While staying in Rhode Island we took a day trip to the town of New Bedford in Massachusetts. During the 19th century the town was nicknamed “The Whaling City” as it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world. Today, along cobblestoned streets you can visit historic buildings operated by the National Park Service and tour the New Bedford Whaling Museum. This museum was the reason I wanted to come to the city because it was noted as being one of the best whaling museums in America.
The museum has a number of interesting exhibits with the “Lagoda,” an 89 foot, half scale model of a whaleship the centerpiece. During our visit, museum staff dressed up in period costumes and playing various parts, put on a play of a whaling ship getting ready to go to sea. I watched for awhile and then moved on to see what the rest of the museum had to offer. There were skeletons of whales, descriptions of whaling methods including use of small boats to catch the whales. The try pots pictured above were kept on the ship deck and used to render oil from blubber after the whale had been cut in pieces.
In one of the rooms was an exhibit of the first man to sail solo around the world. In 1895, Joshua Slocum at the age of 54 left Boston in a sloop he rebuilt called the “Spray.” He made it around the world in a little over three years coming back with artifacts from his voyage, some on display at the museum. He paid his way by giving lectures at various ports. Mr. Slocum wrote a popular book about his voyage that was published in 1900. Since I enjoy reading about sea voyages and this one was important historically, I downloaded his book on my kindle and right now in the process of reading it. So far it is quite interesting and he is a very good writer. Mr. Slocum and the Spray disappeared in 1909 while traveling to South America and were never seen again. The most surprising thing about this man of the sea? He didn’t know how to swim.
My favorite exhibit was a room filled with scrimshaw – historic carvings made on whale bone, usually teeth of sperm whales. It became a hobby of whalers and seamen who created intricate and beautiful designs. Common themes were clipper ships, whaling boats, the whale hunt and even famous people like George and Martha Washington. The scrimshaw in the photo above was done on a sperm whale tooth caught near the Galápagos Islands in the year 1817. The whale gave 100 barrels of oil for the ship. I like that the description was written on the tooth. Below are more examples of scrimshaw.
The view from the top floor deck of the museum gives a scenic view of the town of New Bedford and the harbor.
After our museum visit we headed over to see the historic Mariners’ Home, a boarding house for whalers and fishermen which is now used for exhibits. It is next to the Seamen’s Bethel, the chapel of the whalemen. It was here that author Herman Melville attended services and later in his book “Moby Dick” referenced the chapel and the sermon given there in a pulpit shaped like the bow of a ship. (Google Orson Wells and Moby Dick to see a powerful film version of the sermon). In 1961, a boat builder constructed a replica pulpit like the one described in the book. On the walls of the chapel are the names of New Bedford whalers and fishermen who lost their lives at sea. All of the remembrance plaques as well as the bow shaped pulpit really give a feel that this was a church for whaling families. A few scenes from other films have also been made at the Bethel.
Our last exhibit stop was away from the historical district in an event building. A very large room was needed for the exhibit of the longest painting in America. The 1,275 foot long “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World” is one of the more unusual and amazing things I have seen during our travels. It was painted in 1848 by two men and as the title implies, shows a whaling voyage around the world that started from New Bedford. Benjamin Russell had sailed aboard a whaling ship to earn some money and decided to recreate his voyage with the help of an assistant. The Panorama detailed people and places that Benjamin encountered and was painted on cotton sheeting with a water based paint.
Historically, moving panoramas like this one were mounted on spools and scrolled much like celluloid film. The painting traveled to a number of U.S. cities before it was donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum 100 years ago. After 150 years of travel it had tears, worn spots and burns. In 2017, the museum completed a major restoration of the Panorama. Since rolling the painting would put it at risk of damage, it is displayed at its full length. Below is a photo showing the painting covering both sides of the room.
The painting shows the typical route of a whaler in the mid-19th century, with stops in the Azores, Cabo Verde, Rio de Janeiro, Chile and many ports in the Pacific. Below is a photo of the Volcano at Fogo (mountain of fire) in Cape Verde which erupted in 1847.
Since this was a whaling voyage, there are numerous scenes of whale hunts such as in the photo below.
The Grand Panorama is a wondrous spectacle and I felt fortunate that I was in New Bedford at the time it was being displayed after restoration. It took a long time to walk beside the cotton sheeting and see all of the painted images and follow this voyage around the world. I doubt my photos do it justice, especially in the size of the painting. It made a big impression on me and I thought about the Panorama many times after my visit. I might have come to New Bedford for the whaling museum, but it ended up being the Panorama that was the reason to come.
So who were all the whalers that were drawn to whaling in New Bedford? They came from many different places and included Americans from New England, Basques. the British, Dutch, the Portuguese, native Hawaiians and escaped African American slaves. It seemed fitting for us to end our day eating dinner at a Portuguese Restaurant called Tia Maria’s in the historic part of the city.
I hope you enjoyed a look at the whaling history in New Bedford!