Mr. Tashtego: Native American Whalemen in Antebellum New England
Abstract

Abstract:

American Indian men from coastal New England made their living in the American whaling industry from its seventeenth-century origins into the early twentieth century. When the industry began a major expansion in the 1830s and 1840s, native whalemen became even more important as skilled officers who ruled over the increasingly unskilled laborers of all races and nationalities who came to inhabit whaleship forecastles. Contrary to stereotypes, such as Herman Melville’s Tashtego in Moby Dick (1851), Native American whalemen did more than just harpoon whales. They looked to the whaling industry for income and status that was otherwise inaccessible to men of color in antebellum New England: if they persisted in the industry, which many of them did, they could easily rise to become third and second mates, sometimes first mates and in one instance, in the case of Amos Haskins, even captain. The whaling industry was not color-blind in its hiring practices, and racial prejudice still had an effect on native whalemen’s experiences. However, the whaleship also constituted a unique social world, where rank reigned supreme over other social hierarchies, fleetingly overturning the racial hierarchies of everyday life in New England to give Indian men a modicum of power, prestige and privilege -- but only while on a whaleship.