Maritime Museum Hosts Whaling Exhibition

by Jean Schiffman

The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts sends “Yankee Baleeiros! The Shared Legacies of Luso and Yankee Whalers” to SF’s Maritime Museum.

There is a largely unknown story to be told about how Yankee whaling ships contributed to the diaspora of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) communities in the Atlantic. Today three million Americans are their descendents, including a sizeable contingent here in California.

“Yankee Baleeiros! The Shared Legacies of Luso and Yankee Whalers” tells that story through art, photography and historical narrative in a new, admission-free exhibit at the Maritime Museum (part of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park). As explained in the exhibit text, this is a “compelling yet under-appreciated story that highlights the significant Lusophone contribution to the cultural heritage of the U.S.” (Baleeiros is Portuguese for whalers.)

The exhibit comes to us from the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts (on the picturesquely named Johnny Cake Hill), established in 1903 and now the world’s foremost whaling museum. The panels are part of the New Bedford collection; other whaling-related materials, belonging to the National Park Service, are housed here at the Maritime Museum.

As far back as the mid-18th century, whaling vessels leaving the port of New Bedford that were light on crew would sail across the Atlantic Ocean and when they stopped for supplies in the Azores (islands in the North Atlantic that form an autonomous region of Portugal), Cape Verde (300 miles off the coast of West Africa) and Brazil, they’d pick up sailors, too. When they walloped around Cape Horn (where, to quote the old sea chanteys, “you wish to God you’d never been born”) to California, many seamen jumped ship in San Francisco to join the Gold Rush. (Ship’s captains were therefore urged to bypass California and go straight to Hawaii.) Once the Gold Rush was over, the immigrants turned to dairy farming, fishing and other trades. “The story we want to tell is how whaling is tied to some of the beginnings of these communities,” says Christina Connett, curator of collections and exhibitions at the New Bedford Museum. She was in San Francisco over the summer to set up the touring exhibit, which will continue on to San Diego. “For communities like New Bedford [dubbed the Portuguese Ellis Island] and San Francisco, there was already a Portuguese-speaking community by the time the Industrial Revolution began,” she explains, “so then women and children and more men came over to join the already established communities.”

Before proceeding upstairs to the exhibit, you’ll want to linger in the lobby, with its stunning view of the bay. The hulking, singed stern of the Niantic resides here. The whaler was hauled ashore during the Gold Rush and repurposed as a saloon; it was burned to the mudline during the 1851 San Francisco fire. A glass case displays 50- to 60-year-old scrimshaw, delicate and intricate illustrations carved or engraved on whale bones and teeth. To fill idle hours while waiting for a whale to show up, sailors invented this folk craft.

A model of the 1878 whaling bark “Wanderer” shows a carved sperm whale on her starboard side. (The term bark refers to the particular plan of the masts.)

Upstairs in the “Yankee Baleeiros!” exhibit, panels display huge reproductions of paintings created by New Bedford artist Benjamin Russell (1804-1885), who worked as a cooper on a whaling ship for four years and sketched the vast and dramatic scenes he saw. Returning home, he painted the scenes onto a spool 1,257 feet long by 8 ½ feet high, which was rolled out like a moving panorama. Several reproductions shown here—of Rio de Janeiro, the Azores, Cape Verde, New Bedford Harbor and more—are 7 ½ feet high and depict colorful, to-scale illustrations of the natural landscape, buildings, ships, people. The spool was originally presented as a theatrical show in Boston in 1849—“Whaling Voyage Round the World”—for the ticket-buying public, with accompanying music; “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville may have seen it there. “It’s a wonderful historical record of the mid-19th century whaling industry,” says Connett.

To create the exhibit, the Whaling Museum worked closely with the New England Cape Verdean and Azorean communities, who vetted the project. The narrative on display is in both English and Portuguese. “We’re showing how the industry of whaling helped inform the demographics of the United States,” explains Connett. She also points out that examining the primary sources, such as whalers’ logbooks, helps current conservation efforts, including whale population density studies and climate change studies.

A section of the exhibit on “Identity, Perception and Reception” shows how, based on race, not all Lusophone immigrants were treated equally upon arrival in America. However, a narrative panel explains that whaling itself was like a meritocracy, “where one’s ability to hunt a whale was not trumped by the color of your skin. Herman Melville emphasizes this point in ‘Moby Dick,’ where the narrator Ishmael (Caucasian) is of a lesser rank than Daggoo (African), Tashtego (Native American), and Queequeg (Pacific Islander).”

Although the exhibit was designed to share, nationwide, the story of Lusophone immigration, the wholesale killing of whales is nevertheless a sad part of the overall picture. “One of the stories it’s important for people to understand,” says Connett, “is that the impact of 19th-century whaling was certainly dramatic but not as dramatic as in the 20th-century [when gun harpoons were invented]—off of south Georgia, 98 percent of the blue whale population was killed.

“All the places we discuss in this exhibit are now focused on eco-tourism,” she says—“making money to celebrate the whales rather than to kill [them]. The Azores is quite a powerful partner, and Cape Verde is making a huge effort on conservation, as is Brazil. We have very strong partnerships with these communities today.”

Through December 31

Maritime Museum

900 Beach St., 415/447-5000