Traveling from sunny California to snowy Delaware, I discovered an old song about Arctic whaling and sailing:
It’s damn rough life of toil and strife
we whalemen undergo,
And we don’t give a damn when the gale is done
how hard the winds did blow.
‘Cause we’re homeward bound from the Arctic Ground
with a good ship taunt and free.
And we don’t give a damn when we drink our rum
with the girls of Old Maui.
The roots of this song go back to 1858. Imagine these lines sung in a deep baritone without any instruments as Stan Rogers does. The song contrasts the hell of icy Arctic seas and storms with dreams of tropical Hawaii with its warm gently breeze and girls. The shanty contains romantic longing for peace, tranquility, and a gentle female touch.
Tom Waits covers the ‘charm’ of the southern, tropical seas a little later with less romance in Singapore:
We sail tonight for Singapore
Don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore
Cross your heart and hope to die
When you hear the children cry.
The first American whalers arrived on Hawaii in 1819. Only a few years later a fleet of over 60 whaling ships dropped anchor off Hawaii to rest, repair, and resupply before sailing around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America to reach their home ports such as New Bedford and Nantucket, Massachusetts. On the eve of the American Civil War the number of whaling ships porting in Hawaii reached 596 and their sailors changed the fair isles in the tropical breeze by spreading commerce, money, and disease.
And within another 50 years the whaling bonanza all over the globe was over. The Industrial Revolution enabled the hunting of whales almost to extinction with rocket-propelled explosives. Populations are still recovering 100 years later. The oil of the whale’s blubber was replaced by fossil fuels first monopolized by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil that ushered in the Guilded Age.
Much has changed since then. Hawaii is no longer an independent tropical monarchy as it became the home port of the United States’ Pacific Fleet. I wish not to romanticize: Without the Pacific Fleet, without the oil and electricity that fuels our economy, without all this, I would not be able to travel in 8 hours to visit my son in California for 6 days over christmas. I would be unable to skype my parents in Spain or listen to sea shanties of past whalemen in the warm comfort of my home while it is snowing outside.
Laura Jernegan: Girl on a whaleship: Interactive, multi-media story of 6-year old Laura Jernegan traveling with her father, a whaling captain from New England; Martha’s Vineyard museum.
Hawai’i Alive: Resources and standards of Hawaiian history and culture by the Bishop museum in Honolulu.
In Search of the Lost Whaling Fleet: Resources, maps, stories related to Arctic whaling during the 19th century.
English Folk and other good music: An English Folk Dance and Song project.