American Whaling 1760-1850

America dominated the whaling industry throughout most of the eighteenth century and would dominate throughout the nineteenth as well, but this fortune did not come without a few reversals. The industry was all but wiped out during the tumult of the Revolutionary War and suffered enormous setbacks during subsequent wars, including the War of 1812, when the United States again battled England. Yet each time it not only rebounded but came back stronger than ever.

The British, who had tried many times to establish a strong presence in the whaling industry with little to show for it, found the colonists’ success maddening. The colonies were supposed to supply the motherland with a market for British whaling products, but instead they were dominating the industry while their British superiors struggled. The British probably found the colonists’ success all the more galling for the fact that it was largely centered on a tiny island less than one percent the size of England. Nantucket had launched just six ships in 1715, but that number grew to sixty by 1748, and continued to grow in the decades that followed.

But Britain turned the tables during and following the Revolutionary War, smothering the colonial whaling fleet with a naval blockade. The American industry saw a resurgence after the Revolution only to see the Brits shut it down with another blockade during the War of 1812, this time driving Nantucketers to the brink of starvation due to the loss of their primary means of survival. Nantucket declared itself neutral in the conflict with the hopes of appeasing the British and, along with a few northern New England states, considered seceding from the Union over the decision to go to war. But in 1815, after the war’s end, fifty whalers again departed from Nantucket, along with more ships from other New England ports, launching what would become the golden age of American whaling. Meanwhile the British industry faltered once more. Unable to meet the increasing demand for whale oil at home, they were forced to suffer the indignity of purchasing it from their erstwhile subjects.

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Nantucket’s location made it a natural launching point for whaling expeditions, yet in one respect it was an unusual place for whaling to prosper. Quakerism had spread quickly across the island following the persecution of Thomas Macy for aiding Quakers back on the Puritan-dominated mainland. And while the religion’s pacifist, anti-materialist philosophy may not seem to jibe with the brutal, bloody, and mercenary act of whale hunting, Quakerism played a crucial role in the island’s whaling success, for the frugality and industriousness of the Quakers inclined them to improve and expand the island’s fleet and facilities rather than squander the money on ostentation and indulgence. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville addressed the dichotomy of the Quaker whaleman in his description of Captain Bildad:

[T]hough a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tons upon tons of leviathan gore. How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.

But Nantucket had a few disadvantages, and over time these become increasingly detrimental to the island’s whaling industry. With little agriculture on the island, Nantucketers had to import food from the mainland; after a century of ship building, they had just about stripped the island’s forest clean, exhausting their timber supply; a shallow sandbar at the harbor’s entrance made it difficult for oil-laden ships to get to port, requiring cargo to be unloaded into boats until the ships were light enough to pass over it; and the island’s isolation, not to mention the Quakers’ pacifist philosophy, made Nantucket vulnerable to assault (as demonstrated by the ease with which the British seized the island in the War of 1812). These weaknesses were compounded by Britain’s efforts, in the 1790s, to poach the island’s best whalemen. The Brits offered great incentives to American whaling merchants to relocate their operations to England, Scotland, or Wales.

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One of these recruits was William Rotch, the most preeminent whaling merchant in America and a member of the country’s most famous whaling family. As one historian put it, “The Rotches were to whaling what Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were to steel and oil.” William was one of three brothers who had followed their father into the whaling business on Nantucket. In 1765, the father, Joseph Rotch, after having been active in the Nantucket industry for more than twenty years, bought ten acres of land in the mainland port of New Bedford—a town established and laid out by Joseph Russell just a few years prior with the intent of creating a whaling center—and, with the help of two of his sons, established the family’s whale oil refinery and spermaceti candleworks operations there. The Rotches had had many disputes with their fellow Nantucket whaling merchants over the years and their departure for the mainland only added to the ill feelings.

Meanwhile, William Rotch stayed on Nantucket to run the family’s fleet of whaling ships (and later a spermaceti candleworks as well) and mastered the business of whaling far beyond the limits of his father’s mentorship. His success made him an attractive prospect for the British, and Rotch found their offer alluring, as did many other American whalemen. However, he initially rejected the British inducement to operate from a port in Wales and instead went to France, only to find that country in the midst of a revolution. This led him to reconsider the British offer but the deal fell through—not because the British weren’t sure of Rotch’s abilities but because they were too sure. Britain’s recent whaling success had provided plenty of whale oil but they hadn’t expanded their markets for the product. They had too much supply and not enough demand, and they were concerned that Rotch’s formidable fleet would only exacerbate the problem.

Rotch returned to Nantucket but, due to his temporary defection, he was not well received. For this reason and because of the limitations of the island’s port, Rotch, in 1795, relocated his business in New Bedford, thereby helping to establish the mainland whaling port as a serious rival to Nantucket in the years ahead.

By 1819, the American whaling industry had fully rebounded after the War of 1812. Nantucket sent sixty-one ships out to sea that year, ninety in 1821, and New Bedford was not far behind. However, New Bedford had a few geographic advantages over Nantucket. It had a deep-water port, making it better able to accommodate the ever-larger whaling ships of the 1800s; it had plenty of agriculture and timber; it was tucked along the Acushnet River, with the protection of Buzzard’s Bay and the Elizabeth Islands (not to mention an entire continent behind it) making it less susceptible to invasion and occupation. But most important perhaps was that it had direct access to the resources and marketplace of the mainland. In contrast with Nantucket’s relative isolation, New Bedford could supply the whaling industry with provisions for voyages; factories for transforming raw materials into products; ancillary businesses such as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, sailmakers, and ropemakers; and access to the growing network of railroads to transport products to market throughout the country.

In the 1820s Nantucket’s century-long dominance of the whaling industry finally came to an end. As the island’s fortunes faded, New Bedford reaped the rewards, and just in time for the whale oil market to dramatically expand as cities around the world began to light their streets and public squares at night. New Bedford’s growth over the next few decades was astounding; in 1850 it would send out 298 ships, dwarfing Nantucket’s sixty-two. Whaling ships continued to sail from Nantucket and from other American ports as well—from Rhode Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Long Island, Boston, and a string of other coastal towns that hoped to cash in on the whaling boom—but New Bedford eclipsed them all to become known as “the city that lit the world,” the capital of whaling during the industry’s golden age between 1815 and 1860.

Nantucket … there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island…. Besides though New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her, yet Nantucket was her great original…the place where the first dead American whale was stranded.

  —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick



  • Leviathan: Our History of Whaling in America, Eric Jay Dolin,W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2007.
  • Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851.
  • In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick, Penguin, New York, NY, 2000.
  • A History of the Azores, Volume V, James H. Guill, Golden Shield Publications, Tulare, Calif., 1993.
  • And Yet They  Come: Portuguese Immigrations from the Azores to the United States, Jerry R. WilliamsCenter for Migration Studies, New York, 1982.