Melville gave his Pequod a diverse crew, mentioning 44 men from the U.S., northern and southern Europe, South America, Iceland, the Azores, China, and India. He epitomized this diversity in his four “harpooneers”: Queequeg the Pacific Islander, Dagoo the African, Fedallah the Indian “Parsee,” and Tashtego the Gay Head Native American. American whaling crews before the Civil War were in fact diverse, but never this diverse within a single voyage nor among the ranks of the boatsteerers (harpooners).
During Nantucket’s earliest period of whaling, ca. 1690–1720, the English relied on Native American men to man their whaling boats. English settlement drastically altered the lifeways of the island’s Wampanoag people. Fishing and whaling became necessary economic alternatives for a native population that could no longer rely on the island’s land. As these fisheries developed, however, boats and equipment lay in the hands of the English, leaving Native people to provide the bulk of the labor. White men did not form a majority of the island’s whaling workforce until about the middle of the eighteenth century.
Nantucket whaling crews of the 1820s to the 1850s comprised of a mix of local and off-island men, mostly Americans but supplemented by Europeans and increasing numbers of Azoreans, Cape Verdeans, and Pacific Islanders over time. Nantucket whaleship masters were nearly always white men from Nantucket; the mates were often but not exclusively islanders. Because seasoned merchant mariners avoided the tedious and dirty life of whaling, the industry hired many landsmen and provided meaningful economic opportunities for otherwise marginalized workers, particularly blacks, Native Americans, and poor whites.
White stereotypes cast Native Americans as natural hunters, which helped skilled men from the Mashpee and Gay Head Wampanoag communities advance to the ranks of boatsteerers and mates. Melville’s “wild Indian” Tashtego is a poor depiction of this core group of American whalemen.
Black men, both freemen and escaped slaves, often made up between 25 and 40 percent of Nantucket crews. While they earned nearly the same as their white shipmates, they were customarily excluded from specialized roles higher than cook and steward. Notable exceptions include Captain Absalom Boston and the all-Black crew of the Industry in 1822; Peter Green, who commanded the John Adams in 1823 after the captain died and a whale carried off the first mate; and the all-Black crew of the Loper, who harvested a remarkable 2,280 barrels of oil in just 14 months in 1829–30 and were feted by the ship’s owners on their return with the toast, “Black skin—the best skin a whaleman can see.”
American whalers routinely stopped at the islands of the Azores and Cape Verde to lay in provisions and hire additional crewmen. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some of these seamen came to Nantucket and stayed, creating a Portuguese-speaking community that in the mid- to late-nineteenth century anchored further immigration from the Atlantic Islands to New England. American whalers also hired Pacific Islanders from the places they stopped to rest and reprovision in the South Seas. No Queequegs here: Pacific Islanders commonly selected—or were assigned—simple nicknames instead of their real names when signed aboard: John Mowee, Peter Mowey, Joe Maui, Kanakkoe Bill, Robert Coffin (“Canacker”), and Jack Lewis (“Canaka”) all served on Nantucket ships before 1858. (Even Queequeg was entered as “Quohog” on Pequod’s roll.)
In imagining a crew for the Pequod, Melville took the reality of 1840s American whaling and exaggerated it, making his crew artificially hyper-diverse for literary purposes. While Ahab and the mates conform to real-world demographics, Melville’s harpooners are racial stereotypes of savage hunters; in fact, he never calls them by their rightful title, boatsteerer, but invents the word “harpooneer” to focus on their skills with the spear. To honor the actual men who worked in island whaling, we need to look beyond Melville’s literary creations and celebrate the real men who sailed Nantucket’s whalers.