Martha's Vineyard Resident Documents the Stories of Black Whaling Captains

Apr 17, 2017

Captain Paul Cuffee
Credit Chester Harding

During the golden age of whaling in the 19th century, more that 170,000 people signed on for whaling voyages aboard hundreds of vessels. What’s not as well-known is that more than 60 whaling captains were black.

Martha’s Vineyard resident Skip Finley is writing a book that explores the history of black whaling captains.

Finley began his research in 2014 by writing an article about one of the black captains, William A. Martin of Martha’s Vineyard, who captained about 14 whaling voyages over a 50-year period. At that time, he had discovered about 35 black captains. His research brought him to the New Bedford Whaling Museum Library, where he learned of a whaling crew list.

Martha's Vineyard resident Skip Finley compiled a list of over 60 black whaling captains.
Credit Mark Lovewell

“It turned out it was a spreadsheet with all these names based upon what then was called the Seamen’s Protection Papers, which are kind of the equivalent of a passport,” said Finley. “So once I took this crew list, and data-sorted and data-sorted by rank and race, folks were just jumping off the page.”

Finley said the money from oil returned by the more than 60 black whaling captains, in today’s money would be worth over $100,000 million.

Life aboard a whaleship was a meritocracy, where your value depended on your skill as a whaler, not the color of your skin.

Captain Paul Cuffee's compass
Credit New Bedford Whaling Museum

“If you were the one who could see the whale, stab the whale, return with the whale, and then learn how to cut it up, that was the first milestone,” said Finley. “The second was, could you navigate? And if you can do both of those things, why should you not be the captain?”