Boston-based journalist Songini vividly charts the decline and fall of New England’s whaling industry during the 1860s and ’70s.
With familiar grounds fished out and cheap “rock oil” discovered in Pennsylvania, American whaling at the end of the 1850s faced extinction, had anyone cared to notice. Two subsequent developments combined to fatally harpoon the industry. First was the Civil War: Confederate raiders Shenandoah and Alabama (whose exploits are memorably detailed in Stephen Fox’s Wolf of the Deep, July 2007) burned more than 50 Northern whaling ships, and the Union only exacerbated the fleet’s decimation with its feckless plan to blockade Charleston’s harbor in South Carolina by scuttling some 36 whaling vessels freighted with granite. Then the ice gobbled up a large portion of what remained of the whaling fleet during the unusually frigid Arctic winters of 1871 and 1876, when scores of ships with cargos worth billions of dollars had to be abandoned. In the companionable fashion of an old salt, Songini particularizes this history in the saga of Captain Thomas Williams and other members of his family, who seem to pop up, Zelig-like, somewhere in each of the rousing adventures chronicled. Needing little prompting to supplement his main theme, the author spins additional yarns—sometimes amusing, sometimes horrific, always fascinating—about the brutal business of whaling. He touches on the history of New Bedford; the Quakers’ domination of ownership; the fatal interaction between whalers and Eskimos; the capture, flensing and boiling of blubber; the hard captains and debauched crews who happened to be among the world’s finest mariners.
A Nantucket sleigh ride of a read, guaranteed to thrill and amaze: very different from—but a nice complement to—Eric Jay Dolin’s more comprehensive history, Leviathan (July 2007).