The Earliest Whalers Were Forced to Sea by their Debts

When the first English and Dutch settlers came to Cape Cod, it turns out that they were failures at fishing. In Paul Schneider’s history of the Cape and Islands, “The Enduring Shore,” he writes that the ‘master salt maker’ on the Mayflower turned out to not know how to make it at all. There was no record of boats being built until the 1670s and there was a labor shortage due to sickness. Farming took up all of their energy.

Instead of fishing, they traded for furs with the natives, and were amazed that they could graze their sheep on Nantucket and fear “neither wolves nor foxes.” The island became such a sheep raising mecca that by 1763 there were 15,000 sheep, along with 500 cows and 200 horses. This on an island that’s just 49 square miles.

In the fragile environment they used up resources quickly, exhausting the fur trade by about 1688 and degrading the soil so that it was difficult to grow much of anything. So people began to look out at the sea for sustenance. It was then that they began to go after what they called ‘drift whales,’ or small pilot whales ‘which sometimes came ashore by the hundreds.”

The whaling business was built on using slaves as employees, Schneider writes. Men who could not pay their debts were assigned by English courts to become indentured slaves, and in the early 1700s about three quarters of the whalers had been sentenced to their miserable lives at sea for stealing something or not being able to keep up with their bills.