Twenty-Four Hours on the Charles W. Morgan: Thoughts on the Maritime History of the Oil Industry

Jul 30, 2015

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

Lying in my wooden bunk in the fo’c’sle of the Charles W. Morgan, as shifting bodies and muffled snores from my shipmates interrupted the gentle creak and rhythm of the cove against the ship’s hull, it was hard not to think back to Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. Last summer, I spent twenty-four hours on board the Morgan, a 19th-century whaling ship Mystic Seaport had spent months and many dollars painstakingly restoring at its legendary shipyard. Mystic Seaport’s “38th Voyager” program had selected a few dozen people, including me, to tag along on its commemorative 38th trip at sea. By the end of my journey from Newport, RI to Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard, MA, I had lost count of the copies of Melville’s masterpiece fellow voyagers brought along with them as talismans.

Melville sailed on the Achushnet in 1841, a sister ship of the Morgan, which makes the Morgan’s preservation as the last remaining 19th-century American whaling ship all the more significant for the eclectic group of scholars, artists and other historically minded applicants summoned to take part in her round-trip voyage between Mystic and Boston. The professional crew and Captain, recruited from maritime academies and the close-knit community of certified tall ship mariners, were more concerned with keeping us afloat and navigating into the sound than ruminating over old novels.

I spent most of my day at sea worried that I was getting in the way of these impressive seafarers. They moved constantly, with swift purpose and silent coordination, hands continually grasping, pulling, adjusting. Thick corded lines spilled everywhere in an ordered mess of rope, with lashed sails tethered at the other end. When the tugs left us, their diesel fumes and mechanical hum gave way to the spray of open water and the inimitable flap of unfurled sail. This was truly something out of a novel I had read—dozens in fact—but I was no reader that day. My stomach roiled as I reached for another dose of Dramamine.

Stripping away any romantic notions of my first day at sea on board a historical tall ship, I immediately returned to the purpose of this particular vessel’s career: to hunt and kill whales—primarily sperm whales; systematically dismantle their carcasses; burn their immense layers of blubber down to oil; and sell the product for profit back on land. Commerce moved the Charles W. Morgan as much as the wind in her sails while she was an active 19th-century whaling ship; and merchant seafarers extracted that profit from the deep, sailing as messboys, able seamen, harpooners, mates and captains. They worked in the distant wilderness of the world’s immense oceans, far from land and at the mercy of the elements: weather, a faulty ship, the whales themselves and sometimes each other.

Oil has always been a maritime industry. And the maritime industry has always been marginalized both geographically to the far borders of port towns and cities, as well as within the consciousness of the mainstream public. Commodities transported on ships seem to appear on land as if by magic, and the realities of hard lives at sea recede into a vague and often romanticized distance. Melville, in Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick, titled “The Affidavit,” speaks to this disconnect between the ease of consumption on land as contrasted with the dangers of labor at sea:

“Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew.”

Directly addressing his readers, Melville ends with a plea for a more conscientious engagement between consumers and their consumables:

“For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.”

Before the discovery and mass extraction of crude oil through land-based drilling, whale oil served as a vital resource in keeping lamps lit in private homes as well as in the street lamps that illuminated the nation’s booming and increasingly dense urban spaces. Whaling ships like the Charles W. Morgan kept the supply flowing by embarking on voyages that often lasted years at a time, with the dirty slaughter, disassembly and burning down of the whale’s blubber happening right on deck, often hundreds of miles from any shoreline. Once the crew had loaded the ship’s hold with full barrels of product, the ship would return to port and unload its cargo onto the local marketplace, where it would then be distributed to the nation’s widely dispersed consumer base. Many people in early 19th-century America, from rural farmers to city watch-keepers, desired and consumed whale oil if they could afford it.

The second half of the 19th century saw the decline of the whaling industry as populations thinned and the discovery of land-extracted crude oil ushered in a new era of illumination. The application of electricity to indoor lighting and appliances further fueled demand for mass-produced oil, creating a behemoth industry that dominates the domestic as well as the global economy to this day. Despite the shift in supply from the depths of the ocean to the strata of the earth’s soil, the infrastructure behind this massive new global industry remained firmly dependent on ships and the mariners who sail them. Oil tankers and barges moved cargo in bulk from oil-rich port cities to other towns where demand was high and supply low or non-existent. Railroad freight cars would then transport oil from the coastline to the inner areas of the nation’s sprawling geographic footprint. Today, massive tankers transport immense cargoes of oil to and from the far reaches of the world.

With the advent of the mass-produced car, the modern defense industry and countless other developments dependent on a cheap and readily available supply of oil, extractors have had to go to increasingly extreme measures in order the meet demand. We are currently firmly in the era of offshore drilling, with massive rigs sprouting up along the nation’s coastlines and scattered across the deep blue sea like impromptu steel mountain peaks. Portable rigs, operating in isolation far from land, society and civilization, are reminiscent of the old whaling ships of the 19th century: factories in miniature with workers who labor in extreme isolation, with only their cooperative efforts and coordinated expertise to keep them from the dangers of the wilderness that surrounds them.

Michael Christle, a seasoned merchant mariner I interviewed for the Seamen’s Church Institute’s American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, remembers the unique experience of working on a support vessel for an offshore rig in the 1980s. In addition to transporting supplies, his ships oversaw the launching of semi-submersibles that set moorings deep underwater for floating oilrigs. He and his shipmates would often have very little contact with the men working on the rig itself. Isolated even from their support vessels, workers on the rig could only come ashore by way of a Billy Pugh net, which according to Christle’s memory, resembled “a big life ring, that’s maybe ten feet in diameter, with netting on it.” Getting on or off the rig was an adventure in balance and trust: “The men literally put their feet on the life ring and hang on to the net and a crane picks them up and takes them off.” Safety depended entirely on the skills of the crane operator and sea conditions. Such precariousness contrasts jarringly with the expense of equipment and the amount of revenue flowing from an operating rig, not to mention the amount of initial investment put into such an operation, in which drill bits with precisely cut diamond tips alone cost upwards of $60,000.

Ships are often called “total institutions,” a sociological term that refers to a workplace in which a group of people labor in isolation under conditions of highly regimented order and regulation, apart from normative society. This is often the perspective I adopt when researching and writing about maritime labor and the history of seafarers’ rights. But such a view of what sailing has entailed for the men and women who work on ships did not entirely apply to what I saw on board the Charles W. Morgan last summer. Rather than strictly regimented, the meticulous order of the crew’s movement flowed organically, with the men and women on deck communicating with noiseless gestures and moving in seamless coordination. After a few hours of observation, I discerned a hierarchy of command among the deck crew, but its order was not immediately obvious, as everyone participated in both instruction and the actual work of hauling, climbing and tying. Aside from the ever-present gaze of the stern captain, the labor on deck was communal and social, with a choreography carried out both through loudly shouted commands and unspoken physical cues.

This essential humanity—so deeply embedded in the maritime labor behind the oil industry and so clearly demonstrated by my shipmates on the Morgan—has been and remains easily overlooked, whether it be merchant seafarers on whaling ships during the 19th century, bargemen and women moving cargo within the nation’s ports during the early 20th century, or the workers who currently experience the extreme isolation of offshore oilrigs. What I learned on the Morgan is that if you look closely enough, you will realize that behind every gallon of oil is a ship, and within every ship is the very human pulse of labor and lives lived at sea.