Just as aboard the fictional Pequod, the crews of Nantucket whaleships were multiethnic. On the outside wall of the Nantucket Whaling Museum, in the original woodcarving by George A. Grant, the very last of the Nantucketers ever to have set foot on a whaler, a man who had pulled the oars in a whaleboat himself. Three of the six figures in Grant’s woodcarving were painted with dark skins. This would be a fairly accurate depiction of the racial composition of a typical whaleboat crew. According to James Freeman, who visited Nantucket in 1807, whaleboat crews ranged between forty and fifty percent “black,” by which Freeman meant African, Wampanoag, or of mixed race. He was writing about fifteen years before Pacific Islanders like Melville’s Queequeg joined the mix.
The main characters of color aboard the Pequod are the harpooneers, including Tashtego, “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head;” Daggoo, “a gigantic coal-black negro-savage;” and Ishmael’s buddy, the Pacific Islander Queequeg.
Melville describes Tashtego’s birthplace, Gay Head (Aquinnah), as “the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring island of Nantucket with many of her most daring harpooners.”
Earlier, it was Nantucket Wampanoags who pulled the oars in Nantucket whaleboats, and there are records of them going down with their boats, lost “awhaling to the Southard.” By the time Nantucket whaleships entered the Pacific Ocean, however, a fearsome epidemic known as the “Indian sickness” had carried off most of the Nantucket Wampanoags. The same epidemic reached Martha’s Vineyard, but it killed fewer people there. The Vineyard Wampanoag population recovered and was able to provide expert whalemen for Nantucket vessels.
Africans, including enslaved men, took up other places in the boats vacated by the Nantucket Wampanoags. Freeman wrote disparagingly:
“…the Indians having disappeared, negros are now substituted in their place. Seamen of color are more submissive than the whites; but as they are more addicted to frolicking, it is difficult to get them aboard the ship, when it is about to sail, and to keep them aboard, after it has arrived. The negroes, though they are to be prized for their habits of obedience, are not as intelligent as the Indians; and none of them attain the rank of endsman.”
By the date of Freeman’s report, the local men of African heritage who signed on for whaling voyages out of Nantucket were all “free blacks.” Massachusetts abolished slavery after the American Revolution, and the last people held in slavery on Nantucket, including two men sent out whaling by the Swain family, had been freed just a few years earlier. Two African Nantucketers, Captain Absalom Boston and Captain Edward J. Pompey had become masters of whaling vessels themselves.