National Marine Fisheries Service analyst Dolin compellingly examines whaling’s importance to America’s early growth and wealth.
The author traces the industry’s development, from enthusiastic whale hunting by eighth-century Basques to the introduction of an array of whale products throughout Europe by the 17th century. The first American settlers saw Indians cutting up dead pilot whales stranded on the beach and soon tried “drift” whaling themselves. Favorably located near migratory routes, Nantucket took the lead first in drift whaling and then in shore whaling, rowing out to harpoon leviathans swimming near the coast. The island’s hardworking, business-minded Quaker settlers, relying on the local Indians as an abundant source of skilled labor, launched deep-sea hunting for the sperm whale and its three lucrative components: oil for clean lighting, spermaceti for medicinal elixirs and candles, ambergris as a fixative for perfumes. (Right whales provided another commercially successful product: baleen for corset stays.) Dolin takes the reader through the facets of sperm-whale hunting, detailing the creature’s actual physical makeup and the nasty life aboard whaling vessels, then moving on to describe the dangerous chase for an elusive, troublesome prey, followed by the dismemberment and processing of its carcass. Various American wars dealt disastrously with the whaling industry, though it recovered after 1812 and, by the early 1850s, had entered the golden age Herman Melville depicted in Moby-Dick. In 1853, the top year of production, ships from New Bedford, New London and Sag Harbor killed an astounding 8,000 whales to produce 103,000 barrels of sperm oil and 5.7 million pounds of baleen. But the discovery of crude oil in Pennsylvania during the late 1850s produced a flood of cheap kerosene that soon supplanted whale oil as the principle source of lamp fuel. Dolin closes with the final voyage of New Bedford’s last whaling ship in 1924.
A densely researched and comprehensive portrait, enhanced by fascinating archival paintings and photos.