John Braginton-Smith & Duncan Oliver,
Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America's First Whalemen
(History Press, 2008)

When you think about early American whaling, you probably conjure images of ships voyaging far from home in search of their cetacean prey.

But in the early days of colonial life, that sort of expedition simply didn't happen. The first whalers on a large scale -- back in a day when whales were far more plentiful in the world's oceans -- hunted whales from shore.

And they got their start, by and large, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver, in Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America's First Whalemen, detail those early "fishermen" who first harvested the oil and bone from drift whales, or those who beached themselves on their shores, and later set out for short distances from the coast in small whaling vessels, usually oar-driven and carrying only a handful of men. These vessels would usually "gang up" on the whales, attacking from several sides until the whales died and could be towed back to shore, or until the whales sank and, the men hoped, washed ashore within the next few days.

While I, sitting in relative comfort in the 21st century, deplore the idea of slaughtering whales in modern times, there is a certain romanticism to those old whalers in bygone days. Their story is interesting, as they devised ways to defeat creatures many times their size with only rudimentary weapons. Men, too, died on those expeditions.

That said, the authors here have presented the meat of their story in a bland sauce. The text here is dryly written, poorly organized and often-times repetitive. (I lost count, for instance, of the number of times I read that Jacobus Loper was invited to Nantucket to teach them how to hunt whales, but he didn't go.)

And, at less than 100 pages of text, it still feels like Braginton-Smith and Oliver were scrambling to find enough to fill a book. They present a great amount of dull, unnecessary detail that really doesn't further our understanding of early whaling, and they use a large number of very similar photographs of dead whales on the beach -- in fact, they use the same photo twice -- and of illegibly scribbled documents.

I love nautical history. I love New England. I love whales. And yet, this book bored me.

book review by
Tom Knapp

4 October 2014

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