History Alive: The Future of the Past

In August, 2014, the Charles W. Morgan returned to Mystic Seaport where she now sits fully on display. Today, there are no captains barking orders, no whalers hauling lines or voyagers dropping Secchi disks overboard. Instead there are children. A generation of future leaders, scientists, and technological innovators occupies the deck, playing hide-and-seek behind the tryworks or pretending to steer the ship with shrieks of delight. While it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the task that the whalers faced hundreds of years ago, I can only hope that the ship herself, in all of her vast experience, will prove a helpful teacher.

Arriving at the end of the 38th Voyage

As for me, I am but one of the many who has been touched by the 38th Voyage, whose views of maritime history and modern science have been altered by my experience with the Morgan. As a former Williams-Mystic student, my connection to the ship is admittedly unique. I watched the final stages of restoration during my 2014 spring semester in Mystic, then visited her dockside exhibition in Boston a few months later in July. For me, it is only natural that the 38th Voyage holds some sort of fascination. I have sailed for a ten-day offshore voyage and read Moby-Dick (twice). I have taken classes on marine policy, oceanography, maritime literature and history. I have spent months at Mystic Seaport, learning the minute details of the whaling industry and its impact on our culture. What intrigues me the most, however, is the sheer number of people affected by this voyage, all of whom were drawn to the Morgan through their own unusual paths. For scientists and historians alike, it is easy to see the initial romance of both mimicking and innovating the observational methods of the whalers. Yet a majority of those involved in collecting this information were teachers, authors, artists, and sailors, scholars conducting their own projects and learning from each other. Within the microcosm onboard the ship, each individual approached the voyage with a different goal and viewed the experience with a different lens.

This multi-disciplinary approach to understanding our world touched more than those onboard. From the most educated historian to the smallest child, the Morgan’s mere presence in port sparked basic questions that inspired conversation. Everywhere during the summer of her voyage, from the crowds who visited the Charlestown shipyard in Boston to the local coffee shop in Mystic, I heard voiced reactions to the ship that both mirrored my own thoughts and provided a new perspective about the voyage. I even received calls from my grandmother, wanting to inquire about the Morgan’s whereabouts from her home in the middle of the country. Unlike me, many of these people lacked a specific interest in our world’s oceans. Still, it is nearly impossible remain unaffected by an image of a historic vessel alongside a humpback whale on Stellwagen Bank or the juxtaposition of the Morgan against the Boston city skyline.

Entering Boston

The contrast between the Morgan and the modern urban environment of Boston led many curious visitors to visit her dockside exhibition at the Charlestown Shipyard. Source: Mystic Seaport

Today, when my friends take a break from their corporate careers to visit me, the first place we go is Mystic Seaport. I want to show them the inspiration that drives my work along with the projects of so many others. I take them to the Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers exhibit, where they can start to truly appreciate the size of a sperm whale tooth or a humpback vertebrae. Then we head to the Morgan. More often than not, these budding financiers, politicians and businessmen look around in awe as they try to comprehend the task that the whalers of the Morgan faced hundreds of years ago.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride

After successfully harpooning a whale, whaleboats were often dragged by the wounded animal during a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

For those fortunate enough to visit the ship in her home, to walk on her decks is to be inspired by what she accomplished both in her whaling career and during the 38th Voyage. One can imagine seeing a sixty-foot long whale just off her bow and consider the reality of maneuvering its massive body onboard, picture spearing this animal from a twenty-five-foot whaling boat and enjoying a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” as the whale tries to escape, peek into the forecastle and try to imagine sleeping in the tiny bunk, explore below deck and the space that would have been home for years at a time. Looking at the wind in the Morgan’s white sails on a sunny day at Mystic Seaport, it is easy to admire the majesty of the ship. Yet many forget that this museum piece has had an entirely different life, one characterized by the adventure that accompanies the classic rivalry between man and beast. The 38th Voyage and the restoration of the Morgan involved thousands of people in the process and will continue to affect thousands more with its outcome. Through this recreation of the past, we have become part of its living history.