A memory. Today I am remembering a trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It’s an extraordinary place, a spectacular collection of exhibits and artifacts dedicated to the history of whaling and New Bedford’s role as the largest whaling port in the U.S. in the 19th century.
I go every time I’m in New Bedford. On this trip, I visited the museum and its archives to look for historical records related to a local whale oil company and its outpost at Hatteras Island, one of the Outer Banks here in North Carolina.
But while I was at the museum, I was also drawn to a wonderful permanent exhibit on the city’s historic ties to the Azores. Those Portuguese islands are located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 2,000 miles east of New Bedford and 900 miles west of Portugal.
In the 19th century, New Bedford’s whaling captains often resupplied their ships and picked up crewmen in the Azores, while on voyages to the sperm whale hunting grounds in that part of the North Atlantic. Many of those sailors returned to New Bedford with the ships and eventually made their homes there.
A majority of New Bedford’s Portuguese immigrants came from the Azores, but many also came from the Cape Verdes (west of Senegal and Mauritania) and the Madeira Islands (west of Morocco), two other archipelagos that the city’s whalers often visited in the North Atlantic.
Geographers refer to those three archipelagos and two others, the Selvagens Islands and Spain’s Canary Islands, as Macaronesia. Historically, they have been important bridges between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
A strong bond has existed between New Bedford and the Azores, the Cape Verdes and the Madeira Islands ever since the days of commercial whaling. Waves of immigration have also reinforced that bond.
In fact, according to the latest census reports, almost 50 percent of New Bedford’s population is Portuguese or has Portuguese ancestry.
When I first visited the whaling museum, I was in New Bedford to give lectures at an NEH-supported workshop for schoolteachers. Sponsored by the University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth, the workshop focused on the national importance of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement in New Bedford and the rest of southern Massachusetts.
But when I had free time, I explored the Azorean, Cape Verdean and Madeiran neighborhoods in New Bedford.
I had breakfast at Portuguese bakeries. I dined at Portuguese cafes and restaurants. I visited butcher shops that still make the islands’ specialty meats.
I also wandered among the fishing boats at the big wharf across from my hotel: the city’s fishing fleet is one of the largest in the U.S. Many of the boats have Portuguese names. Statues of our Lady of Fatima adorn their pilothouses.
Today their crews are just as likely to hail from Guatemala or elsewhere in Central America, but while I was on the docks I heard plenty of Portuguese being spoken, too.
The whaling museum is full of treasures: unbelievably beautiful scrimshaw, the fierce iron tools of the whaling trade, relics of distant ports.
The enduring power of the bond between New Bedford and the Portuguese islands struck me more than anything, though. It’s as if an invisible line of blood and longing runs across the Atlantic from those remote volcanic islands to that old New England seaport.
Of such strands of blood and longing, I am no stranger.
In my historical research, I often find similar ties that bind North Carolina’s coastal communities to far-flung corners of the U.S. and to other parts of the world.
In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about those “Ties that Bind.” I’ll explore some of the historic bonds that connect the state’s coastal people to their ancestors’ homes and to distant seaports and fishing grounds.
I’ll also write about other kinds of migrations– ones away from the North Carolina coast. In search of work, refuge or, quite often, freedom, the state’s coastal people have always been moving to new places. And in some of those cases, strong bonds developed and have endured between specific coastal communities here and those far-off locales.
Ocracoke Island and Philadelphia. Goose Creek Island and Everglades City, Florida. Core Sound and Punta Gorda, Florida. New Bern and New Haven, Conn. Wilmington and southern New Jersey. Core Creek and Indiana. Beaufort and Houma, Louisiana. Southport and Key West.
I could go on and on. (And probably will in the future!)
To me this is not only of historical interest. Sometimes I think that, in ways that I do not fully understand, the imprint of those faraway places lingers within us. It is as if the places where our ancestors dwelled were magnetic poles and some inner compass bends our spirits in their direction.
Sometimes I wonder if we somehow hold their memories within us.
At times, in fact, when I am studying the history of the NC coast, I have felt as if I should take a map and remove the cities and towns, the roads and highways.
Then, when they are gone, I would replace them with new lines that trace these invisible strands of coming and going, longing and dislocation, that I have heard in people’s voices, and that I have seen in old diaries and letters, and that I sometimes feel myself.
Sometimes I think that, if I did that, I would see the world more clearly.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibit on the region’s historic ties to the Azores reminded me of one of the most important of these threads that I have been exploring in my historical work over the last few years.
This one connects maritime communities in southern New England and those on the North Carolina coast. Yankee whalers, shipping merchants, shipbuilders and others first established that connection in the early 1700s, and that bond remained strong well into the 20thcentury.
In fact, my research on the historic connections between southern New England and the North Carolina coast is what led me to the New Bedford Whaling Museum on the trip that I am remembering today.
I had learned that the museum’s archives held a small treasure trove of manuscripts, advertising materials and photographs on the William F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery that was at Hatteras Island, N.C. in the early 20thcentury.
Like most of the great whale oil businesses in the 19th and early 20th century, the William F. Nye Co. was based in New Bedford. The company’s refinery remained in New Bedford, but the company’s leaders had looked south to Hatteras Island’s fishermen in order to find a more reliable supply of dolphins.
For more than 2 decades, the Hatteras Islanders supplied the William F. Nye Co.’s refinery in New Bedford with unique oils that could only be obtained from the heads of bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales and their kin. The value of those oils came from their exceptional suitability for lubricating certain kinds of delicate machinery.
Because of those oils, the William F. Nye Co. was the largest producer and supplier of watch, clock, and chronometer oils in the world.
As I looked through the museum’s collections, it felt a little strange to discover so much about Hatteras Island’s history so far from home.