"THE WHALING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD"
Interview about Nantucket and its whaling history
It is hard to believe that Nantucket was the capital of the whaling industry worldwide for about 150 years. It boasts a fascinating museum, located in a former candle factory, dedicated to the island and its whaling history. We were lucky to meet and interview a guide whose en-thusiasm was equally charming and informative.
Vocable: Can you tell us about the quote at the entrance of the Whaling Museum? Peggi Godwin: "What wonder then that the Nantucketers born on the beach should take to the sea for a livelihood." That is a direct quote from Moby Dick and actually the true story of the whale ship Essex, which left here in 1821 and was struck by a whale in the South Pacific. Out of 20 men, there were only 5 survivors. They were at sea for about three months. It was really a gruesome story that involved cannibalism. Owen Chase, the first mate of the ship, survived this ordeal. His teenage son went out on a whaling voyage in the 1840s, and told the true story of the Essex to Herman Melville, who was so struck by it that it became his inspiration for writing the great American novel Moby Dick.
2. Vocable: How important was the whaling industry on Nantucket? Peggi: From 1700 through the mid-1800s, that was the only business, basically. It was the whaling capital of the world at that time. When they discovered the amazing sperm whale, they hunted it literally all over the world because they had the most oil and the best oil. Many ships would leave here, sail across the Atlantic, maybe make a stop in the Azores or the Cape Verdi; then go around the tip of South America out into the Pacific where they followed the whales. A typical whaling voyage lasted at least two or three years; some of them four or five years, because they didn’t want to come back till the hold of the ship was completely filled with oil.
3. Vocable: Why was this product so important? Peggi: Whale oil and whale oil candles were in high demand because it made a huge difference in people's lives. It was good for producing light and for lubricating big factories’ heavy machinery built in the 1850s and 40s and 50s. England was one of the biggest customers up until the Revolutionary War. Then, Nantucketers sold their whale oil mostly in the United States. By the 1860s, whaling was completely done on the island, and people left here in huge numbers. A lot of men went out to the California gold rush and Nantucket became a ghost island. Very gradually, they had to find a way to make a living here, and this started to be kind of an art colony, and a tourist destination and it's been a very slow build up. Today, that is the main source of income.
The Whaling Museum on Nantucket, Mass.