Azoreans A-whalin’

There was more to successful whaling than hunting and killing as many whales as possible. To maximize profits, whaling merchants had to maximize capacity and minimize costs. They achieved the former by building ever larger vessels with ever larger holds, and by keeping their crews at sea until the holds were full; they achieved the latter by purchasing the least expensive provisions they could find, and by paying their crews as little as possible. Provisions could be purchased along the way, at any number of ports along either side of the Atlantic, but filling out a crew required more ingenuity.

For many years on Long Island and Nantucket there had been more than enough men willing to join whaling ships. But as the whaling industry expanded, there was a shortage of crew. The lay system, in which each crew member received a share of the profit, expressed as a fraction, had been effective for decades, rewarding sailors with good pay. But in the 1800s, as whaling voyages grew longer and more dangerous, the pay disparity grew as well. A captain’s lay was roughly 1/15th or 1/18th in 1800, but would grow to 1/12th or even 1/8th by midcentury, while an officer’s lay would grow from 1/27th to as much as 1/20th. Common sailors and greenhands, however, saw their lays drop from 1/75th or 1/100th to 1/175th or even 1/200th. The system continued to attract American officers, but it was no longer sufficient to lure large numbers of American sailors, who could find safer work with better pay onshore, or in other fishing industries where the voyages were shorter and the prey less deadly, while the more adventurous among them were drawn to the western frontier.

Whaling merchants were increasingly compelled to resort to shady practices to man their vessels. They placed misleading advertisements and offered signing bonuses that later turned out be advances against wages. And they hired agents — “landsharks,” as they came to be known — who, for a percentage, would find new ways to cajole, persuade, and deceive men into signing on. Some plied men with liquor and opium and even kidnapped them to get them aboard. The industry could no longer attract experienced sailors; they had to settle for greenhands, and they took what they could get — derelicts, drunkards, and the down-and-out.

Owners and agents colluded not only to get men onto the ships but also to ensure that those men came away from the voyage with as little money as possible. The agents provided sailors with the necessary clothing, yet they charged inflated prices and provided poor-quality garments that wore out quickly, leaving mid-voyage sailors with no choice but to purchase new clothes, at even higher prices, from the ship’s store. Sailors also were required to pay for the food they ate and the medicine they used while aboard, also at greatly inflated prices. Upon returning to port after a journey of one, two, three, even four years at sea, all of these expenses were deducted from the sailor’s pay. Taking into account the length of the voyage and the expenses incurred, plus the isolation and danger of the work, the average sailor’s profit was often dismal, sometimes amounting to just twenty cents a day. Some came home in debt. Those who loved the whaling life, or felt they had no other option, might sign on for another voyage. But for the most part, only those who had an opportunity for advancement would sign on again.

Over time, word of the uncertain rewards of whaling spread, and the number of American men willing to ship out on whaling vessels dwindled. Immigrants, too, saw little to gain from the whaling life; once they established themselves in their adopted land, they were reluctant to depart for lengthy voyages. This left American whaling captains with plenty of officers but few sailors. They would have to search elsewhere for men to fill out their crews.

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In the last decades of the eighteenth century, as American whaling ships sailed farther and farther in search of whales, common sailing routes took shape. The most common took advantage of the Gulf Stream current, which carried ships east from the New England coastline to the Western Grounds, a sperm whale feeding and mating area about halfway between American and Europe. It was the first destination of most American ships as they set out for the distant reaches of the Atlantic. Just beyond the Western Grounds to the northeast were the Azores, known to Americans at the time as the Western Islands. This was the first port of call on a journey that could last several years. Here the ships took advantage of low prices for fruits, vegetables, and meats, provisioning their ships for the long voyage ahead. And now and again, starting in the 1820s, they took on an Azorean sailor or two, sometimes by agreement, sometimes as stowaways.

The shortage of willing American sailors and the provisioning of ships at the Azores happened to coincide with declining conditions on the islands, which soon produced a supply of young Azorean men eager to join American whaling crews as a means of escape. The ships would leave New England with a skeleton crew and just enough provisions to make the three- or four-week journey to the islands. Once the Azores were in sight, the ships might anchor a few miles offshore and wait for men to row out to the ship under cover of darkness. Meanwhile the ship would send boats ashore to stock up on provisions. Or the captain might dock the ship at one of the islands’ two accessible ports and turn a blind eye to the stowaways who snuck aboard. Most of the Azoreans joining whaling crews hadn’t fulfilled their mandatory military service to mainland Portugal and were thus leaving the islands in violation of Portuguese law. It was a delicate situation for Portuguese authorities who were torn between the need and desire for American dollars and the crown’s efforts to prevent emigration in order to draft Azorean men into military service.

The number of Azoreans sailing on American whaling ships began as a trickle in the 1820s but became a flood in the 1840s and 1850s, as the whaling fleet expanded and as conditions on the islands worsened. Their work ethic and their fearlessness, combined with their quiet, modest temperaments made them highly sought-after crewmen. Herman Melville based Moby-Dick on his own experiences aboard a Nantucket whaler in 1841 and 1842, when more than half the crew were from foreign lands, most of them Azoreans:

No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.

In the late 1700s ships first crossed the Atlantic to the Azores, and then, if it was summer, they headed north into the frigid polar waters in search of prey; if was winter, they headed south. This practice continued in the 1800s, but by then whalers more often ventured south, hunting in the southern Atlantic before sailing into the Pacific, where New England whalers had first ventured in 1787 and found a seemingly unlimited supply of whales.

By the time Francisco de Freitas climbed aboard in the 1850s, American whaling ships usually sailed southeast from the Azores to Madeira and Cape Verde, where they sometimes stopped for more provisions and crew, then down along the African coast and west again, across the ocean and along the coast of South America. Then, with so much of the Atlantic fishery depleted after decades of whaling, they rounded Cape Horn, headed for the more bountiful whaling grounds of the Pacific.


  • 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.
  • Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Robert L. Santos, Alley-Cass Publications, Denair, Calif., 1995.
  • Azores, David Sayers, Bradt, 2010.