Skip Finley has the kind of obsessiveness you read about in whaling stories. He needed it to uncover this chapter in American history, which sheds new light on the meaning of merit — and hardship.
In Whaling Captains of Color, Skip Finley introduces us to 52 men of color who became masters – that was the term used for whaling captains – masters of their ships.
At a time when most Black people in America were enslaved, whaling was an industry in which their skills and fortitude enabled some of them to become leaders.
It was a time when whale oil was to New England what crude oil is now to much of the Middle East. Nobody had ever documented just how many men of color rose to the rank of captain — or master — until Skip Finley began his obsessive quest.
How did these men of color rise to the top? The hard way. Unimaginably hard — until Finley feeds our imaginations with his deep research.
You know it’s hard “… when a man says he didn’t mind sleeping in his quarters, which were about the size of the backseat of an SUV, and being covered with roaches, because [the roaches] ate the bedbugs….”
“… for many years, they’d wash their clothes in urine. Now, how bad did your clothes have to smell before you did that?”
It was the crew members of color who typically went on voyage after voyage, despite the hardships, due to a lack of opportunity on land — even when they were free men.
So how did 52 men of color become masters of their whaling ships?
You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Or you can join Skip and me in conversation on Friday June 17th at 10am inside Nantucket’s Methodist Church. Skip will help transport us back a century or two, make us feel like we’re spending time with some of these whaling captains. And you’ll get to know Skip Finley, a great raconteur whose life as a historian follows a successful career as a radio executive.
Skip is coming over from Martha’s Vineyard to join us. Not just any town in Martha’s Vineyard. The community of Oak Bluffs —which, for more than half a century, has been a summer haven for many of America’s most accomplished Black families, and where, when Skip was growing up, his father would make the ten hour drive with his family each summer and — because of the color of their skin — identified the two places — only two — where he felt safe to fill up the car’s gas tank, go to the rest room, and continue on their journey.