[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the 13th installment in the series.]
America connected with the world in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The center of the new nation’s shipping and whaling industry in the 1840s and 1850s, the small city on the southern coast of the state launched voyages to every ocean. Quakers had founded New Bedford in the 17th century along the Acushnet River, on land once inhabited by the Wampanoag. By the middle of the 19th century, it had grown into the nation’s richest city per capita, not only from sailing and ship-building, but also from refining greasy barrels of liquified whale blubber into valuable oil and clean-burning candles. Families made rich from shipping and whaling built stately homes and elaborate gardens.
New Bedford also grew as a center of abolition. The Quakers established a tone of equality and welcome, and Black Americans used their skills on the water and on the waterfront to create lives of relative prosperity and security. The port played an important role in the Underground Railroad, for many people who escaped from slavery did so by water. With allies in New Bedford, those fugitives made new lives for themselves in the small city, or pressed northward toward Canada.
The city turned to textile mills after the rapid decline of whaling that followed the introduction of petroleum and the disruption of the Civil War. For decades, factories in New Bedford produced high-quality fabrics, but that industry moved to the American South in the early twentieth century; what was left later moved abroad. Today, the fishing industry remains strong and the city’s history stands as an important part of its appeal to tourists. Places from the past, carefully preserved and interpreted, evoke a moment in the mid-19th century when the port embodied prosperity and represented freedom for men ostracized and mistreated elsewhere. As many as ten thousand itinerant sailors lived in the small city at any one time, matching the size of the permanent population.
Celebrating New Bedford’s history of whaling presents challenges, for the industry killed enormous numbers of creatures now celebrated for their beauty, intelligence, and mystery. The New Bedford Whaling Museum confronts that fact from the outset, its ground floor dedicated to the diversity and vulnerability of whales around the world. One startling exhibit dramatizes the size of the blue whale by displaying its heart in a life-sized replica. Screens with audio explore the complex meanings of the whales’ songs and signals. After spending time with this admiring depiction of the world’s largest animals at the outset of the museum experience, I was that much more relieved that the whaling industry documented elsewhere in the museum did not drive the whales to extinction.
Harpoons line the museum’s walls in an enormous gallery surrounding the world’s largest model ship, and a large receptacle of whale oil displays the valuable lubricant. Elsewhere, a digital replica of a “moving panorama” of a “Whaling Voyage Round the World” plays on loop. The original work, painted in New Bedford in 1848 on three miles of canvas, entertained and educated large audiences around the country in the days before cinema.
New Bedford’s Whaling Museum also told stories of Black Americans who used the port to create new possibilities for themselves and others. Paul Cuffe, the Quaker son of a Wampanoag woman and an Ashanti man, established a lucrative sailing business and sought to use his knowledge and well-earned respect to abolish the slave trade and establish a homeland for Black people in Sierra Leone in Africa. His efforts were crippled by the racism of the American Colonization Society, a white organization that sought to rid the nation of all free Black people. Cuffe, by contrast, sought to help people of African descent create global communities of self-determination. He invested his wealth and influence to send emigrants to Africa, hoping they would establish a home for those who had no home in the U.S.
For good reason, Frederick Douglass came to New Bedford soon after his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838. Not only did the small city claim many Black and white advocates of abolition, but the docks offered a way for the young man to make a living with his skills as a ship caulker. The home where Douglass and his wife Anna were first welcomed by another Black couple, Nathan and Mary Johnson, still stands high on a hill in New Bedford. As the plaque in front declares, it was here that “Frederick (Bailey) Douglass found freedom, a new name, and with his wife Anna, his first home.”
To Douglass’s dismay and anger, white laborers would not tolerate him working among them, so he turned to odd jobs. At the same time, he was listening to passionate Black orators rail against slavery in his church and in the city’s halls. Before long, he had polished his own self-taught skills of reading, writing, and oratory to emerge as a powerful voice against slavery. Douglass left New Bedford in 1841, but expressed gratitude for the refuge the city provided for him and his wife. The Whaling Museum displays dolls made by a female abolitionist for a “Juvenile Emancipation Society,” one showing Douglass as an enslaved man tormented by an iron collar; another as a free person in fine clothes, speaking for freedom.
Many other men found an opportunity in New Bedford they could not find elsewhere. The thousands of sailors who embarked on dangerous, years-long journeys to the other side of the world often did so because they had no better choices. A powerful film at the National Park Service’s visitor center in New Bedford evokes the risk, boredom, and suffering on board the whaling ships. Many of the sailors were Black Americans, and some, like Frederick Douglass, were fugitives from slavery. Many other men, from all kinds of backgrounds, fled other kinds of unhappiness or obligation.
To a remarkable degree, Americans’ visions of whaling come from Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Even if they have not read the massive and complex book, people know of Captain Ahab and his maniacal, self-destructive pursuit of the white whale. Melville, born of a prominent family fallen into hard times after the death of his father when Melville was ten years old, found himself at a loss as a young man. He had already sailed to Liverpool and back but decided to go to New Bedford to seek adventure on a whaling ship. Melville arrived in 1840, at the peak of American whaling. (It is fascinating to imagine Douglass and Melville crossing paths somewhere on the docks.)
Melville, like many sailors preparing to embark on dangerous journeys, sought reassurance in religion. Such men attended a famous church in New Bedford, the Seamen’s Bethel and Mariner’s Home, where they heard stirring sermons. Melville wrote of the cenotaphs on the walls of the sanctuary, memorials for sailors lost at sea. One can imagine that he drew inspiration from accounts such as those of Captain William Swain, a “worthy man” who “after fastening to a whale, was carried overboard by the line, and drowned” in the “49th Year of his life,” or of the 19-year-old Quincy Harlow who fell overboard and was lost.
Melville heard a preacher, Father Mudge, portrayed as Father Mapple in Moby-Dick, stirring fear and hopes for redemption in the sailors gathered before him. Melville imagined the preacher standing in the bow of a pulpit in the form of a ship. While such a pulpit did not exist at the Bethel, the image played a memorable role in the 1956 film of Moby-Dick that starred Gregory Peck and was directed by John Huston. Visitors to the Seamen’s Bethel expressed disappointment when they did not see the striking artifact, and so a carpenter constructed one that remains there today.
And so it was that this segment of our journey, which had taken us from Harpers Ferry to New Bedford through the seedbed of American reform and literature in upstate New York and Massachusetts, ended as it began, in the blurring of history and legend. We started by viewing an authentic building that had been disassembled, reassembled, and moved several times. We ended by viewing, in an authentic church, a reconstruction of an imaginary pulpit from a novel based on an actual shipwreck that became a film that people mistook for history.
Along the way, we found remarkable sites and museums that reconstructed history in compelling ways. Those places remind us that fabrications of the past are themselves their own kind of history.