Paul Krejci: Music Aboard the Charles W. Morgan and other 19th-Century Whaling Ships, Then and Now


The Charles W. Morgan plied the waters of the Western Arctic in the early 1860s as just one amid scores of whale ships that entered the region each season in pursuit of the bowhead whale and other marine wildlife (Sherman and Lund). Maintaining a presence through the early 20th century, these whalers embarked on 2700 voyages in the Western Arctic causing widespread effects on both sea-mammal populations and Native cultures (Bockstoce 1995: 14-15).

The ships housed polyglot communities representing ethnicities from all around the world including European Americans, African Americans, Europeans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, Cape Verde Islanders, Asians, Native Americans and other northern indigenous peoples. Musical expression also reflected a multicultural milieu aboard these vessels, which served as traveling jukeboxes, featuring the latest and not-so-latest global sounds of their day.

Mainly during the short summer months, local indigenous communities interacted extensively with the influx of commercial whalers. Hired out as hunters, seamstresses, translators, and navigators, Native peoples gradually integrated themselves into the new commercial enterprise. As overwintering voyages increased, foreign and local populations engaged each other more earnestly participating in formal, informal, and impromptu gatherings featuring various types of music such as Native drum dance and song, Western folk, popular, church, and classical.

As whalers began to shift their focus to trading, music in the form of recorded songs, instruments, and machines began to present itself as an important trade item. The acquisition of gramophones for some Native individuals expressed rising social status and an accruement of wealth. For others, the new technology provoked curiosity and provided entertainment.

Given the close connections between dance and music among indigenous cultures of the Western Arctic, foreign dance musical styles such as jigging, and square and country dancing flourished there. Genuine appreciation for this imported dance music and the important social bonds that it created between and among locals and foreigners helped sustain such musical practices. 19th- and early 20th- century commercial whaling activities created an atmosphere of cross-cultural exchange that allowed imported but Native-shaped musical and dance traditions to develop in the Western Arctic, traditions that have continued to the present day.

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