The Elusive Whaleman

After struggling with microfilm last week (still working on Queen Liliuokalani, by the way) I moved onto my new assignment. This time, I investigated a different aspect of whaling: the international connection it created. Specifically, I was asked to go through a report by the U.S. Fish Commission & the United States National Museum in order to document every item donated by a New Bedford person/firm to the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition.

As I talked with my supervisor about this, I discovered one more hidden goals of this project – a task I’ve named “The Elusive Whaleman.” The title refers to a photo of a New Bedford Kanaka [native of Sandwich/Hawaiian islands] whaleman that was taken by Smithsonian photographer Thomas William Smillie. So far, we haven’t found a trace of the picture – only its description as Photo No. 2134 remains to be seen.

The photo was one of several photos of New Bedford in the United States collection at the exhibition. A majority of the photos were of residences of successful ship captains, though there were several featuring people. Some of the others included in the collection featured an African whaleman, Azorean Portuguese whalemen, and a group of skippers. I briefly looked more in-depth into Smillie’s visit to New Bedford, but I didn’t find anything on the Internet. I did notice, however, that Smillie’s photos often featured minority populations alongside portraits of the rich and famous. I’m curious if this is a personal choice (Smillie wanting to represent all aspects of society) or a commissioned choice (the United States National Museum making this scientifically beneficial decision.) Either way, it’s great for documentation.

Other than that, I did some minor investigation into the Smithsonian Archives to see if I could find any clues as to where our Elusive Whaleman might be hiding. I was only recently introduced into divulging the secrets of archives, so I definitely struggled in searching. One obvious drawback is the size of archives – with hundreds of thousands of collections, not all of them are properly digitized or particularly detailed.  I’m hoping that this week I’ll be able to learn how to utilize the archives to my advantage and possibly find the Elusive Whaleman’s location.

While I couldn’t find much about the photo, I did learn a lot about the tools of whaling. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. Over 180 items were donated from New Bedford. Some were photos (as mentioned before,) some were crew logs or captain’s logs, and some were bones of various whales. But the majority of these items were the physical tools of whaling. Most of them were obvious – bone-scrapers, for example, are used for cleaning whalebones. Others sounded weird – like a belly-band, which is used to lower a man over the side of a ship at sea. There were (in my opinion) too many harpoons – all of different length and sizes depending on what type of whale one was shooting at. But my favorite items were the ones that seemed odd to send to an exhibition. For example, the U.S. Fish Commission sent a pair of whaleman’s hand-cuffs in the collection, which were used for “enforcing discipline, manacling insubordinate, pugilistic, or drunken members of the crew, and deserters if caught.” It’d certainly be something cool to see, but was that really important to describe aspects of American whaling to the world?

I knew the basics of the whaling industry, but I hadn’t necessarily considered every aspect of its process – from the moment one leaves port to the moment one had whale oil in their home to light something. While an overwhelming amount of information (and not always the most interesting to read,) it was actually cool to have some idea of what these whalers were actually doing. It reminded me of today’s shows like Deadliest Catch, where viewers get to know the crew members and the process of catching our supply of fish. On the surface, it sounds boring (at least, it does to me) – but taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the process allowed for fuller knowledge and understanding of the difficult process of whaling. 

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