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CRONKITE: In the 18th and 19th Centuries New London, Mystic and other shoreline towns were home to numerous captains of whaling and merchant ships.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): It was a very honorable position to be ¾ to be known as the master of a vessel. And sometimes it didn’t really matter whether you were the master of a small little fishing sloop …or a large clipper ship. …particularly in the mid 19th Century,

A lot of these men would ¾ would grow up around the water, they would know about it, they would know how to sail by the time they were teenagers in many cases

The case of Captain Joseph Warren Holmes is ¾ is a really typical example in many ways. He was born in Mystic and started as a cabin boy and literally worked his way up through the ranks, became a whaling master and then moved over to captaining clipper ships and other large merchant ships through the 19th Century.

Captain Holmes has the record for rounding Cape Horn more than any other sea captain in a square rigged ship.

There was Captain Nathaniel Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, for example, who discovered Antarctica in 1820 in a little sealing vessel called the Hero built right in Mystic, Connecticut.


CRONKITE: Captain George Comer was the last of New London’s whaling captains.

FRED CALABRETTA (Assoc. Curator, Mystic Seaport): He was born in Quebec in 1858.  His father was lost at sea and his mother couldn’t support the children and apparently he spent some time in an orphanage and then was placed out with a foster family in East Haddam, Connecticut as a young boy and lived in East Haddam for the rest of his life.

 At the age of 17 in 1875 he walked from East Haddam to New London and shipped out on a whaler. And over the next 44 years only 3 years passed during which he didn’t spend at least some time at sea.  He sailed as captain or master of a ship for the first time in 1895.  He specialized in arctic whaling. A typical voyage would be 27 months, about 16 months of which would be spent in winter quarters when the ship was completely frozen in the ice and there was virtually no activity possible.

They had to survive on everything that they brought with them, and for fresh meat they obtained deer meat and salmon from the Inuit in trade.

There would be a community of Inuit camped through the entire winter right near the vessel and they became part of the social activity and all the activity during the winter season.

Comer had an interesting relationship with the Inuit.  He really developed an affection for them.

He was also interested and became involved in arctic exploration.  He collected for some of the great natural history museums not just in the United States but in the world and became the leading authority in the world of the Inuit of the Hudson Bay region.

Captain Comer retired from the whaling industry in 1912 but it wasn’t the end of his career at sea. He participated in a couple of arctic expeditions in association with the American Museum of Natural History.

Despite the fact that he was 59 years old he enlisted in the Navy  during World War I.  and made several cruises onboard naval vessels.  When he came back he became involved in a trading and exploration venture heading again for Hudson Bay. Went back one more time in 1919 at the age of 62. I think the primary reason he went back was because he wanted to visit his Inuit friends.

And he returned to East Haddam permanently at that point, was somewhat of a local celebrity.

He served a term in the Connecticut State Legislature.  He was in declining health later in life in part because of the rigors of arctic whaling and died in 1937.


CRONKITE: The life of a captain was often a privileged one. But for the men who crewed the whaling ships, their standard of living and their lives at sea proved to be radically different.

Dale Plummer (Norwich City Historian): Each vessel would carry a complement of men not only to work the sails and the rigging of the ship but also to go out in small boats after whales, kill the, bring them back in, strip off the blubber …and render it down into oil. So you might have 1,500 plus men, …maybe even 2,000 on the whaling vessels.

You might have at the height of the industry several hundred sailors roaming the streets looking for a good time.  I mean, New London was notorious for having, you know, grog shops along Water Street and Bank Street, Reed Street. There was Hell Hollow which was the local red light district.

The whaling merchants often encouraged sailors to have a good time, you know, spend money. They would advance them money prior to the voyage.  The sailors would be charged for loading the ship, they’d be charged for whatever advances they had been given and they’d work it off as they were on the vessel and it was in the interest of the owners to actually have the sailors start out the voyage in debt to them.

The captains would be paid a share or what was called “a lay” in the voyage. In fact, each member of the crew, the officers and so forth would get this lay or share. The captain’s lay might be as much as say a 12th or 16th. A green hand or a Portuguese from the Azores or something else, they might be signed on for 195th or 175th.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): After a couple of years at sea, with a wage advance, and with the debts run up through purchases at the ships store, known as the slop chest, many crewmembers would be left in debt or with maybe $30 or $40 dollars. Life at sea was no leisure cruise.

A lot of whale men when they first went to sea in the whaling industry had great ideas of seeing the world and what a romantic kind of opportunity it was to go on the high seas and capture the great leviathan.

…but if you read a lot of the journals that are in the libraries around the state and elsewhere you’ll see that after a few months most of these crewmen became very disillusioned with the …whole business.

MUSIC: Tom Callinan- The Connecticut Whaler

I traveled far out in the ocean,
Hunting and searching for whales,
But know I’ve returned to Old Mystic,
So listen and heed my sad tail,
So listen and heed my sad tail.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): there was a lot of time on board these whaling ships that went on voyages for two, three, four years at a time and life in the forecastle …could be cramped and sometimes a little bit unhealthy and it was just not a great life after a few months for most of these ¾ these seamen.

There were long periods of boredom and routine shipboard activity.

DALE PLUMMER (Norwich City Historian): On the other hand, when whales were sighted, …you had extreme danger for a very short length of time. Hopefully you prevail, you bring the whale back. Now you’ve got a tremendous amount of work.

So what the whaling ¾ whaling merchants did was they relied on finding green hands, farm boys from faraway. Many of them not from New London. Many of them …from upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania. They also recruited Portuguese from the Azores, blacks from the Cape Verde Islands, people from St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, Kanakas, South Sea islanders, Hawaiians. There was a very strong Native American presence, Mohegans and Pequots, both.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): It’s true that maritime history of the United States has often been presented pretty much as a white man’s story …the truth of the matter is it was a very multicultural story particularly in the early 19th Century.  Sometimes the early crew lists clearly indicate that a third of the crew were ethnic minority, folks of color.

As the whaling industry became more marginalized in the ¾ in the late 19th Century even more and more blacks came into that ¾ that fishery and so that by the turn of the Century there were, in those whaling vessels that were still going out, sometimes half the crew or more were black.

Maritime activities have often been thought of as a male-dominated province and the fact of the matter is in southeastern Connecticut during the whaling era one out of six captains took their wives with them and oftentimes their families as well and it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to even give birth on one of these long whaling voyages.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012