Skip to main content

The Charles W. Morgan Returns to New Bedford

An excerpt from bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick's remarks at the ship's New Bedford homecoming

O what a glorious day this is.

The Morgan's speed and responsiveness surprised her crew. She's seen here crossing Buzzards Bay.

The last remaining American whaleship has returned to the place of her birth. Ladies and gentlemen, the Charles W. Morgan, the sole survivor of her kind, has returned to this great city of fellow survivors, New Bedford.

I know you are all excited to be here. But let me tell you, I am so excited to be here that my head is threatening to explode in a gleeful cloud of its very own tryworks smoke. Yes, it’s true that for the last 28 years I have lived in that other former whaling port, Nantucket. But it was here, on the waterfront of New Bedford, that I first gained a proper appreciation of the gritty reality of whaling in the 19th century. Because New Bedford is not a quaint replica of its former self; oh no, New Bedford, formerly the No. 1 whaling port in America, is today the country’s foremost fishing port. There is no better place in the United States to experience what it is like when, instead of being an object of mere recreational or historical interest, the sea is a way of life.

A few words about the Nantucket-New Bedford whaling connection. Nantucket is where the New England sperm whale fishery began; it’s also a small island more than 25 miles out to sea. Back in the middle of the 18th century, the Nantucket whaling merchant Joseph Rotch realized that if he was going to take American whaling to the next, truly global level he needed a better harbor than his tiny island could provide. And so, with tremendous foresight and considerable calculation, he came here, where a noble river expands into one of the greatest deep-water harbors in the world. This is where in 1765 the Rotch family of Nantucket united their fortunes with the Russell family to form a whaling dynasty that ultimately helped make New Bedford one of the richest cities in America. By 1851, the year Herman Melville published Moby-Dick, whaling on Nantucket was essentially finished; here in New Bedford it was still on the upswing, ultimately peaking in 1857 when 329 vessels valued at more than $12 million employed more than 10,000 men.

And now a few words about whaling. We come here today not to celebrate the slaughter of cetaceans but to understand and learn about the world the whale fishery created. Like so much of American history, whaling was violent, cruel, exploitative and extraordinarily wasteful, but it was also what made possible the cultural legacy of this great and diverse city. From the start, the native peoples of New England, especially Wampanoags from the village of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, along with African Americans from throughout the region, were employed on New Bedford whalers. Soon they were joined by Azoreans, Cape Verdeans and South Sea Islanders. By connecting New Bedford to every corner of the world, whaling initiated what has become an irrevocable process of globalization. The citizens of New Bedford are the citizens of the world, and whaling was where it began.

Let us now turn our attention to the reason we are all here: that awesome and beautiful whaleship the Charles W. Morgan. She was built at a fortuitous time, when after more than a century of research and development, the creative and commercial energies of American whaling were reaching their zenith. She was part factory ship, part spaceship, capable of traveling to distant worlds where not even that great English explorer Capt. James Cook had ever been; instead of speed, she was built for longevity, providing a safe and trustworthy platform for pursuing the leviathan to the most distant and storm-tossed reaches of the planet.

The Charles W. Morgan under sail in 1920, a year before she retired from whaling.

She was named for her first owner, a Philadelphian who began life in New Bedford in the counting house of those Nantucket-transplants, the Rotches. After marrying Sarah Rodman, great-granddaughter of Joseph Rotch, Charles Morgan established his own whaling enterprise and in late 1840 commissioned the building of a new ship at the Hillman Brothers Yard located north of the bridge at the foot of Maxfield Street.

1841 was a pivotal year in the history of New Bedford and America. On Jan. 3 of that year, a 21-year-old New Yorker named Herman Melville shipped out on the whaleship Acushnet, named for the river that flows beside us. Also in that year, a former enslaved African American named Frederick Douglass took the packet from New Bedford to Nantucket, where he spoke for the first time before a white audience at the island’s Atheneum. And on July 12, 1841, the Charles W. Morgan — constructed of live oak secured from the Chesapeake; white pine, spruce and hackmatack from Maine; all of it pinned together with locust trunnels from Long Island — slid into the Acushnet. In his diary, Morgan recorded: “A fine warm day, but very dry. This morning at 10 o’clock my elegant new ship was launched beautifully from the Hillman’s yard — and in the presence of both half the town and a great show of ladies. She looks beautifully on the water.” The Morgan was the Stradivarius of American whaleships — a beautifully crafted work of utilitarian art that would prove to be both extraordinarily lucky and extraordinarily profitable.

The Morgan's visit to New Bedford was a true homecoming.

Throughout her remarkable 80-year career, the Morgan brought in a total of 54,483 barrels of oil and 152,935 pounds of whalebone. Over that span of time she was the temporary home and workplace for more than 1,500 sailors from 50 different countries; she also served as the living quarters for the wives and children of five of her captains. One of the many reasons the Morgan is still with us today is that soon after the end of her career as a whaler, which included an 18-year stint in San Francisco, she briefly became a movie star, appearing most notably in the 1922 silent film “Down to the Sea in Ships,” featuring a very young Clara Bow. Two years later, when the fellow New Bedford whaler the Wanderer dragged her tackle in a fierce storm and was wrecked on the rocky shore of Cuttyhunk, the Charles W. Morgan became, like Ishmael at the end of Moby-Dick, an orphan — the last of an estimated 2,700 American whaleships.

See related articles:

- The last living whaleship

- Unsung heroes

October 2014 issue