Wreck of Gulf's only whaling shipwreck found 186 years after it sunk

Wreckage of Gulf’s only whaling shipwreck which was crewed by black men is found 186 years after it sank: Crew were rescued by another ship and could have been enslaved if they’d rowed ashore themselves

  • Researchers believe they found the wreckage of the Industry, the only known whaler to have gone down in the Gulf of Mexico in 1836 
  • The ship’s remains were found 70 miles offshore from Pascagoula, Mississippi
  • The ship is tied to the history of a black captain, Paul Cuffe, who led two whaling expeditions with a diverse crew of black, white and Native American men
  • Although the ship went down after a severe storm, the men were reportedly rescued by a passing ship who delivered them back home
  • The incident happened 15 years before author Herman Melville spun a similar tale in his iconic novel, Moby Dick

The only known whaling ship known to have gone down in the Gulf of Mexico has been discovered after nearly 190 years south of the Mississippi River.

Researchers checking out odd shapes during undersea scanning work on the sandy ocean floor believe they’ve finally found the shipwreck of the Industry whaler about 70 miles offshore from Pascagoula, Mississippi. The discovery was documented in February by remotely operated robots in about 6,000 feet of water.

It was crewed by black and mixed-race men, which was highly unusual for the time. The crew were all rescued by a passing ship, and taken to shore by its crew.

Had they tried to sail ashore by themselves on their lifeboats, they risked imprisonment and enslavement because of racist laws of the time.  

Not much is left of the two-masted wooden brig thought to be Industry, a 65-foot-long whaler that foundered after a storm in 1836. 

An old news clipping found in a library shows its 15 or so crew members were rescued by another whaling ship and returned home to Westport, Massachusetts, said researcher Jim Delgado of SEARCH Inc.

The ship was also home to Black and mixed-race men who were part of the crew and risked enslavement at Southern ports.  

‘The Gulf is an undersea museum of some incredibly well-preserved wrecks,’ said Delgado of SEARCH Inc., who a few years ago helped identify the remains of the last known U.S. slave ship, the Clotilda, in muddy river waters just north of Mobile, Alabama.

This image taken by NOAA Ocean Exploration in February 2022 shows what researchers believe to be the wreck of the only whaling ship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico

The Industry’s remains were found 70 miles offshore from Pascagoula, Mississippi 

This mosaic image made and provided by NOAA Ocean Exploration shows the full outline of the wreck. The ship is tied to the history of a black captain, Paul Cuffe, who led two whaling expeditions with a diverse crew of black, white and Native American men

The crash occurred roughly 15 years before Herman Melville introduced the world to Moby Dick, a whaling ship from Massachusetts that sank near the mouth of the Mississippi River. 

Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale,’ published in 1851, told the story of American whaling from a Northeastern view. 

The discovery of Industry shows how whaling extended into a region where relatively little is known about whaling despite the Gulf´s extensive maritime history. 

The find also sheds light on the way race and slavery became entangled in the nation’s maritime economy, said historian Lee Blake, a descendant of Paul Cuffe, a prominent black whaling captain who made at least two trips aboard the Industry.

Southern slave owners felt threatened by mixed-race ship crews coming into port, she said, so they tried to prevent enslaved people from seeing whites, blacks, Native Americans and others, all free and working together for equal pay.

‘There were a whole series of regulations and laws so that if a crew came into a Southern port and there were a large number of mixed-raced or African American crew members on board, the ship was impounded and the crew members were taken into custody until it left,’ said Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society in Massachusetts. 

A NOAA submarine is pictured moving across the wreckage of the Industry whaling ship, with the vessel’s anchor visible just underneath it 

The Industry’s brig log book is pictured, and shows its crew members during 1828

A payment schedule for the whaling vessel’s crew members is also pictured 

A drawing shared by the NOAA shows whalers killing the mammals in the Gulf of Mexico during the 19th Century 

Black crew members also could be abducted and enslaved, she added.

‘Finding Industry is an amazing opportunity to tell a much fuller story of Paul Cuffe’s accomplishments as a whaling captain, businessman, and social activist bent on finding a way to end the slave trade,’ Lee said.

Fellow Paul Cuffe descendent Carl Cruz,  a New Bedford-based independent historian, added: ‘The news of this discovery is exciting, as it allows us to explore the early relationships of the men who worked on these ships, which is a lesson for us today as we deal with diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.’

Images of Industry captured by NOAA Ocean Exploration aboard the research ship Okeanos Explorer show the outline of a ship along with anchors and metal and brick remnants of a stove-like contraption used to render oil from whale blubber at sea, elements Delgado described as key evidence that the wreck was a whaling vessel.

The Industry photos pale in comparison to those recently released of Endurance, which sank in 10,000 feet of frigid Antarctic water a century ago and is incredibly well preserved. 

Bottles believed to date to the early 1800s are visible around Industry, but no ship’s nameplate; what appears to be modern fishing line lies near the metal tryworks used to produce oil from whale fat.

The Gulf was a rich hunting ground for sperm whales, which were especially valuable for the amount and quality of their oil, before the nation´s whaling industry collapsed in the late 19th century, said Judith Lund, a whaling historian and former curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

‘In the 1790s there were more whales than they could pluck out of the Gulf of Mexico,’ she said in an interview.

While at least 214 whaling voyages ventured into the Gulf, Lund said, ships from the Northeast rarely made extended port calls in Southern cities like New Orleans or Mobile, Alabama, because of the threat to crew members who weren’t white. 

That may may have been a reason the whaling ship that rescued Industry’s crew took the men back to Massachusetts, where slavery was outlawed in the 1780s, rather than landing in the South.

‘The people who whaled in the Gulf of Mexico knew it was risky to go into those ports down there because they had mixed crews,’ said Lund.

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