2014-06-19 / Opinion


Waxing Nostalgic Over Whaling

Just about 68 nautical miles to the south and east from the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the island of Nantucket has long reveled in its ties to the whaling industry. There, in many ways, whaling defines not only the island’s past, but also helps to shape its present.

A bit closer to home, New Bedford is also steeped with whaling lore, its grand mansions just up from the historic downtown serving as a reminder of the wealth that used to flow through its cobblestone streets. Newport’s ties to the whaling industry, however, tend to be a bit overlooked. Perhaps Melville had something to do with it.

In his epic "Moby Dick," when we first meet Ishmael, the book’s narrator, he’s bound for Nantucket by way of New Bedford. It’s there, at the Spouter Inn, that he first encounters his companion, Queequeg, with whom he would set out on the high seas in what would become regarded as one of America’s greatest literary voyages.

The romanticism that surrounds the whaling industry in industry capitals such as Nantucket and New Bedford is unavoidable. The prospect of young men setting out to parts unknown in search of nature’s most impressive creatures is impossibly captivating.

As it turns out, while Newport played an important role in the whaling industry, its history is a bit less exciting. But the restoration of Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest sailing commercial vessel and the last of the great whale ships, can remind us of Rhode Island’s whaling past.

As an ideal deep water port with a bustling merchant class, access to global trade routes, and an engrained seafaring spirit, colonial Newport had all the makings of a whaling city.

According to research at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, at one time Narragansett Bay was home to over 50 whaling vessels and was a primary trading center for whale oil and the derivative products which began to flood the marketplace. The trade quickly began to generate enormous wealth for those who could capitalize on it through hard work and innovation.

One of those innovations was introduced in Newport around 1748. That’s when a Newporter – Jacob Rodrigues Rivera – is credited with introducing what would become one of the city’s primary exports: candles.

A Sephardic Jew who was skilled in candle making, Rivera began producing wax from the spermaceti found in the head of sperm whales. Rivera’s candles were clean burning, long lasting, and produced bright, clean light which became highly sought after and would eventually lead to a colonial oil rush.

By the early 1750s, candle manufacturing also began to take root in Providence, where Obadiah Brown – a member of the prominent Brown family – set up his eponymous shop on what is now India Point.

Further down the bay, the industry was even stronger. By 1760, five candle works were in operation in Newport and demand grew so much that whaling ships began to segregate their product streams, rendering blubber into oil on deck in massive try-pots developed specifically to capture the raw ingredients needed by Newport’s candle works.

In the years leading up to the Revolution, Newport’s candles had become luxury items and its harbor the focal point for one of the world’s most lucrative trades. It was a dynamic not lost on the British, whose occupation effectively put an end to the industry.

The Morgan, launched in 1841 out of New Bedford at the height of the whaling industry, embarked on 37 voyages over her 80-year career. She traversed the globe from the Arctic to the South Pacific and serves as a reminder of America’s intrepid spirit. For the last five years, she has been on the hard in Mystic where shipwrights have taken great care to restore the so-called “lucky ship” back to sailing condition. She was relaunched last July in anticipation of her 38th voyage.

At whatever port you find her, a trip aboard is humbling.

And although Newport’s merchant trade had been diminished long before her first plank was laid, one can nevertheless feel a bit of our own history on deck as we recall Newport’s own contributions to the whaling industry. – Tom Shevlin

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