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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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207-year-old whaling ship found in Gulf of Mexico

The remains of the only known whaling ship to sink in the Gulf of Mexico shine a light on the industry’s history of employing nonwhite crewmembers who could have been enslaved or imprisoned had they come ashore.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — Researchers say the wreck of a whaling ship more than two centuries old has likely been identified near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The whaling brig – the only of its kind to have been known to sink in the Gulf of Mexico, where its Black and mixed-race crewmembers would have faced enslavement had they gone to shore – was more than 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River, offshore from Pascagoula, Mississippi, when it sank in May 1836.

Researchers were looking into odd shapes on the sandy sea floor during undersea scanning work when they spotted what they believed could be the vessel, named Industry, that sank nearly 190 years ago. Remotely operated robots confirmed the presence of something at the site in February when they searched the sea bottom, about 6,000 feet below the surface.

Little is left of the two-masted wooden brig thought to be Industry, a 65-foot-long whaler built in 1815 whose masts snapped during a storm, causing its hull to open and sink.

A newspaper article found in a Massachusetts library showed the vessel’s 15 or so crewmembers were rescued and returned to Westport, Massachusetts, by another whaling ship, according to Jim Delgado of SEARCH Inc., the team of scientists that discovered the sunken vessel.

“This was so fortunate for the men onboard,” Delgado said Wednesday in a press release issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partnered with SEARCH. “If the Black crewmen had tried to go ashore, they would have been jailed under local laws. And if they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery.”

Though little is widely known about whaling, aside from Herman Melville’s 1851 classic "Moby Dick," it was America’s first global industry, spanning prerevolutionary times through the start of the 20th century, when whale oil lit the streetlamps throughout American cities and whale baleen formed the hoop shape in women’s skirts.

Less is known about whaling on American shores outside of the Nantucket legend sewn by "Moby Dick," though recent research suggests that hundreds of whalers worked off the southern coast beginning in the late 1700s. During the economic whaling boom in the U.S. between 1841 and 1845, as many as 672 whaling ships sailed through the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Gulf is an undersea museum of some incredibly well-preserved wrecks,” Delgado told the Associated Press. He helped identify the remains of the last known U.S. slave ship, Clotilda, just north of Mobile, Alabama, in 2019.

Mixed-race crews coming into port were a sore sight to Southern slave owners who wanted to prevent enslaved people from seeing whites, Blacks, Native Americans and others all free and working together, according to historian Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society in Massachusetts and a descendant of Paul Cuffe, a prominent Black whaling captain.

“There were a whole series of regulations and laws so that if a crew came into a Southern port and there were a large number of mixed-race or African American crew members on board, the ship was impounded and the crew members were taken into custody until it left,” Blake told the AP.

Black crewmembers also faced the possibility of being abducted and enslaved.

The Gulf was a sure place to find sperm whales, which were valuable because of the sheer quantity and quality of their oil, prior to the nation’s whaling industry collapse in the 19th century.

“In the 1790s there were more whales than they could pluck out of the Gulf of Mexico,” Judith Lund, a whaling historian and former curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, told the AP.

Lund additionally said that while more than 200 whaling voyages ventured into the Gulf, ships from the Northeast rarely made extended port calls in Southern cities like New Orleans or Mobile because of the dangers nonwhite crewmembers might face there.

That may have been one of the reasons the whaling ship that rescued Industry’s crew took them back to Massachusetts, where slavery was no longer legal.

“The people who whaled in the Gulf of Mexico knew it was risky to go into those ports down there because they had mixed crews,” Lund said.

Although the crew list for the last voyage of Industry disappeared when the ship went down, lists of crews from previous voyages name Blacks, Native Americans and others, including whites, as crewmembers and officers.

Cuffe, the prominent Black whaling captain and Blake’s ancestor, was a mariner and entrepreneur whose father was a freed slave and mother was a Wampanoag Indian. He began whaling as a teenager and went on to build ships. His work as an abolitionist included founding an integrated public school and leading a project to settle freed Black people in a colony in Africa. Cuffe’s son William was a crewmember on Industry and his son-in-law, Pardon Cook, was an officer on the ship.

“The news of this discovery is exciting, as it allows us to explore the early relationships of the men who worked on these ships, which is a lesson for us today as we deal with diversity, equality, and inclusion in the workplace,” Carl J. Cruz, a New Bedford-based independent historian and another descendent of Cuffe, said in the NOAA press release.

“Today we celebrate the discovery of a lost ship that will help us better understand the rich story of how people of color succeeded as captains and crew members in the nascent American whaling industry of the early 1800s,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said.

With the help of a satellite connection from partner scientists on shore, a team aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer piloted a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to explore the seafloor on Feb. 25, 2022, at the suspected location first identified as having strange shapes on the seafloor. This exploration led to the identification of what is most likely to be the remains of Industry.

The ROV hovered over what the researchers took to be the “telltale tryworks" - a cast iron stove with two large kettles used to render whale blubber into oil.

The NOAA team additionally confirmed the shipwreck’s measurements matched those of Industry in historic documents. They also determined that the location of the shipwreck, 72 nautical miles from the last recorded location off the mouth of the Mississippi River, could be attributed to the ship floating within the Gulf of Mexico’s loop current.

In addition to the Industry crew’s rescue by another vessel, most of the whaler's contents were also stripped before it sank.

“That there were so few artifacts on board was another big piece of evidence it was Industry,” said Scott Sorset, marine archeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “We knew it was salvaged before it sank.”

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