Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Book Review

Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season

By Peter Nichols

Reviewed by Larry Mishkar

The richly historic narrative Final Voyage explores the people, places, and outcomes leading to a fateful day in 1871 when 1,219 men, women, and children were stranded after arctic sea ice crushed their whaling boats off the northern coast of Alaska. While no lives were lost, the destruction of so many specially equipped boats and valuable cargoes was a harbinger of the coming demise of the U.S. whaling industry.

In his book, author, creative writing teacher, and yachtsman Peter Nichols goes deep into America’s first oil industry: whaling.  During the 19th century, clannish Quaker power brokers controlled this industry from the world’s wealthiest town and the center of the American whaling industry, New Bedford, Massachusetts. Nichols says New Bedford was the Saudi Arabia of its day, a bustling port along Buzzards Bay that smelled of boiling blubber. Whale was king.

Seaweed covered whale oil barrels at Parker's Wharf, New Bedford. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (2000.100.441.72; no date). http://www.whalingmuseum.org/

From the beginning, the book’s chapters weave two stories: one about the rapidly expanding New Bedford whaling industry and the other about an unfolding catastrophic scene at Point Barrow, Alaska, thousands of miles away. Each story builds until it ends in utter failure.

With his bold statement “The Industrial Revolution was greased by whale oil,” Nichols explains how whaling enlivened the economies of both England and the newly established New World, as the Industrial Revolution moved from the English countryside cottage industry into cities packed with enormous factories and thousands of workers, many of whom were recent arrivals from the same countryside. Steam from coal-fired boilers powered the machines that included forges and spinning mills. These machines needed lubrication and whale oil from the New World fit the bill. Back in New Bedford, Quakers made fantastic fortunes as boat owners and company managers, and in some instances, as owners of factories that converted whale oil into candles or illuminant for lamps.

The New Bedford whaling industry reached its peak by 1857. Approximately 10,000 men were employed by New Bedford’s fleet of 329 whaling boats. But the status quo enjoyed by captains, sailors and New Bedford businessmen alike was about to change.

For the Quakers, it was the discovery of oil coming from nearby Pennsylvania in 1859 that changed entrenched customs. Almost overnight, this new raw material pumped from the ground made a brand new wealthy class. “Black gold” was easier to acquire and easier to transport than whale oil, the latter of which required long, slow sailings by men who were now chasing fewer and fewer whales into more dangerous waters.

The decline of the whale population meant taking new risks in order to fulfill the longstanding demands of whaling: no return until the boat could hold no more. Chasing this declining resource took on a fevered pitch, perhaps despite what the whalers’ skills and intuition told them otherwise. Thus, in arctic waters in 1871, dozens of experienced captains and their crews decided to take advantage of the Coriolis effect – the earth’s spin in the Northern Hemisphere that moves sea ice thirty degrees clockwise to the wind direction. The northeasterlies moved the sea ice west, opening a large channel between the pack ice and the shoreline, allowing whaling crews access to waters rich with feeding whales.

But then the wind changed direction. The pack ice closed in around the boats, trapping the whalers between moving pack ice and the shallow waters of the Alaskan coast.

Even while their boats remained iced in, wrecked, or even grounded, the whale hunt continued as small boats pursued whales that were also trapped by the ice. Some captains bought salvage rights to the wrecked boats, hoping to later sell whatever they gleaned at rock-bottom prices.

Luckily, a few whaleboats remained outside the pack ice. Using muscle and might and the small whale chasing boats, the crews and family members sailed and rowed toward this refuge and were saved. 

Bark Lagoda at a New Bedford wharf. Lagoda, trapped in the sea ice off Point Barrow, was able to free itself and rescue many of the stranded whalers and their families. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (2000.100.789; no date). http://www.whalingmuseum.org/

Nichols briefly covers other aspects of whaling, such as the life of a captain’s wife and family aboard a whaling boat, and the way the Yankees sunk whale boats at the entrances to Confederate harbors at Savannah and Charleston in unsuccessful attempts to block its Navies. In fact, the first whaling boat launched from New Bedford in 1767, the “Dartmouth,” was one of the ships later involved in the Boston Tea Party.

Much like the excellent adventure it tells, this well-written book ends with the decline of the whale oil industry and its powerful families. For thousands of out-of-work whalers in the last quarter of the 19th century, the new industry in New Bedford was weaving, and ex-whalers now managed thousands of spindles in the newly constructed mills. These machines produced cloth needed by factory workers involved in America’s Industrial Revolution. But the Pennsylvania oil fields and not whales provided the lubricants for these new machines.

For our history-hungry readers, a previously published field notes story covering a recent NSF-funded study  of the 32 sunken whaling boats off of Point Barrow allows us to observe a working archaeologist in search of artifacts without the benefit of historic documentation. After pairing Nichol’s book with the archaeological research, a fairly complete picture begins to emerge of an entangled and provocative chapter in American history. This is indeed a rare and wonderful thing.  

Nichols, Peter. 2009. Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

If you’re not in the neighborhood but you want to go, the New Bedford Whaling Museum has a lively Web site with extensive digital offerings.  At least two current on-line exhibits feature the connection between this New England community and the Arctic. Visit William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas to admire this 19th-century master’s paintings.  Check out Portraits of Ports, a distance-learning exhibit that features Barrow, Alaska, and New Bedford as it interprets American whaling history.

Larry Mishkar works as an archaeologist, photographer, and writer. He is an avid reader and international news junkie who loves a good adventure. This winter finds him preparing for a summer trek across Iceland.