Native American Whalemen and the World: The Contingency of Race

Native American Whalemen and the World: The Contingency of Race

Native American Whalemen and the World: The Contingency of Race

Native American Whalemen and the World: The Contingency of Race


In the nineteenth century, nearly all Native American men living along the southern New England coast made their living traveling the world's oceans on whaleships. Many were career whalemen, spending twenty years or more at sea. Their labor invigorated economically depressed reservations with vital income and led to complex and surprising connections with other Indigenous peoples, from the islands of the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean. At home, aboard ship, or around the world, Native American seafarers found themselves in a variety of situations, each with distinct racial expectations about who was "Indian" and how "Indians" behaved. Treated by their white neighbors as degraded dependents incapable of taking care of themselves, Native New Englanders nevertheless rose to positions of command at sea. They thereby complicated myths of exploration and expansion that depicted cultural encounters as the meeting of two peoples, whites and Indians.

Highlighting the shifting racial ideologies that shaped the lives of these whalemen, Nancy Shoemaker shows how the category of "Indian" was as fluid as the whalemen were mobile.


Years ago, while whizzing through a microfilm reel of whaling logbooks, I saw a familiar name flash across the screen, Joel G. Jared. With incredulity, I reeled back to the first page of the volume, and there it was: “Joel G. Jared, Belonging to Ship Amethyst of New Bedford.” If I needed confirmation, midway through the journal, he had signed his name again, this time adding “born Gay head Chillmark.” Jared was indeed a Native American whaleman, one of many hundreds of native men whose voyages on nineteenth-century American whaleships took them around the world. in his journal, he diligently recorded the events of the day for over five years beginning with his second whaling voyage, aboard the Amethyst from 1846 to 1850, and continuing while on the bark Samuel & Thomas of Mattapoisett from 1850 to 1852. Traces of another, later voyage on the bark Mary Frances of Warren, Rhode Island, fill up the journal’s few remaining pages.

The volume itself resides in the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library collections and is in sad condition, its binding collapsed, the pages splotched and age-worn. Otherwise, it looks and reads much like any other of the thousands of extant logbooks and private journals inspired by the nineteenth-century American whaling industry (figure 1). in daily entries, Jared described the weather, sail handling, and latitude and longitude and recorded life aboard ship: lowering boats to chase whales, boiling whales into oil, stowing oil down below decks, eating plum duffand salt horse, gamming (socializing) with other whaleships while at sea, sighting the Azores and Galapagos Islands, anchoring at Paita and Maui, a “Portugee” and other men dying aboard ship, knife fighting, and floggings. Although nearly all entries follow the style of an official logbook, the doodles, sentimental sailor song lyrics, aborted letters (“Dear Brother I take this opertunity to inform you that I am well”), and birthday observances (“Joel G. Jared, 20 years ould this day of march 12th ad 1847”) indicate that this is a private journal and, as it turned out, not so rare in its native authorship as I had first thought.

Jared’s doodles give us some insight into who he was and what he cared about. Amid the block-cut stamps of whales, drawings of scrolls and pointing hands, and plays on his name (“Gershom J Joel,” “Jared J. Gershom,” “Joel J. Gershom”) that clutter the journal’s first page, he listed three women: Sarah Gershom, Anstress Gershom, and Temperance Gershom. Sarah was . . .

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