Segment from Thar She Blows

‘I Killed Moby Dick’

In 1902, whaler Amos Smalley was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when he came across a great white whale akin to the infamous Moby Dick. Smalley was Native American a part of the Wampanoag Tribe. More than 50 years later, he published an essay about his adventure. But whaling in Native American communities extends far beyond Smalley. Native whalers were a major part of the workforce and often faced stereotypes within the industry. We talked to Nancy Shoemaker, History Professor at UConn and Ramona Peters, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Mashepee Wampanoag Tribe.

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Nathan C: Mocha Dick may have been one of the inspirations from Melville, but it wasn’t the only white whale terrorizing sailors across the seat. In 1902, a whale ship called the Patina set sail out of New Bedford. Onboard the ship was a man named Amos Smalley. He was Native American, and part of the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah on Martha’s vineyard.

Nancy S: He is remembered largely because he was one of the last people to go whaling. So if you go to Aquinnah today, you are very likely to hear about Amos Smalley, and see some of his relics in the gift shops that are on the Gay Head cliffs.

Nathan C: That’s historian, Nancy Shoemaker. She’s written about the history of Native Americans and whaling. She says Smalley started whaling as a teenager, and eventually became a boats steerer. His job was to send deadly harpoons into the whales.

Speaker 1: Okay. But what does this guy, Amos Smalley, have to do with Moby Dick?

Nathan C: Well, one day, while they were selling near the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic, Smalley and the rest of the crew came across a whale unlike any they had seen before.

Speaker 6: Suddenly, as we drew near the whale, Andrew spoken a voice I’ll never forget, “That fish is white. He’s white all over.” The men were nervous now too, Some of their faces looked almost as white as the whale. West beckoned to me to stand up. I put my paddle down easy, took my place in the bow and lifted the harpoon. Then I saw him, the full bulk of him. Every inch of him whiter than the spray he was kicking up.

Nathan C: That’s an excerpt from an essay Smalley published with the help of a writer from Reader’s digest in 1957. Now I’m not going to reveal the title of the essay, not just yet. Let’s first return to the high seas.

Speaker 6: It was my job to Harpoon that whale, white or black, and I braced myself to do it. Now came what was almost a stammer from Andrew West, “Give it to him Old Tomahawk. I got my iron into him, all right, or I thought I did. But seconds passed. I leaned forward listening to the sound of the bomb exploding. Finally I heard the muffled pong, pong far down inside. There was a quick flurry on the surface and the water shot up like a fountain as the whale went down, straight down, taking the line fast. Everybody in the boat was tense thinking he was going to drag us down with him. I reached for the knife in case we had to cut loose. But in the gray dusk I could hardly see the rope. Down, down he went, taking out 20 fathoms. Then he stopped and we waited, breathless.

Speaker 1: Now I’m waiting breathless.

Nathan C: Okay Brian, I’ll relieve your stress. This essay is called, I killed Moby Dick. So small and the crew succeeded in their hunt and continue their voyage. This essay came out more than a half century after Smalley’s adventure. But at that point, many of the aquatic community already knew the story.

Nancy S: So Smalley was a great raconteur. And he had apparently, this is what people from Aquinnah have told me, that he would sort of meet the ferry as it arrived at Martha’s Vineyard, and was a in a way I kind of street performer or told his tales. And well known enough so that there was a sort of resurgence of interest in whaling in the 1950s. A major Hollywood movie with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab came out in 1956, and Smalley was well known enough, and invited to the premiere a surviving whaleman.

Nathan C: But Shoemaker says the relationship between Moby Dick and Native Americans goes deeper than even Amos Smalley. When the novel came out in 1851, the whaling memoir was already a popular genre. And Shoemaker says, Herman Melville perpetuated stereotypes already present in these memoirs about native whalers.

Nancy S: For those people who are familiar with Moby Dick, he does have a new England Indian character Tashtego. Tashtego is a harpooner. Now, having been a whaleman himself, Melville vent whaling on the Acushnet for a year in the early 1840s. He knew that there was no rank called harpooner on a whale ship, they were boat steerers. But he exaggerated the spear throwing aspect, and his three harpooners are all what you might call primitives. Tashtego, the New England Indian, Daggoo who’s an African, and Queequeg, who is most famous, and is the Pacific islander and portrayed by as a cannibal.

Nancy S: Again, you can see Melville’s playing on this idea that these people are natural hunters, naturally bloodthirsty, natural killers. They all have these sort of exoticized first single names. And that wasn’t the case at the time, so Mew England Indians in the mid 19th century, they had names like Jesse Webquish Jr. Or names that you wouldn’t even recognize us as Indians like Joel Jared. So, Melville knew this, but he was just playing off of a public expectations and romanticizing.

Nathan C: And even though native New Englanders were stereotyped as natural whale hunters, Shoemaker says there was little evidence that shows that they actually hunted whales before colonists arrived. Instead, they mostly harvested whales that wash up on shore. But over time, native Americans became a big part of the whaling workforce. And as the industry grew, the stereotypes stuck with them.

Nancy S: American Indians are put in the position of being boat steerers or harpooners. They actually just follow the same track as white men, until they hit a glass ceiling. In the 1820s, the glass ceiling was boat steerer. So they could start as a green hand and they would rise usually as far as boats steerer. But then in the 1840s, there’s such a need for reliable, trustworthy officers as these whale ships become internationally diverse. And where most of the crew can’t speak English, or a lot of the crew can’t speak English, these Indians become very valuable as officers. And so, then they start being promoted until they hit a glass ceiling around second grade or first material.

Nathan C: Despite the glass ceiling, whaling still offered a good source of income for some native whalers. Ramona Peters grew up in the whaling community of Mashpee on Cape Cod. She still lives there today as part of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. She says years ago, whalers were seen as celebrities in the community.

Ramona Peters: And these men would have been millionaires. It was not just middle income at all. In time, it became a real profession, and some of our people were sought after. In which case they made quite a bit of money. This was the only industry and where upward mobility was offered to us as well.

Nathan C: But Peters says, money didn’t always come easy for native whalers. In the early days of the industry, some native Americans were denied their earnings.

Ramona Peters: Some of the English captains started to drop our people off, our men, off in different random places along the way, on the way back. So that when the ship came back home, they didn’t have to be paid. So they’re, they’re [inaudible 00:38:49], as they called it, their lays was not transferred. When these men finally we found their way home, it might take a year, or months and months. So, our men began to put their lay in their wives names, and so their wives could show up at the dock and collect the pay.

Nathan C: That’s an incredible story. I mean, you can almost visualize somebody wandering from New Orleans or you know, somewhere in Central America, Yucatan, trying to get back to Massachusetts. Unbelievable. And then the women would, the strategy. it sounds like that they developed, it was a way for them to exercise some authority over the folks who were overseeing the industry.

Ramona Peters: Right. Correct. These native men were high ranking. But on land, we all face the same level of racism.

Nathan C: Today, Peters says whaling has a complicated legacy in communities like the Mashpee Wampanoag. On the one hand, it provided a chance for some people in the tribe to climb the socioeconomic ladder, but at what price? The Wampanoag regard whales as special. But the industry severely lowered their population in New England. Just for example, right whales once flourished in the region, but today they’re one of the most endangered species in the ocean. Peters is now part of efforts to ensure that all whales remain safe around Cape Cod.

Nathan C: But stories and folklore persist in the community of whaling adventures and famed whalemen like Amos Smalley. Peters recalls the time she ran into the charismatic Smalley one day on the docks.

Ramona Peters: I happened to be there with another grandmother. She was visiting a friend of hers, and I guess I was dilly-dallying. She said I could stay there at the docks and watch the ships coming in and out, and she’d be back for me. So I spent a good part of that day there watching him. He was there, a crowd. He would really, he was actually collecting money as well, for his stories. People would gather around and he was, “I’m the one who killed the [inaudible 00:41:01] Moby Dick. That great white whale.”

Nathan C: Ramona Peters is a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. We also talk with historian, Nancy Shoemaker. She’s the author of many books, including Native American Whalemen in the World, The Contingency of Race.

Joanne Freeman: That’s going to do it for us today. Next week, we’ve got a whale on a train. Women who disguise themselves as male whalers, and Brian sings a sea shanty. Do get in touch. You’ll find as a, or send us an email to Backstory Virginia.Edu. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @BackstoryRadio. Whatever you do, hope you enjoy some greasy luck.

Nathan C: Special thanks to our voice actors this week, James Scales and Daniel TwoFeathers, as Amos Smalley.

Brian Balogh: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost’s Office at the University of Virginia, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins University. Additional support is provided by The Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities and the environment.

Speaker 11: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham, from Virginia Humanities.