HADDAM'S CAPTAIN COMER
CRONKITE: Captain George Comer
was the last of New London’s whaling captains.
CALABRETTA (Assoc. Curator, Mystic Seaport):
He was born in Quebec in 1858.
His father was lost at sea and his mother couldn’t support
the children and apparently he spent some time in an orphanage and
then was placed out with a foster family in East Haddam, Connecticut
as a young boy and lived in East Haddam for the rest of his life.
the age of 17 in 1875 he walked from East Haddam to New London and
shipped out on a whaler. And over the next 44 years only 3 years passed
during which he didn’t spend at least some time at sea.
He sailed as
captain or master of a ship for the first time in 1895.
He specialized in arctic whaling. A typical voyage would be
27 months, about 16 months of which would be spent in winter quarters
when the ship was completely frozen in the ice and there was virtually
no activity possible.
had to survive on everything that they brought with them, and for
fresh meat they obtained deer meat and salmon from the Inuit in trade.
would be a community of Inuit camped through the entire winter right
near the vessel and they became part of the social activity and all
the activity during the winter season.
had an interesting relationship with the Inuit.
He really developed
an affection for them.
was also interested and became involved in arctic exploration.
He collected for some of the great natural history museums
not just in the United States but in the world and became the leading
authority in the world of the Inuit of the Hudson Bay region.
Comer retired from the whaling industry in 1912 but it wasn’t the
end of his career at sea. He participated in a couple of arctic expeditions
in association with the American Museum of Natural History.
the fact that he was 59 years old he enlisted in the Navy during World War I.
and made several cruises onboard naval vessels.
When he came back he became involved in a trading and exploration
venture heading again for Hudson Bay. Went back one more time in 1919
at the age of 62. I think the primary reason he went back was because
he wanted to visit his Inuit friends.
he returned to East Haddam permanently at that point, was somewhat
of a local celebrity.
served a term in the Connecticut State Legislature. He was in declining health
later in life in part because of the rigors of arctic whaling and
died in 1937.
CRONKITE: The life of a captain was often a privileged one. But for
the men who crewed the whaling ships, their standard of living and
their lives at sea proved to be radically different.
Plummer (Norwich City Historian): Each vessel would carry a complement
of men not only to work the sails and the rigging of the ship but
also to go out in small boats after whales, kill the, bring them back
in, strip off the blubber …and render it down into oil. So you might
have 1,500 plus men, …maybe even 2,000 on the whaling vessels.
might have at the height of the industry several hundred sailors roaming
the streets looking for a good time.
I mean, New London was notorious for having, you know, grog
shops along Water Street and Bank Street, Reed Street. There was Hell
Hollow which was the local red light district.
whaling merchants often encouraged sailors to have a good time, you
know, spend money. They would advance them money prior to the voyage.
The sailors would be charged for loading the ship, they’d be
charged for whatever advances they had been given and they’d work
it off as they were on the vessel and it was in the interest of the
owners to actually have the sailors start out the voyage in debt to
captains would be paid a share or what was called “a lay” in the voyage.
In fact, each member of the crew, the officers and so forth would
get this lay or share. The captain’s lay might be as much as say a
12th or 16th. A green hand or a Portuguese from
the Azores or something else, they might be signed on for 195th
PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): After a couple of years
at sea, with a wage advance, and with the debts run up through purchases
at the ships store, known as the slop chest, many crewmembers would
be left in debt or with maybe $30 or $40 dollars. Life at sea was
no leisure cruise.
lot of whale men when they first went to sea in the whaling industry
had great ideas of seeing the world and what a romantic kind of opportunity
it was to go on the high seas and capture the great leviathan.
if you read a lot of the journals that are in the libraries around
the state and elsewhere you’ll see that after a few months most of
these crewmen became very disillusioned with the …whole business.
Tom Callinan- The
traveled far out in the ocean,
Hunting and searching for whales,
But know I’ve returned to Old Mystic,
So listen and heed my sad tail,
listen and heed my sad tail.
PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): there was a lot of time
on board these whaling ships that went on voyages for two, three,
four years at a time and life in the forecastle …could be cramped
and sometimes a little bit unhealthy and it was just not a great life
after a few months for most of these ¾
were long periods of boredom and routine shipboard activity.
PLUMMER (Norwich City Historian): On the other hand, when whales were
sighted, …you had extreme danger for a very short length of time.
Hopefully you prevail, you bring the whale back. Now you’ve got a
tremendous amount of work.
what the whaling ¾
whaling merchants did was they relied on finding green hands, farm
boys from faraway. Many of them not from New London. Many of them
…from upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania. They
also recruited Portuguese from the Azores, blacks from the Cape Verde
Islands, people from St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic,
Kanakas, South Sea islanders, Hawaiians. There was a very strong Native
American presence, Mohegans and Pequots, both.
PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): It’s true that maritime
history of the United States has often been presented pretty much
as a white man’s story …the truth of the matter is it was a very multicultural
story particularly in the early 19th Century.
Sometimes the early crew lists clearly indicate that a third
of the crew were ethnic minority, folks of color.
the whaling industry became more marginalized in the ¾
in the late 19th Century even more and more blacks came
into that ¾ that fishery and so that by the turn of the Century
there were, in those whaling vessels that were still going out, sometimes
half the crew or more were black.
activities have often been thought of as a male-dominated province
and the fact of the matter is in southeastern Connecticut during the
whaling era one out of six captains took their wives with them and
oftentimes their families as well and it wasn’t uncommon for a woman
to even give birth on one of these long whaling voyages.