Whaleships set out for several years in length. It was hard, dangerous work for low pay. Sailors came from many ports around the world. Whales were hunted for their blubber, which was boiled down on the ship and stored in barrels. This oil was used for lamps and lubrication of machines. The long “teeth” of baleen whales was used for a variety of products that today might be made of plastic. When petroleum was discovered, the whale industry declined.
Life Onboard a Ship
A captain ruled the ship. He was assisted by mates, who ran the ship and supervised the crew. On a whaler, some crew members tended the ship, or worked as carpenters, stewards, or cooks, while harpooners and others were hired to hunt whales.
Ships would carry fresh water for drinking. Fresh food was eaten while it lasted, and was restocked during port calls. Some animals would be kept onboard. Cooks relied on beans and hardtack that could keep well.
Signal flags could be used to communicate between ships. Mail was a bit haphazard and was received only occasionally, when a ship happened to meet another ship or come to a port.
A logbook about the ship’s voyage was kept by a ship’s mate. He recorded the day’s weather and wind, condition of the sea (waves, fog, ice), the ship’s direction, sails hoisted, whales seen or captured, work done, amount of oil stowed, food stores, events of note, and the longitude and latitude of the ship. This was all noted in a single paragraph, carefully written in pen and ink or in pencil. Daily entries often closed with “And so ends this day.” Some mates used a stamp with a whale on it to mark entries for days they saw or caught a whale. Others drew pictures in the margins of the logbook.
Events recorded included “gams” (meet-ups) with other ships, finding a stowaway, boat repairs, trouble with sailors, illnesses, and occasionally, the mate’s opinions. “The best ship I’ve ever seen” wrote a mate at the beginning of one voyage. “The captain is a tyrant,” reads another logbook at the end of a voyage.
You can learn about life on board a ship by reading logbooks on the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s library webpage. These will have first-hand accounts about whaling, the time period, and nautical terms. You can learn to read cursive handwriting, and see how people spelled words (e.g., “northe”). You can even feel the ship’s movement affecting the mate’s handwriting! For more about logbooks and journals, visit the museum archive page.
Spare Time On a Whaler
Downtime between whale chases was time to mend clothes, ropes, and sails.
Sailors practiced various crafts such as scrimshaw carving, the finely drawn engravings on whale teeth or bone. Gams between ships allowed for socializing between crews.
Reading & Writing
Some sailors brought books with them to keep them occupied in downtime. Some sailors kept journals, or wrote letters. Many books in that period, such as the Bible or Shakespeare were published in condensed formats so they could easily be packed in a footlocker for a voyage by land or sea.
Music was important to life on a whaling ship. Sailors sang work songs known as chanties (shanties) that helped them get through the many hours of hauling lines to set sails or raise anchors. During leisure time they would sing “forecastle” songs: ballads, popular tunes, and others (the forecastle being their bunk area in the prow of the ship).
For older children and adults, the movie “Into the Deep” was produced by PBS’s American Experience and has a great website that includes teachers’ guide, video and audio clips, maps, reading lists, links, and more. Learn about the challenging, sometimes dangerous life aboard a whaling ship, and the history of the whaling industry.
Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers
by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack
(Scholastic). For intermediate readers.
New Bedford Museum in Massachusetts library and archives contain maps, charts, journals, logbooks, This museum also absorbed the former Kendall Whaling Museum’s collection and archives.
The Penobscot Marine Museum is located in Searsport, Maine. They have many online educational resources that explain sailing practices, clearly presented along with videos.
Logbooks, scrimshaw, books, manuscripts
“Classic Maritime Music” Smithsonian Folkways Recording 40053 at the Smithsonian website
Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman
by William M. Doerflinger
Shanties from the Seven Seas
by Stan Hugill
Sea Chanteys and Sailors’ Songs : an Introduction for Singers and Performers, and a Guide for Teachers and Group Leaders
by Stuart M. Frank. KWM Monograph Series #11. 2001. Available online at New Bedford Museum website.