I recently saw an exhibit on the second floor of the Provincetown library: a case alongside the Rose Dorothea containing a whaling harpoon and line, a few images, and a quote from George Bryant’s talk on Provincetown’s whaling history that honors Black captains who were based here.
Provincetown and whales cannot be separated. While Nantucket gets most of the attention for being a whaling center, Provincetown was no small potatoes. According to a 2014 exhibit at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, between 1820 and 1920 more than 160 vessels were launched from Provincetown. The town ranked fifth in the number of whaling vessels and third in the number of voyages that set out from one harbor. Whaling meant that Provincetown was tied to the wider world.
Whaling, like the currents of arrival and settlement on the Outer Cape, is more complicated than has been acknowledged. From the outset, whaling here relied on the skills of Wampanoag whalers. And the whaling ships carried Basque, Dutch, Azorean, and Polynesian crew members.
Provincetown is a center of whale watching in the U.S. thanks to Al Avellar, who began looking to whales as a source of interest to tourists in the 1970s. Whale rescue, too, had an early start here. While Canada had a history of working to free whales trapped in weirs, the work of saving entangled whales began in Provincetown with the rescue of the humpback whale Ibis in 1984.
I had all of this and more in mind while I was thinking about this poem by Rachel Richardson, which puts us firmly and sensorily into the mind and body of a whaler in the 1800s.
Imagine yourself on a whaling boat in 1870. Maybe you signed on voluntarily. Maybe you were conscripted. You’re out for years at a time, leaving Provincetown or New Bedford to sail around Cape Horn to the Bering Sea. You’re hoping the boat finds whales, because then you can come home — hopefully with money, as you’ll be paid a share of the profits.
But what about that moment when a whale is harpooned from a skiff, killed, dragged alongside the larger ship, then stripped of its blubber — which must be hauled, chunk by chunk, into huge iron cauldrons and boiled to render it to oil?
Rachel Richardson, whose 2016 book Hundred-Year Wave floats into this imagined past and links it to her life as a new mother, helps us imagine just that. Richardson comes to this poem by way of her family history, poetic imagination, and moral reckoning.
Whaling was a brutal industry. Conditions on whaling boats were horrible — to say nothing about how whales were considered a commodity. The whale’s baleen was used for buggy whips, glasses frames, fishing poles, and corset stays. Its oil was used for streetlights, heat, paint, and lipstick. Richardson focuses on how whale oil was extracted. What does it mean to flense a body?
While Richardson’s poem seems to be set at sea, these same tasks were performed locally. The Nickerson Whale and Menhaden Oil Works operated in Hatches Harbor. Oil from fish and whales was boiled down there and sold to machinists who needed it for watches and other contraptions.
Read Richardson’s beautiful poem and think about the whales themselves, traveling along our shores. Think of the layer of “cool white” blubber that allowed these warm-blooded mammals to survive in the sea and become so valuable to us as a source of light and heat before we tapped down into the Earth’s crust in Pennsylvania and “discovered” another kind of oil.
You can read about all of this in history books. But a poem like Richardson’s provides an immediate sensory moment. Imagine yourself a whaler, part of a ragged crew, using a knife to strip the blubber away from a whale that is tied alongside your boat, sharks hungry and snapping.
At the end of the poem, Richardson focuses on a body — the whaler’s, the ship’s, the whale’s — with “such thin skin/ and gold beneath.” That “gold beneath” represents the riches of the whalers, of course. But it’s also our own spirit and heart as humans.
Today, you can go to Herring Cove or Race Point and see whales spouting in the distance. (Be patient. They are out there.) Some of those animals, some species of which can live more than 100 years, may have been alive during the time of whaling, which was outlawed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act only in 1972. Think of what it would be to be out at sea involuntarily, with a ship of strangers, utterly dependent on them until you get back home. Think of the whales caught not by whalers but unintentionally by ship strike or entanglement in the miles of net, line, and rope in the ocean.
I am grateful to poems like Rachel Richardson’s that ask me to consider that history anew.
Copyright 2016 by Rachel Richardson; reprinted from Hundred-Year Wave with permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.
A Brief History of the Whale Fishery
By Rachel Richardson
Elbow-deep in the cool white
they flayed into strips, rolling
the winnowing body
as they unraveled her
and the sharks,
smelling their work, circled
and snapped. Unlucky men
hot-stepping the planks.
Lucky men feasting on stars.
Misfits and criminals.
Whittlers, prophets, magicians, boys.
In distress, smothering in fog
or storm, they hoisted mattresses
into the crow’s nest
and set them on fire.
(Melville: Who are hearsed
that die on the sea?)
If not the body itself
if not the body
they would use
their beds, the brightest thing
the body itself
such thin skin
and gold beneath—