To escape the rain, Fred Toomey, president of the New Bedford Port Society, ushered me inside the bethel, pointing to a series of wall-mounted marble cenotaphs. Outlined in black, they carry messages of hope, despair and the fate of whalers who perished at sea. Morosely, he recited one aloud, his words echoing across the pulpit.
“In memory of Captain Wm Swain, Associate Master of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket,” Toomey read. “This worthy man after fastening to a whale was carried overboard by the line, and drowned 19 May 1844…”
Scholars of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick may recognise this obituary. Particularly because it was an inspiration for the hell-bent Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal seaman at the centre of Melville’s 1851 literary classic. Sit in a pew towards the back and you’ll spy a chalk-scrawled plaque dedicated to the author himself, who visited the bethel before boarding the whaleship Acushnet in January 1841.

Marble cenotaphs on the walls of New Bedford’s Seamen’s Bethel honour the sailors who died at sea (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

New Bedford’s odyssey began long before Moby Dick, however, dating several decades earlier to 1765 when Joseph Rotch, a prominent Nantucket merchant and his two sons, transferred their substantial holdings to the shore of the Acushnet River, lured by labour and resources. It was a move that forever altered the course of American history.
The Rotches revolutionised the industry. Within one enterprise, they incorporated all phases of activity – from harvesting whales, extracting and refining oil, to distribution using their own ships. They built and outfitted vessels, owned wharves and storehouses, made candles and sold whale oil. In effect, they created the world’s first multinational oil company – a method used by energy corporations today.
It all began here
Seen on paper, the timeline of the industry’s growth is equally industrious. The first New Bedford whaler, The Dartmouth, was built in 1767, but by 1818 the number of whaling vessels had ballooned to 20, and more than quadrupled by 1828. By 1857, the flotilla peaked at 324, with an annual return worth more than $11 million (about £8 million). The same year, the town was granted a city charter with the Latin motto, ‘Lucem Diffundo’. ‘We light the world’.
In tandem, New Bedford’s waterfront evolved to a bustling commercial port. Wealth seeped from the docks onto the banks, the grid of streets becoming populated by lavishly decorated mansions and rows of patrician homes built on the hillsides. One such mansion, the mustard-yellow Rotch-Jones-Duff House, has been turned into a museum, and it is a riot of Greek Revival architecture, balustraded balconies and terraced gardens. It even has a glass observatory so its owner could watch the ships come in without having to breathe in the stinking air.

In 1857, New Bedford adopted the Latin motto ‘Lucem Diffundo’ – ‘We light the world’ (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

To dive deeper into this heritage, I met historian Clifton Rice at the century-old New Bedford Whaling Museum, a colossal archive charting the town’s history in scrupulous detail. Featuring curiosities such as the world’s largest scrimshaw ivory collection – objects made from sperm whale, walrus, baleen and skeletal bone – as well as 750,000 objects, from logbooks and oil paintings to manuscripts and whaling charts, the museum is a trove of artefacts. In one gallery, you can mull over the baleen used to prop up a corset bust, or inspect a child’s sledge made from bones. In another, cycles of wealth are on display that saw whalers open up access to the Far East. “In such terms, whaling paved the way for globalisation,” Rice said, “before the word was even coined.”
But as fast as the rise of the industry was, the decline was even sharper. By the mid-19th Century, a number of factors reduced demand for sperm oil. Ground oil deposits were found in Pennsylvania. Gold rush fever swept in from California. Insurance premiums for ships rocketed. Kerosene emerged as a cheap substitute. The American Civil War arrived. Then, the final blow broke in 1879. Thomas Edison had invented the electric lightbulb.
“We don’t want people to forget this history,” Rice said. “But we can learn from it. Hope for the continued survival of the whale lies in our contact with nature and our ability to experience the wonder and magnificence of these animals.”

We don’t want people to forget this history, but we can learn from it

From pursuit to preservation. That’s New Bedford’s platitude today. New Bedford’s is a story about people who had an unfathomably hard life, but it’s also one that provides a unique prism through which to examine the history of the US. It’s the story of thousands of voyages, with tens of thousands of men, who hunted hundreds of thousands of whales, by traveling millions of miles, for millions of gallons of oil, for hundreds of millions in profits. That, in a nutshell, is the story of America’s economic birth.
For better or worse, it’s a story that burns bright today.
Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.
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