In 1871, an entire fleet of whaling ships was caught in an arctic ice storm and destroyed. Though few lives were lost, the damage would forever shape one of America's most distinctive commodities: oil.
New Bedford, Massachusetts, was fertile ground for this country's first multimillion-dollar industry. Founded by assiduous Quaker merchants seeking refuge for their austere religion, the town also lent unparalleled access to the high seas. The combination would lead to what would become the most successful whaling industry in America, and with it, the world's first oil hegemony. Oyl, or oil derived from whale blubber, revolutionized New England commerce. And as intrepid New Bedford whalers ventured farther into uncharted waters in search of untapped resources, the town saw incomparable wealth. But with all of the town's resources tethered to this dangerous industry and the fickle sea, success was fragile.
Final Voyage is the story of one fateful whaling season that illuminates the unprecedented rise and devastating fall of America's first oil industry. Peter Nichols deftly captures what New Bedford life was like for its Quaker inhabitants and, using a wealth of primary resources, has created a vivid picture of the evolution of whaling and how its demise was destined even before that devastating voyage.
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Product DescriptionIn 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.
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."
Peter Nichols is the author of the national bestseller A Voyage for Madmen, Sea Change, Voyage to the North Star, and Evolution's Captain.
Norman Dietz, a writer, an actor, and a solo performer, has recorded over 150 audiobooks, many of which have earned him awards from AudioFile magazine, the ALA, and Publishers Weekly. Additionally, AudioFile named Norman one of the Best Voices of the Century.
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Book Description Tantor Audio, 2009. Audio CD. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 1400112540