Voyaging on the Charles W. Morgan (Or, the Indian Mariners Project Goes Before the Mast)

The 38th Voyage of the American whaleship Charles W. Morgan is fast approaching and I will be one of the voyagers aboard her when she sails. This has been an extraordinary multi-year restoration project during which time I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the finest scholars and museum professionals. I will be voyaging, journaling, and blogging at sea from Provincetown to Boston (sailing window July 15-17). Below I am including an overview of the themes that myself and other voyager applicants were asked to consider, excerpts from my application indicating what my research on the voyage will involve, and finally, a description of our Voyager training day.

38th Voyage Approach and Themes (courtesy of Mystic Seaport)

Commercial whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries had a complex and deep impact on our nation’s economy, culture, and global position. Its complicated cultural, historical, and environmental legacy continues to influence the nation and world today. This 21st-century project emphasizes the continued relevance of the topic to Americans today, as we grapple with similar tensions between environmental health, economic and industrial needs, cultural practices, and inter-species relationships. At its most basic level, our focus is on a nexus of people, ships, water, and whales.

We will neither overly celebrate nor outright condemn the historic practice of the whale hunt. Instead, we will respect and strive to understand its many facets, even those that are contradictory or controversial. We will examine the interconnectedness, complexity, and long-term impacts – positive and negative – of this core American maritime experience.  Each 38th Voyager project should connect to one or more of the four major guiding themes, described below. These are humanities-based themes, but all have strong, natural links to other disciplines in the arts, natural sciences, and social sciences:

1) Changing Perceptions about Whales and the Natural World: Americans’ prevailing beliefs about humans’ place in the natural world have shifted dramatically since the active whaling years of the Charles W. Morgan. A century ago most Americans saw the ocean’s seemingly boundless resources as solely sources of profit. Today, commercial whalers’ overharvesting of the world’s largest mammals baffles or angers many 21st-century Americans. But the human-whale dynamic has always been more complex than it first appears. The 19th-century whalers’ deep knowledge of the sea and its creatures contributed greatly to scientific exploration and study. While subsistence whaling is still practiced on a small scale by some indigenous groups in American waters, many more whales are stressed and threatened by 21st-century acts such as ship strikes, net entanglements, and sound pollution. Exploring the causes and consequences of our changing perceptions and behaviors will show that preserving a historic whaleship and conserving today’s whale populations are compatible endeavors.

2) The Perils and Profits of Commercial Whaling: Commercial whaling was a volatile, high-risk and high-profit industry of the kind often glorified as a distinctive American practice. It had a clearly devastating impact on the world’s whale populations, and an arguably ambiguous impact on humans. Whale oil lit the homes and streets of the U.S. for decades, lubricated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, and spawned tremendous profits that were used to build railroads, factories, hospitals, and libraries. For tens of thousands of men, from Massachusetts to New Zealand, Alaska to the Azores, working on American whaleships provided the benefits of employment and world travel. For those marginalized because of their racial or ethnic background, whaling voyages often offered escape and self-realization. Yet these trips also served as a vector for disease, death, discrimination, and suffering among both human and ocean populations.

3) Whaling as a Cultural Crossroads: Whaling voyages created opportunities for immigration, cultural exchange, and artistic inspiration from all corners of the globe. Whaling communities grew and flourished along the New England coast (Nantucket, New Bedford, and New London among them) but also had a presence in the Pacific (including San Francisco, Hawaii, and Alaska). As de facto immigration ships, whaling vessels routinely stopped in remote places such as Valparaiso, the Galapagos, Cape Verde, and Tristan da Cunha. Larger ports in Hawaii and the Azores supported sizeable ex-pat communities where whaling captains’ wives and children, whaling agents, and whalemen might spend weeks, months, or even years absorbing the sights, sounds, and values of vastly different cultures, returning home with new tastes and ideas, which became inspiration for artists, writers, and musicians in many different cultures.

4) Impact on American Culture: The Charles W. Morgan is nearly identical to the whaleship on which Herman Melville sailed to the Pacific, later inspiring Moby-Dick. Thus this vessel is one of American literature’s most significant artifacts—sailing aboard is equivalent to staying a night in Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. As they traveled the globe in pursuit of their prey, whalers accumulated knowledge about other cultures, whales, and also of the ocean itself, its currents, creatures, and moods. Men, women, and children onboard left behind a rich trove of first-hand testimony including letters, journals, onboard sketches and photos, and oral histories. Brought home and shared, this informed the work of artists, authors, scientists, and mapmakers that was more widely circulated to the public. Whaling also inspired masterpieces in maritime folk traditions such as scrimshaw, figureheads, ship models, music, and tall tales. Whales, whaling, and whaleman continue to occupy a prominent place in America’s cultural landscape today, from the popularity of whale-watch cruises to Hollywood films, operas, and online memes.


Excerpts from Dr. Jason Mancini’s Voyager application

My principal goal as a “Voyager” is to understand both whaleship and ocean as extensions of indigenous cultural space. Currently, neither has been considered in scholarship relating to New England’s Native people. I intend to use this experience to further connect my research on Indian mariners to three interrelated Core Voyage Themes:

Theme #2 (Perils and Profits) → For Indians, whaling and the whaleship provided opportunities to adapt their social, political, and economic systems to the realities of colonization. My research explores the lives and careers of Indian whalemen, interaction with their shore-side families, political dynamics at sea and home, and maritime related businesses of community members.

Theme #3 (Cultural Crossroads) → The central and unifying component of my research has been identifying, defining, and mapping maritime social networks (by intersecting crewlists, voyage logbooks, and GIS/Google Earth) as Indian men moved between land and sea. Globally, as indigenes were dispossessed of their homelands, the whaleship became a vital part of the “cultural crossroads” that I have been mapping. Whaling histories have rarely probed the depths of human social impact but my work illuminates how whaling became a mechanism of culture change as it facilitated a truly global indigeneous network.

Theme #4 (Impact on American Culture) → The absence of Indian men from the reservations produced ideas about Native people that have endured in American popular consciousness since the 19th century. Notably, that Indians had vanished (i.e. Last of the Mohicans) and Indian people were less authentic because communities had absorbed people from other races and cultures.

As an anthropologist, participant observation is critical to understanding and capturing impressions and experiences in new places, so I aim to participate in many onboard activities and discuss these with relevant crewmembers. While voyaging, I will also use journaling and photography to capture and inform my work. Voyage preparation includes my ongoing work to document the voices and perspectives of the region’s descendant Indian communities, all of whom have ancestors, stories, and artifacts associated with the whalefishery. As I have become intimately familiar with the presence of Native people and their roles from various written accounts and oral tradition it will be most useful – when writing – to experience the language and living quarters of a ship, and the activities that Indian men would have performed on board from cook to captain.

My experience will contribute to two final products. First, I will be submitting blog posts to my Indian Mariners Project website (www.indianmarinersproject.com). During the past six months, this site and my blogs have generated over 5000 views from more than 35 countries, revealing an engaged global audience. Second, my participation will inform an updated “Peter George, Whaler” exhibit at the Pequot Museum as well as a planned exhibit/education collaboration between Mystic Seaport and the Indian Mariners Project. The principal audiences at the museums are educators and K-12 schoolchildren. Smaller but important audiences include the Native American community, and those interested in social and indigenous history.

Training Day

April 30th was a wet day. Somewhat cooler as well. I headed to Mystic Seaport with my friend, fellow voyager, and house guest Courtney Leonard (Shinnecock). We were attending an orientation with other voyagers for a day of introductions, information, and training for our upcoming voyages this summer. With some adjustment to the day’s schedule with hopes of avoiding rain, we headed to the docks. There, we rotated between rowing whaleboats and climbing the rigging of the training vessel Joseph Conrad. We did not avoid rain; rather became one with it. After this soggy experience (one I welcomed since every time I’ve been to the Seaport for this type of event, the weather has be perfect; here I learned more of what all mariners would have contended with regularly – less the rolling ocean!), we were broken up into three groups that alternated between touring the Charles W. Morgan, visiting the collections and research center, and discussing voyage logistics. Towards the end of the day, every soggy voyager convened in the Fishtown Chapel to meet with Seaport president Steve White and discuss the 38th Voyage. We learned just how much vision, planning, and care went into the restoration and voyage preparation for the Morgan. Great conversation and many laughs soon turned to thoughts of what will happen beyond this summer’s events. What will the future hold for all of us given the honor of sailing aboard the “lucky ship”? With cooling temperature came visible breath and final tour of the Morgan to show us our accommodations in the fo’c’sle. Before heading out for a drink with the others, Courtney and I collected quahog shells on the dock, broken by enterprising seagulls. The purple lip of the shell caught her eye. Wampum beads and other ornamentations made from the shell remain important to the region’s Native American communities and again reminded me of the enduring connection Indians in this area have had to the sea.  


Ready to row whaleboats on the Mystic River in the poring rain. Training vessel Joseph Conrad in the background.


In position in the whaleboat and ready to pull!


Climbing the rigging of the Joseph Conrad.


Warming up in the chandlery.


Ship Charles W. Morgan – the only remaining 19th century whaler.


The forecastle (or fo’c’sle). This is where voyagers will sleep.


Below deck in the cargo area. The 38th voyage will bring home a cargo of ideas and experiences.


More on the 38th Voyage…

For more information on the 38th Voyage of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan, visit: http://www.mysticseaport.org/38thvoyage/

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s