GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“To be sold by BENJAMIN MASON, THE Hull of the Sloop THOMAS, … Whale Boats, Whale Irons and Warps.”
I chose this advertisement because it focused on items used by mariners, which were unique from the varied offerings of general stores and other sellers. The advertisement mentions the sale of a “Sloop,” a type of boat, along with many other marine supplies (sails, rigging, anchors). This type of advertisement definitely fits in the newspaper that printed it, the Newport Mercury, published in Newport, Rhode Island. The benefits of colonizing New England included the abundance of ports and access to marine passageways. The geography of New England inspired the establishment of many maritime-based businesses and activities. However, what surprised me was the mention of “Whale Boats” and “Whale Irons.”
As a New Englander I was aware of the booming whaling business of the 1800s. I have even visited the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. But what surprised me was that there was an advertisement regarding the whale trade in Rhode Island in the 1700s. I did some research to learn more about the long history of whaling in New England. Whaling has been a business in the region since the 1600s, dating back to Long Island in 1644 to be exact. Some of the products from whaling throughout the years included whale oil and materials used in candle making. The whaling business was common even before the 1800s!
In addition, I also learned that it was likely this whole advertisement was about whale hunting vessels and equipment. I learned that a sloop was a type of vessel commonly used for whale hunting. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, “[W]halers began to outfit single-masted sailing vessels called sloops to pursue the animals into deeper water.” Any sailor who picked up this newspaper would have at once recognized the common tools used in whaling, which was an important element for both a coastal colony and a diverse economy.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Megan reaches a sound conclusion that everything in this advertisement – from the vessel to the equipment to the supplies – would have been used to outfit an eighteenth-century whaling expedition. Not only would sailors have recognized these tools of the trade, they would have noticed that Benjamin Mason spoke their language, especially when he included “Whale Irons and Warps” in the list of equipment for sale.
Thomas Lytle notes that the tool most people know as the harpoon was commonly called an iron by the officers and sailors who served aboard whaling vessels. Lytle dispels a popular misconception about harpoons. In most circumstances harpoons were not used to kill whales. A different tool, known as a lance, was used for that job. Lytle explains that the harpoon “was meant only to fasten to the whale and act as a hook to fasten the whale to the whaleboat.” That then gave the whale hunters an opportunity to kill the whale before it could escape. Lytle asserts that the harpoon “was the single item that determined the success or failure of a whaling voyage” and the entire industry. In addition to the essential “Whale Irons,” Mason also offered “Warps,” better known to most people as nets, for sale. Any buyer would have been well equipped to sponsor a whaling expedition.
Rhode Island’s leaders wanted to encourage that industry in the eighteenth century, long before the golden age of whaling that has captured the popular imagination. In his History of the American Whale Fishery, Alexander Starbuck explains that “the Rhode Island assembly passed an act for the encouragement of the whale and cod fisheries” in 1731. That act authorized “a bounty of five shillings for every barrel of whale oil, one penny a pound for bone, and five shilling a quintal for codfish, caught by Rhode Island vessels and brought into this colony.” Within two years, vessels from Newport successfully collected the bounties offered for whales.
 Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Industry from Its Earliest Inception to the Year 1876 (Waltham, MA: Published by the Author, 1878), 35.