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Portsmouth Fails at Whaling

Whaling engraving / SeacoastNH.com

MARITIME HISTORY

Captain Ahab wasn’t the only one who went under in the whale oil business. Portsmouth, New Hampshire tried and failed to be like New Boston. Well known local businessmen invested. There was some success, and then the venture sank like a stone.

 

 

READ: Exceprt from rare whaling journal 1840

You don’t hear much about the great whaling days of Portsmouth – and for good reason. The industry formed and popped like a dot-com bubble. If not for the discovery of a whaling journal a few years back, and a book by maritime writer Kenneth Martin, you would not hear anything at all. Martin’s book "Heavy Weather and Hard Luck" surprised most local historians who had blinked and missed this intriguing chapter. In his detailed volume "They Came to Fish" historian Ray Brighton had covered the topic in only a few sentences. Turns out there was much more to the story.

Times were tough in Portsmouth in the early 1800s. Despite lucrative bouts of privateering, the city’s sea trading industry largely collapsed after the War of 1812, never to return. The economy just would not catch fire, but the buildings did, literally. After the downtown burned, many of its young people moved away.

Right Whale 

So when some clever fellow suggested turning Portsmouth into a whaling community, it sounded like a good idea. Local craftsmen had certainly built some fine whaling ships for the burgeoning industry in nearby New Bedford, Salem and Nantucket, Massachusetts. Whale oil, cooked from the blubber of giant sea mammals, was the ultimate modern fuel. Whale oil for lamps was selling at 23 cents a gallon (about $5 today) and a whaling ship could return with thousands of gallons. Sperm oil, used as an industrial lubricant, brought in nearly four times the price. Long before concern of endangered species, whales were easy enough to catch and still plentiful. All one had to do was find them. If other ports had hundreds of whaling ships, why couldn't Portsmouth have a few?

ONTINUE WHALING in New Hampshire

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
 
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