Around 1819, an old Nantucket whaleship named
was sailed to New Bedford to be broken up at Rotch’s Wharf (the massive oak and ash framing timbers and pine and cedar planking from many whaleships were recycled into house structures and furniture). From the wreckage, the ship’s sternboard, with “
carved into it, was saved and mounted as decoration on another old whaler, the
, which sat in the mud at the foot of High Street. Its rig had been removed, a house built upon the deck, with a portico walkway running entirely around the hull. For several years it was used as a houseboat by sailors and their families in reduced circumstances. “But [it] soon came to a baser use,” wrote New Bedford historian Leonard Ellis, “and finally was a brothel of the worst character. Its existence was a moral offence to the community, and its removal was earnestly desired by good citizens.”
The whale fishery, less active than the merchant shipping business at the end of the eighteenth century, had been slow to recover from the Revolution. In 1806 and 1807, only a single whaleship returned to port in each year with a cargo of oil. Gradually this improved: thirteen whaleships and their cargoes sailed into New Bedford in 1810. But ongoing hostilities between England and her former colony, embargoes on American oil, and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) took their toll, until in 1814, again, only a single whaleship sailed up Buzzards Bay into the Acushnet River. But after 1815, mercantile relationships between America and Britain began to be reestablished, and business picked up again. Two ships returned to New Bedford in 1815, seven in 1816, twenty-eight by 1820. Forty-six ships sailed into the port in 1830, with cargoes valued at $3,487,949, and by then the whale fishery had become the economic base of the town.
New Bedford’s population doubled between 1820 and 1830, but few of these newcomers were Quakers. Men and their families from all over New England walked and rode to New Bedford to service the whale fishery that was growing both in size and fame, and many more men arrived by sea. New Bedford society changed swiftly, from a staid, inward-looking religious community made up almost entirely of the descendants of white English settlers, into an informal world’s fair of all the people and cultures connected by the world’s oceans.
For every whaleship on the waterfront—the town had fifteen wharves by 1823, and there were perhaps thirty to forty vessels in port at any time through the 1820s—there were thirty seamen gathering for a voyage to the far side of the world, or arriving home from one. Brutal men, coarsened beyond normal limits, at the beginning and end of a virtual prison term.
In addition to Queequeg the cannibal—who has been out trying to sell a shrunken head—with whom Ishmael shares his bed, Melville fills the Spouter Inn with such a rabble:
They were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and sea blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers; a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.
And in the streets:
In New Bedford, actual cannibals stand chatting at . . . corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh . . . Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians, and, besides the wild specimens of the whaling craft which unheeded reel about the streets . . . there weekly arrive in this town scores of green Vermonters and New Hampshire men, all athirst for gain and glory in the fishery.
All these—and Lascars, Malays, Frenchmen, Britons, Scandinavians, Germans, Dutchmen, Spaniards, freed slaves and blacks from other countries, “kanakas” from the Hawaiian Islands, Maoris from New Zealand, and great numbers of Portuguese seamen from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands—filled New Bedford. They lived in warrens along the waterfront, across the river in Fairhaven, at the fringes of the towns and their societies, but with their own community increasing faster than any other group in town. They were not ascetic businessmen, but lonely, frequently drunken adventurers who arrived in New Bedford with ravening appetites, and their presence inevitably overwhelmed the genteel nature of the town.
In August 1826,
) became the focus of the civic outrage. One evening a mob of good citizens gathered on the waterfront to attack it. Its inhabitants and patrons, having learned in advance of the attack, had readied stones and bottles of scalding water. As the mob approached, stones flew in both directions. Then a ship’s gun was brought down the street and positioned to fire on the hulk. Great show was made of ramming a “ball” and cartridge into the gun’s muzzle, until the defenders lost their nerve, surrendered, and disembarked. The gun was later found to be loaded with mud. The attackers then scaled the hull on hooks and ladders and
was torn apart with axes and crowbars and burned. Fifty citizens were later subpoenaed for rioting but were acquitted.
was soon established aboard the hull of the former whaler
. The town’s inexorable rise in worldliness is reflected in the observation by the
New Bedford Mercury
that “Ark the second transcend[ed] as a den of abominations anything that tradition has to relate of Ark the first.” “It was occupied by the worst classes and was the abode of debauchery and evil doing,” wrote Ellis, who believed that the habitués of the second
also caused trouble ashore. “Citizens were in daily fear, not only of their property but of their lives.” In the spring of 1929, the Elm Street Methodist Episcopal Church was set on fire, supposedly by the desperate characters from
On August 29, 1829, the town’s good citizens again took action. On that evening, 200 men gathered in the town hall to discuss plans. A number of Quaker elders, including Gideon Howland, Jr., son-in-law of Isaac Howland, Jr., came to the meeting to try to dissuade the crowd from violence. Local lawyer Timothy G. Coffin (who pops up anecdot ally at moments of civil unrest during this period in numerous histories of New Bedford), also appeared at the town hall that evening to read aloud the laws against rioting. No attention was given to these pacifist pleas. At nine p.m., a group of rioters descended to the waterfront and began wrecking the second
. Lawyer Coffin followed them with a lantern and pleaded again for restraint, but his lantern was blown out and he was bodily lifted and passed over the crowd’s head to the rear of the mob.
was set on fire, and the fire spread to the shore, where it burned several houses. The
New Bedford Mercury
deplored the riot, but observed: “As with other maritime places, there is a degraded class of population brought within our borders.”
NEW BEDFORD’S wealthy Quaker merchant families made up only about 10 percent of its population in the mid-1820s, less by the end of the decade. The greater number of upstanding (though less pacifist,
-burning) citizens were aligned with the town’s Episcopal, Baptist, and Unitarian churches. These were the tradespeople who had come to service the whaling and shipping businesses: the blacksmiths, shipbuilders, coopers, sailmakers, ropemakers, candle-factory workers, and their families. And along the waterfront ebbed and flowed an initially transient but increasingly resident and growing community of sailors, dockers, “alongshoremen,” and foreigners, mostly Azoreans and Cape Verdeans, until the part of town they lived in came to be called Fayal, after the port from which many Azoreans had sailed aboard New Bedford whaleships.
The town’s leaders—solid, sober, religious, above all wealthy, men—naturally arose from the Quaker whaling merchant elite, which had been the dominant group for more than a hundred years. They first built their houses near the waterfront, on the onetime farmland bought by their Rotch and Howland ancestors from Joseph Russell. But as the waterfront developed and the warehouses arose and thousands of barrels of whale oil with their attendant stench accumulated on the busy wharves, and the noise and traffic and inhabitation of workingmen swelled around them, the Quakers moved uphill, six and eight blocks inland, where they created a leafy suburb and built real mansions with carriage houses and large gardens whose perfumed trees and flowers offset the fishy miasma that lay along the river’s shore. But they could not escape the worldly influence that rose uphill with them and inevitably became part of their lives. The Quakers’ expressed desire to live in a cloistered community apart from “the world’s people” was thwarted by the success of their business interests, and finally made impossible by the very nature of whaling, which forced upon them a global outlook:
The Balaena—Capt. Gardner—4 1/2 months from Wahoo [Oahu] with 2100 bbls. sperm oil arrived this morning. . . . The Leonidas—Capt. Potter—from the coast of Japan, arrived this evening full of sperm oil. . . . The brig Minerva Captain Wood—from the coast of Africa full of sperm oil also arrived this evening. . . .
The ship George and Susan, [Captain] Upham, arrived from the coast of Japan with 2000 bbls sperm and 200 of whale oil.
These are extracts from the 1823-1824 diary of Joseph R. Anthony, a dark, handsome, twenty-six-year-old Quaker who was then working in the Rotch countinghouse (where George Howland had learned the business). He was a cousin of Cornelius Grinnell, who in turn was related by marriage to Gideon Howland, Jr., Isaac Howland, Jr.’s, cousin—so went the degrees of relatedness among the Quakers of New Bedford. Joseph Anthony had married Catharine, one of five daughters of Gilbert Russell, great-grandson of Joseph Russell. The Russell girls were extremely petite, weighing between eighty-eight and ninety-four pounds, and said to be the most beautiful in New Bedford. Anthony was already well-to-do; he was working at Rotch & Co. to learn the business. On almost every day of the year he recorded in his diary—always his first entry of the day—the arrivals and departures of whaling ships, as well as the merchant vessels that sailed routinely between New Bedford and New York and Europe. Until the advent of transatlantic telegraphy in 1866, no information traveled faster than by ship, and Anthony and the other businessmen of New Bedford learned as early as anyone in America the news of the world: “Accounts from Europe rec’d this evening state that the Holy Alliance had broken up, and that there were good reasons to believe that France would soon declare war with Spain.” (His intelligence was correct. Four months later: “News received this morning of the Declaration of War by France against Spain, and that hostilities had commenced.”) By the 1820s, Joseph Anthony and the other Quakers of New Bedford had become, through their interests in foreign markets, highly sensitized to world affairs and were among the most well-informed people on the planet. Although the old school—the fictional Wellworthys, and George Howland and his family—studiously shunned the tastes and amusements of Boston, New York, and London, not to mention Pernambuco and Trieste (from which Anthony received letters written by his best friend, Moses Grinnell, who was traveling for the family firm), there were many, like Anthony, who embraced foreign trends. He ordered clothing and fruit trees from England; he bought casks of wine from Lisbon and Madeira, and decanted them into bottles in his cellar. He traveled often to New York, dining with wealthy friends there; he frequented—almost obsessively—the theater on Broadway, and had business dealings with John Jacob Astor.
At home in New Bedford, Anthony’s lifestyle was anything but ascetic. On most days he lunched and dined out with friends or entertained at home. He ate oysters and stall-fed pigeons and partridge pies, roast beef, lobster, and spareribs from his own pigs. He liked to drink, and frequently confided the results to his diary:
“For my own part I was pretty well cut.”
And the next morning:
“Felt shocking bad all the morning from last night’s frolic.”
There was little public entertainment in New Bedford, but Anthony was ready for whatever turned up:
A company of black theatrical actors arrived in town. They intend performing a few nights. Much sport is anticipated. Went to a party this evening at Francis Rotch’s. . . .
[Several days later:] After tea Warren and myself went to the African theatre at Cole’s Tavern. The play was “Pizarro.” It was real sport for a time and quite a burlesque of the stage. One of the fair damsels gave us two good songs. We left at nine and went back to Father’s and had a little supper. . . .
[And a week later:] The Selectmen have forbidden the African Corps performing any more of their theatricals, and have threatened them with a prosecution.
As a young man, Anthony maintained a large home and servants:
“Dec 6th. Devoted the day to piling up wood at home and overseeing Howard [a servant] saw. Found the old adage true that the eyes of the master are worth more than his hands.”
In later years, he built his own mansion, filling an entire block between Orchard and Cottage streets, west of County Street, amid the other nobs on the hill above the harbor.
Yet for all his sport and worldliness, Anthony was a regular attendee of the Quaker Meeting, often spending, as many did, an entire Sunday listening to the sermons of local and visiting Quaker preachers. He was certainly devout in his way, but he found his ideas increasingly at variance with the Meeting’s elders. So did others. Their problem, according to New Bedford historian Daniel Ricketson, a near contemporary of Joseph Anthony’s, was “too great intimacy with the people of the world . . . bringing in the spirit of the world and its attachments and associations . . . [resulting in a] liberality of sentiment.” Ricketson noted the sudden arrival of these attachments and liberalities:
Then came a great change in our quiet hamlet—fashionable costumes and parties became the vogue with music and dancing. . . . One of our leading merchants who had been strict in the use of “plain language” and dress, after a winter spent in Boston, returned home with a fashionable blue coat and gilt buttons, and used frequently in his conversation with his friends the then fashionable exclamation of surprise “Good God, sir!” dropping altogether his Quaker phraseology and habits.