About 15 years before Herman Melville introduced Moby Dick to the world, a Massachusetts whaler sank near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Nearly 190 years later, experts say, it’s still the only whaler known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, where the threat of slavery in southern ports posed a risk to black and mixed-race men who made often part of whaling crews.
Researchers examining strange shapes during underwater scanning work on the sandy ocean floor believe they eventually found the wreckage about 70 miles off Pascagoula, Mississippi. It was documented in February by remote-controlled robots in about 6,000 feet of water.
Not much remains of the two-masted wooden brig believed to be Industry, a 65-foot-long whaler that sank after a storm in 1836. An old newspaper clipping found in a library shows that her 15 crew members were rescued by another whaler and returned home to Westport, Mass., said researcher Jim Delgado of SEARCH Inc.
“Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale,” published in 1851, told the story of American whaling from a northeast perspective. Industry’s discovery shows how whaling expanded into an area where relatively little is known about whaling despite the gulf’s long maritime history.
“The Gulf is an amazingly well-preserved underwater museum of shipwrecks,” said Delgado of SEARCH Inc., which a few years ago helped identify the remains of the last known American slave ship, the Clotilda, in the waters. muddy river just north of Mobile, Alabama.
The discovery also sheds light on how race and slavery became intertwined with the country’s maritime economy, said historian Lee Blake, a descendant of Paul Cuffe, a prominent black whaler captain who conducted at least two voyages aboard Industrie.
Southern slaveholders felt threatened by mixed-race ship crews entering the port, she said, so they tried to keep the slaves from seeing whites, blacks, Native Americans and Americans. others, all free and working together for equal pay.
“There were a whole series of regulations and laws so that if a crew entered a southern port and there were a large number of mixed race or African American crew members on board, the ship would be seized and crew members were arrested until he left,” said Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society in Massachusetts. Black crew members could also be abducted and enslaved, a- she declared.
Industry footage captured by NOAA Ocean Exploration aboard the research vessel Okeanos Explorer show the outline of a ship as well as anchors and metal and brick remains of a stove-like contraption used to extract oil from whale blubber at sea, items Delgado described as key evidence that the wreck was a whaling vessel.
Industry photos pale in comparison to recently released ones from Endurance, which sank in 10,000 feet of freezing Antarctic water a century ago and is incredibly well preserved. Bottles believed to date from the early 1800s are visible around the industry, but no ship nameplates; what appears to be a modern fishing line sits near the metal workshops used to produce oil from whale blubber.
The gulf was a rich hunting ground for sperm whales, which were particularly valuable for the quantity and quality of their oil, before the country’s whaling industry collapsed in the late 19th century, Judith Lund said, whaling historian and former curator of New Bedford. Massachusetts Whaling Museum.
“In the 1790s, there were more whales than they could hunt from the Gulf of Mexico,” she said in an interview.
While at least 214 whaling voyages ventured into the Gulf, Lund said, ships from the northeast rarely made extended stops in southern cities like New Orleans or Mobile, Alabama, due to the threat to crew members who were not white. Perhaps that’s why the whaler that rescued Industry’s crew took the men back to Massachusetts, where slavery was outlawed in the 1780s, rather than landing in the South.
“People who were whaling in the Gulf of Mexico knew it was risky to go to those ports there because they had mixed crews,” Lund said.