At What Cost? Mariners Lost at Sea

Scrimshaw whale’s tooth with inscribed memorial to “Albert Gardner Lost at Sea 1840” Gift of Rick and Janet Sherlund. 2019.29.1

Only Ishmael survived the voyage of the Pequod, his shipmates perishing from Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the white whale. To be sure, many real Nantucketers also died from the actions of angered sperm whales, and some certainly perished due to the poor judgement of their captains. But disease and shipboard accidents were also leading causes of death among Nantucket whalers, as well as among Nantucket fishermen and merchant sailors more generally. Research carried out at the NHA has identified a minimum of 1,131 seafarers lost aboard Nantucket vessels between 1724 and 1896. Their sacrifices stand as a testament to the human cost of whaling, fishing, and trading from a small island community.

The whole point of whaling was to capture and kill whales, but reckoning the total number of whales killed throughout the history of Nantucket is complicated. Whalers sometimes recorded individual whales in their logbooks, but that number did not matter to them. What mattered was the amount of oil the whales yielded, measured in barrels, and whalers kept scrupulous record of the number of barrels they gathered. Oil totals were so important they were always reported when one ship gathered news from another in mid-ocean. Even when there was other news to report from the voyage, the oil total was paramount. A typical case from the Nantucket Inquirer, April 2, 1835: “Spoken off Port Spain, Trinidad, Dec 5, by brig Carroll arr at Phila. Sch Harmony, Swain of this port, in distress, 100 bbls.”

Whalers captured a variety of whale species, such as northern and southern right whales, sperm whales, blackfish, and humpback whales. Individual whales varied greatly in size and might yield as few as 10 or as many as 100 barrels of oil. Scholarly consensus places the average yield at about 34 barrels per whale. Between 1760 and 1869, documented Nantucket voyages returned 1.1 million barrels of sperm oil. At 34 barrels per whale, that works out to more than 32,300 sperm whales. Nantucketers went whaling as early as 1690, and the historical record of their voyages is incomplete, so the total number of sperm whales killed in service to the island’s prosperity may be as high as 40,000, to say nothing of right whales and other species. This number may seem large, but it is not, compared to the devastation wrought by industrial whaling in modern times. Between 1900 and 1999, the world’s whalers killed 761,523 sperm whales, out of nearly 3 million whales killed in total.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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