by Raymond A. Almeida

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Before the American Revolutionary War, New England whaling ships were sailing off the Cape Verde Islands and picking up crewmen from the Islands and from the West Coast of Africa. A large population of the best harpooners, steersmen, and all round whalemen had for long been Portuguese-speaking Africans....In almost all the crews, the African figured very prominently and those from Portuguese West Africa proved particularly outstanding as whalemen. These crewmen, known collectively as Bravas, usually far surpassed all others of whatever racial or national origin. (1)

Yankee whaling ship owners, known for their frugality, actually preferred to recruit men in Cape Verde where the men "worked hard to save what they could while on board the vessel and they could be hired for much less money than American seamen. Furthermore, they made a disciplined crew." (2)

For a poor boy in the drought stricken Cape Verde Islands, obtaining a berth on an American ship was a dream come true. Already during the first decades of the nineteenth century, three- eighths of the crews of the Nantucket whaling ships were "colored." (3)

The shanty town where they lived on the outskirts of the town of Nantucket came to be known as "Guinea-Town" or "New Guinea" after the Guinea Coast of West Africa. From about 1825 to 1875, an average age of 100 whaling ships per year called at the Cape Verde Islands for supplies, men, and recreation.(4)

The Cape Verdean poet, Jorge Barbosa, wrote of the legacy of the whaleman's contact with Cape Verde.

Ship Ahoy.... Ship Ahoy
Americans are arriving
Midst the hubbub of the quay
There are tears of joy
Fugitive crystals
Lighting up the women's eyes.
All have passed by
-Chinese, negroes, Americans, Dutchmen-
All have passed by
and casually left
their race
in the bellies of the harlots
of the port.(5)

The whalers in turn often contracted venereal disease on the islands; hereditary syphilis was reported in Brava, Fogo, Sao Vicente and Saotiago.(6) Already in 1885, John Rich aboard the Nancy out of Boston wrote, "we diverted ourselves with the inhabitants" of the islands. The chronicler of the voyage of the ship Hannibal spoke of"negro women who talked to us many smutty English words making lascivious, indecent gestures with their bodies, which were all naked." (7) The 1849 logbook of the Mattapoisett records the crew went ashore "drinking spirits and playing with the wenches."(8) The author of the journal kept aboard the Chili "found the rest of them in a little shanty discussing the merits of the aquadients." (9) The Captain of the Richmond "finding them intoxicated and very disobedient ... threatened to kill the first man that came to rescue them". (10)

Often undesirable American-born seamen were left behind and more docile men were recruited in the Cape Verde Islands leaving the U.S. Consul the problem of returning the seasick "greenhorn" or troublesome sailor. (11) The whalers frequently took aboard escaped slaves and criminal fugitives which greatly upset the Portuguese authorities.(12) Usually the young men who shipped out were of the lower classes-darker skinned Cape Verdeans. Many times they returned to Cape Verde just as poor as left.

The story of Cape Verdeans in the whaling industry is from another era. We will not make the error of calling up 20th century values to critique 19th century behavior. Today there is almost general agreement that commercial whaling must never be permitted to reappear. Few students of Cape Verdean history harbor any romantic fantasies about whaling but the story of Cape Verdeans in the 18th-19th whaling trade presents itself as an important window into the cultural resources of the people of these islands.

Whaling itself was a risky occupation. An enraged eighty-five foot whale could smash a small whale boat to kindling, killing the crew instantly or dumping them into the sea to be drowned or to be eaten by sharks. Accidents were frequent aboard whaling ships, and the Cape Verdean "hands" did not always escape injury. On one voyage of the Greyhound (**), a whale smashed the third mate's boat and broke the leg of the boatsteerer, Thomas Oliviera, which had to be removed after gangrene set in; Seaman Lopes' ankle was also injured; Steward John Barros died from drinking bad water; and Frank Fereira fell twice from aloft receiving a sever eye injury.

The mate in charge of one of the whale boats dropped from the Pedro Varela with a crew of greenhorns was a black man. "When we get up 'long side the whale," he shouted, "those of you out here for the first time'll want to jump overboard on the side opposite the whale. Well don't do it! STAY IN THE BOAT!" The mate steered the frail craft so as to come up behind the big sperm whale, over the dangerous flukes (tail) of the whale. In the bow, the boatsteerer, a Cape Verdean named Antonio, stood poised with the harpoon, ready to hurl it. Suddenly the whale spouted a jet of water and moved to dive. Antonio drove his harpoon deep into the whale and let out a shout of "Fasto!" The mate gave a quick command "Stern All" as all crew members pushed hard on their oars to get away from the whale. The tail of the whale rose and flukes smacked the water where the whale boat had been a few seconds before.

The whale surfaced and started to tow the boat at an incredible speed. Whalemen came to call this spine chilling experience "a Nantucket sleigh ride." Frequently, boats were overturned as they were pulled through the waves or a man might catch his hand in the line being let out and lose it. The boatsteerer continuously poured water over the rope to prevent the wood from burning and stood by with an axe to cut the line if the whale decided to dive. After half an hour of being towed miles away from the mother ship, the whale slowed down and the whale boat quietly rowed up to the giant sea monster to hurl the fatal lance. The whale instantly became enraged and smashed his flukes several times against the surface of the water trying to destroy his attackers, before he dove again. The mate directed the crew to look down in the water; suddenly the enormous head appeared below the surface a hundred feet from the boat "Stern ALL!" The crew pushed hard as the boat jumped back and the whale shot out of the water directly in front of the skiff. The mate plunged another lance into him, as they maneuvered the boat out of the whale's path. The whale made one more attempt to smash the boat but this time the mate's lance reached the lungs and the water slowly turned red. (13)

After killing the whale came the drudgery. "Of all the ungainly things to tow," said one whaleman, "a dead sperm whale is the worst. You could stick your oar two or three times into the same hole in the ocean before making any progress." Then the blubber had to be stripped off the whale before the sharks got to it. This was also dangerous work. Antone Fortes of Sao Nicolau aboard the Athlete stepped between the cutting stage and the whale and lost his leg which ended his whaling career. (14) The blubber was then boiled in large kettles aboard ship. For each whale killed, the men had to toil for several days cutting, stoking the furnace, covered with the whale oil and choked with smoke.

Whaling was also monotonous work, in addition to being dirty and dangerous. For weeks, even months, no whales would be seen. The crew would repair the gear and carve scrimshaw to pass the time. During the periods of calm, food and water became foul and fights among the crew often broke out because of the heat. There was a near mutiny aboard the Pedro Varela because of the poor food and bad water. Captains were reluctant to enter major ports for fear that their crews would desert them. They often stayed away from home port several years. One Cape Verdean who spent four months on a whaler received only twenty-five dollars for his work after the expenses for the shoes, clothes and tobacco supplied to him on the ship had been deducted from his pay. The net earnings per voyage of foremast hands in twenty-three voyages made by three representative vessels during the years 1836-79 was only $30.47. (15)

It was not a profession to hold men who had other alternatives in life. Young white sailors switched to merchant ships or sought their fortunes ashore after only one whaling voyage experience. Many Cape Verdean seamen also looked for work in the expanding textile mills of New Bedford, but others returned to sea where, by all accounts, there was relatively little racial discrimination aboard the whalers and a man earned recognition for his skills.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, anyone who completed his first voyage to the satisfaction of the captain had little difficulty in shipping out as a harpooner on his second voyage. Harpooners ranked as officers and it was easy to advance to mate, even without formal schooling, for a harpooner who brought in several whales safely. Many mates could not even speak English or navigate with a sextant, but were given the rating of an officer, such was the shortage of skilled seamen towards the end of the whaling era.

Manuel Lawrence, captain of the William Grozier, was recruited at age thirteen from Santo Antao and worked his way up from cabin boy.(16) Captain Valentine Roza, another famous whaler was also a Cape Verdean boy picked up in Brava by a New Bedford whaler. He learned navigation from the wife of the master of the Canton. Towards the end of the whaling industry Cape Verdeans made up the majority of the crew on most New Bedford whalers. Twenty-six of the thirty-three crew members aboard the Morning Star were Cape Verdeans, twenty-one of thirty-three on the Sunbeam, twenty out of thirty-four aboard the Josephine, and fifteen out of sixteen aboard the Adelia Chase.

There were great rivalries between the whaling ships. There were often races between the ships to reach the whaling grounds first. Once as one of the whale boats of the Hicks was pulling up to a whale, the harpooner of the Grozier, Claud Oliviera threw his harpoon forty- two feet to strike the whale first. There was a dispute over the whale, but all agreed it was a remarkable feat.

The Cape Verdeans were universally regarded as "hardworking, honest seamen."(17) When all others abandoned the old sailing ships, the Cape Verdeans bought the decrepit vessels out of their earnings as seamen and kept patching them up with loving care. Eventually, they came to own almost all that remained of the New Bedford fleet, either by purchase or by default. In some cases, they received the ships as outright gifts and "sailed them all over the earth with their own crews and made a modest profit by whaling in the old and tried manner."

Theophilus Freitas of Sao Nicolau was captain of the Pedro Varela for her last voyage in 1918. He was also mate on the Charles W. Morgan which frequently stopped in Cape Verde for provisions and seamen and now remains preserved in the Mystic, Connecticut, historic seaport. The list of Cape Verdean whaling captains of courage and perseverance must include the names of Teofilo Gonzales, Luis Oliveira, Jose Senna, Julio Fernandes, and Jose Perry. Joseph Gomes wrote an autobiography of his whaling adventures, Captain Joe, in 1960. (18)

The ship Wanderer and crew, 1924.

Whaleman Valentine Fermino of Sao Nicolau who went to sea at age 14 and came to America on the Provincetown whaler Ellen F. Swift died at the age of 93 in New Bedford. (19) Boatsteerer Joaquim "Jack" Pina who shipped-out in 1900 on the schooner Adelia Chase and "never lost a whale" lived to be almost 101 year old. (20) Harpooner Jose Daluz in New York, had a big barrel chest into his old age and swore that regardless of his age he could still stop any whale. Only a few of the old Cape Verdean whalemen are still around to thrill young people with their tales - Joaquim "Pork Chop" Almeida and Antone Lopes of New Bedford now in their late nineties. Curiously, the fragmented recollections of their work at sea, while an important part of their stories, does not convey the slightest romantic attachment to the whole business of whaling.


Primary resources:

  1. Ivan T. Sanderson, Follow the Whale (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1956) p. 261.
  2. Carl Norman Haywood, American Whalers in Africa, Boston University, Ph.D. dissertation
  3. Elmo P. Hohman, The American Whaleman (N.Y.; Longmans, Green and Co., 1928).
  4. op. cit. fn. 2, p. 67.
  5. Jorge Barbosa, "Islands," a poem.
  6. Lyall, Archibald, Black and White Makes Brown; An account of a journey to the Cape Verde Islands and Portuguese Guinea, London: W. Heinemann, 1938, p.96
  7. op. cit. Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving, "The Voyage of the Hannibal" p. 41.
  8. October 14, 1849. Log of the Mattapoisett. Oct. 14, 1849. Old Dartmouth Historical Society
  9. N.W.C. Document No. 1:7.
  10. Log of the Chili. Dec. 19, 1857. Old Dartmouth Historical Society.
  11. Letter of Benjamin Tripp, Jr. to F.W. Seward; May 12, 1868, National Archives, Consular Records in Santiago.
  12. Complaint of Gevernor General of Cape Verde to U.S. Consul, July 24, 1835; Letter of F. Gardner to John C. Calhoun, March 20, l845; Letter of William Peixoto to U.S. Department of State, October 20, 1848; W. H. Morse to Daniel Webster, January 29, 1852, National Archives, Consular Records in Santiago.
  13. Walter E. Hammond, From Meeting onboard the Pedro Varela. The Adventures of a Twentieth Century Whaleman, Historical Footnotes Bulletin of the Stonington Historical Society, Vol. X No. 1, November 1972.
  14. "The Cape Verdeans" Falmoulth Enterprise May 18, 1973.
  15. op. cit. Hohman, The American Whaleman, p. 318
  16. Ship Registers, New Bedford Whaling Museum 17. op. cit. Follow the Whale, p. 261.
  17. Joseph Gomes, Captain Joe (N.Y.: Vantage Press. 1960).
  18. Falmouth Enterprise, June 12, 1973; New Bedford Standard Times, Feb. l7, 1974.
  19. "The Last of the Whalers", Cape Verdean
  20. ** This authors maternal grandfather, Raimundo Firmo Ramos from Sao Vicente, arrived in New Bedford aboard the whaling bark Greyhound.
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