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Cape Cod Down to the Sea in Ships

No stories have ever been written that can compare with the logs and journals of New England whalemen, telling of battles, tragedies, adventures, and heroic deeds. Nor do many of us realize how much we owe to these men who sailed the Seven Seas hunting whales and bringing back valuable cargoes of oil and spermaceti with them.

New Bedford, settled in 1735 by Quakers, was the most famous whaling port. In 1838, 4,000 whalemen were employed and there was a fleet of one hundred and seventy whaleships. In 1850, it is recorded that 736 vessels were sailing from New England ports.

The whalemen were a rough-and-ready lot, who were undaunted by cannibals, hurricanes, icebergs and other obstacles they encountered at sea. They received no pay for their work, but were given a percentage of the money taken in for whale oil. The treatment they received aboard ship was not all that could be desired. Consequently, many deserted the whalers when they went into port, and others who were new at the game were often mutinous.

They had some leisure time while their ship cruised through the waters sighting whales. The men spent this time carving articles from whales’ teeth and bones, that were beautifully decorated and engraved. In many Cape Cod homes and museums you will find these curios which we call scrimshaw.

Whaling was very profitable as whale oil was the only means of lighting in those days; candles were made of spermaceti; and whale bone was used in countless ways. The cargoes of the whalers were worth thousands of dollars and once outfitted, the operating expense of the ships was practically nil.

The construction of the ships and the equipment used, kept all people, regardless of their trade, busy. Sawmills were built to supply the lumber for planks, masts and spars. Foundries and forges turned out anchors, hooks, and all the metal work. Barrels lances, harpoons, blubber-spades and barrel staves had to be made for the ships; to say nothing of all the canvas that was woven, cut and made into sails.

Even the farmers played a vital part in the whaling industry; as they had to supply the whalers with farm and dairy products for the long voyages. It is said that a whaler took enough supplies for a three-year cruise to take care of a whole town for one year.

With the coming of electricity, the whaling industry changed into - a safe profession. Modern devices, machinery, and mass production put an end to the once dangerous yet glamorous whaling business. But the heroic deeds and adventures of the early whalemen will never be forgotten; especially in New Bedford — the town which owes its very existence to whaling and the whalemen.

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Cape Cod
Posted by Cape Cod - (website) on 02/16/06
Categories: History
Keywords: whaling, history, maritime


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