New Bedford and other whaling sights

Last week during the great Unstructured Clarel Readalong, I was off having fun in and around New Bedford, MA, site of a national historical park devoted to whaling and a really good whaling museum well worth visiting.

Not least for the giant whale skeletons in the foyer. The bones themselves are composed of up to half whale oil, and a collection system is set up to show how much oil drips out of the skeletons hanging above.

The above was a right whale. This is the fin of a young sperm whale.

The museum has a wonderful collection of paintings, prints, and other whaling-related art as well as artifacts. Some were surprisingly detailed depictions of the process of whaling. Others were great examples of what Moby-Dick‘s narrator complains of in terms of grotesque anatomical mistakes, unrealistic scenes, and some excellent action as well. The exhibits trace whaling-related art through time from country to country, as it becomes dominant in various areas such as the Netherlands, England, France, and America. The Dutch even made delftware of this stuff—which I totally want.

Unfortunately most of these items were difficult to photograph. The below is a French print of whalers cutting in, or removing the blanket of the whale.

This is a crazy Renaissance allegory by Brueghel. Check out the fish with legs in the upper left corner walking away with a fish in his mouth. At this period, most depictions of whales relied on scenes of whales that had washed ashore, though this one is obviously not what you’d call realistic. The text at the bottoms reads, in Dutch and Latin, “little fishes make food for big fishes.” Well then.

Also in New Bedford is the Seamen’s Bethel, the real life Seamen’s Chapel of Moby-Dick, where Father Mapple preached from a pulpit shaped like the prow of a ship. It’s not authentic, but it’s there.

Ishmael attends services at the Chapel before embarking on the Pequod, and while there he reads the cenotaphs of whalers and other seamen who have gone before him—and not made it back home. These still appear in the Bethel, some old enough for Melville to have seen them and other as recent as the 1980s.

Here I am reading some of the cenotaphs in a pew marked as Herman Melville’s:

The outside of the church:

On the lawn you’ll find another grim reminder of the danger—and romance—of life at sea.

In addition to New Bedford, we made a stop in Mystic, CT at Mystic Seaport. The Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world, is there being fully restored. You can view the working shipyard where they are fixing it up and even board the ship during the restoration.

Here’s a top view of the try-works on the Charles W. Morgan, where the whale oil was processed. All the description of Moby-Dick was more helpful than any museum exhibit, by the way, in understanding what all the parts of the ship were for and how everything was supposed to work.

Here I am, in front of the try-works. It’s really not very big. Especially when you think of the size of a whale and how much oil they contained.

And here I am in the forecastle. Not a lot of room down there. The captain’s cabin was much nicer.

New Bedford was a great whaling city itself, but Ishmael took a packet from there to Nantucket, where he felt was the real place to start out. I didn’t do quite that, but I did take a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, home of the Pequod‘s third mate, Flask.

Tomorrow, more photos of nearby Fairhaven, which has a maritime history of its own and is related to another bibliographing favorite.

3 comments to New Bedford and other whaling sights

  • What a lovely trip! I live in Connecticut, and you are making me want to go exploring …

  • I’m a CT native, of Fairfield County, but I hadn’t been to Mystic Seaport since I was a little kid and only remembered the kid stuff—wasn’t sure it would be so good for grownups. But my boyfriend and I had an awesome time. Recommended!

  • I’m a Rochester, NY, native, but have lived in Fairfield County (Bethel) for five years or so. Haven’t made it to Mystic yet — and should!