Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Mr. Tashtego: Native American Whalemen in Antebellum New England

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Mr. Tashtego: Native American Whalemen in Antebellum New England

Article excerpt

Among the noteworthy events of 1851 were publication of Herman Melville's great sperm-whaling saga, Moby Dick, and the sailing of over a hundred whalers from the world's largest whaling port, New Bedford, Massachusetts, as the industry reached its peak. A more mundane incident took place in the Atlantic Ocean in August. According to the trade newspaper, TL· Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript, "A whaling bark 'with painted ports, and three boats out manned by colored men, in pursuit of 4 large sperm whales,' was passed Aug 27th, in lat 38 50 N, Ion 34 50 W, and is supposed to have been the Saml Sc Thomas of Mattapoisett, as the description of the paint corresponds with hers, and her first, second and third mates, and two boatsteerers are colored men." On its return home, the Samuel <ùr cHiomas received another notice in the newspaper, this time celebrating its "Good Striking": "During a voyage of two years, she raised whales but 22 times, upon 3 of which, the weather prevented lowering, while on each other occasion, she captured a whale, with one exception. Such facts are not common."1

A particularly efficient voyage, the Samuel & Thomas's 1850-1852 circumnavigation of the Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of whales was otherwise unremarkable. The many "colored men" among the officers and boatsteerers (petty officers whose duties included harpooning whales) was not as rare as it might seem considering who they were: all Wampanoag natives of Gay Head, now called Aquinnah, on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Originally from Chappaquiddick on Martha's Vineyard but married into Gay Head, George Belain had acted as first mate on whaleships since 1843. His younger brother William served as one of the boatsteerers along with Samuel Haskins, whose older brother Amos was then out at sea as captain of Mattapoisett's whaling bark Massasoit. Completing the officer corps on the Samuel & Thomas were Isaac Johnson, second mate, and Joel G. Jared, third mate. As first mate, George Belain probably kept the official logbook for the voyage, which appears not to have survived. However, J ared's private journal has. Jared's careful entries detailing the Samuel & Thomas's daily activities suggest that they chased, and caught, the four sperm whales on August 8, not on the 27th as the Whalemen's Shipping List reported, and that they may not have been quite so lucky in catching all the whales they raised sight of as someone had told the newspaper upon their return. They were, however, indeed considered "colored men" who, but for Captain Thomas Lambert, were in command of the bark and thus the individuals most responsible for the voyage's success.2

That native New England men went whaling as mates and kept logbooks and journals on their voyages does not fit well with the historiography, which has emphasized debt and indentured servitude as coercive instruments forcing Indians onto whaleships, an emphasis due in part to the lack of research into native whaling in the 1830s and later. Many incidents of coercion do appear in the historical record from the origins of the New England whaling industry in the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. For instance, at Mashpee on Cape Cod in 1799, Barnstable County authorities kidnapped two brothers named Pocknett under the pretense of debt and with the approval of Mashpee's state-appointed guardians. The county sheriff transmitted the Pocknetts to a Nantucket whaleship, where even though they refused to sign the shipping articles, they had no recourse but to go the length of the twoyear voyage. However, coercion applies to the entirety of native whaling history only if conceived of broadly as the need to make a living. Even at the time of the Pocknetts' abduction, other Indians had to be seduced to undertake voyages with incentives, such as a cash advance. And more common than indentures in the early nineteenth century, Indians and other men of color sold shares in their voyages to middlemen, probably because they had an immediate need for income, but this seems also a sensible strategy given whaling's risks. …

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