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Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season

Nichols, Peter Author

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"Peter Nichols has crafted a terrifyingly relevant historical narrative...A terrific read."
-Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In The Heart of the Sea


In 1871, America's last fleet of whaling ships was destroyed in an arctic ice storm. Miraculously, 1,218 men, women and children survived, but the disaster was catastrophic at home.

Oil and Ice is the story of one fateful whaling season that illuminates the unprecedented rise and devastating fall of America's first oil economy, and the fate of today's petroleum industry.

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In the summer of 1871, thirty-two whaling ships, carrying 12-year-old William Fish Williams, son of a whaling captain, and 1,218 other men, women, and children, were destroyed in an Arctic ice storm. In a rescue operation of unparalleled daring and heroism, not a single life was lost, but the impact on America's first oil industry was fateful and catastrophic.

The harvesting of whale oil, which grew from occasional beachcombing into a multi-million dollar industry, made New Bedford, Massachusetts, the wealthiest town in the world. Quaker brothers George and Matthew Howland, the town's leading whaling merchants, believed they were toiling in a pact with God. As whale oil lubricated the industrial revolution and turned New Bedford into the Saudi Arabia of its day, this belief only grew stronger. But as their whaleships pushed ever farther into uncharted seas in putsuit of a fast-diminishing resource, this oil business was overtaken by new paradigms. When the search for cheaper energy sources produced a new and apparently inexhaustible resource--petroleum oil--the Howlands and many others did not see the change coming, or the devastating effect it would have on an industry that has flourished for two centuries. Almost overnight, it seemed, the world changed. Business and financial institutions collapsed. The Howland brothers saw their fortune vanish and ended their lives as paupers.

For Willie Fish Williams, and the whalers and their families in the Arctic who watched as their floating community was crushed by the ice closing around them, that change came more swiftly.

Drawing on previously unpublished material, Final Voyage splices together two compelling narratives: the Howland brothers' unprecedented rise and sudden fall with the fortunes of America's first oil industry--which eerily prefigures today's modern economic collapse-- and a 12-year-old boy's vivid observation of a maritime disaster set against the world's harshest seascape.
Amazon Exclusive: Peter Nichols on the Collapse of the World's First Oil Industry

As I was completing Final Voyage in the fall of 2008, the domino effect of the world's collapsing economies had begun. It was startling to read daily accounts of financial disasters, of the sudden impoverishment of wealthy institutions and financiers, while writing of the same process taking place one hundred and thirty years earlier.

Final Voyage is in part about the collapse of the world's first oil industry - the whale oil business - and the fall from staggering wealth of the Howland brothers, Matthew and George Jr, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. For much of the 19th century, New Bedford was the Houston of the oil world, and the Howlands were its pre-eminent whaleship owners and oil merchants. At a time when the President of the United States' salary was $25,000, the Howlands were netting around $200,000 annually, with no income tax to pay.

Like many, then and now, they didn't see what was coming. They wouldn't admit or recognize the inherent instability in their market or its resources, and when the collapse came, they were unprepared.

After the fall of Lehman Brothers, in September of last year, it was impossible for me not to hear exactly the tone behind the words Matthew Howland wrote in letters to his family: "Hastings has failed." Hastings and Company was a New Bedford whale oil and candle manufacturer, one of the long-term bedrock commercial institutions of the town and its industry. The Howlands, along with many others, were deeply involved in its business and financial health, and they were devastated when Hastings went under. The failure sent shockwaves through their community, yet still the Howlands held fast and continued whaling.

"The business of America is business" said President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. This was as true in the 1880s, the Howlands' time, as it is now. To men like Matthew and George Jr, who defined themselves and their lives by business, failure, insolvency, and finally the complete ruin that overtook them in the space of a decade, was accompanied by a shame akin to moral transgression. Both died paupers, bankrupt.

Matthew's son, William Howland, made a good start as a textile manufacturer, but when his business also failed, he committed suicide. His son, Llewellyn Howland, had to leave Harvard after a single semester. A lifetime later, Llewellyn described to his grandson - Matthew's great-great grandson, Llewellyn Howland III - how he felt on being forced to withdraw from college because there was no more money for his education: "It was a nasty April day, raining, grey, bitter. I looked out of the train window and saw the old men picking through garbage in South Boston, and the ragged children playing in the streets. God! how it frightened me. The squalor of it, the hopelessness of being poor." The sight held a spectral terror for a Howland that was passed down through generations. "Don't ever forget," Llewellyn told his grandson, "how hard it is to rise, when you're really, truly down."


About the Author:

Peter Nichols, in addition to his sailing adventures, has worked in the film business as a screenwriter, propmaker, and ship-wrangler. He lives in Northern California.

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