Seventy-two miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River and 6,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, divers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and SEARCH Inc. have examined, for the first time, a sunken American whale ship that was built in Westport.
That ship, lost for 186 years, is now the unexpected witness to a story that helps us understand a long-forgotten history that is important both for the country as a whole and for the South Coast.
Called the Industry, the brig whaler was built by Isaac Cory Jr. of Westport and when it sank in 1836, it was in all probability manned by a mixed-race crew working in pre-Civil War Southern waters.
William Cuffe, the youngest son of the legendary local Black and Native American shipbuilder Paul Cuffe, often worked on the Industry as a boat steerer. Pardon Cook of Westport was frequently an officer on the ship. Cook, a son-in-law of abolitionist Paul Cuffe, who operated whaling and shipping businesses in addition to shipbuilding, had made more whaling voyages than any other person of color at the time.
A progressive crew
Local researcher Robin Winters, of the Westport Free Public Library, continues to work on identifying the crew members as some of the ship’s papers from the Industry have yet to be found. Winters and Jim Borzilleri of the Nantucket Atheneum did yeoman’s work in tracking down some of the history connected to the Westport ship. Local historian Judith Lund of the Whaling Museum did the same in providing NOAA researchers her work documenting the history of whaling ships and their crews in general.
Winters has identified William Cuffe as working on many Industry voyages, including on an earlier trip in 1832. And she’s tracked down a Captain Soule of Westport whose first name has yet to be identified. Soule was in charge of the ship on its ill-fated 1836 voyage with a crew of 14. The Industry had been caught up in a late May storm in the Gulf and was listing in the open water when sailors from the brig Harmony, a Nantucket whaler, boarded it in early June of that year.
Before the Industry sank, the Harmony crew removed some 200 barrels of sperm whale oil, as well as valuable parts of the ship such as an anchor, the masts, sails and other rigging. Everyone associated with the Industry must have had to be careful in the waters off New Orleans, the biggest slave port at that point in American history, as illustrated in an incident just before the Harmony left the shipwreck.
The Nantucket boat had to get back to the business of whaling so its captain asked another ship in the vicinity, the brig Uncas, to report the wreck of the Industry. The Uncas was a slave ship that transported human cargo between New Orleans and Norfolk, Virginia. The international slave trade had been abolished in America in 1808 but intra-state trade was still flourishing.
Fearful of landfall
A group led by James P. Delgado that conducted the dive aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, noted the high stakes for the people of color on the Industry crew. In the Delgado group’s report on the examination of the wreck, the authors wrote that the mixed-race crews on ships like the Industry were fearful of kidnapping and laws known as the “Seamen Acts” that restricted the movement of Black seamen, requiring local law enforcement to arrest and confine any who left their vessels while in port.
“If they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery,” they wrote of the Black seamen.
“Imagine, then, the circumstances for these sailors, and for the ‘colored’ crew of Industry and other ships (as many African-American and ‘mixed race’ Afro-indigenous seamen were termed at the time) when sailing as free men from Westport and touching at American ports where slavery existed,” he wrote.
The Delgado group’s narrative draws a picture of an early 19th century world in which free Black seamen were common at the exact same time that chattel slavery was prevalent in the the American South.
In this world, it’s difficult to imagine the potential danger when the Harmony captain told the Uncas captain that it appeared that the crew of the Industry may have escaped in one of the ship’s quarter boats, and that he hoped they had made it to land. What could have awaited them when they did make landfall in the ante-bellum states bordering the Gulf of Mexico?
Luckily, that was not their fate.
Winters and Borzilleri tracked down the fate of the crew to a June 22, 1836 article in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. They were picked up by the whaling ship, the brig Elizabeth, and brought back home to Westport.
A story that disappeared from history
This is not the first time the presence of Black seamen has been documented in American history. You may recall that Frederick Douglass himself escaped to New Bedford from slavery disguised as a seaman and that Crispus Attucks, the first person killed in the American Revolution, was a seaman and whaler.
In 2020, Skip Finley of Martha’s Vineyard published the book “Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy” documenting the lives of more than 50 Black whaling captains, including Cuffe himself, who used only captains of color on his fleet of whaling and merchant ships. Cuffe was said to be the richest Black man in the New World at the time.
W. Jeffrey Bolster’s 1997 study, “Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail,” estimates that roughly one in five seamen in the early 19th century were Black, including in positions of leadership not common at the time in other walks of life.
The research into the story of the Industry and its crews reminds us of how much New Bedford area Black and Indigenous peoples had achieved some 50 and 60 years before Southern slavery reached its high point.
Winters said most of the shipbuilding and whaling families of Westport and New Bedford at the time were Quakers, and they were far ahead of their era on matters of race. In addition to the Black and Indigenous sailors from New England, the whalers also picked up Portuguese sailors in the Azores and Kriolus in Cape Verde to work on the whale ships.
“They were abolitionists,” Winters said. “Your race didn’t matter.”
New Bedford historian Lee Blake said the examination of the Industry’s wreck is an opportunity to educate people about the history of local Black and Indigenous peoples that has not been taught to any great extent in area schools.
“Finding the Industry is an amazing opportunity to tell a much fuller story of Paul Cuffe’s accomplishments as a whaling captain, businessman, and social activist bent on finding a way to end the slave trade,” Blake wrote in a comment to The New Bedford Light.
She also stressed Cuffe’s Native American heritage and history that has remained largely hidden: “The complexity of the Cuffe story touches both the Native and African American experience in the early years of the U.S. and should not be erased, suppressed, or diminished as efforts in some states now want to suppress the discussion of race and racism in our classrooms.”
Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society, led the group for 10 years in an effort to resurrect the history of Cuffe and his role in the whaling industry in Westport and New Bedford. The effort led to a 2009 Cuffe Symposium that included historians from around the country and the establishment of a Paul Cuffe Park at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Blake has also been instrumental in preserving the New Bedford home where Frederick Douglass, the nation’s preeminent African-American abolitionist of the 19th century lived when he first escaped slavery. As a result of the Historical Society’s efforts, a park dedicated to Douglass is scheduled to be completed in the near future.
Making the discovery
Beyond the importance of the history of whaling ships like the Industry, NOAA has also documented extensive information about the sunken ship’s final resting place.
Associated with this column that I’m writing today are videos, still photographs and the Delgado group’s narrative of the divers’ work documenting the remains of the ship. The potential location of the Industry was originally reported to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as a possible historical site during a sonar scan of an oil lease in 2011, and then reported to have archeological characteristics of a 19th century whale ship during a 2017 camera and sonar screen.
This past February, the Okeanos, NOAA’s research ship, was able to determine the outline of the relatively small Industry vessel, revealing an approximate length of 59 feet and a width of about 14 feet as it rested on the ocean floor. A large anchor sits toward the stern as well as a “camboose,” a type of stove used on late 18th and early 19th century ships, which in this case functioned principally as a tryworks used to render whale blubber, according to the available evidence in the Delgado study. Although there are other artifacts at the wreck site, many of the ship’s implements were loaded onto the Harmony and so are not present there.
SEARCH, a private search and recovery company, and NOAA plan to nominate the location of the brig Industry to the National Register of Historic Places.
I have to say I think the story of the Industry is an especially inspiring one for those of us who live on the South Coast. It reminds us of our great legacy from Paul Cuffe, the son of an enslaved man brought to New England from Africa, and a Wampanoag woman who achieved international business success in a world in which he lacked every right granted by birth to white men.
It also reminds us of the hardy and equitable New Bedford and Westport Quaker families who built up whaling, perhaps the most mythic of American industries. Finally, it points to the under-appreciated tradition of whaling crews being fully integrated almost a century before the Civil War.
We on the South Coast are the inheritors of the traditions of some of the most progressive peoples in American history – African-American, Indigenous and white.
Editor’s note: Lee Blake is a member of the Light’s board of directors. Our newsroom is independent. Board members, founders and donors have no influence over content.
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