Charles W. Morgan: Sailing back to New Bedford

newsletter-112-6Our good friend Matthew Stackpole is here in the audience today. He’s a historian and sailor and a lover of ships, and it’s true to say that of the people who made this day possible and without whom we wouldn’t be here, Matthew is second to none. His passion, his knowledge, his commitment have made this day possible as much as anyone. His love for ships and whaleships and history is legendary, runs from Nantucket and Mystic, where he grew up, to Martha’s Vineyard, where he built ships and ran the historical society, and back again.
I know this ship means everything to Matthew. The Charles W. Morgan is an emissary and ambassador from a crucial moment in American history — and restoring her, Matthew recently wrote movingly, was like entering a time machine that magically transported the team back 1841.
As she sits here in Mystic, powerful cords of history link this glorious 107-foot-long, 351-ton wonder — built not for beauty and speed but for stamina, and staying power and perseverance — to whaling’s origins and to its great capitals — and of course from there all across the globe. All whaling in a sense went into making her what and who she is, and all America — and she is linked in time and space and by pedigree to the entire panorama of American whaling. Her builder and first owner, Charles Morgan himself, started out in New Bedford in the counting house of the Rotch family — the greatest dynasty whaling ever saw — a family originally from Nantucket, who went on to pioneer and build New Bedford in the early years of the 19th century.
She was launched 75 miles east northeast of here at New Bedford, in the summer of 1841. On July 21st of that year, Charles W. Morgan made a fateful entry into his diary. Though he wasn’t quite sure that this brand-new addition to his fleet of whaleships should be named after him, he was unambiguously ecstatic about the birth of the Morgan.
“A fine warm day,” he wrote, ” — but very dry. This morning at 10 o’clock my elegant new ship was launched beautifully from Messrs. Hillman’s yard — and in the presence of both half the town and a great show of ladies. She looks beautifully on the water, she was copper-bottomed on the stocks. She is to be commanded by Captain Thomas Norton.”
She set sail on her first whaling voyage six weeks later on September 6, 1841, bound for the Pacific.
Her second mate, James Osborn, recorded in his journal: “May kind Neptune protect us with plesant gales and may we be successful in catching sperm whales.” Kind Neptune complied. She returned three years, three months and 27 days later with a cargo of 1,600 barrels of sperm oil, 800 barrels of whale oil, and 10,000 pounds of bone. She had cost $27,000 to build and $26,000 to outfit, and she almost always returned a handsome profit. Over the next eighty years, traveling to every ocean of the world, she would make 37 voyages in all — one of the 2,700 whaleships that made the worldwide whaling fleet over time, which embarked on a combined 14,864 voyages. Her longest voyage was almost five years; her average voyage was 2.
The whole world in all its diversity was part of her experience, and her timbers are imbued with that reality to this day. During that time, she traveled to every part of the globe — part of the whaling advance guard of American globalization, and a laboratory of the multi-cultural society we were on the verge of becoming. According to a New Bedford physician who vaccinated her crew in 1906 — as recounted by Matthew Stackpole’s father Edouard Stackpole, one of the grandfathers of American whaling history, the Morgan’s crew that year alone included — and I quote — “Americans, Chileans, Hawaiians, Germans, Australians, British, kanakas, Swedes, West Indians and two Chimoeans from the Island of Guam.”
During the eighty years the Charles W. Morgan sailed, from 1841 to 1921, America became America. She was launched on the very eve of our immense expansion West — an expansion that hadn’t even begun in earnest by 1841, but that would make the country what it is. During those eighty years as she went around the world, America fulfilled what the newspaper editor John O’Sullivan called her “manifest destiny” — which was he said in 1845 to spread with extraordinary speed across the magnificent continent providence had allotted her for her yearly multiplying millions.
In the next 10 years alone, millions of square miles would be added to the American nation — an expansion that would trigger a lethal civil war over the meaning of freedom on the American continent.
In the decades following the Civil War scores of millions of new peoples would pour into the explosively growing country in one of the biggest demographic expansions and most spectacular movements of human beings in history — a huge combined geographical and demographic expansion.
By 1921, the year she retired, the adolescent nation of country people that was spreading its wings and flexing its muscles the year she was launched had become a world power and a main player on the world stage.
She was retired in 1921 — three years before the wreck of the Wanderer off Cuttyhunk left her an orphan and the last wooden whaleship in the world. Her career it turned out had been almost exactly co-terminous with the beginning of the peak years of American whaling — and the commencement of whaling’s decline.
Source: The Standard Times
By Ric Burns
Ric Burns is a documentary filmmaker.
November 12, 2013 8:55 AM

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