Many historic houses decorating Skip Finley's native Martha's
Vineyard were originally built by whaling captains. Whether in his
village of Oak Bluffs, on the Island of Nantucket where whaling
burgeoned, or New Bedford, which became the City of Light thanks to
whaling, these magnificent homes testify to the money that was made
from whaling. The triangle connecting Martha's Vineyard to these
areas and Eastern Long Island was the Middle East of its day. Whale
wealth was astronomical, and endures in the form of land trusts,
roads, hotels, docks, businesses, homes, churches and parks.
Whaling revenues were invested into railroads and the textile
industry. Millions of whales died in the 250 year enterprise, with
more than 2,700 ships built for chasing, killing and processing
whales. That story is well-told in books, some that have been
bestsellers. What hasn't been told is the story of whaling's
colorful leaders in an era when the only other option was slavery.
Whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any diversity. A
man got to be captain not because he was white or well connected,
but because he knew how to kill a whale. Along the way he could
learn navigation and reading and writing. Whaling presented a
tantalizing alternative to mainland life. Working with archival
records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives and
interviews with people whose ancestors were whaling masters, Finley
culls stories from the lives of 54 black whaling captains to create
a portrait of what life was like for these leaders of color on the
high seas. Each time a ship spotted a whale, a group often
including the captain would jump into a small boat, row to the
whale, and attack it, at times with the captain delivering the
killing blow. The first, second or third mate, and boat steerer
could eventually have opportunities to move into increasingly
responsible roles. Finley explains how this skills-based system
propelled captains of color to the helm. Readers will meet an
improbable, diverse, engaging cast of characters: slaves and
slavers, abolitionists, Quakers, British, killers and cannibals,
deserters and gamblers, gold miners, inventors and investors, cooks
and crooks, and of course the whales, the latter of whom seemingly
had personalities of their own. The book concludes as facts and
factions conspire to kill the industry, including wars, weather,
bad management, poor judgment, disease, obsolescence and a
non-renewable natural resource. Ironically, the end of the Civil
War allowed the African Americans who were captains to exit the
difficult and dangerous occupation and make room for the Cape
Verdean who picked up the mantle, literally to the end of the
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