Author Archives: mpdyer

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.

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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

New Bedford Harbor Small Craft Illustrated in Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.

Albert Van Beest painted this view of shipping in New Bedford Harbor in the mid-1850s. This boat, a lapstrake open boat with stayed masts and a jibboom appears to be of the dogbody type with a square transom. The foresail appears to be of the loose-footed type without a boom, as the mainsail boom is prominently shown. Typical of Van Beest's work, the boat is an element of the larger scene and while it may be reliably interpreted as a boat type, it's activities are ambiguous. This detail is from "View of Shipping in New Bedford Harbor," 1975.17.

Albert Van Beest painted this view of shipping in New Bedford Harbor in the mid-1850s. This type of boat, or one very similar to it, appears in the Panorama a number of times and in other paintings of New Bedford waters in the 1850s as well. This boat, a lapstrake open boat with stayed masts and a jibboom appears to be of the “dogbody” type with a square transom. The foresail appears to be of the loose-footed type without a boom, as the mainsail boom is prominently shown. Typical of Van Beest’s work, the boat is an element of the larger scene and while it may be reliably interpreted as a boat type, it’s activities are ambiguous. This detail is from “View of Shipping in New Bedford Harbor,” 1975.17.

Purrington & Russel painted several versions of this type of craft. This particular one has two unstayed masts with a boom on the mainsail, a loose-footed foresail, a jibboom and head sail, a square transom and is mostly decked over. Its use is ambiguous although it appears to be ferrying people. 1918.27.1

Purrington & Russel painted several versions of this type of craft. Unlike Van Beest’s painting above, this particular one has two unstayed masts with a boom on the mainsail, a loose-footed foresail, a jibboom and head sail, a square transom and is mostly decked over. Its use is ambiguous although it appears to be ferrying people. 1918.27.1

The boat shown in this detail from William Bradford's 1854 portrait of the ship Twilight of New Bedford appears to an almost perfect example of a Block Island Cowhorn. The two men are obviously fishing and the scene is in Buzzards Bay off Dumplin Rocks lighthouse. Note the double-ended "pinky" style of hull, the open deck, unstayed masts and lack of a jibboom. 1980.43

The boat shown in this detail from William Bradford’s 1854 portrait of the ship Twilight of New Bedford appears to an almost perfect example of a Block Island Cowhorn. The two men are obviously fishing and the scene is in Buzzards Bay off Dumplin Rocks lighthouse. Note the double-ended “pinky” style of hull, the open deck, unstayed masts and lack of a jibboom. 1980.43

While much has been written of New Bedford whalers, the famous ships, barks and schooners that sailed the world round, little has been written of the small working craft of the harbor. These boats were employed all up and down the East Coast in a variety of styles and sizes, from the large double-ended “pinky” schooner to the smaller pinky “Chebacco Boat,” dogbody Hampton Boat and  little working skiff. Perhaps it’s because at first glance there seems little to say about them. As they appear in prints and paintings, they all look sort-of similar and are engaged in some activity, but seldom can one tell what that activity actually is. Obviously small boats were used for a host of purposes including everything from fishing to freighting to ferrying people. Not appearing in either the official enrollments of American vessels in the coastwise American trade or the registers of ships engaged in foreign trade, these boats are often merely adjunct details to larger art works or photographs. Yet for all of their ubiquity, these boats suggest a fundamental element of a maritime culture. People worked on the water and used various sorts of boats to do it. These boats would, most likely, have been of local manufacture and designed for the waters they would ply.

Purrington and Russell commonly drew these boats with decks. This example shows a boat around 20 feet long, with unstayed masts, a jibboom and a loosefooted foresail.

Purrington and Russell commonly drew these boats with decks. This example shows a boat around 20 feet long, with unstayed masts, a jibboom and a loosefooted foresail.

This detail of a small New Bedford boat is part of a larger painting by New Bedford painter William Allen Wall. Wall clearly indicates that these boats were rowed as well as sailed. It is a very small version of this boat but the jibboom is clearly shown and the masts appeared unstayed. 2012.26

This detail of a small New Bedford boat is part of a larger painting by New Bedford painter William Allen Wall. Wall clearly indicates that these boats were rowed as well as sailed. It is a very small version of this boat but the jibboom is clearly shown and the masts appeared unstayed. 2012.26

If the boats are challenging to identify, their users are even more so. “Boatmen” appear occasionally in the New Bedford City Directories and these people made their livelihood either renting or working onboard small craft about the harbor. As larger shipping was anchored in the stream, boatmen would move people and goods from the shore to the ship.

In this view from the Panorama, two sloop-rigged work boats transfer the crew of a whaler and their sea chests onboard a vessel anchored in the stream. 1917.27.1

In this view from the Panorama, two sloop-rigged work boats transfer the crew of a whaler and their sea chests onboard a vessel anchored in the stream. 1917.27.1

Work boats alongside the ship William Hamilton, outfitting in New Bedford Harbor in June of 1848. Note the black seaman onboard and the sea chest coming over the side of the ship. 1917.27.1

Work boats alongside the ship William Hamilton, outfitting in New Bedford Harbor in June of 1848. Note the black seaman onboard and the sea chest coming over the side of the ship. 1917.27.1

A gaff-rigged sloop approaches the ship William Hamilton in New Bedford Harbor, June of 1848. Onboard are crew members ready to join the ship. 1916.27.1

A gaff-rigged sloop approaches the ship William Hamilton in New Bedford Harbor, June of 1848. Onboard are crew members ready to join the ship. 1916.27.1

Whether or not the people can be positively identified and discussed, the boats appear often enough that one can glean much information about them. When Purrington and Russell painted New Bedford harbor in 1848-1849 they included a large number of these small working craft. Unlike the formal oil paintings by prominent marine painters, the boats in the Panorama are not adjuncts, they are integral to the interpretation of a busy seaport. The Panorama was intended for audiences nationwide, and by showing the full array of busyness, the artists created an effective interpretive sequence. Among the more easily recognized are the larger two-masted schooners and single-masted sloops. These often appear as pilot boats in marine paintings. The larger ones were undoubtedly coasters as well trading domestic goods coastwise.

Here a large topsail schooner is shown standing down New Bedford harbor before a following breeze. 1918.27.1

Here a large topsail schooner is shown standing down New Bedford harbor before a following breeze. 1918.27.1

Purrington & Russell painted this view of three men in a long skiff jigging for squid or mackerel in New Bedford harbor opposite Palmer's Island. They are probably jigging for squid to use for bait. 1916.27.1

Purrington & Russell painted this view of three men in a long skiff jigging for squid or mackerel in New Bedford harbor opposite Palmer’s Island. They are probably jigging for squid to use for bait. 1916.27.1

In this curious detail, Purrington & Russell show two men in a rowboat towing a raft of logs up New Bedford Harbor. 1918.27.1

In this curious detail, Purrington & Russell show two men in a rowboat towing a raft of logs up New Bedford Harbor. 1918.27.1

The smaller boat close-by the larger is among the more common aspects of ship portraiture. But who was sailing these pilot boats? Who were the pilots? Where were the boats built and by whom? Why did they look the way they did? These questions are difficult, if not impossible to answer because these small craft are seldom the subject of the painting. The pilots were listed in the New Bedford City Directories and thirty-five appear in 1852 along with five named pilot boats. As these boats are seldom identified by either flag or by name their actual appearance is merely circumstantial.  The artists seem to include them as necessary decoration; evidence of the full range of complexity involved in an active seaport, but small craft often only appear as elements in the arrangement and structure of the composition.

William Bradford painted this scene of a merchant ship hove-to for a pilot off Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard in 1850. Note the small craft in the foreground and the pilot boat, a schooner, off the stern of the ship. 2005.20

William Bradford painted this scene of a merchant ship hove-to for a pilot off Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard in 1850. Note the small craft in the foreground and the pilot boat, a schooner, off the stern of the ship. 2005.20

Detail from William Bradford, "Hove-to for a Pilot," 1850. This boat has a pinky hull, two stayed masts and a jibboom. It is obviously a fishing boat with two men engaged in fishing in the waters between Cuttyhunk Island and Martha's Vineyard. The cliffs of Gay Head are in the background. 2005.20

Detail from William Bradford, “Hove-to for a Pilot,” 1850. This boat has a pinky hull, two stayed masts and a jibboom. It is obviously a fishing boat with two men engaged in fishing in the waters between Cuttyhunk Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The cliffs of Gay Head are in the background. 2005.20

Likewise, another small craft commonly seen, especially in New Bedford scenes, is a two-masted work boat with a small jibboom, the hull of which is either double-ended (a pinky) or with a square transom (a dogbody). These boats seem to have evolved from the much earlier 17th century European “shallop,” often around 25 feet long, two-masted, fore and aft rigged, simple to sail and very weatherly, used for fishing and other work. On these New Bedford boats, the main sail is rigged with a boom and the fore sail is loose-footed. The short jibboom may have been removable. (See John Gardner,  “The Elusive Hampton Boats,” The Small Boat Journal (November, 1979). Sometimes the boats are ¾’s decked over with a passenger cockpit aft. Sometimes the masts are stayed and sometimes un-stayed. They appear in a variety of lengths.

William Bradford drew this pencil sketch of a Block Island Boat in the 1850s. The lines are a perfect Cowhorn but it is unclear if there is a removable jibboom. There is certainly an anchor on the starboard bow and tit has an after deck. 1960.7.9

William Bradford drew this pencil sketch of a Block Island Boat in the 1850s. The lines are a perfect Cowhorn but it is unclear if there is a removable jibboom. There is certainly an anchor on the starboard bow and it has an after deck. 1960.7.9

This craft is commonly shown with two men on board, and whether they are fishing, or doing something else is often ambiguous. The context of their appearance, especially in the formal marine paintings of artists like William Bradford and Albert Van Beest suggests that these are fishing boats. Boats of this type were built in a variety of sizes all along the New England coast. On Block Island a similar craft was called a “cowhorn.” In Gloucester there was the Chebacco boat, on the coast of Maine and New Hampshire there was a similar craft called a Hampton Boat. The New Bedford boats appear to be a kind of Hampton or Hambden Boat (see Chappelle, The National Watercraft Collection, Washington, 1960, pp. 254-257). Chapelle reports that these “two-man” boats were common as fishing and lobster boats on the coast of Maine in the late 19th century but the frequency with which they appear in New Bedford paintings suggests a much broader geography of use. In 1845, there was at least one lobsterman in New Bedford, Joseph Crapo, (City Directory, 1845, p. 80) and while no individuals are listed as fishermen in the Directory the Bartlett family operated a fish market at the Ferry Boat Wharf, so presumably someone must have been providing them with fish.

In the below list there are doubtless a number of builders who specialized in whaleboats. This was a major manufacturing sector of New Bedford’s whaling industry. Most, if not all of the below list of boat builders could and probably did build other sorts of working craft but the full extent of that production remains to be researched.

List of New Bedford boat builders from the 1845 City Directory
Alexander Wall, boat builder, 1845 Ray Street
Joseph Warren, boat builder, 1845, Ray Street
Daniel Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Lawrence Wardsworth, boat builder, 1845, rear, 32 South Water Street
Robert C. Topham, boat builder, 1845, Foot of Griffin
William H. Smith, boat builder, 1845, rear 98 South Water St.
Sprowell Pease, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Calvin D. Macomber, boat builder, 1845, no address
George C. Lewis, boat builder, 1845, 214 Ray Street
Ebenezer Leonard, boat builder, 1845 works for D. Wardsworth (possibly whaleboats)
Joseph Irish, boat builder, 1845, no working address
John D. Hillman, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
Alvin Hinckley, boat builder, 1845, no working address
George Hart, boat builder, 1845, rear 94 South Water St.
Samuel E. Gabriel, apprentice to Robert C. Topham, 1845
Samuel A. Enholm, boat builder, 1845, works for R. C. Topham.
James M. Cranston, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Joseph W. Cornell, boat builder, 1845, 133 Ray St.
Edmund B. Coffin, boat builder, 1845, no working address
Shubael C. Coffin & Co. (Edward F. Slocum), boat builders, 1845, Rotch’s South Wharf.
Henry Butler, boat builder, 1845, no working address.
Frederick F. Bunker, boat builder, 1845, works for T.N. Allen, lives on Ray Street.
Charles Bosworth, boat builder, 1845, house and shop 61 South Water St.
James Beetle, boat builder, 1845, 214 Purchase St.
John G. Bailey, boat builder, 1845, 20 Elm St.
Rhodes G. Arnold, boat builder, 1845, South Water St.
Thomas N. Allen, boat builder, 1845, 94 North Water St.

“An Excellent Thing of its Kind”: The Culture and Context of Purrington & Russell’s Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World.

Apart from its intrinsic appeal and importance as a document speaking directly to the American whale fishery of the 1840s, Purrington and Russell’s “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” serves to contextualize New England’s maritime culture within the larger American experience of the day. Whaling was a specialized industry prosecuted by a number of active ports in New England and the Long Island. While America’s maritime trades were widespread and globally influential, whaling, while equally influential on a global scale, demanded skills, financing, hardware and other expertise far outside the normal activities of America’s trading ports. Obviously, Benjamin Russell (1804-1885), erstwhile New Bedford banker and leading citizen turned whaleman  artist, sought to earn cash from his traveling panorama picture show of the New England whale fishery. Although it was a large and demanding, labor-intensive industry worth over $8 million dollars per year to the national economy, the significance of whaling was little known or appreciated outside of its immediate geographical management sectors.

Ship India of New Bedford bound in, 1848.

Ship India of New Bedford bound in, 1848.

Russell included an accurate representation of Abraham H. Howland's house flag flying from the India's main peak. Under Howland's ownership the India was a Northwest Coast right whaler. William Tallman Russell owner her from 1827-1840 when she was primarily an Indian Ocean right whaler.

Russell included an accurate representation of Abraham H. Howland’s house flag flying from the India‘s main peak. Under Howland’s ownership the India was a Northwest Coast right whaler. William Tallman Russell owner her from 1827-1840 when she was primarily an Indian Ocean right whaler.

 

Detail of the starboard bow of the ship India of New Bedford. Characteristically, Russell painted the crew hard at work on the foredeck. Note that the ship has her anchor at the bow which the crew are probably securing prior to her arriving home at New Bedford harbor.

Detail of the starboard bow of the ship India of New Bedford. Characteristically, Russell painted the crew hard at work on the foredeck. Note that the ship has her anchor at the bow which the crew are probably securing prior to her arriving home at New Bedford harbor.

Panoramas in general were very popular in the 1840s and 50s, and Russell and Purrington certainly went all-out to create a stunning documentation of the whaling experience for the intended audiences. The New York Morning Courier in July, 1851 noted: “Ever since the great success of BANVARD with his panorama of the Mississippi River, the public have been overrun with panoramas and dioramas of every conceivable river and land known to the civilized world—panoramas of the North Pole—panoramas of the South Pole—dioramas of the Creation—dioramas of the End of the World—panoramas of California, of Oregon, of Asia, Africa, Europe and every part of America have been painted or daubed and, like every dog, each one has had its day, blazed awhile in the streets and in the newspapers, and then are gone—nobody knows whither.”

The same editorial then went on to praise the high quality of Russell’s panorama: “of all the gems we have seen, RUSSELL’S great panorama of a Voyage Around the World is, on the whole, the best.” It then went on to describe the “magnificent” and “sublime” scenes, but significantly noted that Benjamin Russell himself was the “lucid” narrator of the show which he based on his own sketches and experiences as a whaleman.

New Bedford whaling merchant John Avery Parker owned the ship Trident, which was among the most successful whalers sailing out of New Bedford at this period. The Trident landed many thousands of barrels of sperm and right whale oil at both Bremen, Germany and New Bedford. She made seventeen voyages between 1828 and 1873 when she was finally lost on the coast of Panama in the Pacific.

“The illustrations of ships at sea in every possible situation of the process of taking the various species of whale and the mode of preparing the oil, are sprightly, lively and very interesting…” (New York Morning Courier, July, 1851)  In the above view, the ship Trident of New Bedford is shown cutting in a whale at sea. New Bedford whaling merchant John Avery Parker (176901853) owned the ship Trident, which was among the most successful whalers sailing out of New Bedford at this period. Under Parker’s management the Trident landed many thousands of barrels of sperm and right whale oil at both Bremen, Germany and New Bedford, between 1828 and 1855. She made seventeen voyages total between 1828 and 1873 when she was finally lost on the coast of Panama in the Pacific. Parker was among Benjamin Russell’s creditors and throughout the Panorama Russell shrewdly identified some of the most successful ships of New Bedford’s most important merchants.

Russell scheduled an ambitious line-up of venues. Cities like New York and Boston seem obvious choices. Other sites, however, such as Buffalo, St. Louis,  Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky really do raise some significant questions as to the viability of the scheme as a money-making venture. While these were   fairly large cities and towns for middle-America in the 1840s and 50s, the specific appeal of such an alien subject matter as pelagic whaling to the farming and urban-dwelling citizens of the hinterland was undoubtedly a gamble. However, New Bedford did have business interests in all of these cities and towns, so Benjamin may been counting on an interested populace. Oil refiner and candle manufacturer William Tallman Russell (1788-1872) of New Bedford, for instance, sold his products to retailers in Buffalo, St. Louis and Baltimore.

View of Buffalo, New York, 1853.

View of Buffalo, New York, 1853 where Russell visited with the Panorama in November of 1849.

By 1850 Cincinnati had a population of 115, 000, St. Louis, 63,000, Buffalo, 40,000. New Bedford itself only numbered about 17,000 people. While, if the press accounts are any indication, the Panorama was wildly popular in New Bedford and elsewhere in New England, it’s popularity in the mid-west seems to have been moderate at best. In Buffalo in November, 1849, the press really did approve heartily of the show: “[it] is one of the most interesting and attractive exhibitions that has been witnessed in Buffalo. It presents views of some of the loveliest islands in the world, and shows how man plays with and conquers the leviathan of the deep. Come and see it. It will give you more real information than can be gleaned from books in months. The view of the beautiful city of New Bedford alone is worth the price of admission.”

Advertisment for the Panorama from the Buffalo Daily Courier, November 24, 1849

Advertisement for the Panorama from the Buffalo Daily Courier, November 24, 1849

 

Benjamin Russell however, complained of competition from other panoramas and attractions almost everywhere he went in the mid-west. Most of these cities and towns had large halls especially devoted to exhibiting panoramas. In Boston it was Amory Hall, in New York is was at Stoppani Hall, Broadway and in Buffalo is was Clinton Hall on the corner of Washington ands Clinton Streets.

Maro at Huaheine

For this view of the fabled islands of Polynesia, Benjamin Russell chose a scene based on the lore of the whale fishery in the Pacific. In March of 1825, the Nantucket Inquirer newspaper then the New Bedford Weekly Mercury in April 1, 1825 published a letter. The letter was written by the Nantucket whaling master Richard Macy of the ship Maro dated Coast of Japan, August 16, 1824 “I steered first to the Society Islands, where I proposed to stop in order to procure wood and water – the island I selected for that purpose is called Eimeo, and lies 20 miles west of Otaheite. I entered a harbor on the north side of the island, which is not to be surpassed for access and safety by any harbor I this ocean. I took my ship 2 miles up this beautiful harbor (entirely landlocked) and tied her to an old tree.” Such a romantic and undoubtedly beautiful location was guaranteed to entice landlocked young fellows into the whale fishery.

Russell may have had an ulterior motive, such as labor recruitment by visiting these inland cities and towns. These places were potentially full of young men hungry for adventure. It may be a mere coincidence but in the same New York paper where a glowing advertisement for the Panorama appeared, the New York Morning Courier, October, 1851,  a lengthy story appeared about the success of the American whaling industry with a paragraph specifically highlighting that the New Bedford fleet needing 4000 young men to man its ships.

Among the more fascinating questions about Russell traveling with this enormous painting and, presumably, the apparatus necessary to work it, is how did he get around? Between 1848 and 1851, railroads were rapidly connecting America’s mid-west cities and towns. Russell had even included a picture of the railroad in New Bedford at the extreme beginning of the Panorama.

panorama railroad picture

In what may be the earliest picture of the railroad in New Bedford, Russell and Purrington drew a locomotive, coal car and other cars on the line passing north behind Wamsutta Mills.

Even at their best, however, these railroads were not quite up to scratch. John Avery Parker described his journey to Buffalo from Albany on the railroad as particularly arduous:

“Take it from Albany to Buffalo the road with some exception is more like riding in an old stage coach than on a railroad and the worst managed road that I ever rode over and the slowest road by about one half of any road in Massachusetts and about 75 percent higher fare 12 or 13 miles is all you go per hour. On our great Western Railroad from Boston to Greenbush they go over 20 miles per hour including stops. Very seldom more than 5 minutes is taken to land baggage and passengers, on your road from 10 minutes to 30 are generally taken up and no punctuality observed in starting. I will give you some facts which I was an eye witness to and could give you two hundred more witnesses for there were about that number altogether. We reached Utica from Troy in good time no complaint. Stopped all night at a good house first rate (Brag’s Hotel) next day two o clock was the starting hour our ladies got seated in the cars at ¼ before two at 3 oclk we started after backing & filling one whole hour. @ 3 oclk along we went for Auburn where we were told we should arrive by 8 oclk in the evening which was the hour we arrived at Syracuse which was the time my company wished to stop. Could not get our baggage because it was put in for Auburn in fact it was as much as a man’s life was worth to get in the neighborhood of our baggage so I took my seat in the cars thinking that the safest place. In the course of an hour we started and soon brought up and found they had wood & water to take in, after getting a supply as I supposed we backed up again as I judged nearly to Syracuse from thence we started ahead. Soon after the cars began to move at a slow pace all hands were called on to get out and push at the wheels to keep her moving. Finally got started and rode off 8 or 10 miles an hour, got on a few miles farther. We brought to a stand again and finally got to Auburn—12 oclock same night. Next morning we were told the cars left at 9 oclk we of course were to the depot in time. At about half past ten we started from Auburn and got on after that with the usual delays.” (MSS 14, John Avery Parker Papers, Letter book, October 9, 1847).

Russell must have encountered very similar challenges in his travels to those described by Parker, even more when one considers that there was no railroad to St. Louis from Louisville, Kentucky in 1850. Russell must have come to St. Louis via steamboat.

St. Louis, Missouri, waterfront, 1849 from a wood cut by Julius Hutawa.

St. Louis, Missouri, waterfront, 1849 from a woodcut by Julius Hutawa.

By the time that Russell had actually made into the American interior with his fascinating pictures of the adventures of world travel in the whale fishery, gold had been discovered in California. Men were leaving the old ports of the East Coast and traveling westward by whatever means they could.

Josephine gold rush

In this 1849 New Bedford broadside, the ship Josephine is advertised as leaving New Bedford for the gold fields of California. The Gold Rush was a major drain on skilled mariners and others who had hitherto spent their careers, or hoped to, in the whale fishery and maritime trades.

Panorama Conservation Project Reveals Hidden Content.

One of the great treasures of the New Bedford Whaling Museum collection, Caleb P. Purrington and Benjamin Russell’s 1848 painting, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, is currently receiving conservation treatment. Concerns with the 1,285 foot long painting include flaking paint, wrinkling and tears in the fabric. The entire composition consisting of tempera on cotton sheeting, even after being bundled around from city to city 150 years ago, remains in a remarkable state of preservation. It  is nonetheless in need of attention. The painting is stored on rolls, as it was originally, and abrasion has caused some paint loss. For its treatment, the painting has been separated into a series of padded spools. One at a time, the spools are mounted on a custom-fabricated steel table outfitted with cogs, cranks, swivels and other apparatus necessary to maneuver the giant paintings safely and effectively. Its location in the Bourne Building, just adjacent to the model whaling bark Lagoda, gives visitors the opportunity to witness the ongoing treatment firsthand. One goal of the treatment is to minimize the loss of paint as it flakes away from the cotton sheeting. Using a combination of liquid spray consolidates and targeted forensic triage the conservators are systematically stabilizing this important artifact of American maritime history. Another goal is to repair any damage to the fabric.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

One ten foot section of the Panorama is treated weekly to consolidate the fragile and powdered paint layer, in order to prevent it from falling off the cotton substrate. First, the section is examined for minute particles on the surface that are carefully  removed with tweezers. Particulate commonly found are lint, human hairs, dirt and other debris. Once the surface is free of such materials, the section is sprayed with a superfine mist of weak-gelatin solution from a dahlia-sprayer. The solution (.75% conservation grade gelatin in deionized water) serves a dual purpose: as an fixative for the powdering paint, and to humidify the cotton sheeting substrate and reduce wrinkling. 

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores. Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores.
Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

While the conservators examine and treat the painting for its forensic issues, the curators and historians seize the opportunity, while the painting is flat on its bed, to examine the great whaling document for the details of its content; and this painting is replete with fascinating historical details. Everything from flags to geography, to the rigs of ships and boats, is documented in varying degrees of detail and accuracy. Benjamin Russell (1804-1885) was a self-trained artist and himself a whaleman. He is a fascinating figure in New Bedford history. As a young man his prospects were great. His family were successful merchants and he sat on the board of directors of the newly formed Marine Bank. The national banking crisis precipitated by the Andrew Jackson administration, however, caused a constriction of credit and Russell’s assets were insufficient to cover his debts. So, like many in desperate straits, he sought his future at sea and went a’whaling. He sailed on at least one whaling voyage onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford, a sperm and right whaling cruise to the Indian Ocean and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1841-1845. While on the voyage he is said to have kept a sketchbook to record the exciting events and scenes of the hunt intending to use the experience to further his career as a whaling artist. By the 1860s he had firmly established himself in New Bedford and was working as a ship portraitist and print maker, but after he had returned from his whaling voyage he and local sign painter Caleb Purrington (1812-1876) undertook this traveling panorama picture show to take whaling to a broader American audience.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer take a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping shown in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer takes a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

For anyone interested in whaling history and especially for those conversant with the  limited quantity of published American artistic production documenting the whale fishery of the 19th century, any picture offering details of the period of the 1840s is naturally of great interest. The panorama, however, was never meant to be studied as a fine work of art. It was meant to be viewed by a mass audience from a certain distance; hence the artists emphasized broad details for maximum impact and painted the rest with just enough definition to be seen and understood by the audience but not to be examined in detail. Several good examples demonstrate their working style in the creation of this painting where scenes are included but are later painted out entirely or changed significantly.

For instance, as the voyage leaves the Azores, actual whaling begins as sperm whales are seen, boats are lowered and the chase is on.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination. These include the house flag at the top of main mast (the tall one in the middle), the set of the sails, and a large-scale sperm whaling scene, barely visible and easily overlooked.

However, the artists, probably Russell himself, were not content with the scene as it was originally drawn. The sails of the ship, which is shown hove-to with its main topsails and topgallant sails aback, indicate that the wind is blowing from one direction. The American ensign and the house flag at the main also show that wind direction. The original house flag flying from the top of the main mast was originally painted flying the wrong direction and was later painted out completely. Not only was it flying the wrong direction, but the entire design of the flag was changed. It appears that originally, the house flag could have been that of T. & A.R. Nye, it being a blue swallowtail with white lettering, but it was changed to a completely non-descript and unidentifiable design.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

Likewise, the artists changed the foresail which, originally shown as being set, is shown clewed up. This presumably reflects Russell’s practical experience as a sailor and a whaleman, where “having determined from the known quality of the ship, what sail would be best to heave-to under,” Russell made the changes that he thought necessary.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

The artists made other changes in this scene as well. Whether the pictures did not effectively mirror the accompanying narrative or vice versa, that the painting was not following the narrative, the artists eliminated and changed two sperm whaling scenes. It may well be that the painting and the narrative were in a state of creative evolution together and that the artists were making it up as they went along in order to produce a better product in the end. In the below scene, as it was originally painted, a whaleboat is shown on the flank of a very large sperm whale which has been lanced and as shown by its bloody spout, is dying. This could have been the point in the narrative where Russell describes the whaleman’s language “his chimney’s a’fire,” to indicate a whale that has received its death wound.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene and leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the below scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the even more faint outline of the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

As the process of conservation on the Panorama goes forward, doubtless many more new observations will come to the fore regarding the process of its creation. Such observations will fill gaps in the sparse historical record of the Panorama and make for an exciting new narrative about it and its place in American whaling history.

Sources:

William Brady, The Kedge-Anchor; or, Young Sailors’ Assistant (New York, 1850), p.173, entry #308.

One fine artifact from the cultures of the Western Arctic

Found this cool thing in the collection the other day, it was boxed with American colonial and Eastern Woodlands artifacts but one glance and I had my doubts.

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It appears to be a nephrite stone mallet bound with rawhide onto a handle of reindeer or caribou leg bone. It was a thrill to find it because it is in perfect condition, but a little bit disappointing in the end because it can’t go into our new exhibition on the colonial history of the Old Dartmouth region. It didn’t really look like your average Algonquin artifact. It turned out to be either a North Slope Inuit or a Chukchi [Siberia] people’s tool called a kautaq used when crushing bones to extract the marrow, called puiniq. Such tools are generally large and heavy, but this one is somewhat smaller and could also have been used to pound fish fillets into flakes. This was women’s work and arduous but a woman who knew how to do it properly was much esteemed in the family. The bone marrow is extremely nutritious and if prepared properly keeps for quite a long time. Good winter food apparently. A good description of the tool can be found on the Echospace website http://www.echospace.org/articles/363/print.html:

“The kautaq or hammer used to crush the bones was made of an oblong stone mounted on a short slightly curved handle. Some families prided themselves on having a jadestone hammerhead, but any rock plucked from a stream bed that was of the right size, shape and weight could serve just as well. Elders cautioned that the hammer’s striking face should have a flat, rough textured surface. This helped prevent the hammer from slipping off the bone as the crushing blows were struck. The handle of the hammer could be made from a number of materials. Some people used dall sheep horn, others a curved section of caribou antler, while others still preferred spruce or alderwood. The handle was usually less than six inches long and slightly curved to fit comfortably in a person’s hand. The head and handle were joined by a caribou or sealskin thong that was passed through a hole drilled near the top end of the handle, and wrapped around the stone head several times. A tight secure fit was assured by doing the lashing with a wet, water soaked thong, which shrank and tightened as it dried. Later, small wooden wedges could be added to shim up the fit, if they were needed.”

It’s a wonderful object inducing marvel in its elegant simplicity. It’s probably late 19th or early 20th century but in essence it could have been made any time in the last 5000 years.