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The wreck of an 1830s whaler with a Mass. connection offers a glimpse of America’s racial history

A shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico has been identified and the mystery of its multiracial crew’s fate unraveled.

An anchor at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico where the whaling ship Industry capsized and sank in 1836. NOAA Ocean Exploration via AP


The shipwreck formally known as No. 15563 has been identified as Industry, the only whaling ship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

On March 23, scientists announced they were confident the wreck was Industry, which was built in 1815 and capsized in a storm on May 26, 1836. Its rediscovery — and the newly discovered fate of its crew, which most likely included Black Americans, white Americans and Native Americans — opens a window into the maritime and racial life of the antebellum United States.

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 two-masted brig Industry went down in 1836 about 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. (NOAA Ocean Exploration via AP)

The ship’s remains were first documented in 2011, when a geological data company scanning an oil lease area spotted the carcass of a ship at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Following standard procedures, the company reported its finding to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which logged the wreck as No. 15563 and left it alone.

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The world’s seabeds are covered in shipwrecks, and oil contractors stumble across them all the time. But James P. Delgado, senior vice president of Search Inc., a firm that manages cultural resources such as archaeological sites and artifacts, was interested in this one because the description from the oil contractor mentioned a tryworks, a type of furnace unique to whaling vessels.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needed to test new equipment in the Gulf of Mexico, it asked Search Inc. if there were any wrecks it was interested in exploring.

From his office last month, Delgado, an expert in maritime archaeology, directed the crew of NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer vessel as it piloted a remotely operated vehicle around the wreck, under 6,000 feet of water some 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The vehicle passed back and forth repeatedly in precise patterns, collecting images and data from which Delgado and other researchers created an extremely detailed three-dimensional model known as an orthomosaic.

They examined the ship’s size (64 feet by 20 feet); hull shape (characteristic of the early 1800s); materials (no distinctive green color that would have indicted the presence of oxidized copper); and tryworks (insulated with large amounts of brick, indicating that the furnaces had run at the scorching temperatures needed to produce oil from whale blubber).

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All of it, along with the location, matched what the researchers knew about Industry.

The whaling trade was booming when Industry set sail, and in Northern coastal towns like Westport, Massachusetts, it brought together Black Americans, white Americans and Native Americans to a degree that was rare in other sectors. One prominent ship builder was Paul Cuffe, the son of a freed slave and a member of the Wampanoag tribe, and one of Cuffe’s own sons, William, was on the crew of Industry.

The Cuffe family “hired almost all Blacks and Indians for their ships, and they made sure all those people were paid equally according to their shipboard rank,” said Lee Blake, the president of the New Bedford Historical Society and a descendant of Cuffe. “That’s a whole different way of looking at work at a time when you had Southern ports which, of course, were enslaving Native Americans and African Americans.”

The racial makeup of Industry’s crew would have constrained its options when it ran into trouble, because Black members would have been imprisoned and potentially sold into slavery if they had docked at a Southern port. Most whalers avoided the Gulf of Mexico altogether; according to research by Judith Lund, a historian who worked for the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, only 214 whaling voyages are known to have sailed in the Gulf from the 1780s through the 1870s.

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Until now, historians did not know what had happened to Industry’s crew.

When Robin Winters, a librarian at the Westport Free Public Library, started digging in September at Delgado’s request, all she knew was that the ship had sunk somewhere in the Gulf in 1836. The passenger manifest went down with it. Documents from the Starbuck whaling family identified the captain as “Soule.”

For months, Winters came up dry. Then she reached Jim Borzilleri, a researcher in Nantucket, Massachusetts, who found a passing mention in an 1830s news clipping of a Soule connected to a Nantucket-based ship called Elizabeth.

Soule was a common surname in New England at the time, Winters said, but the reference got her attention. “I thought, ‘Hmm, could it be too good to be true that maybe the crew and the captain were picked up by Brig Elizabeth?’” she said.

She asked Borzilleri to look for any mentions of Industry and Elizabeth together.

He called back in 10 minutes.

He read to Winters from a tiny “marine news” notice tucked near the end of the June 22, 1836, edition of The Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror: Elizabeth had arrived home on June 17 carrying 375 barrels of whale oil, along with “Passengers Capt. Soule and crew of brig Industry of Westport, capsized May 26 off the Balize, with 310 Bbls oil onboard.”

In other words, the crew of Industry survived, saved by the random fortune of being picked up by another ship from the North.

The most interesting discoveries in marine archaeology are not always ships whose names are in textbooks, Delgado said, but instead “these ships that speak to the everyday experience.”

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“And, with that, we’re reminded that history isn’t big names,” he added.

“When we find a ship, in many ways it’s like suddenly a book is open,” Delgado said. “And not every page might be there, but when they are, it’s like, ‘Wow.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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