The Online Lectures of Skip Finley: “Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy”

Skip Finley has published 2020 a monograph, in which he focusses entirely on the people of colour, who crucially contributed to the success and participated in the whaling industry between 1750 and 1914

This publication echoed intensively among the (non-)scientific community of New England’s whaling heritage ‘bubble’, as he was invited by various local historical societies, libraries and museums in order to introduce his important contribution to the history of the whaling industry.

Most of the lectures have been taken place virtually via Zoom and have been uploaded on the Youtube channels of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Museum of Martha’s Vineyard, the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth, the Boston Public Library, Mattapoisett Museum, Southampton History Museum, the Salem Athenaeum, and surely much more.

Online-Lecture given at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, in: Youtube, William Martin and the Whaling Captains of Color with Skip Finley | MV Museum – YouTube, [Last Access: 27.03.2022]

If you are interested to listen to his key results, you can follow one of his first lectures, which he gave to the New Bedford Whaling History Museum:

What did whaling had to do with New England’s colonization

The development of the whaling industry in New England and Nantucket had its origin in the wider colonization process of the American continent – and this also reflects the area’s heritage.1 .

From the 17th century onwards, many settler societies along the coast of New England were involved in the whaling industry as a natural extraction industry to varying degrees. Today there is research about the whaling history of various cities such as the Hudson Bay2, Long Island3, New London4, Rhode Island5, Fall River6, Salem7, Dartmouth in Nova Scotia8, as well as Nantucket9 and New Bedford.10

For the period of the whaling industry between 1784 and 1928, Finley lists even over 75 different whaling ports along the North American coastlines.11 Despite the high amount of whaling ports however, the economic power was still concentrated just on few ones. Nantucket belonged to the most famous and successful cities as their fleet amounted almost 70% of all ships cruising along the whale patterns in the Atlantic.

It were not only settlers, but mariners with background of Native American communities or from the African continent, which contributed crucially to the rise of thw whaling industry. Scholars like Karttunen, Nicholas, Shoemaker, Silverman and Vickers localize the whaling industry’s success to the important role of Colonial Others such as Native American communities and of people with roots from the African continent.12 According to research opinions, the arriving settler families, who took part in the whaling industry, grounded their economic success on the extraction of labour force via distinct practises such as indentured servitude13 or a complex system of “indebtedness”.14 The labour forces of the whaling industry, as Vickers revealed, consisted mainly of “hands from the Indian community”15 and from people with roots from the African continent.

Shoemaker reminds us that Native American communities kept a relationship to whales long before the contact with European actors.16 Even before the arrival of the Mayflower with its first Pilgrim and Dutch settlers in Cape Cod in 1619, Native American communities and sachems along the coast of New England were familiar with these seasonal movements and the processing of stranded whales. Shoemaker realizes that “Sachem held sovereign rights to whales that stranded in the shallows or on shore” and parts of the whale like “fins and flukes may have been considered delicacies or, more likely, may have had symbolic and ceremonial value”. The “political and legal practices” of sharing “pieces of stranded whales as gifts”17 seems to have been common in the area and similar observations have been done in neighbouring communties. Nantucket’s geographic position is also close to Cape Cod.

William Bradford was one of the passengers onboard the Mayflower and became the first colonial Governor of the then established Plymouth colony. Based on the accounts of him, Philbrick notes that they “were cutting the whale’s blubber into long strips when they saw the shallop approaching and fled, ´running to and fro, as if they had been carrying something.´”18 The Captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, as Philbrick adds, was himself formerly active in the Greenland whaling industry, and while cruising close to New England’s coastline, he ”claimed that if only they’d had some harpoons and lances they might have taken between three thousand and four thousand pounds’ worth of whale oil and baleen.”19 The settlers arrived in the area of southern New England, which today form the States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut20.


  1. Daley, Justin (2020): New England Whaling Heritage. The impact of Capitalism on Preservation and Public Interpretation. PhD Thesis. Flinders University, Adelaide. College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, , [last access: 10.02.2022] []
  2. Schram, Margaret (2004): Hudson’s Merchants and Whalers. The Rise and Fall of a River Port, 1783-1850. New York: Black Dome Press. []
  3. Strong, John (2018): America´s Early Whalemen. Indian Shore Whalers on Long Island, 1650-1750: University of Arizona Press. []
  4. Shoemaker, Nancy (2015): Native American Whalemen. Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. []
  5. Sherman, Stuart (1965): The Voice of the Whaleman. With an Account of the Nicholson Whaling Collection. Providence RI. []
  6. Lund, Judith (2012): Fall River goes Whaling. In: Coriolis – Interdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies 3 (2), pp. 1-14. []
  7. Druett, Joan (2009): The Salem Connection. American Contacts with Early Colonial New Zealand. In: Journal of New Zealand Studies 8, pp. 169-194.; Medina, Isagani (1973): American Logbooks and Journals in Salem, Massachusetts on the Philippines 1796-1894. In: Asian Studies, Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia 11 (1), pp. 177-198. []
  8. Follini, Maida (2006): A Quaker Odyssey. The Migration of Quaker Whalers from Nantucket, Massachusetts to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and Milford Haven, Wales. In: Canadian Quaker History Journal 71, pp. 1-21. []
  9. Stackpole, Edouard A. (1972): Whales and Destiny. The rivalry between America, France, and Britain for control of the southern whale fishery, 1785-1825. Amherst MA.; Vickers, Daniel (1983): The first Whalemen of Nantucket. In: The William and Mary Quarterly 40 (4), pp. 560-583; Vickers, Daniel (1985): Nantucket whalemen in the deep-sea fishery. The changing anatomy of an early American labor force. In: The Journal of American History 72 (2), pp. 277-296. []
  10. Gallman, Robert; Davis, Lance; Gleiter, Karin (1997): In Pursuit of Leviathan. Technology, Institutions, Productivity, and Profits in American Whaling, 1816-1906. Chicago: Chicago University Press.; Stackpole 1972 []
  11. Finley, Skip (2020): Whaling Captains of Colour. America´s first Meritocracy. Dulles VA: Naval Institute Press, pp. 235-237 []
  12. Karttunen, Frances (2005): The Other Islanders. People who pulled Nantucket’s oars. New Bedford: Spinner Publications, Inc.; Nicholas, Mark (2002): Mashpee Wampanoags of Cape Cod, the Whalefishery, and Seafaring’s Impact on Community Development. In: The American Indian Quarterly 26 (2), pp. 165-197.; Shoemaker 2014; 2015 ; Silverman, David (2001): The Impact of Indentured Servitude on the Society and culture of Southern New England Indians, 1680-1810. In: The New England Quarterly 74 (4), pp. 622-666.; Vickers 1983; 1985. []
  13. Salmond, Anne (1997): Between Worlds. Early Exchanges between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815. Auckland NZ: Penguin Books, p. 316. []
  14. Vickers 1983, p. 577 []
  15. Vickers 1983, p. 568 []
  16. Shoemaker, Nancy (2014): Living with whales. Documents and oral histories of Native New England whaling history. Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press.. []
  17. Shoemaker 2014, p. 32 []
  18. Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006): Mayflower. A story of courage, community, and war. New York: Penguin Group.. []
  19. Philbrick 2006, p. 57. []
  20. Karttunen 2002; Philbrick 2006; Salisbury, Neal (1984): Manitou and Providence. Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643. New York: Oxford University Press.; Zelner, Kyle (2009): A Rabble in Arms. Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War. New York: New York University Press; Bahar, Matthew (2019): Storm of the Sea. Indians & Empires in the Atlantic´s Age of Sail. Oxford: Oxford University Press. []
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