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Washington D.C., 1800

President Jefferson
in the White House

A Duel At Dawn, 1804

The Death of Lord Nelson, 1805

Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807

"Shanghaied," 1811

"Old Ironsides" Earns its Name, 1812

The British Burn Washington, 1814

Dolley Madison Flees the White House, 1814

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Napoleon Exiled to St. Helena, 1815

The Inauguration of
President Andrew
Jackson, 1829

Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829

America's First Steam Locomotive, 1830

A Portrait of America, 1830

Traveling the National Road, 1833

A Slave's Life

Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836

Victoria Becomes Queen, 1837

Escape From Slavery, 1838

A Flogging at Sea, 1839

P.T. Barnum Discovers "Tom Thumb" 1842

Living among the Shakers, 1843

Visit to the "Red Light" District, 1843

The Irish Potato Famine, 1847

Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850

the Forbidden City
of Mecca, 1853

Life on a Southern Plantation, 1854

Return of a Fugitive Slave, 1854

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

Livingstone Discovers Victoria Falls, 1855

Andrew Carnegie Becomes a Capitalist, 1856

Slave Auction, 1859

Good Manners for Young Ladies, 1859

The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

The Ku Klux Klan, 1868

Building the Brooklyn Bridge, 1871

Stanley Finds Livingstone, 1871

The Baseball Glove
Comes to Baseball,

The Death of President
Garfield, 1881

A Portrait of Thomas Edison

College Football, 1884

Opulence in the Gilded Age, 1890

Death of a Child, 1890

Corbett Knocks Out Sullivan, 1892

Hobo, 1894

Leaving Home for the "Promised Land", 1894

America's First Auto Race, 1895

1st to Sail Around the World Alone, 1895

The United States Declares War on Spain, 1898

The Battle of Manila Bay, 1898

The Rough Riders Storm San Juan Hill, 1898

Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850

"Thar She Blows!"

In the days before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil supplied the fuel for the lamps that illuminated the nights in American homes. In addition, the whale was the source of a boney substance called baleen used in women's corsets, hairbrushes, buggy whips, collar stays and various other products.

Whaling in the South Seas
During the 19th century whaling was a lucrative business and it made many East Coast seaports rich. Ports such as New Bedford, Massachusetts and Nantucket thrived as their whaling ships roamed the seas of the world on voyages lasting up to four years. These special-purpose vessels were fast, rugged and versatile. Not only did they carry the equipment necessary for hunting and killing their prey, but the technology for processing, storing and preserving their catch until their return to port. They were the forerunners of today's factory ships

For the whaleman, it was a rough and dangerous life. Once a whale was sighted, the crew took to their whaleboats in pursuit with the immediate objective of harpooning their prey. If the harpooner successfully speared a victim, the whaleboat and its crew were treated to what was called a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride" as the whale dragged its hunters through the sea in an attempt to escape. After two to three hours of this rollercoaster ride, the whale would tire, be finished off and hauled to the mother ship. Here it was cut up and its blubber boiled down to yield its precious oil.

"The boat spun after him with almost the swiftness of a top..."

The Reverend Henry T. Cheever was a missionary who roamed the Pacific. In 1850 he was a passenger aboard the Commodore Preble, a whaling ship out of Boston and recorded the experience of a whale hunt:

"For the first time in our now ten weeks' passage from the Hawaiian Islands, on this New Zealand Cruising Ground, we heard, day before yesterday, that life-kindling sound to a weary whaleman, THERE SHE BLOWS! The usual questions and orders from the deck quickly followed.

'Where away?'

'Two points on the weather bow!'

'How far off?'

'A mile and a half!'

'Keep your eye on her!'

'Sing out when we head right!'

It turned out that three whales were descried from aloft in different parts, and in a short time, when we were deemed near enough, the captain gave orders to 'Stand by and lower' for one a little more than half a mile to windward.

Three boats' crews pulled merrily away, glad of something to stir their blood, and with eager hope to obtain the oily material wherewith to fill their ship and make good their 'lay.' The whale was going leisurely to windward, blowing every now and again two or three times, then 'turning tail,' 'up flukes,' and sinking. The boats 'headed' after him, keeping a distance of nearly one quarter of a mile from each other, to scatter (as it is called) their chances.

Fortunately, as the oarsmen were 'hove up,' that is, had their oars a-peak, about the place where they expected the whale would next appear, the huge creature rose hard by the captain's boat, and all the harpooner in the bow had to do was to plunge his two keen cold irons, which are always secured to one tow-line, into the monster's blubber-sides. This he did so well as to hit the 'fish's life' at once, and make him spout blood forthwith. It was the first notice the poor fellow had of the proximity of his powerful captors, and the sudden piercing of the barbed harpoons to his very vitals made him caper and run most furiously.

The boat spun after him with almost the swiftness of a top, now diving through the seas and tossing the spray, and then lying still while the whale sounded; anon in swift motion again when the game rose, for the space of an hour. During this time another boat 'got fast' to him with its harpoons, and the captain's cruel lance had several times struck his vitals. He was killed, as whalemen call it, that is, mortally wounded, an hour before he went into 'his flurry,' and was really dead or turned up on his back.

A Whale's Revenge
A whaleboat attacked by a Sperm Whale
The loose boat then came to the ship for a hawser to fasten round his flukes; which being done, the captain left his irons in the carcass and pulled for the ship, in order to beat to windward, and, after getting alongside, to 'cut him in.' This done, and the mammoth carcass secured to the ship by a chain round the bitts, they proceeded to reeve the huge blocks that are always made fast for the purpose to the fore and main mast head, and to fasten the cutting-in tackle. The captain and two mates then went over the sides on steps well secured, and having each a breast-rope to steady them and lean upon. The cooper then passed them the long-handled spades, which he was all the time grinding and whetting, and they fell lustily to work chopping off the blubber.

Soon after we had finished cutting in, about eight o'clock in the evening, the wind increased almost to a gale, making it impossible to try out that night. But to-day, while the ship is lying to, the business has begun in good earnest; the blubber-men cutting up in the blubberroom; others pitching it on deck; others forking it over to the side of the 'try-works;' two men standing by a 'horse' with a mincing knife to cleave the pieces into many parts for the more easy trying out, as the rind of a joint of pork is cut by the cook for roasting: the boatsteerers and one of the mates are pitching it into the kettles, feeding the fires with the scraps, and bailing the boiling fluid into copper tanks, from which it is the duty of another to dip into casks.

The whale now taken proves to be a cow whale, forty-five feet long and twenty-five round, and it will yield between seventy and eighty barrels of right whale oil. This is about the ordinary size of the New Zealand whale, a mere dwarf in comparison with that of the northwest, which sometimes yields, it is said, three hundred barrels, ordinarily one hundred and fifty, or one hundred and eighty."

   Reverend Cheever's account appears in: Cheever, Henry T., The Whale and His Captors (1853); Stackpole, Edouard, A., The Sea-Hunters, The New England Whalemen During Two Centuries 1635-1835 (1953).

How To Cite This Article:
"Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850," EyeWitness to History, (2004).

America's whaling industry died out in the early 20th century.
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