The time has finally come! As Air Canada Flight AC869 cruises towards North America I think of how the survival of the Charles W Morgan links me directly to both the geographical and the historical world of my great great grandparents and great grandmother. Over the past few months, since I was offered a place as one of the 38th Voyagers, I have started a journey of which I have dreamed for many years – to explore and write about their extraordinary story linked to the changing world in which they lived. When my great aunt Hester gave me a copy of Crusoes of Sunday Island in the late 1950s I discovered that my ordinary-seeming family had a past that was out of the ordinary. My great grandmother had, at my age, sailed to, lived, worked and played on an isolated volcanic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I remember standing in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm gazing in awe at the ghostly ship towering above me. The Vasa sank in 1628 and I was struck by the realisation that this was a sight I was never supposed to see. So too the 19th century whaling ships which Bessie and her brothers and sisters watched whaling, sailing and anchoring off Sunday Island, bringing the world to their remote part of the Pacific and linking communities in Massachusetts, Pacific and Atlantic Islands, New Zealand and Australia. And over 130 years later I was not only seeing, but sleeping and sailing on one!
New Bedford, Massachusetts is where Parkins Christian called home in between whaling voyages and before and after the Charles W Morgan’s move to San Francisco as her home port from 1886 until 1906. Once known as the whaling capital of the world, and the richest town in America, 329 whaling vessels employing roughly 10,000 men sailed from here in 1857. Like so many American towns, New Bedford was designed on a grid, with a modern highway obliterating the original connection of town, harbour and the Acushnet River.
At first impressions New Bedford has seen better days. Like New London, Connecticut, another whaling port which I visited in April this year, there are many empty shops and closed up buildings, remains of warehouses and grand public buildings.
Large elegant wooden and shingled houses topped with turrets and towers, surrounded by leafy gardens line County St, the former homes of the whaling merchants and ship owners. Streets called Rodman and Rotch, Morgan and Hillman remind residents of the families who built, funded and owned the whaling fleet in 19th century.
The city’s loss of the Charles W Morgan the last surviving American wooden whaling ship, to Mystic Seaport in 1941 symbolized the loss of prosperity wrought by the end of whaling and later the textile industry followed by the Great Depression.
It is Sunday. In the harbour a large fishing fleet of trawlers and scallopers, most with Portuguese names, lies idle.
I wander the streets finding most shops, the second hand book shop, the galleries and most of the cafés closed. Even the cobbled streets of the historic district are quiet. The Visitor Centre with interesting interpretation is open but empty. I go on a free walking tour about the Underground Railroad (I had missed the Whaling tour in the morning) and discover another aspect of New Bedford’s rich history, the Quaker link with abolition and the anti-slavery movement, Frederick Douglass’ residence in the town and the escape route the whaling ships provided for those who could obtain the right papers. The presence of Cape Verdean, Azorean and Portuguese restaurants (all closed too!) is a visible link to the whaling voyages and crews of the whaling years.
I wondered where Parkins Christian had stayed between voyages – the Mariners’ Home?
Or in one of the many boarding houses on what is now Johnny Cake Hill?
Did he attend services in the Seamen’s Bethel before joining yet another voyage on the Charles W Morgan? As the Whalemen’s Chapel, this was immortalized in both Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and the eponymous film where Ishmael attended a service before he joined the Pequod under Captain Ahab. A sign on the wall indicates the pew in which Melville sat listening to Rev. Enoch Mudge’s sermon before embarking on the whaling ship Acushnet on 3 January 1841, just months before the Charles W Morgan was launched. In a ironic reversal of truth and fiction and due to public demand, a copy of the fictional bow-shaped boat pulpit in the John Houston film (made in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland) has replaced the Bethel’s original plain box pulpit. The pulpit may not be original or authentic but it satisfies visitor expectation.
But the cenotaphs or memorial tablets lining the walls are real. Testament to the dangers of whaling, these record that there would be no last resting place on earth for William Kirkwood, 25, who fell from aloft and drowned near Cape Horn in 1850, for Gilbert Jay, 19, who was lost from a boat in pursuit of a whale in 1822, and Franklin Jay who suffered the same fate in 1832, for Captain William Swain 49 who, having fastened onto a whale, was carried overboard by the line and drowned in 1844 and boat steerer Nathaniel Cole 24, and two of his crew Edward Laffray 25 and Frank Kanacka 19, who lost their lives by the upsetting of their whale boat in the Ochotsk Sea in 1854. Modern tablets to contemporary fishing tragedies show that going down to the sea in ships can still be a dangerous occupation.
Later in the week I explored the wonderful collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and, in the limited hours it opened, the Museum’s Library and Archive. Despite the very helpful staff in the reading room, the restricted days and opening hours were a huge source of frustration for international visitors like me who just managed a glimpse of the treasures within. The whaling fleet logbooks survive in great numbers and just as in Mystic Seaport library and archive, the ones in New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard libraries are truly magnificent. More on these later!
Next – the 38th Voyage!