Sunday, 19 May 2013

Falmouth: the Whalers, Moby Dick and Wind Turbines

That's Falmouth in Massachusetts USA!

So, we just had a marine debris workshop hosted by the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and most workshop participants stayed in Falmouth, which is just a few miles north of the village of Woods Hole.

In the 19th century, both towns were deeply involved in  whaling. Woods Hole still has a large stone building on its main street - the Candle House - where sperm whale oil was rendered into candles. It the one remaining remnant of a small village that ringed the town's Eel Pond and supported the whaling industry.
Candle House

Falmouth has a series of buildings and gardens that form a museum complex known as the 'Museums on the Green'.  One of the things focused on here in the museum displays is  the lives of the local whaling families.

Falmouth also has many beautiful wooden-clad (or clap-board) buildings that were originally built and maintained by the town's wealthy whaling families. On the white sandy beach one stone remains with a plaque on it which mark the habour where the whaling vessels once docked. It was destroyed by a storm.
Try Pots for boiling down whale blubber to extract oil - in the garden of the  Museums on the Green

Falmouth expanded during the period of 'Yankee whaling' when sperm whales - because of their rich oil content - were the main prize and the whaling crews traveled all around the world in search of them. A whaling captain and his crew at this time would have been away from home for years on end. Some Captains took their wives and children with them and some babies were also born on these expeditions to these families..

I found a fascinating booklet in the town museum dedicated to telling the story of one Falmouth whaling family - the Lawrences - authored by Mary Malloy (with the assistance of 16 college students) and available from the Falmouth Historical Society. The booklet is called Whaling Brides and Whaling Brothers and it gives a remarkable insight into a unique way of life that was neither seen before nor since.

In the 1850s, when five of the Lawrence brothers were at sea, they and the other whalers of this New England region, were hunting their quarry mainly in the Pacific and Indian oceans and their average voyages lasted 46 months.

Yankee Whaling involved harpooning the whale with a simple barbed harpoon from a relatively small rowed boat (usually somewhat smaller than the whale). The harpoon trailed a rope attached to the boat and once the slack was played out the boat would be pulled at speed through the water in what became known as the 'Nantucket sleigh ride' (after the major whaling port of Nantucket). The exhausted and wounded whale was eventually usually finished off by lancing it and the poor animal's blow would turn red with blood confirming to the whalers that they had breached its vital organs. It was a bloody and risky business and is well described in Herman Melville's classic book, Moby Dick.

An audio version of Moby Dick has recently become available with actors (including Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch) and other famous folks (like David Cameron) reading the chapters. You can find it here:  The Big Read - Moby Dick

The whaling families left behind them a pretty and prosperous town. All the Lawrence brothers but one, who died in Valparaiso in 1855,  eventually came home safely to retire to land-based activities but not before they had spent the better part of their lives at sea.

The last whaling boat to leave Falmouth returned to Woods Hole in 1864.

Now if you open the local paper the main issue for the locals is no long where are the whales (although whale-watching is a major occupation in both nearby Province Town and Plymouth), but what to do about the wind turbines that have been built on the edge of the town - which have become very unpopular.

And now the 'quarry' for Falmouth's entrepreneurs is more terrestrial: the tourists that will soon come to town this summer. But the whaling heritage is not forgotten and the Falmouth museum is currently showing a new and vibrant exhibition of plates made by local students showing whaling scenes and illustrating this important part of their town's history.

Palmer Street, Falmouth 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing these details with lovely pictures.