- Historic Sites
So the lookout’s cry resounded while Yankee whalers roamed the seas. Their perilous, arduous trade spanned three centuries
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
When the barque Wanderer broke up on the rocks off Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, in August of 1924, the wild Atlantic winds brought to an effective close New England’s most adventurous maritime enterprise. The Wanderer was the last square-rigged American whaler to put to sea, and her loss—even though some smaller vessels tried to carry on a few years longer—marked the authentic end of an era. With this ship’s demise an American industry that had lasted for nearly three hundred years quietly went out of existence. The day of the Yankee whaler was over.
It had been a great day while it lasted. It began when colonists in flimsy open boats ventured out through the surf to bring hunters with primitive weapons into direct encounter with the largest animals ever hunted. It expanded as America expanded, glowing bigger and more daring generation after generation, sending ships across all of the oceans, adding both to the new country’s wealth and to the world’s knowledge of its own geography: and in its essentials it never changed very much, through the better part of three eventful centuries. Born before the steam engine, lasting into the age of automobiles and airplanes, the whaling business was the one American industry that never became mechanized. Right to the end it was a matter of human muscle, courage, and the skill that can use contrivances of wood and canvas to harness the winds.
During its lifetime, whaling in America was almost exclusively a New England activity. In its heyday more than twoscore ports—from the Bay ol Fundy to the Hudson, plus a few others as far south as Virginia—reeked of whale oil and resounded night and day to the creak of windlass, davit, and tackle. Cobbled wharves echoed to the rumble of great casks, to the complaining wheels of drays laden with the oil from the sea for America’s lamps. From farms and small towns, young men and boys came to these ports to sign up for cruises that might last for two, three, or four years—hopeless hayseeds, many of them, who had never seen the ocean before the day when they actually went out on it—engaging in a calling composed of monotony, drudgery, and moments of acute peril, with a dash of romance and excitement to leaven the loaf.
A whaling cruise was both leisurely and tense; leisurely because a whaler stayed out until it got a full cargo, which could take as long as four years; tense because nobody on board, from captain down to cabin boy, made one dime until whales had been caught, killed, and processed aboard ship into such marketable commodities as oil and whalebone. There would be days and weeks of loafing along the offshore grounds, hands at the mastheads scanning the horizon for a sight of the quarry, hands on deck killing time. Then some man aloft would see the telltale plume of vapor which market! the spot where a whale had come to the surface to “blow”—that is, to spend a few minutes breathing. Down from the masthead would come the long cry: “There she blo-o-ows!” As often as not this would come in a quavering falsetto, repeated over and over: “Blo-o-w-s—a-h—b-1-o-o-w-s!” Then everybody would be galvanized into action, the open whaleboats would be launched, and the hunt would be on.
This business had begun long before Americans had gained their independence. In the early days of the Republic the commodities brought ashore did much to provide a good deal of badly needed foreign exchange. They also brought in a necessity of daily life. Whale oil was the principal illuminating fuel for homestead, village, and city. Spermaceti, a light wax found in a great cavity, or tank, in the head of the mighty sperm whale, was the chief substance from which good candles were made. The oil was also a needed chemical, useful in the wool and ropemaking industries, and certain grades made excellent lubricants. Whalebone—the baleen from the mouths of black, Greenland, and Pacific bowhead right whales—was useful in the manufacture of buggy whips and corsets. All in all, the whale was a valuable animal, even though modern methods of processing—perfected, for the most part, since America left the field—use all of the creature’s carcass rather than just the blubber and the bone, which was about all the old Yankee whalemen cared about.
The Pilgrim fathers knew very well what whales were worth. A passage in their original charter granted them “all royal fishes, whales, balan [ i.e. , baleen, or whalebone], sturgeons and other fishes.” During their passage to the New World, when “large whales of the best kind for oil and bone came daily alongside and played about the ship” oft Cape Cod, the Pilgrims were nearly persuaded to establish their first settlement there where that observation was made.