Situated off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is today known mostly as a summer colony for the affluent American population. However, the island has deep roots within the American whaling industry, a business it dominated for decades. Together with the city of New Bedford and the island of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard became an epicenter of the American whaling industry during the 19th century, sending countless sailors all over the world from its port in Edgartown.
Whaling in the nineteenth century was a dangerous, but potentially lucrative venture for those who decided to pursue it. Whales were hunted mostly for their blubber, which could be rendered into an oil for use in candles, as fuel in oil lamps, and in other products like leather and soap. The expeditions to hunt these whales were long and arduous, however, with many expeditions lasting as long as three years. Sailors could also be out much longer than anticipated depending on the size of their ship, and the amount of whales they managed to catch. The longest whaling voyage on record is that of the Ship Nile, which lasted eleven years, from 1858 to 1869.
Whaling ships were often micro-societies unto themselves, but were also plagued by disease, death, and unrest due to the duration of time spent at sea. Mutiny was not uncommon during whaling missions, and at least one ship out of Nantucket (the Globe) saw a major confrontation when the crew killed Captain Thomas Worth and three other officers. Ships were often also unhygienic, where pests such as rats or fleas were simple facts of life, contributing to the proliferation of disease on board. As a result, whaling was both a dangerous and relatively unpleasant experience for sailors who chose to join a voyage.
However, whale hunting could result in a considerable profit if the expedition was successful. In 1836, unrated crewmen from the whaleship Milton each received $571 USD for their work on board the boat. This mission must have been exceptional, as another journey by the Milton resulted in unrated crewmen only being paid $10.10 per sailor for their labor. Ultimately, whaling was an industry based on gambles, and voyages depended not only upon the skill of the crew involved, but also the amount of whales they encountered.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the allure of a possibly successful whaling mission induced many young men to become sailors. During the 1850 census, of the 1,463 men listed from the island, 686 were mariners, accounting for almost half of the working men that year. While the Vineyard wasn’t well known for shipping out whaling vessels like their neighbors of Nantucket and New Bedford, many of the men from Martha’s Vineyard served as crew or captain to ships from other areas. Edgartown did however serve as a location for offloading whale oil from expeditions, as Nantucket’s harbor was found to be too shallow when a ship was weighted from cargo.
Once a ship reached the Vineyard for offloading, money was quick to change hands between oil salesmen and ship captains, who were typically given the largest cut of an expedition’s profit. The wealth these captains gained quickly evidenced itself during the height of whaling between the 1820s and 1850s, where ship captains often built large mansions to display their fortunes in Edgartown. This wealth helped to establish the island (and Edgartown specifically) as an affluent location, which it has retained even after the decline of the whaling industry in the 1860s. Today, the lasting influence of whaling can be felt throughout Martha’s Vineyard, and the island remains proud of its heritage, not only by preserving the captains’ mansions in the Edgartown Village Historic District, but also within the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which contains innumerable whaling artifacts for visitors to observe.