Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World examines the history of the American whaling industry from its 17th-century origins in drift and shore whaling off the coast of New England and Cape Cod, through the golden age of deep ocean whaling, and on to its demise in the decades following the American Civil War. Taking place over three centuries, the film binds the story of American capitalism on the rise with a case study in maritime culture. The fate of the whaleship Essex -- which set sail from Nantucket in the summer of 1819 -- is interwoven with the story of a young Herman Melville, whose own imaginative voyage into the deep would give rise to one of the greatest works of American literature, Moby Dick.

At the dawn of the 17th century, the first pilgrims watched from the Mayflower as throngs of whales breached the waters off Cape Cod. Native Americans would soon pass whaling techniques on to the new American settlers, who would come to dominate the industry for the next two centuries. By the mid-1800s, over two-thirds of the world's 900 whaling ships hailed from American ports, and American whalemen traveled the globe in pursuit of the largest creatures on earth.

For hundreds of years, the whaling industry was intricately bound up with American commerce and culture with the process and products of whaling, including shipbuilding, sailmaking, coopering, backsmithing, rope making, underwriting, and the manufacture of lamp oil, industrial lubricants, candles, corsets, and perfumes. At the industry’s peak from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, American whale oil helped light the world, illuminating, powering and lubricating the first phases of the industrial revolution.

As deep-ocean whaling evolved into its "golden age" in the 19th century, whaling came to grip the collective imagination of the American people. Great factory ships sailed on voyages for three to four years at a time. Chasing their prey on 25-foot row boats, six to eight-man crews would attempt to conquer whales weighing up to 80 tons. Once the great mammals were stabbed to death, a laborious process began. The massive bodies were towed back to the mother ship, dismantled and stripped of baleen, blubber, spermaceti oil, and teeth. On board, the blubber was rendered in vast try-pots, whose fires sent acrid plumes of black smoke into the sky, lighting up the sails at night with a lurid glow visible from 30 miles away.

The fascination surrounding whales can be attributed to the extraordinary greed and fury with which men chased whale species to the ends of the earth and to the point of near extinction. With little thought for the consequences, men attacked these colossal mammals for their precious cargo of oil, bone and spermaceti. "The poor whale is doomed to utter extermination," one whaleman wrote in the mid 19th century, "or at least so near to it that too few will remain to tempt the cupidity of man."

Due to the depletion of whale stocks worldwide and with the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859, the American whale fishery all but disappeared in the five decades after the American Civil War, becoming a parable of the ironies and follies of human appetite, ambition and short-sightedness.

Narrated by Willem Dafoe and Directed by Ric Burns (New York: A Documentary Film, The Way West, The Donner Party), Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World explores Americans' near 400-year enthrallment with whales, and resonates profoundly with our hopes, fears, dreams and imaginations.


My American Experience

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What impact do you think the whaling industry had on America and its economy? How do you think it shaped us as a nation? What do you believe is currently the industry that epitomizes the identity of America?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Rosalind P. Walter
  • NEH