Recently, a friend told me how much she was enjoying this series on 19th Century American Whaling, and she followed the compliment with this observation, “But what a hard and horrible way to make a living.” That’s true. Whaling – even with its economic potential – had hard work. It was gross, messy, and back-breaking.
In some of the previous posts, we’ve discussed some of the ranks and demographics of whaling. Today, we’ll try to explore this a little more in-depth. Who was who on a whaling ship? Why did men work in the industry? (Were captains really as infamous as Captain Ahab from Moby Dick?)
A captain was sort of “judge, jury, and executioner” once a ship got to sea. He had to oversee all the operations on the ship. He had to be skilled as “navigator, sailor, boatman, whaleman, financial agent, business manager, and personnel supervisor,” according to historian Margaret S. Creighton.
He had to keep order on the ship, work toward the goals of the ship owners, and avoid mutinies. When bad situations arose, the captain had to make punishment decisions and carry out the threats (or assign the job to a master or mate.) Additionally, there were no idle hands on a whaleship, so the captain – in addition to his other tasks – got to stand watches and hunt whales.
Mates & Harpooners
The first mate (or chief) was second in command to the captain, and he was often the man in charge through his frequent contact and instruction of the crew. Mates also oversaw the practical duties aboard the ship – cleaning, furling or unfurling the sails, and many other tasks. During a whale hunt, mates typically commanded a whaleboat.
Harpooners worked among the crew onboard the ship, but during the whalehunt they were in charge of throwing the harpoon into the whale. One harpooner was assigned to each of the small whaleboats.
Craftsmen, Cooks & Cabin Boys
Among the crew, some men had special skills that they would’ve performed in addition to “at sea chores” and hunting or boiling.
Coopers assembled or repaired barrels, an important job considering the “liquid gold” that was stored in wooden barrels for the duration of the voyage and journey home. Blacksmiths worked in tiny forges, repairing lances, knives, and other equipment. Some ships carried carpenters as part of the crew – always a useful trade for repairing the small whaleboats or other jobs aboard the ship.
Cooks. They got the challenging mission of preparing food from not so pleasant rations. A ship at sea has to carry all its food within its hold. Meal quality decreased as the voyage went on, but the food had to be prepared and somewhat edible to keep the crew fed and healthy.
Cabin Boys – usually just one per ship – were in charge of keeping the “officers'” quarters clean and doing an odd seamanship jobs or whalehunting tasks that had to be accomplished. While going to sea as a cabin boy could be the beginning of a successful career in the whaling industry, it wasn’t very profitable (except in knowledge and skill). In fact, the cabin boys got the lowest profits of anyone on the whaleship.
So the crew… The common whalers. A typical whaleship had about fifteen to twenty “common crew” who lodged before the mast. Where were these men coming from? What persuaded them to go to see in these difficult conditions?
Well, they were coming from all over the northern states of the U.S. (And some were coming from international locations.) Why? Money, adventure, earning the “right” to be a man. Keep in mind that farming limits available land, so if a man wanted to start off on his own and make money without a large amount of education, he had a few options: go west, try to buy land (but how, if you don’t have money?), look for work in a city, marry a wealthy girl, go to sea. Interestingly, men went to sea as whalers for a few years, made some money, then settled down in a different profession on-shore when they had enough capital to establish themselves and get married.
Margaret Creighton reveals in her book “Rites & Passages” that many men applied to sail on whale ships. In fact, whaleship recruiters could choose from the applicants and often turned away young fellows who wanted to go. Whatever their motivation – a get-rich-quick-scheme, steady employment for a couple years, running from home, learning about sea trades, etc. – many young men between the ages of twenty and thirty applied for crew positions on whaleships and went to sea as part of their adventurous youth.
Is Moby Dick Really Accurate?
The first thing to understand: Moby Dick by Herman Melville is a work of fiction. Based on facts? Yes. (We’ll talk about the whaleship Essex in a few weeks.) Melville actually served briefly on a whaling ship, but he took some literary license to build his plot and story.
There are aspects of the characters that are accurate. For example, harpooners were often foreigners. There was a hierarchy and class within the whaling ship. The work was hard.
However, one of the most well-known characters – Captain Ahab, who has entered American literary canon with his scowls, curses, and crazed revenge – is hardly an accurate picture of most whaling captains. Yes, they probably scowled and cursed, but most were not bent on revenge and insane in their pursuit of one elusive whale. (But…it makes a fantastic story!)
So – if you decide to read the novel with all it’s details, learn a little history, enjoy some of the “snapshots” of whaling life, but please…don’t imagine every captain and ship like Captain Ahab and the Pequod.