Settled past the gift shops and cafes on Cold Spring Harbor’s main street is a humble monument to an industry that once powered the world – the Whaling Museum and Education Center. Currently, the museum is holding a special exhibit called “From Sea to Shining Sea: Whalers of the African Diaspora.” It highlights the role of Black mariners in our nation. The exhibit has been running from February 15, and will conclude Dec. 31, 2024.
The limited exhibit was curated by Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, a historian with a focus on African American history on Long Island. She is also the principal investigator, design committee chair and founding member of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee, which has worked to rebuild notable Black whaler Pyrrhus Concer’s old homestead in Southampton.
The museum is host to a vast collection of early modern whaling trinkets: harpoons, whale bones, whale products from the 1800s, and plenty of scrimshaw, which are engravings or drawings on bone. There were also newspaper clippings of bounties for enslaved Africans. One even came from Huntington, which would have appeared alongside job listings for whaling ships.
In the center of the first room is a rowboat that would be used to get closer to a whale, so as to strike and kill it, according to the museum. Whalers would sail on this relatively small rowboat, and attack the whale with great ferocity. Once the whale was slaughtered, whalers would waste no time in harvesting what was needed. This included blubber, oil, and, depending on the whale, spermaceti, which was used to make candles. The ones that were typically hunted were fin, humpback and sperm whales. Also on display, a chunk of whale blubber floating in a preserving solution.
Whale blubber was melted down and turned to a cornucopia of everyday items. These items included perfumes, pet food, candles, vitamins, lubricant, lipstick, paint, soap, varnish – the list goes on. The whaling industry practically fueled the 1800sl with vitamins made from whale livers still being used well into the 1960s.
The exhibit stresses a great importance on the whaling industry as one of the country’s first meritocracies. All members of the crew were generally treated the same.
The exhibit notes that African whalers made roughly the same pay, but all members of a whaling crew were exploited. The owners of a ship took the lion’s share of profits, while the captain and crew split the smaller portion.
It should be no surprise that Long Island was a hub of nautical activity in that time. Places like Cold Spring Harbor, Sag Harbor and Southampton were some prominent locations. In Southampton, a whaler named Pyrrhus Concer is the embodiment of the 1800s. Born into slavery, Concer was eventually freed. He is notable for being aboard the ship Manhattan. This was the first American ship to visit Tokyo, as per his obituary in the Alexandria Gazette.
What remains of Concer’s homestead in Southampton was, as part of Dr. Grier-Key’s action committee, made a landmark in 2021 and is commemorated with a plaque. At the museum, The Life and Legend of Pyrrhus Concer, a painting by Artist Hulbert Waldroup immortalizes the legacy of African American whalers.
As the exhibit stresses, whaling is an endlessly fascinating piece of history, from a racial, economic and maritime perspective. But it also did catastrophic damage to whale populations on the planet. Whaling is a unique chapter not only in American history, but in Long Island’s history.
To learn more about whaling’s history be sure to visit their website.