How did businesses cater to crewmembers of whaleships when they were ashore?

Just as Melville in Moby-Dick describes boarding houses for seamen ashore, Nantucket provided short-term lodgings. Having left the sea, Captain Absalom Boston maintained one on his property between York Street and Dover Street. In 1824, John Pompey, another resident of New Guinea and owner of a dance hall, was forced by financial reverses to mortgage multiple tenements. William and Maria Whippy maintained a boarding house specifically for Pacific Islanders.

Drinking establishments catered to seamen without regard to race, ethnicity, or condition of servitude. In 1760 Benjamin Clark was in court for keeping a house where young people and indentured servants engaged in “frolicks” at night without permission of their parents and masters. James Freeman reported in 1807 that it was difficult getting African-American seamen aboard ship when it was time to set sail because of their addiction to frolicking. In 1811, Abigail “Nabby” Gurrell was called before the magistrates for running an “Ill-governed and Disorderly House” where she admitted people black and white, in the night as well as the day for tippling and carousing “to the great Damage and Common Nuisance” of her neighbors. She also sold hard liquor without a license.

It was reported in 1820 that there were nine houses in New Guinea serving alcohol, and townsfolk found it hard to believe that New Guinea’s residents could manage their own businesses. It was suspected that these establishments were, in fact, being operated by white businessmen hiding their identities behind black frontmen. Despite the opprobrium of authorities who sought to tightly regulate the sale of alcohol in public houses, astute businessman Absalom Boston successfully applied for a license in 1820 and personally delivered a large security deposit put up by himself and his partners.

Someone like Melville’s Dagoo might have been living in a sailors boarding house in New Guinea and drinking in an accommodating public house until it was time to ship out.

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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