Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.
Minority Success in a Hard, Dirty Trade
By MARK LARDAS
June 14, 2020
“Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy,” by Skip Finley, Naval Institute Press 2020, 304 pages, $42.00 (hard cover)
Whaling in the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries was dangerous, required long stretches isolated from family and community, and required participants to live in squalor. Despite potentially high pay, few jobs were harder or less attractive. Except perhaps, slavery.
“Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy,” by Skip Finley, examines the lives of men who became whalers because it beat the alternatives. These included blacks, both runaway slaves and free born, Native Americans, and Cape Verdeans: men marked by the color of their skin.
They turned to whaling because all other alternatives were worse. Finley reveals life on a whaling ship between 1750 and 1930: brutish, a cross between working on an oil rig and a slaughterhouse with the additional fillip of wretched food, crowded housing, and round-the-clock hours. It was also dangerous. There were many ways to die whaling and even more ways to get crippled.
It also paid very well. Before petroleum appeared in the late nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution ran on whale oil. It lubricated factory machinery and railroad engines. Whale oil, not kerosene, lighted factories, offices and home. Whale oil was scarce and in high demand. Whale crews got a “lay” (a percentage) of every barrel sold. Men got rich whaling, especially in skilled positions.
Working conditions were so appalling and profits so great, whaling ship owners took anyone capable of bringing a ship home filled with oil. Even so, most men avoided whaling unless they lacked better choices. Lacking better choices, Blacks and Native Americans became whalers. Their participation was accepted by New England Quakers dominating whaling between the American Revolution and Civil War, in part because Quakers opposed slavery.
Since performance mattered more than skin color, whaling men of color could rise to positions of leadership, becoming harpooners, mates, and captains on whale ships. Ultimately some became ship owners and investors.
Finley follows the history of more than fifty black and native American who became whale ship captains, ship owners, and chandlers (running businesses supplying whaling ships). Revealed is a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of family whaling and shipping dominions run by men of color. This is placed against the backdrop of both American society and whaling during the period.
“Whaling Captains of Color” examines both an industry critical to America’s industrialization, the people that worked in it, and the dynamics that created a color-blind meritocracy in a color-conscious era.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.