About This Artifact
This 1903 oil painting depicts the Nile, moored, close to the end of her years as a whale ship. The last recorded whaling trip of the Nile was out of New London, CT from 1877-1878. After over 50 years of whaling adventures, the Nile was refitted, first into a barge in 1883, and then in 1885 as a sloop, used as a carrier in New London. Though not much is known about the artist, C.P. French, he was most likely a local Connecticut painter. At this time, it was common to see many artists painting along the Connecticut coast. Additionally, during the turn of the century, there were many artist communities moving east from Cos Cob and Old Lyme (the Lyme Art Colony serves as a good example). This painting, as well as the painting of the Era, was almost certainly painted for and owned by George Comer.
Built in New York in 1826, the Nile was a three-masted wooden whaling ship. In her early days, she was rigged as a ship, and then later, as a bark. The difference was in the rigging of the sails. A ship is square rigged on all three masts, while a bark has the foremast and mainmast square rigged, while the mizzenmast is fore and aft rigged. It was common for a three masted vessel to be rigged as either a bark or a ship. When rigged as a bark, it also enabled the vessel to be sailed in reverse, as well as with a smaller number of crewmembers. This was only necessary when several whaleboats were lowered and chasing whales, leaving only the remaining crew to sail.
Fourteen whaling voyages were made by the Nile. Concurrent with the Civil War, the Nile is documented to have had 5 different masters, including Asa W. Fish and Thomas Long. Fish was captain in 1864, when the confederate ship Shenandoah attacked and burned US whale ships in the Bering Sea. Captain Fish was captured, and the Nile was ransomed and used to transport 121 captured men and officers to San Francisco. The trip took 35 days. In 1865, the Nile was refitted as a bark and sent back out from Honolulu to winter in whaling grounds. In 1867, Captain Long, while sailing in the North Pacific, discovered "Wrangel Land," once thought to be the tip of the polar continent.
Of the five remaining Nile expeditions, four sailed to the Arctic while commanded by Captain John O. Spicer, beginning in 1874. Spicer sailed out of New London in 1874, directly into five months of severe weather.
In 1875, George Comer headed to New London and signed on to the second voyage commanded by Captain Spicer to the Arctic. Comer was only 17 years old, and this was to be his first voyage. Spicer, who created whaling stations in the Hudson Strait, had a well-established working relationship with the Inuit people. Exposure to this collaboration had an understandable influence on Comer's life. Spicer continued to sail the Nile until she was retired from whaling in 1878.
Questions for Further Thought
- Where else, besides the Arctic, did the Nile hunt for whales? What reasons did they have to move to different hunting grounds?
- What reasons would the owners have to refit whaling ships into sloops and barges?
- How did the destruction of the whaleships by the Shenandoah impact the whaling industry?