A view forward from the quarterdeck of the 2-masted whaling schooner John R. Manta, out of New Bedford, Mass., on the Hatteras grounds, 1925. The photographer, William H. Tripp, was a guest of the vessel’s master and principal owner, Antone J. Mandly.
Tripp wrote of the photograph: “One of the quiet days on Hatteras when no whales were seen. The men are splicing ropes and doing other ship duties. Days at a time, nothing is seen but boundless sea.”
This is the first in a series of historical photographs that I will be posting every now and then. The photographs will all highlight maritime life on the North Carolina coast between 1870 and 1941.
Three of the crew are congregated by the main hatch, between the try-works (where oil was boiled out of blubber) and the main mast. Another is forward.
Whatever else they are doing, they are not talking: Capt. Mandly had a strict rule against conversation on the deck when lookouts were in the masts, which was sunrise to supper. He apparently believed that talking distracted the lookouts.
On the closer side of the mainmast, you can make out the galley, or cookhouse, a small, perhaps 5-foot square white wooden building just beyond the edge of the quarterdeck.
On the right, near, is the forward end of a heavy wooden davit that holds one of the ship’s 3 whaleboats. The round canvas containers on the quarterdeck hold whale rope, which sailors tossed quickly into one of the dories prior to the boat being lowered in pursuit of a whale.
That 1925 voyage of the John R. Manta was the last American whaling voyage under sail and marked the end of one of the country’s oldest and most important maritime industries.
In 1857, at the peak of the country’s whaling industry, the New Bedford whaling fleet alone employed 329 vessels and 10,000 men.
That had all changed by the time of this photograph. In 1924, the last of the great square-rigged whalers, the bark Wanderer, met its end on the rocks off Cuttyhunk, Mass. When she headed to the Hatteras grounds the next winter, the John R. Manta was the last of her kind.
Built in the legendary shipyards of Essex, Mass., in 1904, the John R. Manta was sharp forward and had an overhanging stern. Her sleek lines were said to make her look more like a Gloucester fishing schooner than a whaler.
At 101 feet long, 29 ft. in the beam and 98 tons, she was clearly constructed for Atlantic whaling, being too small to manage the kind of long voyages to the Arctic or Pacific that had grown common in the 19th century. Her first owner, Joseph Manta, had her built to replace another of his vessels, the Joseph Manta, a whaler that wrecked in the Azores in 1903, all hands lost.
The John R. Manta—named after Joseph Manta’s son—started life sailing out of Provincetown, on Cape Cod. For many years, she was the only local vessel still listed in the Whalers Shipping and Merchant Transcript.
After 1915, she sailed out of New Bedford, the last great American whaling port. She usually arrived on the Hatteras grounds in late winter for the sperm calving season and returned home in July or August, with a little luck before the hurricane season. A full hold was 600 barrels of oil.
The whaling industry’s decline was inexorable. The most important factors were a decline in the numbers of whales; the discovery of petroleum in 1859; the revelation that kerosene (distilled from petroleum) made a better illuminant than whale oil; and the appearance of the first commercially available electric lamps in 1879.
The invention of spring steel in 1906 also contributed to the industry’s demise. Whale baleen had previously been in high demand for corset stays, carriage springs, buggy whips, hat and luggage frames, umbrella and parasol ribs, and similar items.
During the period of its decline, war and nature had also given the New Bedford fleet a beating. Confederate forces sank 37 of the port’s whalers during the Civil War. Forty-five others were lost in Arctic ice in 1871 and 1876.
The John R. Manta’s last whaling voyage began in New Bedford on May 2, 1925. She returned on August 20th leaky and with a half-empty hold. She spent a good part of the next two years on the railway while Capt. Mandly tried, unsuccessfully, to round up a crew for another voyage to the Hatteras grounds. In 1927 he finally gave up and sold her to Providence, Rhode Island, to work as a Cape Verde packet. She was lost at sea in 1934.
MOST IMPORTANT SOURCES: William Henry Tripp, There Goes Flukes: The Story of New Bedford’s Last Whaler, being the narrative of the voyage of schooner John R. Manta on Hatteras Grounds, 1925, and whalemen’s true yarns of adventures in old deep sea whaling days (New Bedford, Mass.: Reynolds, 1938); Simeon L. Deyo, History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts (NY: H.W. Blake & Co, 1890); Whalemen’s Shipping and Merchants Transcript; Annual Report of the United States Lifesaving Service (1911).