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Nantucket and Whaling

For more than a century, between 1750 and 1850, the headquarters of the global oil business was a small island named Nantucket, twenty-four miles off the coast of Southern New England. The Nantucket whalers were the acknowledged world leaders, the masters of the hunt for the spermaceti whale. Many whaleboats were struck by Sperm whales resulting in the deaths of hundreds of whalers. Most other ports at the time refused to hunt the Spermaceti whale, as it was too dangerous, but the perils of whaling had given the men from Nantucket a high tolerance for danger and suffering.

In July of 1819, the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventy Nantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. With whale oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world's economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum is housed in one of the 35 candle factories that used to thrive on the spermaceti industry in the 17 and 1800's. The candles derived from Sperm whales were said to have burned longer and brighter than any in the world. Today the whaling museum has one of the world's greatest collections of whaling equipment, scrimshaw and artifacts. Perhaps the most impressive display residing in the hallowed halls of the museum is the 18 foot jaw bone taken from a bull estimated to have been nearly 80 feet long, slightly smaller than the whale that sunk the Essex. It was Herman Melville who made the most enduring use of the Essex story. However, at the time Moby Dick proved to be a critical and financial disappointment. Melville traveled to Nantucket to visit Captain Pollard who by now had captained and lost a second whaleship and was a lowly night watchman.

Melville stayed at the Ocean House on the corner of Centre and Broad streets diagonally across from the home of George Pollard. Melville wrote of the Essex's Captain,

    "To the islanders he was a nobody - to me, the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming even humble that I ever encountered."

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The Nantucket Whaling Museum

Owen Chase went on to become a successful Captain in his own right and was given an owners' share in a vessel. As the years went by, the Captain retired a success to his house on Orange Street. However, the Essex first mate hid food in the attack, was plagued by headaches and finally judged insane. Today one can stand along the waterfront and watch the tourist laden ferries arrive from the mainland. It was along these same shores that early Nantucketers used to scan the horizons for the sails of the returning whale ships, bringing home their loved ones as well as a hold full of precious whale oil.

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Orange Street

  • Listen to the related 'Voice from the Sea' piece on the Essex and whaling by Dr. Roger Payne : REAL AUDIO

  • What does the town of Nantucket, the former whaling capitol of the world, look like now: view the video: REAL VIDEO

  • Whaling still takes place today, view some pictures from Japan and the Faroe Islands:

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    Japanese Market
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    Japanese Dolphin Hunt
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    Faroe Islands
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