Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen, 2001, etc.) fashions a somewhat scattershot but engaging narrative around the waning days of America’s whaling industry and its crash in the Artic by 1871.
The author traces the spectacular rise and fall of the Massachusetts whaling industry through the success and failure of several entrepreneurial families and merchants, particularly Quaker communities in Nantucket and New Bedford, who formed “the world’s first oil hegemony.” Nichols surveys the establishment of Nantucket’s whaling industry thanks to the good sense and enterprise of a handful of recalcitrant Quakers in the mid-17th century. These independent-minded early settlers observed the Indians’ method of capturing migratory whales on shore, before the fisheries invented deep-sea whaling voyages which essentially emptied the seas of whales by the mid-18th century and forced the hunters to prowl farther afield, in the Pacific and Arctic oceans. In his erratically organized but still fascinating tale, Nichols focuses on the vast whaling fortunes of merchants like the Howland brothers of New Bedford, who outfitted many of the fanciest whaleships of the time and sent them off to the Artic, commanded by valiant captains like Thomas Williams of the Monticello. In the spring of 1871, more than 30 whaleships were abandoned in the packed ice after they were lured by the deceptively benign seasons of past seasons. The incalculable loss spelled the end of the industry, exhausted by overhunting of whales and walrus and disrupted by the Civil War. In addition, whaling had devastated the ecosystem, causing widespread starvation among the Eskimo people. Furthermore, rock oil had been discovered in Pennsylvania, and the cotton mills offered a more reliable, less perilous living to many former whalers. Nichols’s account is packed primary voices—e.g., the diaries of Williams’s wife and daughter, who accompanied him on his fateful voyages—but the historical background eventually becomes more prominent than the thrills at sea.
More intelligent history than breathless sea adventure.