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The discovery of a 207-year-old whaling ship in the Gulf of Mexico is shedding light on the history of its Black and Native American crew members in the early 1800s.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners discovered Industry, a two-masted, 64-foot wooden brig on February 25 off the coast of Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Built in 1815 in Westport, Massachusetts, the whaling brig mainly hunted sperm whales across the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico for about 20 years.
Industry was lost on May 26, 1836, during a storm that snapped its two masts and opened its hull to the sea.
According to NOAA, the crew list disappeared when the Industry sank. But lists of crews from previous voyages describe Industry crew members and officers as including Native Americans, Black, White and multiracial people.
“Black and Native American history is American history, and this critical discovery serves as an important reminder of the vast contributions Black and Native Americans have made to our country,” US Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said in a statement released by NOAA.
“This 19th century whaling ship will help us learn about the lives of the Black and Native American mariners and their communities, as well as the immense challenges they faced on land and at sea.”
Lost, then found
The discovery of Industry was the result of coordinated efforts between scientists and archaeologists from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the private archaeology firm SEARCH, Inc. and NOAA.
A team aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer deployed a remote operated vehicle, guided by partner scientists on shore, to explore the seafloor in a possible shipwreck location first spotted by an energy company in 2011 and later seen by an autonomous vehicle in 2017.
After researching the Industry and seeing video from the ROV, a team of shoreside scientists including James Delgado, senior vice president of SEARCH Inc., Scott Sorset, marine biologist of BOEM, and Michael Brennan, also from SEARCH, Inc., determined the wreck to be the ship Industry.
While the ship itself sank, we now know what happened to its crew, thanks to research by a librarian from the Westport Free Public Library.
Robin Winters tracked down an article published by the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror on June 17, 1836, which reported the Industry’s crew being picked up by another Westport, Massachusetts, whaling ship – Elizabeth – and later returned safely to Westport.
“This was so fortunate for the men onboard,” said SEARCH, Inc.’s Delgado, who worked closely with Winters and several other local historians to confirm the identity of Industry.
“If the Black crewmen had tried to go ashore, they would have been jailed under local laws. And if they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery.
Industry was connected to Paul Cuffe, a mariner, entrepreneur, abolitionist and philanthropist whose father was a freed slave and mother was a Wampanoag Native American, according to Monica Allen, the director of public affairs for NOAA research.
Records shows that Cuffe’s son William was a navigator on Industry. Pardon Cook, Cuffe’s son-in-law, was an officer on the brig. Cook is thought to have made the most whaling voyages of any Black person in American history.
“The news of this discovery is exciting, as it allows us to explore the early relationships of the men who worked on these ships, which is a lesson for us today as we deal with diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace,” Carl J. Cruz said in a statement. Cruz is a New Bedford-based independent historian and a descendent of the family of Paul Cuffe.
Verifying the shipwreck
The ship did not sink immediately the day of the storm. This was in part because of the whale oil on board, which provided buoyancy to the sinking ship, according to a report filed by Delgado, Brennan, Sorset, BOEM and SEARCH, Inc.
“That there were so few artifacts on board was another big piece of evidence it was Industry,” Sorset said in a statement released by NOAA. “We knew it was salvaged before it sank.”
According to the same report, a whaling ship from the tight-knit Massachusetts community of whalers had visited the sinking Industry and removed 230 barrels of whale oil, parts of the rigging and one of the four anchors before it sank.
The report also said Industry was the only whaling ship known to have been lost in the Gulf of Mexico out of 214 whaling voyages from the 1780s to the 1870s.
The ROV pilots were able to capture images of tryworks, a typical whaling ship feature which included a cast iron stove and two large kettles used to make oil out of whale blubber, according to NOAA.
Delgado, Sorset and Brennan determined that the shipwreck’s location, 72 nautical miles from its last recorded location off the mouth of the Mississippi River, could be attributed to the ship floating in the Gulf’s Loop Current before eventually sinking sometime after the May 1836 storm.
While the shipwreck is more than a mile below the surface, NOAA is not disclosing its exact location to make it harder for anyone to disturb the site. According to NOAA’s Allen, it is illegal to remove artifacts from the ship, and NOAA plans to leave the site untouched.
Top image: Seen here are the remains of the ship’s tryworks, a furnace that was used to render whale blubber into oil, and an anchor. (NOAA Ocean Exploration)