Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy by Skip Finley, Naval Institute Press, 2020, 304 pages, $42.

Readers familiar with Moby Dick will re member Dagoo, the statuesque African harpooner trusted as one of the doomed Pequod’s best whale-killers, and those readers might remember that when Moby-Dick was first published in 1851, the well over three million black slaves then living in America could not even dream of such a life — not just the dangers of the whaling life but the freedoms. Dagoo was not a servant on board the Pequod; he was a skilled and valued member of the crew, slated to earn his share of the voyage’s takings. (Readers not familiar with Moby-Dick should perhaps do some soul-searching).

He was, in other words, a working member of a meritocracy, and such a thing was by no means fictional. In his new book, Skip Finley examines the reality of black men who earned their place as equals in the brutal world of the American whaling industry. Whaling Captains of Color: America’s First Meritocracy is an examination of a fascinating quirk in America’s history of race relations. 

Mr. Finley has consulted whaling museum archives and whaling vessel logbooks in order to collect portraits of 52 men of color who achieved the rank of captain on their whaling vessels, some of whom became wealthy through their endeavors at sea long before they were legally free men on land.

“Whaling men of color led colored and white men on 10,000-plus-mile journeys to exotic lands and experienced foreign life as free men,” Mr. Finley writes, “and then, after acquiring the sophistication of world travelers, had to return home to a hostile homeland.”

The chances for advancement were part of the violence of the enterprise. When whale-boats were lowered for the harpooning, captains very often went with them, and those whale-boats were often destroyed by the whales they were attacking, or towed beyond the horizon in a storied “Nantucket sleigh-ride.” But as Mr. Finley points out, even that violent, unpredictable world was preferable to slavery. Mr. Finley estimates that 20 to 30 per cent of all the men who participated in the American whaling industry were men of color: blacks, West Indians, Native Americans, and others.

The profits could be substantial. Whaling cruises could last for years, but at the peak of the industry, a ship returning with its holds full of whale oil and whalebone could pay off enormously for all concerned. In chapter after chapter of engaging profiles (accompanied by archival photos of weather-lined faces and eyes full of hard-won wisdom), Mr. Finley explores the lives and careers of the men of color who risked their lives at sea rather than risk their freedom on land.

“Whaling captains of color were just ‘colored’ when they returned to land,” he writes. “Few found investment opportunities that allowed them to grow whatever profits they retained.”

Some of them did manage to find such opportunities. We learn about men who owned ships, opened retail stores, and even a blacksmith who invented an important improvement in the design of the harpoon, but the impression is that this was rare.

As with most books about the whaling industry, Whaling Captains of Color spares almost no attention for the individuals at the heart of the story: the whales themselves.

“There are those who say that whales are the first animals mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 1:21, King James version: ‘and God created great whales’),” Mr. Finley writes at one point, “but I’m fairly certain it was that pesky snake.” (It was actually birds).

Readers learn that “submariners around the world have come to understand that whales ‘speak’ various dialects.” In fact, whales do speak, and remember, and care; the beings hunted nearly to extinction by 19th-century whaling captains were intelligent, affectionate members of close-knit family structures. Thankfully, as Mr. Finley points out, the general attitude has largely changed. Nowadays, he writes, “We love whales, admire them, want to save them.”

Like those general attitudes, so too the whaling industry itself changed. Whaling vessels were slow, cumbersome craft, easily pirated, and by the mid-19th century, better and cheaper substitutes for both whale oil and whalebone were developed, rendering whaling obsolete. As Mr. Finley puts it, “The business based on its unsustainable product was doomed.”

Whaling Captains of Color follows its cast of characters to their lives after the whaling industry had ended, continuing to illuminate an important chapter in American history.