If you’ve always wanted to read “Moby Dick” but have never made time for it, grab your sleeping bag and head to the New Bedford Whaling Museum the first weekend after the New Year, for their annual Moby Dick Marathon. Each year, the museum, located an hour south of Boston, marks the date in 1841 when Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford on a whaling vessel bound for the South Pacific by staging a marathon reading of the 225,000 word classic.
Anyone can sign up to take a 10-minute turn reading from the book and those who make it through the entire 25-hour performance wins a prize. Visitors camp out on the museum floor, and some bring hardtack and grog in order to dine like 19th Century whalers.
I’ve yet to make it to the Moby Dick marathon, or the whaleboat races the museum hosts in the summer, but I visited the museum last week and loved it. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, thousands of men earned their living hunting whales for their valuable oil, which illuminated lamps and lighthouses and served other purposes as well. Nantucket was America’s first real whaling capital, but New Bedford eclipsed it in the early 19th Century.
The whaling trade made New Bedford one of the wealthiest cities in the country by the mid 19th Century. By 1857, the town boasted some 329 whaling ships, barks, and schooners, valued at $12 million, which provided employment for some 10,000 men in the area.
Whalers made a living traveling on the high seas for years at a time. Melville deserted his ship after 18 months in the Marquesas (and later hooked on with other boats before eventually returning to Boston more than three years after he set sail from New Bedford), but it wasn’t uncommon for sailors to be gone from their families for 3-4 years at a time or longer. The low ranking crew members lived in deplorable conditions and were paid based on a profit sharing system that sometimes left them with little to show for years of toil under near-starvation conditions.
For example, the Whaling Museum Visitor’s Center shows a graphic about the earnings of a typical whaling vessel that was at sea for 2 years, 9 months and 22 days from 1853-5. The boat made a total profit of $75, 402, and of that, the merchant who bankrolled the enterprise made $19,793, the captain made $1,885, the chief mate $1,131, and the seaman brought home just $133 bucks a piece. Adjusted for inflation, that $133 is still only $3,442 for nearly three years of work!
But there were some perks for engaging in this bloody, thankless work. Some men preferred being out on the open seas to the bleak factories that employed so many in the 19th Century, and the opportunity to couple with comely lasses in the South Pacific was also a clear bonus.
The museum sheds light on the life of the whalers and the creatures they hunted, with some amazing visuals, like a huge replica whaleboat and some whale skeletons that kept my kids occupied while I read the displays. A series of displays showing all of the high and low tech spears and guns that were used to hunt the whales show how bloody and brutal the occupation was.
The development of kerosene from coal and advances in petroleum drilling in the mid to late 19th Century caused the gradual decline of the industry, starting in the 1860’s. The last whaling ship left New Bedford in 1925, but the town is still a busy port with a tidy, historic downtown.
The experiences Melville had at sea launched his career, though his first books, Typee and Omoo, were published as novels because few could believe that the adventures detailed were true. Americans haven’t hunted whales in many decades but the Japanese still hunt these beautiful creatures, under the dubious claim of scientific research, despite the fact that an international treaty banned the practice in 1987.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Japanese whalers intended to slaughter up to 900 whales this year but ended up hauling in 266 minke whales and one fin whale. (Whalers historically hunted fin whales but not minke whales.) The disappointing haul was due to bad weather and harassment by environmentalists, who actually succeeded in halting Japanese boats in 2011 after they killed 172 whales.
According to a display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whales, though generally docile, did occasionally fight back, managing to sink ships on at least three occasions- the Essex in 1820, which served as the inspiration for Moby Dick, the Ann Alexander in 1851 and the Kathleen in 1902. Here’s hoping the whales figure out how to fight back against Japanese efforts to kill them for “scientific research.”