Black whalers during the Age of Sail
Photograph by Robert Cushman Murphy while on brig DAISY, circa 1913; group of men cutting up the blubber. © Mystic Seaport Museum
Portrait of Antoine DeSant (ca. 1815-1886) by photographers Bolles & Frisbee of New London. © Mystic Seaport Museum
Black whalers may have rarely ascended to captain the huge whaling ships that lumbered into New London during the 19th century, but they played a significant and undertold role in manning the vessels so important to the booming local economy.
The role of “Antoine DeSant and New London’s Black Whalers” was told Aug. 28 during a presentation at the B.P. Learned Mission by Fred Calabretta, director of collections and senior curator at Mystic Seaport. About 100 people attended.
“This is a story our community needs to hear,” said Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks, which produced the event attended by several descendants of black whalers. “They had so much to do with shaping New London.”
Calabretta noted in his one-hour talk that whaling was a grueling and low-status job. According to notes supplied with the talk, “parents sometimes sent their wayward sons on whaling voyages as a form of punishment.”
But for black whalers, working on ships meant the opportunity to both make a decent wage and gain a measure of respect. Racism existed aboard whaling vessels, of course, but men were paid equally depending on the work they did and blacks could gain status as officers or harpooners if they showed skill and dedication.
“Blacks held positions of high responsibility,” Calabretta said in his lecture.
One of those black whalers, DeSant, actually rose to captain a whaling ship, according to family history told by his great-granddaughter, Elisabeth Petry. He went on to own two buildings on Bank Street and later became a grocer.
Calabretta said ship crew lists are a key method of determining the effect of black whalers on the industry, and according to his numbers, the whaling era vessels averaged about 10 percent men of color. With the average ship hosting a crew of 35, that meant perhaps three or four black whalers were on most of the voyages.
“Men of color were twice as likely as white men to work as whalers,” Calabretta said.
And, according to Calabretta, American whaling ships employed some 700 men of color as officers or harpooners during the country’s whaling era that spanned more than seven decades locally between 1819 and 1892. Men of color also worked as coopers, riggers, sailmakers and merchants whose jobs were largely tied to whaling.
At its peak in the period between 1835 and 1845, he said, the region topped out at 81 whaling ships in New London harbor, while perhaps more than 2,000 men were employed directly in the industry. At the time in an era before electricity, whale oil was a necessity for firing up lamps as well as lubricating machinery at mills.
“Directly or indirectly, the whaling industry helped to support a majority of New Londoners,” Calabretta said.
The industry also brought many immigrants to the region as crews were brought onboard whaling vessels in Hawaii, the Azores, the Cape Verde islands and other locales.
“Cape Verdeans seeking work as whalers,” Calabretta said in his notes, “were the first Africans to voluntarily migrate to the United States.”
Black whalers also were involved in the dangerous voyages starting in 1846 that opened up the Arctic area to whaling between Greenland and Baffin Island, Calabretta said. The New London firm Perkins & Smith sent its McLellan whaling ship on six successful voyages, with about a dozen men of color participating.
In this era, “New London leads the way in Arctic whaling,” Calabretta said.
After 1874, he added, more than half of local whaling voyages were destined for the Arctic.
“The Arctic was a dangerous place,” he said. “Much of the area was unmapped and uncharted.”
During the course of the 19th century, he said, dozens of ships wound up crushed by shifting arctic ice. But for New London, Arctic whaling proved a godsend, extending the importance of the industry for several decades in the city.
Among the black whalers highlighted by Calabretta during his talk was Ernest F. Kydd Sr., who was born on an island in the British West Indies in 1892 and lived locally until his death in 1995. Kydd, whose son would become New London’s first black city councilor, arrived in New Bedford, Mass., aboard a whaling ship about 1900, and later he and brother Henry operated a fishing boat.
He also talked about Joe Gomes, a stowaway from Cape Verde aboard the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship who served in the military during World War I and died in a construction accident at Electric Boat in 1946.
Unfortunately, Calabretta said, much of the history of black whalers is hard to come by because most of them moved often and never bought any property. The majority were illiterate, though DeSant kept a journal and was a good writer, so much of what is known about black whalers is from family oral history, Calabretta said.
“Their recollections are a vital resource,” he said.