1,000 Fathoms Down - Archaeology Magazine

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2022-09-23 04:30:07

In the Gulf of Mexico, archaeologists believe they have identified a nineteenth-century whaling ship crewed by a diverse group of New Englanders

The first few weeks of May 1836 were pleasant ones for the whaling brig Industry. Based in Westport, Massachusetts, the two-masted, 64-foot-long ship had been built in 1815 and launched the next year. Now, two decades into her career, Industry and her crew of 15 men had been out for just over a year hunting sperm whales as far east as the Azores and as far south as the Caribbean. They had built up a store of several hundred barrels of sperm whale oil and were making their way back home when they detoured into the Gulf of Mexico in hopes of topping up their prized cargo.

Before the widespread availability of petroleum, sperm whale oil was a valuable commodity. It burned clearly and brightly without smoking, making it ideal for illuminating homes and lighthouses. It was a fine lubricant even at very high temperatures, and was used to oil timepieces, scientific instruments, and industrial machinery. In addition, spermaceti, a waxy substance harvested from sperm whales’ heads, was used to produce the brightest, cleanest-burning candles. And ambergris, an odoriferous material found in some sperm whales’ bowels, was coveted as an ingredient in perfume and worth its weight in gold. “If you were good at killing whales, then you had the ability to make cash,” says Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Anyone who participated in the whaling trade in the early nineteenth century could stand to do quite well at it.”

In the Gulf, Industry enjoyed a stretch of fine weather with steady winds and encountered a fellow Westport whaling brig, Elizabeth. The two ships “mated,” in the nautical parlance, and sailed in close proximity for several days. They were a few miles apart when a vicious squall set in on the evening of May 26. “The thunder rolled heavily and in the most terrific tones,” reports a June 20, 1836, article in the New-Bedford Gazette & Courier. “The lightnings flashed vividly and constantly in every direction during the night.”

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