Exhibition - Breaking Boundaries

Thursday, Sep 3, 2020

Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724

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Did you know the development of the whaling industry is tied to various significant and revolutionary advances in our society and environment?

​We invite you to explore and celebrate the profound ways pioneers in the local whaling industry led New York in breaking key social, technological, racial, and economic boundaries of the 19th century.

Science And Technology:
The whaling industry pushed tremendous strides in technological innovation through whaling gear, vessels, and tools - including lubrication that fueled inventions of the Industrial Revolution. ​

Tremendous strides were made as the development of whaling gear, vessels, and tools pushed for efficiency and greater profits.

Whaling technology improved over the years as harpoons gained hinged barbs, ships increased their shape and tonnage, and rigging details changed to incorporate winch technology to reduce skill and manpower needed to handle sails.

American Whaleboats Were Technologically Brilliant

The most important tool of Yankee whaling was also its most ingenious innovation: the whaleboat.

Technologically, the whaleboat was an example of mechanical prowess at sea. Modest changes were made over time.
Built of cedar and oak and weighing only 700-800 pounds when empty, whaleboats were light and fast. They were also double-ended like canoes, which provided easy maneuverability and flexibility while at sea. This was imperative when trying to avoid whale flukes.
The design was so successful that virtually every whaleboat used the same plan, and many were mass-produced in New Bedford, MA.
A typical whaleship carried 4 working whaleboats, with several spares.
The Museum’s whaleboat is an outstanding example of the evolved craft’s final development.

The Greatest Innovator of All:​
Captain Thomas W. Roys was a record-breaking Long Island whaling captain in many ways.

Born upstate in 1816, he started his career as a farmboy-turned-greenhand on Sag Harbor's Hudson​, rising to master in 8 years.

He discovered new seas and whaling grounds, invented multiple new whaling tools, and  even wrote what is considered to be the first ‘textbook’ of whale species. He also foresaw that whaling, in its time, was not sustainable.

His inventions, experiments, and methods were the bridge between the old sail and modern whaling techniques.

Whaling Broke Racial Barriers

One unique aspect of whaling was that it was our country’s first integrated industry. Although the lower-ranked workers were exploited, people of color started out on an even footing and, if they worked hard, could rise through the ranks.

African Americans, West Indians, Shinnecocks, Montauks, Portuguese, Polynesians, Colombians, New Zealanders, Cape Verdeans, and “Kanakas,” or Native Hawaiians, were all regular crew members on whaling vessels and infused a great deal of cultural exchange in the trade.

While they endured dangerous working conditions and abominable living conditions, including disease, undernourishment, and poverty, they also took advantage of an open economic opportunity which prized skill over skin color, not present in other land-based industries in the US at the time.

Whaling Wives Broke Boundaries

The saga of hunting whales was unquestionably viewed as man’s world.  “It is no place for a woman,” wrote Captain James Haviland on the Baltic in 1856, “on board of a whaleship.”

Whaling wives pushed gender roles in two major ways:

Wives at home became masters of their households. Living almost like a widow, they maintained their families as single parents, took care of elderly parents, paid the bills (or lived on credit), and tended to any farming. Some women became entrepreneurs, running inns, becoming teachers, or serving as midwives.
Whaling wives broke social barriers by joining their husbands at sea for the first time.  A number of captain’s wives broke boundaries by deciding to do what no woman had done before: join their husbands at sea. One can understand their impetus when looking at Azubah Cash of Nantucket. She had been with her husband for half a year out of 11-year marriage, spurring her to sail with him on his next voyage.  She would fill her days educating her children, reading, washing clothes, sewing, writing in her diary, and cross-stitching while confined in cramped quarters to pass the long hours.

Whalers Were Global Explorers

Long Island whalers expanded America’s horizons to the far corners of the world.

They charted new seas, rapidly expanded knowledge of the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, discovered new species, visited distant countries,  and impacted indigenous people around the world.

The impact of whalers on the indigenous communities and native ecological systems that they encountered was profound.
Euro-American technology, materials, alcohol, and weapons were introduced through trade, as was disease, animals, and organisms. These factors, combined with missionary activities, dramatically changed the economic and belief systems of native Pacific and Arctic peoples.
Captain Mercator Cooper of Sag Harbor (1803-1872) was the first American to visit Japan in 1845 after rescuing Japanese crews from disabled trading vessels, despite the strict anti-foreigner policy at the time.  He was also the first American to visit Antarctica in 1851.

Whaling Pushed Environmental Boundaries

Industrialized whaling reached an unprecedented extreme in the 20th century, pushing whales to the brink of extinction.

Art And Literature:
Whaling Cultivated Remarkable & Diverse Art

​The byproducts of whaling—teeth, baleen, and bone—became novel canvases for whalers’ imaginations. Both artistic and utilitarian scrimshaw offer unique insights beyond the into the lives and thoughts of sea labor in the Age of Sail.

The earliest known works of engraved pictorial scrimshaw date from 1817-1821. As whaling voyages increased in length over the years, the art of scrimshaw flourished.

Wives and children, who sometimes accompanied whaling captains to sea, also produced scrimshaw in significant numbers.

Whaling Inspired Revolutionary Ideas in Colonists

One can see the seeds of the American Revolution planted in some of the personalities of the Island’s early whaling pioneers, and the colonial patriotism they showed in response to special taxes and laws established by several New York governors for the benefit of the Crown, wishing to tap into their profits.

Many whalers flouted what they felt were unfair laws with contempt.

Samuel Mulford of East Hampton was a particularly colorful local character who fought loudly against colonial tyranny – perhaps for more than just the sake of whaling.
With a whaling company of 24 men, he built the first wharf in the Hamptons. Strong-willed, he went to London in 1704 to successfully protest the whale oil tax (with fishhooks in his pockets to deter thieves). His farmhouse is one of the oldest in Suffolk county.

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