Cape Cod Notebook
7:46 am
Tue August 12, 2014

173-year-old Whale Ship Embodies a Modern Ideal: Powered Entirely by Renewable Energy

Sails and rigging of the Charles W. Morgan.
Sails and rigging of the Charles W. Morgan.
Credit Brian Morris / WCAI

As we rode before the wind, silent and serene, the Morgan took on the aspects of a complex and sometimes contradictory embodiment of how we use our historical imagination. 19th century whaling ships literally gave New England, and by extension America, a global presence. As one staff member put it, “The ships didn’t follow the flag, the flag followed the ships. First we whaled out the North Atlantic, and then when we whaled out the South Atlantic, and then we went around the Horn and whaled out the South Pacific, and then the Indian Ocean, and then the Northern Pacific and eventually up into the Arctic. Along the way we annexed a number of islands, like Mid-way and Wake, as stations for whaling ships to put in, giving us a permanent presence in the Pacific.” In other words, whaling ships were the harbingers of American international Expansionism.

Note: This is Part 2 in a pair of essays. Part 1 can be found here

But the Morgan is also undeniably a representative of a benighted era of environmental ignorance. During her 37 voyages her crews killed over 700 whales helping to drive several species nearly to extinction. She is something of a repentant sinner, an old reprobate that has seen the error of her ways and embraced a new environmental consciousness.  That day we sailed she was symbolically accompanied by the Auk, a NOAA research vessel, as if saying, “See, I no longer kill whales, I’m helping to save them!”

But from another perspective, she can also be seen as a proto-type, a harbinger of some of the very social and environmental ideals we strive for today. For instance, long before the term was invented, and long before America reflected it in the general population, the original crew of the Morgan were intensely “multi-cultural.” They included not only native-born Americans – mostly New Englanders – but crew members from the Cape Verde Islands, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, the West Indies, and Norfolk Island. While today’s crew may have achieved gender equality, their racial makeup is, ironically, much less diverse than the Morgan’s original crew.

And of course the Morgan under sail anticipated today’s movement towards renewable energy. After all, here was a massive 350 ton vessel, one that carried on a world-wide commercial enterprise for over 70 years, powered solely by one of the most renewable of the earth’s resources: wind. 

Like every other age, we use the artifacts of our history to bolster our image of who we are today. In the case of the Charles W. Morgan we like to see her as many things, sometimes contradictory.  She is a “national treasure,” a piece of “living history,” a symbol of American enterprise and  technological now-how, the last representative of a disgraced chapter in our history, a reminder of how far, environmentally and socially, we have come since she first set sail, and at the same time a prototype of those same advances we pride ourselves on. The well of the past, as Thomas Mann said, is very deep - as deep, you might say, as the ocean itself.