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Shipwreck discovery opens door into diversity of local whaling industry

NOAA, partners discover wreck of 207-year-old whaling ship in Gulf of Mexico
NOAA and partners today announced the discovery of the wreck of a 207-year-old whaling ship, called Industry, found on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA/Handout)

Robin Winters was working at the Westport Free Public Library last September when she got the reference question of a lifetime.

Someone needed assistance uncovering the fate of the crewmen aboard the shipwrecked Westport whaling ship named Industry.

“Most of the time I’m at the circulation desk,” Winters, a librarian, said in an interview. “Every now and then we’ll get a good reference question, but not a shipwreck.”

Eventually, her six-month research project helped solve a centuries-long mystery. It also put a focus on crewmen of color and their standing in society.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday morning that a remotely operated vehicle discovered the wreckage of the Industry, which sunk during a brutal storm off the Gulf of Mexico in 1836. Yet, as they identified the old vessel’s remnants, the fate of its crew remained unknown.

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A boat steerer and foremast hand-fastening a harpoon to its pole. New Bedford Whaling Museum

In early March, Winters found that another Westport whaling ship, Elizabeth, rescued the crewmembers from Louisiana’s shores. The move, researchers say, not only saved them from the dangerous storm, but also from slavery.

“I’m so thrilled that I got the opportunity to be a part of this,” Winters said. “I can’t wait to share it with the town.”

Different groups have spotted Industry’s wreckage since 2011, but exploration of the site wasn’t pursued until recently. James Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH Inc., a cultural resource management firm, said the agency asked him if their NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, a sea exploration vessel, could run tests on some “targets.”

An “interesting” wreckage site trapped in the Gulf’s loop currents came to mind, he said.

“I said, ‘If we ever get a chance to drop back down and take a good look at [Industry], we should do it,’” Delgado said.

On Feb. 25, a small team of scientists maneuvered a remote vehicle near the mouth of the Mississippi River to analyze the ship’s remains. The public could watch as they uncovered different brig parts: an anchor, the camboose, tryworks, and bottles.

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“In this case, you call in and explore boldly into the deep sea frontier from the comfort of your office,” he said.

After being built in 1815, Industry traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico until its sinking in 1836. Of 214 whaling voyages made between the 1780s and the 1870s, Industry is the only known whaling ship lost in the Gulf of Mexico.

Beyond that, there’s not much historians know. Winters almost had to start from scratch. A lack of prior research on Industry, spelling variations of potential crewmembers’ names, and a lack of cataloging of the little information available made research a challenge, she said.

“The objects with the information you need are there,” Winters said. “It’s just not readily accessible.”

A mosaic of images from the NOAA video of the Industry wreck site in the Gulf of Mexico on Feb. 25 shows the outline in sediment and debris of the hull of the 64-foot by 20-foot whaling brig. The tryworks and two anchors are also visible. A third anchor is buried in the sediment near the tryworks.BOEM using NOAA ROV video footage

When Industry sank off Louisiana’s coast in 1836, slave states along the Gulf Coast imprisoned any free Black seamen entering their ports until they paid hefty fines. If their captains didn’t retrieve them, they remained in jail or were sold into slavery.

“Around that time, the Gulf of Mexico was not the place to be if you had a Black crewmember,” Winters said. “It’s bad enough being wrecked and wondering what you’re going to do.”

Judith Lund, a former New Bedford Whaling Museum curator and historian, said the whaling industry was key to southeastern Massachusetts’ economy. At the time of Industry’s wreck, people used whale oil for lamps, soap, lubricant, and other household items.

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These findings also unearth the forgotten history of Massachusetts’ ties to the defunct whaling industry, where workers of color persevered against the sector’s grueling physical conditions and were often seen as equal players among their white crewmates. Lund called whaling ships “cosmopolitan communities” where captains valued skill over identity.

“Most people didn’t care what color you were as long as you could throw a harpoon and do what was necessary to get the oil,” Lund said.

Industry’s crew, composed of Black, Indigenous, multiracial, and white crewmembers, wasn’t an exception. Among those on its many voyages were relatives of Paul Cuffe, a prominent Afro-Indigenous merchant, abolitionist, and philanthropist. Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society and a Cuffe family descendant, said equality on these ships was key to encouraging the crew to weather the harsh conditions.

“Whaling was very dangerous, very dirty, and people were already away from home for three or four years at a time,” Blake said. “You had to create opportunities for people so they would stay and not jump ship.”

Amid today’s tense and polarized political climate, historians said everyone can learn valuable lessons on persevering in the face of prejudice and cross-community collaboration for a better future. Blake said the public should know just as much about these historical figures’ triumphs as we do about their struggles.

“Young people are looking for ways to connect to the history of this country,” Blake said. “If all they see are slaps in the face and discrimination, it doesn’t help them understand what’s possible.”

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Because its crew salvaged most of its contents before it sank, researchers know little about the people behind the brig. Delgado said once the public hears the story, people will often “have letters in the attic” or “know something about the ship.”

“Then, the story gets richer,” Delgado said. “I’m hoping that will happen.”


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her @tianarochon.