the bows of the boat. Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them. To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.”[3]

Regardless of Melville’s opinion on the practicality of this matter, the practice retained its tradition well past the 1840s when he was whaling, and continued throughout the rest of the history of the American industry. As late as 1887 in The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, where the details of the methods of the fishery were outlined, James Templeman Brown wrote: “When the animal has been fastened to “good and solid” the harpooner and officer immediately change places.”

Detail from Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

Detail from the Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen painting, Dutch Bay Whaling in the Arctic, 1620, showing experienced Basque whalemen, harpooner and boat-header, training the Dutch to hunt whales. 2001.100.4503

The origins of this practice dates to the earliest days of commercial whaling in the early 17th century when Basque whalemen were training British and Dutch whalemen in the techniques of killing bowhead whales in the Arctic. The Basques, being the most experienced whalemen, commanded the boats and undertook the actual killing of the whale. Following the Basques long established hunting techniques, the most experienced whaleman in the boat was the officer in charge. He knew how and where to place the boat so that the harpooner could get fast. The second most experienced person was the harpooner and having planted his irons, ceded his position to the boatheader who again, knew where to plunge the lance and how to handle the lance once it was planted in the animal to ensure a quick death. Thus, a hunting technique originating in the early 17th century European Arctic fishery continued throughout the American sperm and right whale fishery into the 20th century.

Hand-whaling techniques did spread beyond the American and European experience. Curiously, while many of the techniques and technology of the Yankee whale fishery were retained by the Azoreans as the islanders developed their own sperm whale fishery in the 20th century, this exchange of crew members during the actual killing of the whale was not retained. Robert Clarke reports in Open Boat Whaling in the Azores (Cambridge, 1954) that:

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around. 1977.17.1

Azorean whaling for sperm whales in the deep waters around the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic, was based almost entirely on American techniques. Azorean whaleboats became highly specialized over time, adapted by their builders to the local needs and conditions. In this mid-twentieth century oil painting by Manuel Joaquim Madruga, three whaleboats under sail and one under oars, are shown attacking two sperm whales, one of which is spouting blood. The Azorean whalemen stayed in their places in the boats and did not switch around in the traditional way. 1977.17.1

In the American whaleboats, the striking of mast and sail was partly the job of the harpooner as he went aft to change ends with the boat-header. In the Azores the bow and midship oarsmen attend to the mast and sail, for the boat-header and harpooner never change ends in the present survival, and this is the one detail that which distinguishes the existing technique of hunting from that of 100 years ago. To the last days of American whaling it was an invariable rule that the harpooner fastened to the whale but did not lance it; he gave place to the boatheader for this operation, and himself went aft to take the steering-oar and tend the line at the loggerhead.[4]

Without the full text of Russell’s narration of the Panorama as it traveled from town to town, we’ll never know the extent to which he addressed many of the details that he drew. As he was himself a boat-steerer onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford on a four-year sperm and right whaling cruise to the Pacific Ocean, 1841-1845, he would certainly have been intimately familiar with the process, another fascinating detail of his whaling experience shared in the Panorama.

[1] Davis, p. 171.

[2] Holmes, pp. 273-274

[3] Melville, Chapter 62.

[4] Clarke, in: Discovery Reports, Vol. 26, pp. 281-354.

Whalemen’s natural history observations and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Seaman Dean C. Wright drew this profile view of a sperm whale in his journal kept onboard the ship Benjamin Rush of Warren, Rhode Island, 1841-1845. KWM #A-145

Apart from the specific species that they were targeting during the hunt, whalemen were generally poor observers of wildlife. Sperm whales, right whales, bowhead whales, their habits, habitats and general appearance were commonly understood at a commercial level but only a few whalemen made any attempt to systematically identify other species of whales or small cetacea. Blackfish (Globicephala melas, the long-finned pilot whale) are an exception as these were also frequently hunted and whalemen had the opportunity to observe both their behavior and anatomy closely.

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

Third mate Warren D. Maxfirld drew these views of a pilot whale and a rightwhale dolphin in his journal kept onboard the bark Chili of New Bedford, 1856-1860. KWM #49

At the very least whalers were inconsistent in whatever observations they may have made.[1] This is not to say that whalemen didn’t see an astonishing array of the world’s species, just that their interests were almost wholly commercial and only rarely systematic. The whales, birds and other cetaceans illustrated and described in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World are no exception. Obviously, frequent mentions are made in seamen’s logbooks and journals noting a wide variety of birds, fish and whales but seldom are these animals illustrated, and even more rarely are they either named or described in any useful way. Vernacular, seemingly random, and completely unsystematic terms are commonly employed to which none but a whaler can relate.

Scene described as "brig in a school of porpoises," from Purrington & Russell's Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Scene described as “brig in a school of porpoises,” from Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, 1848.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

Detail of unidentified small cetaceans from the Panorama.

For instance, this particular scene in the Panorama is described in the handbill text as “brig in a school of porpoises.” By no stretch of the modern imagination could the animals painted in this scene be described as “porpoises,” yet whalemen commonly applied the term to any number of small cetaceans. Modern descriptions of the porpoises (Phocoenidae) describe them as small, blunt-headed and coastal; “preferring to keep to themselves, porpoises are typically shy creatures and rarely perform the acrobatic feats of dolphins.”[2] The only species of porpoise common to the Cape Verde archipelago is the harbor porpoise, (Phocoena phocoean) a small, blunt-nosed creature. However, even with their pointed snouts, a hint of a dorsal fin, a large aggregation and fairly acrobatic portrayal of behavior, one would be hard-pressed to say what exactly Purrington and Russell intended these animals to be.

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two "algerines" in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. ODHS #572

Edwin N. Clark, first mate onboard the bark Two Brothers of New Bedford drew this view of two “algerines” in the logbook of the voyage, 1856. Apart from their generally pointed snouts, the only other prominent anatomical feature is the dorsal fin, a feature common to many dolphin species. ODHS #572

They are obviously some type of cetacea, probably of the dolphin tribe, possibly of the sort called “algerines,” or “algerine porpoises” by the whalemen. The animals in the picture also greatly resemble members of the beaked whale tribe of the sort sometimes called the “grampus” by whalers. The region where this scene took place was in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Cape Verde Islands. These waters are home to a wide variety of oceanic dolphins (Delphinidae) however current habitat projection maps do not suggest that any species of beaked whales (Ziphiidea) live in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands. Recent observations (2010, 2014) have placed small groups of at least two species of beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) and Gervais’ beaked whale (Mesoplodon cf. europaeus) around the waters off Cape Verde, but these are confirmed as rarities.[3] Dolphins are another matter. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, spotted dolphins, striped dolphins and spinner dolphins all live in these waters, are socially gregarious and acrobatic in their behavior. That, combined with the use of the whaler’s term “porpoise” suggests that these animals are probably dolphins.

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. KWM #436

Seaman Thomas White onboard the bark Sunbeam of New Bedford, 1856, drew these views of whalemen harpooning dolphins from a large school swimming about the ship. Whalemen ate dolphins and would capture them at every opportunity. Like other whalers, White calls them “porpoises.” These particular animals are about the size of a man and are obviously frolicking in the water in a large, social school. KWM #436

One solid advantage to the relational usage of the term “porpoise” is that most whalemen used the term to describe the multitudes of dolphins encountered in large schools on the high seas. Further, as beaked whales seldom congregate in social schools gamboling about in the waves, the likelihood is very strong that Purrington and Russell accurately described the behavior of a school of dolphins.

Probably the best single synopsis of whalemen’s vernacular language describing the various whales and small cetaceans encountered is from Moby-Dick. A selection of these can be read in Chapter 32, “Cetology, ” with the following caveats:

  1. There was at the time of its writing considerable inconsistency in the naming of cetacean species and popular language swapped around between actual species as far as Linnaean nomenclature could identify them and mariner’s usage.
  2. Melville as a whaleman himself adopted whalemen’s usage.
  3. Melville was mocking the books of science written by persons with no firsthand knowledge of what it was they were describing.

He writes in the first part of that chapter: “of real knowledge there be little, yet of books there are a plenty.” He then goes on the arrange his classifications and subdivisions similarly to the table of contents of Robert Hamilton’s “On the Ordinary Ceacea, or Whales,” in William Jardine’s Naturalists Library, as well as John Hunter’s “Observations on the structure and œconomy of whales” in Philosophical Transactions of London (June 28, 1787); that is Roman numeral, genus, species. Being the satirist that he was though, instead of even attempting to sound “scientific,” Melville makes up these foolish categories of whale species compared to the sizes of books, presumably representing the varieties in size of the very books he consulted, hinting that books are the sole source of knowledge of cetacean, and that whalemen, while seeing most of the animals in question could not properly identify most of them. Dolphins and porpoises are not distinguished and just because Melville calls it a porpoise does not mean that it is one. Numerous whaling references, including early 20th century photographs identify dolphins as porpoises and we know that whalers lowered for dolphins as well as harpooned them from the bows of the ship for food.

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronei), what he calls a "Right Whale Porpoise" in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Seaman John Martin drew this superb view of a Rightwhale dolphin (Lissodelphis peronii), what he calls a “Right Whale Porpoise” in his journal kept onboard the ship Lucy Ann of Wilmington, Delaware, 1841-1845. KWM #434

Sulphur bottom – Undoubtedly Balænoptera musculus (Blue whale) as verified in Charles M. Scammon’s Marine mammals of the Northwestern coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874)  and Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966). The “Great Northern Rorqual” of Jardine/Hamilton (PH 5190-A) is derived from the two 1827 prints of the blue whale that stranded at Ostend, Belgium  which was in large measure copied in 1832 for another print.

Killer/Thrasher – Undoubtedly Orcinus orca. In the text of Jardine/Hamilton under the entry for “The Grampus” is the following: “Finally it is the fish which the Americans have long been in the habit of denominating the killer or thrasher, from its reputed pugnacious and cruel disposition.”

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

Seaman Joseph Bogart Hersey drew this fine view of a killer whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Samuel & Thomas of Provincetown, 1846-1848. KWM #364

As this entry mentioning “thrasher” serves as the only reference that I have ever seen (including logbook and journal references to killers) I suspect that Melville either legitimately heard this phrase used in the fishery or, what is more likely, borrowed it from Jardine/Hamilton. Please note that Melville separates “killers” from “grampus.” What was meant by the whalemen’s term of “grampus” is difficult to determine. Sometimes in the whalemen’s writings it seems to refer to the killer or orca, other times, the killer is distinct and the grampus is also distinct. Jardine/Hamilton’s illustration of “The Grampus” is obviously an orca. Grampus griseus or Risso’s Dolphin is the only official appearance of the term grampus. The only actual illustration of the grampus of whalemen’s parlance is from KWM #1033, a journal kept by seaman Daniel C. Whitfield onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1856-1859. It is obviously a beaked whale of some kind.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the "Grampus." It is an almost perfect outline of Cuvier's beaked whale. This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale.

Seaman Daniel C. Whitfield wrote exemplary and rare descriptions of a number of whale species in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, 1853-1855. Almost uniquely, Whitfield drew and defined the creature known to whalemen as the “Grampus.” It is a near-perfect outline of Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). This species has the widest known distribution of any beaked whale, and if the grampus was actually the beaked whale, as Whitfield suggests, then whaling logbooks and journals can provide valuable information about the distribution and common sightings of these pelagic animals. While the Dr. Franklin cruised primarily in the Atlantic Ocean, Whitfield describes a number of species from his experiences on other whales in other oceans. KWM #1033.

Huzza porpoise – Probably Lagenorhynchus obliquidens of Scammon, the striped or common porpoise. Scammon’s text description coincides well with Melville’s the difference being that Melville claims that they are found “almost all over the globe,” whereas this particular animal is a Pacific species. Apart from that the striped dolphin or common dolphin is the most likely candidate being gregarious and global.

Algerine porpoise – Completely unidentifiable. Whaling logbooks and journals frequently mention them although they are seldom illustrated (ODHS#572, September 22, 1859). Chances are good that they are one of the many species of larger dolphins, such as Tursiops truncatus, the bottle nose dolphin.

Mealy-mouthed porpoise – Undoubtedly the Southern right whale dolphin, Lissodelphis peronii .

While the bulk of American whalemen did not record their observations of sea creatures, some did. Those few who did actually identify species in a useful fashion have contributed some important clues to understanding the prolific life of the oceans. Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama was intended to be educational entertainment, but for all that, it serves today as an important document serving to offer insights into the world as witnessed by American mariners. Whether or not the artists captured the true nature of marine life, they absolutely captured the significance of the American whalemen to the growing understanding of the world and its seas in the 19th century.

[1] Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (Edinburgh, 1839); William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions (Edinburgh, 1820); Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874) are notable exceptions. These books, written by whalemen are all superb natural history texts, illustrated accurately with a wide variety of species and other documentary pictures. The average whalemen produced nothing even remotely as insightful as these.

[2] Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995).

[3] Hazevoet, Monteiro, et al. “Recent data on whales and dolphins (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Cape Verde Islands, including records of four taxa new to the archipelago,” Zoologia Caboverdiana 1 (2) 2010: 75-99

The ship Lagoda: The Maritime History of an American Icon, 1826-1890

Detail illustration showing the Jonathan Bourne, Jr. house flag. This flag would have flown from the mainmast of his ships to identify ownership. It was taken from the New Bedford and Fairhaven Signal Book (New Bedford, 1842) the yar after he bought the Lagoda.

Detail illustration showing the Jonathan Bourne, Jr. house flag. This flag would have flown from the mainmast of his ships to identify their ownership. It was taken from the New Bedford and Fairhaven Signal Book (New Bedford, 1842) the year after he bought the Lagoda.

We catch our first glimpse of the ship Lagoda from the deck of the Bryant & Sturgis brig Pilgrim of Boston, anchored off Ballast Point, San Diego, California, trading cow hides and tallow in 1835: “The third was a large ship, with top-gallant masts housed, and sails unbent, and as rusty and worn as two years hide-droghing” could make her.[1] The Lagoda was just under ten years old when Richard Henry Dana, Jr. immortalized the Scituate- built merchant ship as a hard working cow-hide freighter in his classic maritime narrative Two Years before the Mast. It’s funny how some ships are simply destined for greatness and others languish forgotten forever. The Lagoda, oddly enough, was one of the former class. Built for the carrying trades in 1826, she was sold into the whale fishery in 1841, and so served out the rest of her days. She was 64 years old and had sailed to every ocean of the world and most of the seas as well when she was finally condemned at Yokohama, Japan in 1890.

At the time, Dana described her as a large ship, and at 340 tons, she was the largest ship that the Duxbury, Massachusetts merchant Ezra Weston had built to date. Ezra Weston II (1772-1842) known as “King Caesar of Duxbury,” and the firm of Ezra Weston & Son, built 85 sloops, schooners, brigs and ships between 1800-1856 and over twenty more in the 18th century. Weston was among the most successful Massachusetts maritime merchants whose ships traded throughout the Mediterranean, the West Indies, the Baltic, South America and particularly, the New Orleans cotton trade.

Probably built of local Massachusetts white oak and pine, spruce and hackmatack from Maine, there was nothing particularly special about the Lagoda apart from her mistaken name. A 340 ton American merchant ship really stands out very little in maritime history; hundreds of them were built from Maine to South Carolina. The only thing that brings the Lagoda to the world’s immediate attention really is her name, and by and by, her success in the whale fishery.  Long the subject of conjecture by curious people, the name “Lagoda” was evidently simply a mistake, a typo as it were, made by the painter who put the name of the ship on the stern at the shipyard.

According to Frederick Sawyer, author of the 1841 guide to commercial shipping regulations, The Merchant’s and Shipmaster’s Guide, “the name of every registered ship, and the port to which she belongs, must be painted on her stern, on a black ground, in white letters of not less than three inches in length, under the penalty of $50.00.” Further, although there was no law specifically addressing the name of a ship, or changing the name of a ship, In Merchant Sail the maritime historian and naval architect, William Armstrong Fairburn specifically noted: “For centuries it had been considered unlucky to change the name of a ship unless there was a change of ownership, when it might be deemed permissible, or unless, coupled with a change of flag and foreign registry, a change of name might become obligatory.”[2] He went on to note that very few American vessels had their names changed in the 19th century.

What’s really interesting is how the naming of the Lagoda came about in the first place. Ships were sometimes named for their intended business, where they were trading or what they were intended to do. The Levant, for instance, was intended for trade in the eastern Mediterranean, the Cossack for whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Arab for whaling in the Indian Ocean, and the Alaska was intended to be a Behring Strait whaler. One classic example is the ship Ann Alexander, built at Dartmouth, MA in 1805 to the order of George Howland, Sr., merchant of New Bedford and named by him for Ann Tuke Alexander (1767-1849) a Quaker proselytizer.

The Lagoda has an interesting back story. While significant iron production was taking place in North America, much of the bog ore relied upon by early Massachusetts shipbuilders was insufficient in both quantity and quality for the growing needs of the industry. New England shipbuilding merchants traded for Russian hemp, duck sailcloth and high-quality bar iron from Sweden and Finland at St. Petersburg, Russia, specifically, from the western shore of Lake Ladoga.

This detail from Mount and Page, The English Pilot... Northern Navigation (London, 1785) shows the approaches to St. Petersburg.

This detail from Mount and Page, The English Pilot… Northern Navigation (London, 1785) shows the approaches to St. Petersburg.

A detail from and 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of the brig Benezet to New Bedford from St. Petersburg. Note the large quantities of iron, hemp and sail cloth.

A detail from and 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of the brig Benezet to New Bedford from St. Petersburg. Note the large quantities of iron, hemp and sail cloth.

 

A detail from an 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of Russian iron onboard the ship Ladoga of New Bedford.

A detail from an 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of Russian iron onboard the ship Ladoga of New Bedford.

Iron from the Ladoga Mines went into many an American ship and, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, was the preferred material for harpoons.[3] I’ve never actually seen such a reference myself, but a great deal of Swedish iron was imported directly into New Bedford, so it makes perfect sense. Naming ships for their general trading destination was a common practice. In fact, one ship called the Ladoga had already been built at New Bedford to the order of William Rotch, Jr. in 1816, destined specifically for the Baltic trade.

William Rotch, Jr. wrote in 1796 concerning the St. Petersburg trade:

“It has been my intention for some time to employ a Ship in the Russia Trade from this Port, but the high price of American ships at the present time has prevented my purchasing this year but being desirous of making an experiment and having had your house recommended to me for punctuality and attention to business, I have taken the liberty to request my friends Thomas Dickason & Co of London to give you Credit on them for my behalf for 4 or 5000£ Stg and to Charter A small Ship to go as early as possible to St. Petersburg for a Cargo to bring to this Port…go to St Petersburg as early as the Cargo can be ready of about 150 Tons which if a profitable Ship to load, I suppose will take 70 Tons of Hemp & 130 Tons Iron, I need not remind you of the necessity of a Strong light Ship for such a Cargo. you will please also see the Ship is well found and well manned with a good Careful Master…” [4]

Unlike most of “King Caesar’s” ships, the Lagoda was built, not on the Bluefish River in Duxbury, but on the North River at Scituate, a few miles up the coast, on the site of the old Edward Wanton Yard owned by Seth and Samuel Foster. Wanton was a 17th century Quaker convert, a witness to the hanging of Mary Dyer, who left Boston and settled in Scituate where he built sloops and topsail schooners.[5] The Foster family took over the shipyard and Elisha Foster was building ships there as early as 1811.

Weston managed the Lagoda for seven years, primarily in the European trade, before the Dorchester merchant William Oliver purchased her. Oliver was a successful Boston merchant, at least according to his numerous obituary references, although his primary mercantile interests are not easily identified. He sat on the board of the Suffolk Insurance Company in 1836 even after his retirement and in 1840 was Vice-President of the Boston Horticultural Society and donated large sums of money to a variety of benevolent societies. In 1833, however, he, along with a large number of other Boston merchants invested in a hide-trading voyage to California. The firm of John Bryant and William Sturgis had taken the lead in the California hide and tallow trade after earlier Boston merchants had identified its potential, but William Oliver and his company of investors also participated for at least the one voyage.

It appears that the Lagoda made but one voyage to California before being sold to Jonathan Cushing and Nathaniel F. Ames, dry goods merchants of Boston. Cushing and Ames owned the Lagoda for four voyages between 1835 until 1839. Newspaper records indicate that the Lagoda was engaged in the carrying trade from England to ports in the U.S. including Richmond, Baltimore and New Orleans.[6]

As far as the impetus for Jonathan Bourne to purchase the Lagoda, Morison again makes a tantalizing observation that: “Fishermen and other small vessels were constructed in Plymouth Bay at this period; and at Wareham and Mattapoisett on Buzzards Bay were more children of North River, building 300 ton whalers for Nantucket, and neutral traders for New Bedford.” With a complete lack of primary source material to support it, a hypothesis may be crafted based on patterns of genealogy that transcend coincidence, suggesting that when the ship came up for sale, Bourne evidently heard of her qualities from Captain James Townsend.

Anonymous portrait of Captain James Tonsend, circa 1830. 2001.100.4357.

Anonymous portrait of Captain James Tonsend, circa 1830. 2001.100.4357.

Townsend, a relation (father, perhaps, or uncle) of Mary C. Townsend who married into the Ames family when she married shipwright Nathaniel F. Ames of Mattapoisett in 1842 was master and part owner of the ship General Pike of New Bedford in 1837, the first whaler that Bourne invested in. The tentative relationship between Cushing & Ames in Boston and the Cushing and Ames families of Mattapoisett seems far beyond mere coincidence, especially when discussing the qualities of a North River-built ship with a thorough local history. Ames may well have recommended the stout, seasoned Lagoda for her new job in the whale fishery to Townsend, who in turn relayed that information to Bourne. At the very least, the ship had a local reputation.

Among Jonathan Bourne's first whaling investments was the 1835 voyage of the ship South Carolina of New Bedford on a right whaling voyage to the South Atlantic Ocean. Second mate William W. Taylor painted this watercolor scene of right whaling in the southern Indian Ocean while on that voyage. KWM #411

Among Jonathan Bourne’s first whaling investments was the 1835 voyage of the ship South Carolina of New Bedford on a right whaling voyage to the South Atlantic Ocean. Second mate William W. Taylor painted this watercolor scene of right whaling in the southern Indian Ocean while on that voyage. KWM #411

Jonathan Bourne, like many other New Bedford whaling agents, used the right whale fishery to great advantage. While all of Bourne’s ship returned sperm oil, over all they returned a great deal more whale oil. Bourne operated under the maxim that “brown oil is better than no oil.” So, the Lagoda, for instance, returned over three times as much whale oil over her career than sperm. The same can be said for every other one of the twenty-four ships owned by Bourne over the course of his career except for the Draco, the Adeline Gibbs, the Alaska and the Napoleon.  In the case of every one of these vessels except the Draco, their sperm oil returns came either during or after the Civil War when sperm oil reached its highest prices in history, over $2.00 per gallon.

In 1860, after Bourne sold a cargo of sperm oil at a good profit he wrote to a correspondent, “I think whaling is looking decidedly better, particularly the sperm whaling. Did you think I should be in the market buying whalers? You see I am not so badly scared at the business.”[7] Curiously, the Lagoda’s three most profitable voyages, 1850-1853, under Asa S. Tobey; 1860-1864 under Zebedee A. Devoll who died of Java Fever eight months out from home; 1864-1868 under Charles W. Fisher, were all right whaling voyages when the price of whalebone had reached over $1.00 per pound.

Bourne also hired the most experienced masters to command his ships and he put up with no nonsense. He wrote to the master of one of his ships in 1860, concerning another: “I don’t intend to have a drunken man to squander my property.”[8] He was in the habit of making diligent inquiries into the qualities of his masters and officers as can be readily seen in the below letter:

Capt James M Witherell, No Falmouth

Dear Sir. Since you left I have made some further enquiries about Mr Robinson who was mate of the “Zone” of Fairhaven

The owners give him the name of being a first rate sperm whaleman his right whaling they know nothing of but think he has been right whaling

You had better make some enquiries about him. Today I was [sic] Charles Kempton would go, who was mate of the Lagoda when you went your first voyage. Of him I need not speak as you was there and know all about his disposition, whaling qualities, habits & c. I understand he is as good as then, but of course no better. I take it his age is the only objection if there is any.

Let me hear from you what you think about him. One of the young Kelly’s who was in the “Reindeer” is here, and if you was here before he went home, I have but little doubt you would get them both. I cannot say anything to them as Mr. Howland would think I was interring with him.[9]

Of the twelve masters who commanded the Lagoda, only two, Charles W. Fisher and John D. Willard sailed the Lagoda as their first command and Willard was second mate on the Lagoda on her 1850 voyage under Asa Tobey. Fisher, who had Bourne’s complete confidence (as demonstrated through their correspondence) shipped as second mate on Bourne’s ship Stephania , 1860-1864, before being appointed master of the Lagoda in 1864.

During her career as a whaler, the Lagoda made two of Bourne’s most profitable voyages. Both came after the rig was changed from a ship to a bark. On her 1856 voyage, she sailed from New Bedford with a complement of 31 crew members, whereas when she sailed in 1860 as a bark, she had fewer men, 26. Fewer men meant fewer lays to pay, and her outfitting costs were considerably less as well. Almost every voyage thereafter made more money as a bark than when she was rigged as a ship.  The 8th voyage of the Lagoda, under command of Charles Fisher, 1864-1868 was a right whaling voyage to the North Pacific. It placed tenth on Bourne’s most-profitable list returning the owners 219% on their investment. On this voyage the Lagoda twice made port at Yokohama, Japan, quite an interesting shift in U.S.-Japan relations brought about largely through the expanding influence of Yankee whalers in the Pacific. The voyage lasted 46 months. The 7th voyage of the Lagoda, under the command of Zebedee Devoll placed fifth on the list of the ten most profitable voyages lasting 44 months and returning 363% on the initial investment.[10]

While the Lagoda is often credited with being Bourne’s “most profitable” ship, that honor could actually fall to the bark Hunter built to Bourne’s specifications by Elbridge G. Pierce at Gardner, Maine in 1851. The Hunter made 13 voyages, surpassing the Lgoda in total sales of catch but at the end of the accounting, when all of the profits were added up, the Lagoda overall made Bourne the most money. The other two most profitable ships in the Bourne fleet were the Draco and the Northern Light.

Among the more significant highlights in the Lagoda’s career were her involvement in the opening of American-Japan relations and the rescue of the 1200 seamen from the 32 wrecked whalers in the Arctic disaster of 1871.

While the ship had made port in Yokohama on her 1864 voyage, that was already six years after Commodore Perry had negotiated a treaty of amity and commerce and American ships were welcome in Japanese ports. The really important event, and one that scholars have long argued pushed the impetus for Perry’s later visit, was on her 1846 voyage under the command of James Finch, when 15 crew members took three whaleboats and deserted the Lagoda on the coast of Japan.  The Lagoda was cruising in the Sea of Japan in June of 1848 at the time and the men made landfall at Matsumae in the extreme southwest of Hokkaido. Here they were captured, imprisoned and by several accounts beaten and tortured. They were feared by the Japanese authorities to be spies, suspected of being Christians, and known for a fact to be illegal interlopers. The men were later taken to Nagasaki and held there for almost a year. There was a Dutch consul in Nagasaki, the Dutch being the only Westerners permitted to trade on the Japanese mainland. By several accounts, the deserters were treated harshly and deaths were reported, however the stories differ between the predictably bad behavior of American seamen who had deserted their ship and the stringent Japanese reactions to lawbreakers. In any event, one of the deserters, a Hawaiian Islander did hang himself, and at least one other prisoner died, allegedly killed while trying to escape.

Their treatment sparked an international incident as Dutch authorities notified the American sloop-of-war Preble, James Glynn, master, who in April of 1849 successfully negotiated their release. In a dispatch from Commodore David Geisinger commander of the U.S. East India Squadron, dated Canton January 25, 1849, it was reported that the Lagoda had run aground and been wrecked and that the crew members were shipwreck survivors. In a demonstration of just exactly how well-informed Jonathan Bourne actually was, a letter that he wrote to the wife of a crew member requesting an advance on her husband’’s pay, confirms that he had already heard from the Lagoda after the alleged date of her shipwreck. In this instance, Bourne was better informed of the whereabouts of his ship than the U.S. Navy.

New Bedford 4 mo 10 1849

Mrs. Weston A Briggs

Your letter of the 3rd Inst came to hand, & contents noticed. Inclosed please find Twenty Dollars. You may hear, or see in some of the news papers, the Loss of the Ship Lagoda, at one of the Japan Islands, but give yourself no uneasiness whatever, as it is entirely false. The Ship I know was at the Sandwich Islands Nov 20 1849, and was not then ready for Sea. Consequently could not be in the Japan Sea at the time of the reported loss. It originated from the three Boats crews who deserted her when she was there the last season. Should you have any letters from Mr Briggs, please inform me of it.[11]

The Arctic disaster of 1871 also featured the Lagoda. In this event, as we all know, 30 New England whalers along with and one from Hawaii and one from San Francisco whalers stayed a little too long on the North Slope of Alaska chasing whales in conditions that led to the ice pack moving rapidly toward shore. Several ships were outside of the ice, and the New Bedford ships Midas, Progress and Daniel Webster, owned by William O. Brownell, Jonathan Bourne’s Lagoda and Samuel Osborne’s Europa of Edgartown were able to take the shipwrecked crews onboard and deliver them to Honolulu safely. After the fleet was almost completely destroyed in the crushing ice, 1200 crewmen in whaleboats made their way south in whaleboats and were taken onboard the five waiting ships and returned to San Francisco and Honolulu. 170 of the men were taken onboard the Lagoda. The U.S. Treasury immediately granted a bounty of $35.00 gold currency per man to each to the owners of each vessel for their services and these amounts were awarded in 1872. The really interesting part of this story is that Brownell, Bourne and Osborn petitioned the U.S. Government for additional reimbursement due to lost whaling time in rescuing the shipwrecked crews. They submitted a memorial to the Committee on Claims of the U.S. House of Representatives.[12]

Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 1871/ Pl. 3. By Benjamin Russell, lithograph by J.H. Bufford, Boston, 1872. Russell supplemented his earnings as a print-maker and painter of ship portraits by generating exact, detailed and authoritative illustrations of events in support of insurance claims. He produced the series of five prints documenting the events of 1871 in the Arctic to support the claims of New Bedford whaling agents to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 1871/ Pl. 3. By Benjamin Russell, lithograph by J.H. Bufford, Boston, 1872. Russell supplemented his earnings as a print-maker and painter of ship portraits by generating exact, detailed and authoritative illustrations of events in support of insurance claims. He produced the series of five prints documenting the events of 1871 in the Arctic to support the claims of New Bedford whaling agents to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In preparation for that memorial, it appears that the New Bedford artist Benjamin Russell prepared a series of drawings to serve as exhibition documentation of the event. In 1872 these drawings were later made into the famous series of prints “Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic.” Interpretive reference drawings of events leading to insurance claims seem to have been relatively common and Russell’s prints of the Arctic disaster, as good as they are, definitely fall into the category of documentation rather than art.

Jonathan Bourne sold the Lagoda to William Lewis in 1886, and Lewis transferred the bark to San Francisco, the new center of the American whaling trade. Whalebone was driving the whaling industry in the late 19th century and Lewis had invested in a number of steamers as well as old whalers like the California , the Horatio and the Lagoda. The Lagoda made her final voyage in 1889, a cruise to Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. She was condemned as unseaworthy at Yokahama in 1890. What happened was that in 1867, the ship had struck on a reef approaching Yokohama Harbor and needed to be repaired. All of the bolt heads had stripped off her false keel and damage was done to the hull. In 1889, before sailing, she had been put in dry dock while full of 1000 gallons of fresh water in casks and the weight started the old repairs. When she put to sea the strain had weakened the hull to the point where the ship was leaking at 33,000 strokes every 24 hours. With the crew refusing duty, the Lagoda actually put back in to Yokohama, the same place where the damage had occurred in the first place.[13] Here she was finally condemned and put to work as a collier.

Bark Lagoda at wharfside, circa 1880s. 200.100.787

Bark Lagoda at wharfside, circa 1880s. 200.100.787

In many ways the story of the Lagoda is absolutely worthy of our perpetual preservation. Jonathan Bourne in his business decisions, and later his daughter Emily in her understanding and discretion of her father’s legacy, made an excellent choice with the Lagoda . What stories better represent the maritime culture of Massachusetts than that of the Lagoda? Built in the era when the U.S.A. was finally free to trade on the high seas the world round, built of native timbers to the order of a major American merchant, a ship destined for the California trade she was on the coast before California entered the Union in 1850, the Russian trade, the Liverpool trade and finally the whale fishery, she began her life at a time when American ship portraits were rare and ended her days in New Bedford with a photograph at the wharves. She was instrumental in the opening of Japan, the annexation of Alaska and traded on both coasts of Russia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. She made her owners a lot of money and today serves as a cornerstone in the educational programs of the museum introducing generations to the significance of Massachusetts and the U.S.A. to the maritime history of the world.

[1] Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast (New York, 1840), p.

[2] William A. Fairrburn, Merchant Sail Vol. IV (Center Lovell, Maine, 1945-1955), pp. 2645-2658.

[3] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts (Boston, 1921), p. 294.

[4] ODHS MSS 2 Rotch Family Papers

[5] Historic and Cultural Resources Survey of Norwell (Norwell, Massachusetts June 2007).

[6] Richmond Enquirer, September 17, 1839.

[7] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne Papers, Letter book, 1860-181, “New Bedford Augt 6 1860

[8] ibid.

[9] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne Letter Book, 1860-1861

[10] For a complete assessment of Jonathan Bourne’s whaling interests, see: ODHS Bake Papers, Vol. 2, “Whaling Statistics.”

[11] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne, Jr. Letter book, 1849.

[12] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Claims. Owners and crews of certain American whaling vessels : July 28, 1890. ODHS #BI-411.

[13] Daily Alta California, Volume 83, Number 80, 18 September 1890

Image

New Bedford Harbor Towboats and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger into New Bedford harbor.

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger past Clark’s Point lighthouse and into New Bedford harbor in 1847.

In the early scenes of the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, ever the purveyors of the unique in their paintings of maritime scenes, show a whaler passing Clark’s Point lighthouse under tow of a sidewheel steamer. The whaler shown is the ship Niger of New Bedford flying the house-flag of Hathaway & Luce. Given the period in which the Panorama was painted, 1847-1848, this scene can only be meant to represent the successful return of the Niger from her maiden voyage.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

The steamer shown was the Nantucket Steamboat Company sidewheel steamer Massachusetts. The Massachusetts was a ferry built for the company in 1842 to run three days a week between the island and New Bedford. She remained in service until 1858, as was described as the finest vessel of her type in service. This is the only such painting documenting an island steamer towing a whaler into New Bedford harbor. That the steamers were employed as towboats is well documented, especially at Nantucket where the Massachusetts was employed towing whalers lodged in the floating dry-dock “camels” over the sandbar at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor. Other histories indicate that both the Massachusetts and the Telegraph, another ferry in the same service at the same time, earned extra money for company as towboats.[1] Later photographs show whalers being towed out of New Bedford harbor and barges and such being towed by tugs into the harbor. By the 1890s this was common practice. The bark Canton of New Bedford was towed out of the harbor in May of 1891 and back into the harbor when she arrived home in June of 1892 (ODHS #988).  For all of that, however, this image from the Panorama is unique.

One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke. A pioneer in coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss. – Erik Ronnberg

Another steamer appears in the early sequences of the Panorama and while it is prominently featured was not a steamer that saw regular use in New Bedford harbor. “One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke.
A pioneer in coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss.”
 Erik Ronnberg, Curator of the Cape Ann Museum wrote the above text and it appears courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum

The Panorama towing scene offers a number of interesting points to consider. For instance, under what circumstances would a sailing ship need to be towed into the harbor? When was the steamer available? How much did it cost to employ the steamer? Some of this information is forthcoming, some of it isn’t. For instance, whaling merchant John Avery Parker kept account books that summarized each of his vessels’ voyages.

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846. KWM #A-163

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846.
KWM #A-163

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

In the summaries he breaks down standard outstanding costs like pilotage, wharfage, rolling and filling oil casks, night watching, etc. For a few of these voyages, “steamboat towing” is a cost listed. The cost in the mid-1840s for the use of a steamer for towing a ship “up the harbor” was about between $15.00 and $30.00 depending upon how far the vessel needed to be towed. Other times, although rarely, a vessel in distress would need to be towed. A good example is the story of the bark Courser. On September 8, 1869, the  Courser of New Bedford on her homeward passage sailed directly into a hurricane off Block Island, ran aground, and had put into Newport Harbor leaking so badly that teams of men from Newport needed to be put onboard to continuously man the pumps for three days. A steamboat was sent for and on September 11 the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company steam ferry Helen Augusta arrived in Newport from New Bedford to tow the Courser to her home port.[2] While the Courser is an extraordinary example, steamers most definitely had their place in lifesaving, wrecking, towing and other duties in addition to carrying passengers.

The majority of logbook entries for the final day or two of a homeward New Bedford voyage, however, end at or around Block Island, Nomans Island or Cuttyhunk when a Branch Pilot was taken up to guide the ship into New Bedford. As far as the log keeper was concerned, his responsibilities ended when the pilot took command of the ship and most logbooks go no further after the pilot come onboard.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing "Pilot takes a lunch - Whaleship BALTIC - May 23rd 1859" for an article "A Summer in New England" published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1859.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing “Pilot takes a lunch – Whaleship Baltic – May 23rd 1859,” showing the famous New Bedford Branch Pilot Ben Aken, for an article “A Summer in New England” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1859. 2001.100.4630

Branch Pilots were highly skilled, licensed mariners whose job it was (in the case of the New Bedford Port District) to cruise the waters between Block Island and Nomans Island in order to provide services to inbound vessels. Another set of harbor pilots guided the outbound ships. Some of these pilots lived in New Bedford. Many of them made their homes on Cuttyhunk Island and others lived on Martha’s Vineyard and even on Noman’s Island. In 1847, inbound pilots charged $2.00 per foot of the length of the vessel being piloted. Ship captains were not obliged to take a pilot but such a choice had its own perils. In 1844, for instance, Captain Avery F. Parker of the ship Midas of New Bedford did not like the terms under which the pilot of the schooner Superior, who was not a licensed Branch Pilot, offered to guide the ship through Quicks Hole. He finally agreed to take the pilot as the weather was worsening. With the wind northeast (a head wind), the ship ran aground twice off Dumpling Rock on the outgoing tide and needed to be kedged off the rocks. The prevailing wind on Buzzards Bay is southwest, but the wind often shifts around to the north. A north wind is one of the primary conditions under which a sailing ship would need to be towed into the harbor in order to avoid the very sort of difficulties encountered by the Midas.

On a fair wind a ship could sail in under her own power and many did just that. One such example is that of the ship Milton of New Bedford that returned from a voyage to the Pacific Ocean in June of 1873. On the day of the final log entry, the wind, predictably, was west/southwest. They took a pilot off Cuttyhunk and “at ½ past 6 PM arrived alongside of the wharf, made fast and left.”[3]

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

In most cases the final logbook/journal entry will indicate that the vessel has come to anchor off Clarks Point Lighthouse or Palmer’s Island. In some cases, like that of the Milton, the final entry makes mention of the vessel actually sailing to its berth at the wharf. Curiously, the Niger returned from her maiden voyage on November 29, 1847, a three-year sperm and right whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The final entry in the logbook indicates that the ship Niger sailed into the harbor with studdingsails set on a strong westerly wind.[4] This was about the same time that Purrington & Russell were painting the Panorama. Whether the scene shown is intended as a documentary illustration of actual events, or as a representative example of potential common activities, the Niger was not towed into the harbor by the Massachusetts in 1847.

"View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven." Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

“View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven.”
Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

The Massachusetts itself appears in several other prints and paintings of the period. Fitz Henry Lane included a fine view of the Massachusetts as well as a whaler anchored off Palmer’s Island, in his 1845 lithograph “View of New Bedford from the Fort near Fairhaven.” In many ways, this view seems to capture much of the spirit of the later Panorama view of the harbor and perhaps it was for this very reason that Purrington and Russell chose to document the steamer in use as a towboat instead of simply as a vessel type to be seen in the harbor.

[1] Harry B. Turner, The Story of the Island Steamers (Nantucket, 1910), pp 22-28

[2] ODHS #1187

[3] ODHS #420

[4] NBWM #1279

20th Annual Moby-Dick Marathon

The 20th anniversary of the Moby-Dick Marathon was indeed a celebration of America’s greatest novel, of New Bedford’s place in whaling and industrial history, of shared heritage, and of Irwin Marks’ vision of a community event that would include readers of varied backgrounds. Our readers came from a dozen different states and from the Netherlands, our Livestream feed was followed in 26 different countries, including New Zealand and Zimbabwe, our foreign language readers added French, Spanish, German, Hebrew, Mandarin, Japanese, Dutch and Portuguese to the reading, and two dozen hearty souls stayed for the entire Marathon. The second Children’s mini-Marathon kicked off with teenagers from Iceland joining us via Skype to read in their native tongue before a full roster of our own young readers read through the abridged version of Moby-Dick. The Maratona de Moby-Dick em Lingua Portuguêsa, a new event this year, was a great success that featured 46 ‘leitores’ reading from Tiago Patricio’s four-hour adaptation of the Portuguese translation of Moby-Dick. The ‘Chat with a Melville Scholar’ sessions attracted more than 40 people to each session and Michael Dyer’s presentation on the new exhibition Mapping Ahab’s Storied Waves was given to a full gallery. The Cook Memorial Theater was filled to capacity to watch Culture*Park enthusiastically act out Chapter 40, Midnight – Forecastle.

Nathaniel Philbrick reading Chapter One, Loomings.

Nathaniel Philbrick reading Chapter One, Loomings.

We were thrilled to have Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea, Why Read Moby-Dick? and several other great stories, start the Marathon for us as Ishmael. We were honored to have three of Irwin Marks’ children, David, Rebecca and Esther, along with Rebecca’s husband, Alban, join us in the Bourne Building, in the shadow of the Lagoda, where the entire Marathon took place for the first five years under Irwin’s guiding hand, to read from chapters two and three.  We were humbled by both the full-audience singing of The Ribs and Terrors in the Whale, led by Gerald Dyck, Dwight Thomas and several docents, and by the words of Father Mapple’s sermon orated by Reverend David Lima.

Our new Harbor View Gallery (HVG) was showcased over the weekend as the primary site for the reading. The view of New Bedford Harbor from this gallery created a new connection to the setting of the story. For many of our readers, spectators and supporters it was their first visit to the HVG and the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center (WJEC). The first floor of the WJEC, the Casa dos Botes Discovery Center, became Cousin Hosea’s Chowder Hall, where participants could enjoy chowder and soup donated by four local restaurants and sip some coffee and have a snack.

David Sullivan and John Bullard at the lecterns in the Harbor View Gallery

David Sullivan and John Bullard at the lecterns in the Harbor View Gallery (Arthur Motta/NBWM Photo)

But, the 20th anniversary was more than the reading and associated events that took place on Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10. We began the four days of celebration on Thursday, January 7, by unveiling a stunning photography exhibit by award-winning photographer Nuno Sá, from Portugal. Nearly 200 people filled the Jacobs Family Gallery with their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they viewed his vivid photos of marine life in the waters around the Azores. They then packed the Cook Memorial Theater to hear Mr. Sá’s presentation and see more of his impressive photos on the big screen.

Consul of Portugal, Pedro Carneiro, begins the Maratona em Lingua Portuguesa in the Museum's Azorean Whaleman Gallery.

Consul of Portugal, Pedro Carneiro, begins the Maratona em Lingua Portuguesa in the Museum’s Azorean Whaleman Gallery. (Arthur Motta/NBWM photo)

The next night began with a cocktail reception in the JFG before we moved upstairs to the former Center Street Gallery to watch the dedication of the space as it officially became The Herman Melville Room. Members of the Melville Society Cultural Project spoke on the gallery and their partnership with the Museum, before they cut the ribbon to formalize the process.

After the ribbon cutting, guests walked into the new building to check out the exhibit, In the Heart of the Sea, featuring costumes from the film of the same name before gathering in the Harbor View Gallery for a delicious dinner. Diners were then treated to an engaging presentation by our own Arthur Motta, titled “Moby-Dick: How Hollywood Changed New Bedford”.

Wattles Jacobs Education Center and Bourne Building on Saturday night, during the Marathon. (Arthur Motta photo)

Wattles Jacobs Education Center and Bourne Building on Saturday night, during the Marathon. (Arthur Motta/NBWM photo)

We are grateful to the sponsors, watch officers, volunteers, trustees, readers, spectators, supporters, media outlets, staff and apprentices who made this series of events possible. Of course, we are most grateful to the late Irwin Marks for his vision and dedication, and to the volunteers in 1996 who also believed in this concept, that made this event a reality.  As popular as the event was that first year, we think he would be truly impressed with the reach of the Moby-Dick Marathon after 20 years. It has become as global as the whaling industry itself.