Diversity in the Whaling Industry

Original content by: Dean Hantzopoulos

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Throughout the history of American whaling, crews were multiracial and multiethnic.  Crews were composed of Yankees from New England and Long Island, Native Americans, African Americans, Cape Verdeans, recent immigrants from many countries, and indigenous people from various ports of call on the whaling routes in the Pacific.

In the 19th century, it was possible for a man to start his whaling career as a green hand, and work his way up to captain of a vessel, no matter what his racial background, though it was rare for African Americans to do this.

Life on board a whale ship was difficult at best, and most men would only sign up for one or two voyages before moving on to other work, making the pool of potential sailors small.  This necessitated Whaling captains to take on crews wherever they could find them.  As most voyages continued for three or more years, whale ships took on more crew members from various ports of call, including South American and Pacific Island ports.  It was not uncommon for whale ship's crews to consist of a majority of foreign born members.

This whaleman, shown onboard an unknown vessel, has been identified by family members as Charles W. Morgan crewmember Joe Gomez, a Cape Verdean-born man who later settled in New London, CT.  Portuguese-speaking Cape Verdeans constituted 11% of the ship’s crew over the time.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What impact did ethnic diversity on board whale ships have on the ethnic makeup of the ship's home community?
  2. What was the impact on the United States of the cultural exchange fostered by the presence of American ships in ports all around the world?
  3. What does the lack of information about the man in this image tell you about the importance of record keeping? Do you have photos in your house of people that your family can no longer identify?