The Charles W. Morgan sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor on Wednesday, June 18, escorted by a local flotilla and her companion ship, the Roann. Built in 1841, the bark Morgan is the last of the U.S. whaling fleet, which once numbered more than 2,700. After several decades wharf-bound at Mystic Seaport, she’s been beautifully restored with painstaking attention to detail. She’s currently on her 38th voyage. The 37th ended in 1921.
Aside: The Mystic Seaport website offers loads of information about the Charles W. Morgan, its history, its restoration, and its 38th voyage. Be warned, though: Every time I visit, I forget what I came for and spend an hour wandering around gawking.
The Vineyard Gazette covered the visit in spades. Time spent on their website will be well rewarded. I particularly recommend this story about Matthew Stackpole, a West Tisbury resident who grew up at Mystic Seaport, has known the Morgan all his life, and is now the ship’s historian.
The Morgan has many, many Vineyard connections. Several of her captains were Vineyard men, starting with the first, Thomas Norton. Many of her crew members over the years had Vineyard hometowns. During her recent sea trials and on her current voyage, she’s accompanied by the eastern-rig dragger Roann, which was built in 1947 for a Vineyard Haven captain, Roy Campbell. Like the Morgan, the Roann is now a permanent exhibit at Mystic Seaport.
I paid my first visit to the Morgan on Saturday afternoon the 21st. The U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir, in which I sing and sometimes drum, had just sung at a Juneteenth celebration at First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven. Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the United States, and both the Slave Song Project and the Spirituals Choir exist to keep the stories and songs of the enslaved Africans alive. So you know history was much on my mind as I walked up the Charles W. Morgan’s gangplank.
My most lasting impressions of whaling probably derive from reading Melville’s Moby-Dick many, many years ago. I knew that whaling voyages could last three to five years, that whaling was a dirty and dangerous business. Ocean travel in the Age of Sail was dangerous whether whaling was involved or not. Thomas Mayhew Jr., son of the man who established the first European settlement on Martha’s Vineyard, was lost at sea on a voyage to England in 1657.
You don’t have to look far today to see evidence of the Vineyard’s whaling heritage. Among the properties owned and managed by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust are the Old Whaling Church and the house built in 1840 for Dr. Daniel Fisher, a whaleship owner. Two of the four giant murals painted by the late Stan Murphy in Katharine Cornell Theatre (where the Spirituals Choir sang Saturday night) feature whales. In one, whalers pursue a whale on rough seas; the tiny whaleboat is dwarfed by the sky, the ocean, and the whale. In the other, Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend, holds a whale aloft by the tail while standing in the waters off the Gay Head cliffs.
But walking around the ship that once carried 35 men around the world in pursuit of whales, knowing that some of those men were the ancestors of your friends and neighbors — this makes it real in a new way. Imagine living and working at such close quarters with men who spoke different languages and often could barely communicate with each other. Imagine receiving a letter from a kinsman at sea and knowing that it was already at least three months out of date. You didn’t know for sure if your kinsman was alive or dead until his ship came within hailing distance of home. No wonder so many old songs tell of sailors returning after long absence to find everything changed. In “Bay of Biscay” the sailor returns as a ghost.
On my second visit, I went aboard again, but this time I spent more time browsing the exhibits. Under one tent, sea shanties were being sung and first-person accounts of whaling voyages being read. In another, a six-minute video played continuously, giving a concise demonstration of what was involved in whaling. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary had its own exhibit, offering not just information but kid-friendly activities. Under yet another tent, the trades essential to a ship’s functioning were displayed and demonstrated. Flipping through a notebook that listed the officers and crews of all 38 of the Charles W. Morgan’s voyages, along with their place of residence, age, and height, I noted that the crew members with Vineyard hometowns decreased over time while those from Cape Verde and other places increased. A quote from Herman Melville noted that very few whaleship crew members were U.S.-born, though many of the officers and mates were.
A map showed the Morgan‘s many ports of call. In the South Atlantic, the African coastal port was so close to one in Brazil, destination of so many Africans captured and sold as slaves. Had the Charles W. Morgan ever carried slaves below deck? If the area wasn’t crammed with barrels of whale oil, there might have been room. Slave trading was illegal by the time the Morgan was built, but it was also profitable.
Poking around online, I learned that some whaleships did participate in the slave trade, but that they were often scuttled after the voyage — to conceal the stench of human trafficking? The Morgan’s very survival may testify to her innocence in this regard.
Wednesday morning, the 25th, I went down to the harbor to see her off. Plenty of others had the same idea.
Small boats gathered to watch the Charles W. Morgan prepare to depart.
Here’s a short video of the Morgan being pushed away from the dock and getting under way:
Unwilling to lose sight of her, dozens of us followed the road out to West Chop, abandoned our vehicles by the side of the road, and got as close to Vineyard Sound as we could. The wind direction in Vineyard Sound was all wrong, so she was under tow (she doesn’t have an engine) till she passed through Quick’s Hole and started her run up Buzzards Bay to New Bedford, her old home port. So we didn’t get to see her under anything close to full sail. It was a thrill nonetheless.
Farewell, Charles W. Morgan. Farewell.