The Wreck of an 1830s Whaler Offers a Glimpse of America’s Racial History

The shipwreck formally known as No. 15563 has been identified as Industry, the only whaling ship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Wednesday, scientists announced they were certain the wreck was Industry, which was built in 1815 and capsized in a storm on May 26, 1836. and Native Americans – opens a window into the maritime and racial life of the antebellum United States.

The ship’s remains were first documented in 2011, when a geology data company scanning an oil lease area discovered the carcass of a ship at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Following standard procedures, the company reported its finding to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which registered the wreckage as No. 15563 and left it alone.

The seabeds of the world are covered with shipwrecks and oil contractors constantly come across them. But James P. Delgado, senior vice president of Search Inc., a company that manages cultural resources such as archaeological sites and artifacts, was interested because the oil contractor’s description called a tryworks, a type of furnace unique to the whaling ships.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needed to test new equipment in the Gulf of Mexico, it asked Search Inc. if there were any wrecks it wanted to investigate.

Last month, Dr. Delgado, an expert in maritime archaeology, from his office supervised the crew of NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer ship as it piloted a remotely operated vehicle around the wreck, under 6,000 feet of water, about 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The vehicle repeatedly went back and forth in precise patterns, collecting images and data from which Dr. Delgado and other researchers created an extremely detailed three-dimensional model known as an orthomosaic.

They examined the size of the ship (64 feet by 20 feet); hull shape (characteristic of the early 19th century); materials (no noticeable green color that would have denounced the presence of oxidized copper); and tryworks (insulated with large amounts of brick, indicating that the kilns had been running at the scorching temperatures needed to produce oil from whale blubber).

Everything, along with the location, matched what the researchers knew about Industry.

The whaling trade boomed as the industry took off, and in northern coastal towns like Westport, Massachusetts, it brought together black Americans, white Americans, and Native Americans to a degree rare in other industries. A prominent shipbuilder was Paul Cuffe, the son of a freed slave and a member of the Wampanoag tribe, and one of Cuffe’s own sons, William, was part of Industry’s crew.

The Cuffe family “hired almost all the blacks and Native Americans on their ships, and they made sure all those people were paid equally according to their rank on board,” said Lee Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society and a descendant of Cuffe. . “That’s a very different way of looking at work at a time when you had southern ports, which of course enslaved Native Americans and African Americans.”

The racial makeup of Industry’s crew would have limited its options when they ran into trouble, as black members would have been jailed and possibly sold into slavery if docked in a southern harbor. Most whalers avoided the Gulf of Mexico altogether; according to research by Judith Lund, a historian who worked for the New Bedford Whaling Museum, there are only 214 known whale watching trips in the Gulf from 1780 to 1870.

Until now, historians had no idea what had happened to Industry’s crew.

When Robin Winters, a librarian at the Westport Free Public Library, began digging at Dr. Delgado’s request in September, all she knew was that the ship had sunk somewhere in the Gulf in 1836. The passenger register went down with it. Documents from the Starbuck whale family identified the captain as ‘Soul’.

For months Mrs. Winters stood dry. Then she reached out to Jim Borzilleri, a researcher in Nantucket, who found a passing mention in an 1830 news clipping of a Captain Soule associated with a Nantucket-based ship named Elizabeth.

Soule was a common surname in New England at the time, Ms. Winters said, but the reference caught her attention. “I thought, ‘Hmm, would it be too good to be true that the crew and captain may have been picked up by Brig Elizabeth?'” she said.

She asked Mr. Borzilleri to search together for any mentions of Industry and Elizabeth.

He called back within 10 minutes.

He read to Mrs. Winters of a small “marine news” report tucked away toward the end of the June 22, 1836, edition of The Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror: Elizabeth had returned home on June 17 with 375 barrels of whale oil, along with “Captain Passengers.” . Soule and crew of the brig Industry of Westport, capsized off the Balize on May 26, with 310 Bbls of oil on board.”

In other words, Industry’s crew survived, saved by the random luck of being picked up by another ship from the north.

The most interesting discoveries in marine archeology aren’t always ships whose names are in textbooks, said Dr. Delgado, but instead “these ships that speak to the everyday experience.”

“And in doing so, we are reminded that history is not big names,” he added.

“When we find a ship, in many ways it’s like suddenly a book is open,” said Dr. Delgado. “And maybe not every page is there, but when they are, it’s like, ‘Wow.'”


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