An old sea shanty encapsulates some of the pains and pleasures of Arctic whaling that took men from New England on lengthy trips from their homes. They travelled south through the Atlantic Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, and turned back north to traverse the mighty Pacific Ocean, sometimes reaching into the Arctic in search of the precious oil and baleen used to light peoples’ homes and shape women’s figures. Nantucket and New Bedford were the major whaling ports, but after the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783 inhabitants of another island off the coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard, joined with their neighbors sending out whaling ships or joining the crews of ships from neighboring ports.
Martha’s Vineyard was settled in the mid to late 17th century by inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many of the original settlers of Martha’s Vineyard were part of a community that had immigrated to Massachusetts from England; specifically a part of Kent known as the Weald. These early settlers got along well with the indigenous people already on the island (native peoples related to the Wampanoag tribe) and made their living on the island primarily by fishing and farming. As farming practices slowly depleted the soil, residents turned to whaling to earn their living.
One of the first residents, Jonathan Lambert, was a deaf man who moved to the island with his wife in 1694. Lambert’s will indicates that two of his seven children were also deaf. Apparently deafness ran in his family. Over time deafness became common on Martha’s Vineyard, even among people who were not direct descendents of the Lambert family. Anthropologist Nora Ellen Groce, who researched the deaf of Martha ’s Vineyard, traced the genealogies of families with deaf people in them and found that they descended from the settlers who had immigrated from the Weald. She concludes that a common ancestor had mutated a recessive gene for deafness. The isolation of the island resulted in intermarriage between families causing this gene to be expressed.
In the 19th century, one in every 5,728 Americans was born deaf; on Martha’s Vineyard it was one in every 155 people! Deafness was so prevalent that all the inhabitants of the island, deaf and non-deaf, were conversant with sign language. The communication barriers that exist for deaf people who live as minorities in a society which does not know their language did not exist on the island. Therefore deaf people functioned in Martha’s Vineyard society just like the other residents. Towns on Martha’s Vineyard like Chilmark were bilingual and fully integrated communities where deaf people owned farms, ran businesses, and served in local government.Although all the communities of Martha’s Vineyard benefited from “whale oil money”, there are no records of deaf people participating in whaling. None-the-less, people who knew some of the deaf folks on the Vineyard do not remember them as having a disability. The same phenomenon is seen in other isolated communities with a high incidence of deafness where a commonly shared sign language develops, such as the Bedouin Al-Sayyid tribe in the Negev desert of Israel or the village of Adamorobe, Ghana.
All of this raises an interesting question about deafness. Twenty-first century America sees deafness as such a devastating handicap that we attempt to cure it with an expensive and invasive surgery on very young children to lessen their hearing loss. Yet on Martha’s Vineyard and like communities, where a signed language was commonly shared, deaf people were not as isolated and pushed to the margins as they often are in our culture. Does the disability lie solely in the hearing loss? Or is the concept of disability a social construct that differs from one society to another?
One thing is for sure, deaf and undeaf alike, we all sail through life together on one ship. Recall that Fleece, the half-deaf cook on Captain Ahab’s fateful last encounter with Moby Dick, went down with the whaler Pequod as did everyone else … except Ishmael.
Groce, N. E. (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.