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Reviewed by Irwin Bryan

Cover Art: Whaling
        Captains of Color
Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy
Skip Finley
Naval Institute Press, 2020, ISBN 978-1-68247-509-6, $42.00

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This book on the whaling industry focuses on the remarkable stories of black men who rose through the ranks to become captains of whaling ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The inherent danger of struggling with whales on the open sea created many opportunities for men to advance. At the same time, they lived under no illusion that racism did not exist and knew they could not enjoy the same freedoms on land that they had at sea. Whether crew or officer, if their ship went to a southern port, they could be taken as runaway slaves if they left the ship. Even so, many mates of color first advanced to command ships as “replacement captains” during a voyage. Most were confirmed in that rank by being appointed captain of a new voyage or ship upon their return.

Paul Cuffe was born in 1759 and started whaling at thirteen. In addition to being the first captain of color, he went on to become “the wealthiest black man in the New World and the head of an extended family of black whaling and merchant captains.” (10)

He partnered with Michael Wainer and obtained a 40-ton schooner that they took whaling. Using money that voyage earned, Cuffe built a new ship, the 69-ton Ranger. He went on to own several whaling ships. All his whaling and merchant ship captains were black. Some he personally trained. His partner, Wainer, served as captain of a whaling cruise for the first time in 1792. In time Cuffe’s sons and nephews, as well as three of Wainer’s sons shipped on Cuffe’s whalers. Two of those sons, Thomas and Paul Wainer, both captained whaling voyages.

During the Revolutionary War, Cuffe built a boat to smuggle goods to the mainland from offshore islands. He also started a merchant shipping business and went on to own a fleet of trading vessels that further enriched him. He acquired land and established a retail store to sell products bought on voyages. “His enterprises made millions of dollars.” (17)

Absalom Boston, fifth child of two freed slaves, went on at least five whaling voyages, one of them as the captain of the Industry. He was a crewman on a Pacific voyage in 1809 and an ordinary seaman in 1817 on a ship bound to Patagonia. By going on voyages without a long break in between, he was able to invest some of his earnings in shares of other whaling voyages.

Boston was part owner of the Loper for an 1829 voyage with him as first mate. This highly successful trip earned $1,417,385 in today’s dollars and his “one-twentieth lay earned $69,869, a relative fortune.” (47) His shares as owner were worth even more. He continued to invest in whaling and acquired land, a store, and an inn in Nantucket. He helped build a church and a school. When his daughter was barred from attending a school, Boston filed suit against the school board and was partly responsible for public schools in Salem, New Bedford, and Nantucket being open to blacks in 1850.

Frederick Hussey was born on New Guinea, “where the people are variously described as Melanesian, Papuan, Negrito, Micronesian, or Polynesian.” (106) A crew list described him simply as “dark.” By 1854, at twenty-six, he was a mate on the Cape Horn Pigeon for a trip to the Indian Ocean under Captain Almy. The steward stabbed Almy and although he survived, he was incapacitated for some time. Hussey took command of the ship. He also sailed with Almy as captain on the Roscoe in 1859. “On that trip he became the replacement captain after a whale killed Captain Almy and seven others in two whaleboats.” (107) Hussey finally retired from whaling at age forty-six.

From Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, William A. Martin took his first whaling voyage in 1846 on the Benjamin Tucker. Aboard the Waverly, which returned to port in 1854, Martin’s 1/37th share earned him a great deal. He continued to advance, but was not chosen as a captain until he was forty-eight. He was captain of the Eunice H. Adams, which left New Bedford in 1887. It turned out to be a bad luck voyage with foul weather, plenty of accidents, leaks requiring almost constant pumping out, and desertions. In all, forty-seven men served on the thirty-man crew at one time or another. Martin was himself injured and needed his own replacement captain. He made fourteen whaling voyages before retiring in 1890. Martin was married for fifty years and the family home still stands in Chappaquiddick.

After oil was found on land, the value of whale oil began to drop. With whales being hunted for years, they became scarce in the normal fishing grounds. Whales were still found in abundance in the Arctic and that’s where whalers went next. The nearest port to the Pacific Northwest was San Francisco, so several east coast whalers actually shifted operations to that city. I was surprised to read the Charles W. Morgan (1887-1906) was one of the ships.

William T. Shorey was born on Barbados one hundred years after Paul Cuffe and is probably better known as a result. He began whaling in Provincetown, Massachusetts and sailed aboard the Herriman from that port. The three-year voyage finished at San Francisco. Shorey had a thirty-two-year career in whaling, seventeen of those years as captain. His first voyage as captain earned $24,936, a value of almost $624,000 in today’s dollars. In all, Shorey brought back “more than $7 million of whale-based cargo.” (199) The city of Oakland is where his family lived while whaling out of San Francisco. Short Street was renamed Shorey Street in the captain’s honor in 1907.

This book is the result of extensive research into the whaling trade and the lives of some of its captains. In addition to the narrative, the author further shares twenty pages of endnotes, an eleven-page bibliography, and a fifteen-page index. Among the eleven appendices are a chronological list of captains, the number of whales each captain killed, the names of captains killed by whales and other supplemental information. Forty-three black-and-white pictures are scattered throughout the book, with many pictures of ships and captains.

In writing this book, the author knew he needed to tell the story of whaling to any potential readers who might otherwise be unfamiliar with the industry. He does an admirable job and provides wonderful portraits of the many brave men who reached the pinnacle of their careers because of their knowledge and skills. Although planned as an excellent sea story, by being published during the Black Lives Matter movement, Whaling Captains of Color will be read by many people enthralled to discover that so many black men were in command of their ships and their destinies.

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Review Copyrighted ©2020 Irwin Bryan

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