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Portsmouth Goes Whaling

 

 Whaling engraving

“Heavy weather and hard luck”  

It wasn't easy breaking into this new industry, but the whaling ships soon had provisions and young crewmen, some so green they had never been to sea. Adapting the 30 -year old Pocahontas from a merchant ship to a whaler cost more than was budgeted, but by September 1832 the refit whaler was off to the Pacific. This was not an instant strike-it-rich business. Investors would not see the Pocahontas back on the horizon for 42 months. Even then, her hold was only half full of whale oil.  

Young inexperienced crewmen, apparently, were part of the problem. The seasoned captain William Walker, was 25 years old, but others were as young as 17. The ship's record lists a good deal of insubordination onboard, incidents of theft and “grudge bearing,” all leading to a lack of teamwork that was essential to successful whaling. Bad weather and too few sightings did the rest. A lesser crewman's income for the voyage could be as little as 1/200th of the profits. For three and half years of work, after borrowing against his estimated wages, one crewman found himself $40 in debt at the end of the grueling expedition.  

The Pocahontas had gone in search of the more valuable sperm whale oil, and found fewer and smaller whales than anticipated. Despite disappointing results, Pocahontas was refit and this time, with a new crew, went searching for the more plentiful “right” whale species in the Indian Ocean. A financial panic of 1837 further discouraged investors, and the Portsmouth Whaling Company went belly-up in 1839.  

Cushing's venture, by contrast, made big money. In 1833 the Triton went after right whales, departing well after Pocahontas, and came quickly back to port with more than 500 barrels each of spermicetti and right whale oil, plus whale bone. The value cashed out at more than half million dollars by today's measure. Triton was quickly refit and sent back out in 1834. After a second successful 10-month voyage, Cushing bought the ship Plato. Both were back in port, and Cushing had closed out his business, before the Pocahontas returned from her first mediocre voyage. Cushing, it is assumed, took his profits and quit during the Panic of 1837.  

The Ladd brothers Alexander and Charles were from a prominent Portsmouth family and were already wealthy from merchant and slave trading. Their 107-foot 348-ton whaling ship, the Ann Parry left 15 weeks after the first cruise of Pocahontas in 1832. In her nearly four-year expedition, Ann Parry encountered Pocahontas numerous times while hunting halfway across the globe. The Portsmouth Pier Company's first venture was costly, but fruitful. The modern cash value of the oil and whalebone was worth over $1,200,000.  

The Ladd brothers certainly expected a booming whale oil business in Portsmouth. Their refinery, a newspaper report from the time notes, contained 3,000 barrels of crude sperm oil purchased from New Bedford and other sources. The “winter” oil was processed or pressed in below- zero temperatures, then processed again at 50 degrees as “summer” oil. This refinery survived until 1849, a year after the Portsmouth experiment in whaling was over.  

CONTINUE WHALING STORY

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017 
 
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