A Shipwreck, a Robot and an Archival Treasure Hunt Reveal the Diverse History of the Whaling Industry

Free Black Americans and Native Americans once worked on the “Industry,” a whaling ship whose wreck was recently identified in the Gulf of Mexico

An anchor surrounded by bottles and other debris, covered in ocean sand and muck
The anchor of Industry, a whaling ship that sank in 1836 in the Gulf of Mexico  NOAA Ocean Exploration

Last month, researchers identified a 207-year-old shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico as the Industry, a whaling ship that capsized in a brutal 1836 storm.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made the thrilling find while taking a new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for a test run along the ocean floor. The exploration was led by James P. Delgado, a maritime archaeologist and senior vice president of Search Inc., a cultural resources management firm. At Delgado’s suggestion, NOAA scientists on the ship Okeanos Explorer set out to examine the submerged wreck in late February, reports Maggie Astor for the New York Times.

Located about 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi and 6,000 feet underwater, the shipwreck was first eyed by an energy company in 2011 and then by an autonomous vehicle in 2017, but had never been fully examined, according to a NOAA statement. The two-masted wooden 64-foot-long brig had sunk into the seafloor and largely disintegrated, though its outlines are still visible in the underwater robot’s images, reports Mark Price for the Miami Herald.

Researchers scanned the wreck with high-tech cameras to create a three-dimensional model of the capsized ship. They were tipped off to its identity when they came across a 19th-century tryworks, or cast-iron furnace insulated by bricks that would run at high temperatures on the ship to render whale blubber into oil, according to the Times.

A tryworks, a large stove surrounded by bricks and covered in sand and ocean debris on the ocean floor
Industry's tryworks, a cast iron stove with two deep kettles used to render whale blubber into oil, is pictured here in an image taken by an NOAA remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Note the two fish taking refuge under the 19th-century machinery.  NOAA Ocean Exploration

Before the invention of petroleum-based kerosene, Americans’ demand for safe indoor lighting drove fleets of New England whaling ships to hunt whales along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Whale oil, particularly that taken from sperm whales, produced a bright, clean flame with minimal odor, per Yale University. By the late 1840s, more than 700 of the approximately 900 whaling ships hunting in the world’s oceans were U.S. ships.

Several Massachusetts towns—especially New Bedford—operated as hubs for the whaling industry. Records indicate that Industry was built in 1815 in Westport, Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe’s Tiana Woodard.

Whaling was a brutal and dangerous undertaking, per the New Bedford Whaling Museum. But perhaps surprisingly, Industry’s watery demise was rather unique: of the 214 whaling voyages sailed between the 1780s and 1870s, Industry is the only whaling ship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, per the Globe.

Industry’s discovery also brings to light a little-told facet of whaling history: namely, the key roles that Black Americans and Native Americans played in the nascent whaling industry of the early 19th century. At a time when most other industries were segregated by race, white, Black, Indigenous and multiracial crewmembers worked side-by-side on whaling ships, historian Judith Lund, formerly of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, tells the Globe.

On the high seas, the demanding and physically grueling work of whaling may have forced a more equitable environment, where crewmembers of color were regarded as equal to their white mates, Lund says.

A map shows the location of the wreck, about 70 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi river
Industry's wreck was first recorded in 2011, but researchers did not confirm the ship's identity until now. The brig sank in the summer of 1836 after a storm snapped its masts and opened the hull to the sea.  NOAA Ocean Exploration

“Most people didn’t care what color you were as long as you could throw a harpoon and do what was necessary to get the oil,” Lund tells the Globe.

Industry also has a direct link to Paul Cuffe, a well-known and successful Afro-Indigenous merchant, abolitionist and philanthropist from New England, per the Globe. Cuffe, whose father was a freed slave and mother was a Wampanoag Indian, was a famous Westport whaling captain and one of the wealthiest people of color in the United States at the time, according to Alex Kuffner of the Providence Journal. One of his own sons, William, served as a navigator on the Industry, and his son-in-law Pardon Cook was one of the ship’s officers.

“The discovery reflects how African Americans and Native Americans prospered in the ocean economy despite facing discrimination and other injustices,” NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad says in the statement. 

Yet the relative equality onboard whaling ships contrasted sharply with the reality of ports in the American South, where enslavers could capture and sell Black and Indigenous Americans into slavery. The possibility of being sold into slavery meant that whaling crews often steered clear of southern ports if they could help it, according to the Times.

When Industry sank in the Gulf of Mexico, therefore, the threat of enslavement would have surely been a chief concern of its stranded crew. “If the Black crewmen had tried to go ashore, they would have been jailed under local laws,” Delgado notes in the NOAA statement. “And if they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery.”

After NOAA officials identified Industry, they contacted librarian Robin Winters of the Westport Free Public Library to see if she could piece together more of Industry’s story. Winters embarked on a six-month archival treasure hunt to figure out the fates of the ship’s crew, she tells the Globe.

And in early March, she finally struck gold: a small news item from an 1836 edition of the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, provided by independent researcher Jim Borzilleri, related that the crew of the wrecked Industry had been scooped up by the Nantucket-based ship Elizabeth, per the Times.

“This was so fortunate for the men onboard,” Delgado adds in the statement, noting that, thanks to the generosity of the northern-bound ship, the surviving crew of Industry seemed to have made it back to New England intact.