African Americans and Whaling

Commercial whaling in the 1800s was far more integrated than most trades on land, and racial prejudice was generally more muted on whaleships than in society at large. Black and white whalers had to work side by side to get the job done—and to survive.

Many owners of whaleships were Quakers, a religious group opposed to slavery. Some New England towns were also important stops on the Underground Railroad, an informal network that provided safe passage to people trying to escape slavery. And these towns needed seamen, including free black people and those who had escaped slavery.

Image of Cuffe courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Image of Douglass courtesy of the Albert Cook Myers Collection, Chester County Historical Society


Merchant and shipowner Paul Cuffe was the son of a Native American mother and an enslaved father. Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential speakers and abolitionists of his day. Both were African Americans who worked in the New England whaling industry at one time or another.


Captains Ashore

These whaling captains photographed in New Bedford around 1882 may have been from the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands. In the 1800s, whaling vessels often landed at both groups of islands to take on provisions and crew.


Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Master Shipbuilder John Mashow (1805–1893)

John Mashow was born enslaved in South Carolina. By unknown means he found his way to Dartmouth, Massachusetts, apprenticed to a local shipbuilder, and then set up his own shipyard. Mashow’s yard at Padanarum designed more than 100 ships and built about 60, including 14 whaleships. When his yard closed, he received a public testimonial as “a thorough, practical master shipbuilder and a most worthy and respected citizen.”


Blacksmith and Inventor Lewis Temple (about 1800–1854)

Lewis Temple was born into slavery about 1800 in Richmond, Virginia. By 1829, he had moved to New Bedford. Whether he bought his freedom or escaped from slavery is unknown. He set up a blacksmith shop and in 1848 made an important improvement in harpoon design. The Temple iron featured a toggle at the harpoon’s tip that helped hook a whale more securely. Whalers around the world quickly adopted Temple’s idea, which he never patented. He died in May 1854, unrecognized and in debt.


Temple Toggle Irons, about 1850

The first barb at the tip of the dart was designed to penetrate the whale’s flesh, and the second barb also went straight in. A small wooden peg holding the lower barb in place would then break, allowing the barbed head to swivel away from the shaft. The new T-shape of the barb prevented the dart from pulling out of a wound.

It was a harpooner’s responsibility to keep his tools sharp and well-lubricated, to ensure the toggle swiveled freely. Sometimes they fashioned covers for the harpoon heads to keep them clean and dry until needed for use.

Gifts of Jonathan Bourne and Wilfred A. and Daniel J. Mack Jr.

Whaleship Jireh Swift

Built by John Mashow, 1853

Length: 122 feet

Gift of White & Allen, New Bedford

Builder’s Half Hull, Whaleship Jireh Swift

The Jireh Swift sailed to the northern Pacific on its first voyage, which lasted nearly four years. The crew collected 2,719 barrels of whale oil and 14,900 pounds of bone. During the vessel’s third voyage, on June 22, 1865, it was captured by the Confederate raider Shenandoah and burned, for a loss of more than $40,000.

View object record