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USA, Polynesia: The Fishy World of Nantucket – A Touristic History

August 25, 2010

All photos by Kit and Diana Herring

We made the short passage from Hyannis Port to Nantucket on a glorious sunny day.   The sea shimmered like so many tiny mirrored gemstones.  Not a trace of wind stirred the water’s surface and the air temperature was already in the mid-twenties (Celsius scale) at nine in the morning.  We had chosen the least expensive of the various waterborne options, keeping for ourselves sixty dollars in return for spending an extra hour on Nantucket Sound each way.

The ferry boat, a venerable and dented work of steel that had seen better days disappear like so many tail-finned cars, was filled perhaps to twenty per cent capacity.  Sitting on the upper deck and watching Hyannis recede into the  horizon felt good and right.

1) The Hyannis-Nantucket slow ferry, one of two vessels that make the run several times a day.

2) We leave a fishing boat to our port side as we depart

3) The last yacht in the outer harbor; this one may have been an older wooden sloop sheathed in fiberglass

On Nantucket Sound, the body of water bordered by Cape Cod, Martha’s Vinyard, Nantucket, and Monomoy, only a tiny swell under the ship’s keel let us know we were at sea.  We had plenty of time to consider our destination’s history.

When the English first arrived in what is now Massachusetts, in 1620, they thought they had stumbled upon an untrammeled wilderness.  But most of the region had been densely settled.  Imported European diseases decimated most of the population long before the Pilgrims ever touched the shore.  Native Americans still lived on Nantucket, of course, but the English divided the island up like a great birthday cake in a complicated series of maneuvers that took no consideration of the indigenous people’s rights.  Apparently the original inhabitants of Nantucket, the Wampanoags, welcomed the English as other peoples did in other places, assuring their eventual doom in friendly ignorance.

4) Nantucket’s oldest standing house, built in 1687.  A branch of the Coffin family lived here.  One of their descendants would achieve a kind of immortality after being killed and eaten by his cousin the captain and other crew members who had survived the sinking of the whaleship Essex.

5) The house’s chimney; no one can say for sure what the horse-shoe symbol really means

But as every American school kid knows, the business of whaling is what made Nantucket famous.  Whale oil lighted the nights of Europe and America, and as with petroleum today, the world could not get enough of the substance.  From this modest island ships set sail and reached the most remote parts of the globe, spreading Western culture and vice.  Captain James Cook is often blamed for despoiling the South Seas, but in reality those who followed him, chiefly among whom were the whalers of Nantucket, should have taken the blame.

6) Scale model of a Maori war canoe.  The Pacific Islanders were quick to understand that the whalers enjoyed souvenirs as much as any tourist, and they reproduced many of their traditional wares for barter.  This canoe was brought by a whaler from New Zealand in the mid-1800s.

The Nantucket folk called whales “fish” and a good whaler was said to be “a fishy man.”  One has to suppose they realized the whales breathed air, but evidently they had no notion as to the finely tuned yet still incomprehensible sentience of the beings they executed.

The slaughter becomes even more difficult to fathom when we learn that the industry was eventually taken over and led by Quakers, who are much more pacifistic on land.

6) Quaker school and meeting house, constructed in 1838.  Simplicity of design nearly overwhelms the casual visitor

The Nantucket Whaling Museum holds a collection of spectacular primitive art, both Western and Oceanic.

7) Scrimshaw on baleen, made by whalers with plenty of free time between hunts

8) Whalebone and human hair necklace from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii)

But, as every school child is taught also, the whaling industry came to an end upon the discovery that petroleum would serve the same purposes at a far lesser cost.  Several of the bigger whale species were nearly extinct by this time.  And no one can say what kind of rapport we may have developed with whales had we chosen to communicate rather than to kill.

9) Whaleboat used for hunting the animals with the skeleton of a Sperm whale hanging above: a grisly monument

Nowadays Nantucket has become a retreat for wealthy Americans who can afford to purchase a sliver of its old charm.

10) A home along a back street in the old town

Nantucket Harbor contains more than its fair share of classic  yachts.

11) This racing sloop probably costs more to maintain on a yearly basis than most Americans make in salary or wages

As we returned to Hyannis at the end of the day, I reflected that Nantucket, with its beautiful architecture, history of whaling, and affluent summer residents, is a microcosm of the entire USA.  The island’s hypocrisies, sufferings, and victories all represent America at her worst and at her best.

12) Woven twine, made by a lifeboat survivor from the Essex

13) Returning to Hyannis Port at sunset

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Nicolas Guillermo permalink
    September 6, 2010 3:44 pm

    Nice Photo’s, the whale jaw is so cool!

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