Northern connections

Explore the last of the whaling era at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

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Walrus skull scrimshaw, late 19th or early 20th century, bone, ivory; gift of S. Prescott Fay. — M.V. MUSEUM

Just when you thought there was nothing new to learn about the Vineyard’s whaling connection, you’d be wrong. If you want an intimate peek into a fascinating chapter of the whaling era, take yourself to see “Northern Connections: Martha’s Vineyard and the Arctic” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
This show looks at the last foray of the whaling industry, voyages into the western Arctic starting in the mid 19th century. Whether Vineyarders traveled down around South America and then up through the Bering Strait, or went cross-country to San Francisco and headed north from there, it was hardly a hop, skip, and a jump from home. And once there, crew met harsh, often treacherous conditions, and even, at times, starvation.
It was hazardous. It was uncharted. So what was the allure? There was money to be made from the tens of thousands of a new species of whale — bowheads. Slow-moving, they were an easy catch, had abundant blubber to keep them insulated in the frigid waters, and their baleen was coveted for making all sorts of fashionable items.
Journals, portraits, paintings, and artifacts, along with engaging, explanatory labels draw us into a few of the stories of people who got caught up in what became a sort of whaling gold rush. An oil painting of an “ice-locked” ship revealing the “overwintering” phenomenon catches your eye when you enter the show. It was costly to outfit and crew a whaler for such a long trip, so when the winters set in, the men did not hightail it down to warmer climes, but rather hunkered down through long, dark, frosty, boring winter months with their ships frozen into place by the surrounding ice. It was far from safe, as the packed ice could shift and crush the ship. The print “The Destruction of the Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean” depicts one such catastrophe in 1871, when 33 ships were wrecked. Some could be rebuilt, but as manager of exhibitions and programs Anna Barber tells us, a good chunk of the whaling fleet was destroyed, which dealt a huge blow to the whaling industry. Ships had to be abandoned, and people died.
“The conditions these men put themselves under are really extreme, but it was all the promise of potential wealth,” Barber says. “You know, I’ll put in my few years of whaling, I’ll make my money. I’ll be done, it’s worth it. I can be away from home for a while. I’ll deal with it. That was the standard in the whaling industry. They would be gone for years. This was different. You weren’t able to have a little bit of leave in Hawaii, you’re still in the ice.
“They might not have planned to overwinter, but once the ice receded, they were, ‘Well, we’re already up here, let’s just keep going. We gotta make our money.’ Whaling expeditions were expensive. It wasn’t even necessarily greed that drove them. It was sort of like, ‘I don’t want to end up owing money. We have to make our money back because we’re in it.’”
There is a compelling maritime portrait of the distinguished Joseph Belain, a Vineyard whaler of Wampanoag and African American ancestry, later a captain who, during a devastating disaster in 1897, helped build five canvas boats and lead the rescue of the captain, his wife, five officers, and 10 seamen from one of the damaged ships. It wasn’t just men like Belain who helped diversify the Vineyard whaling ships’ population. They were a bit like a mini-U.N., picking up Native Alaskan, Siberian, and most likely Russian men as crew members.
The exhibition examines how Vineyarders’ interactions with the native peoples had both an immediate and a long-lasting impact genetically. Just one of many examples is Vineyard Capt. Hartson Bodfish, who had a son with an Inupiat woman, Lucy Kongona. “We don’t think about how far the Vineyard connections can go,” Barber says. “Vineyarders live on in these groups of people.”
At the end of his career, Bodfish witnessed the last wave of the whaling era. By that time, the ships were steam-powered and easier to maneuver, and the men were outfitted with guns, thus decimating the already decreasing bowhead population. By 1921, fewer than 3,000 remained from the estimated 30,000 that swam the waters prior to the onset of commercial whaling.
Barber talks about how there was a fascination with the North: “It was romantic and exotic. The place captured people’s imaginations. There were books and plays; Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe were writing stories. And while there was the Arctic in popular culture, Vineyarders also had family members who were actually going there. They were bringing home gifts and souvenirs and stories.”
As you will see, Vineyarders also brought back Native-made baby boots and sealskin mittens. The most intriguing item, though, is the slim wooden “sunglasses,” with slits for eyes.
“Sailors were looking to bring home trinkets,” Barber says about the impressive case of scrimshaw in the exhibit. “As more and more people went up into the Arctic, side industries flourished. Scrimshaw was one of them. Native people were looking to make money.
“Today, the Arctic seems like a really remote, faraway place. A hundred years ago, it almost feels like, for Vineyarders, the world was a lot smaller. They were going farther away more frequently than they are today. It was much more cosmopolitan and aware of the world, in a greater way than a lot of other places.”
You have the chance to travel yourself by visiting “Northern Connections: Martha’s Vineyard and the Arctic,” on exhibit through March 1 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.