Rupert Cornwell: of shipwrecks, survival – and cannibalism

From The Independent


You might suppose that oil of the petroleum variety was the world's first global energy industry. Not so.

That distinction belongs to whale oil, which, for roughly a century after 1750, lit lamps and provided wax and lubricants for what passed then as the developed Western world. And now comes a fascinating new reminder.

Today Nantucket is a holiday playground for the gilded rich of Wall Street. Back then, though, the small island off the southern coast of Massachusetts was the equivalent of modern Houston and Saudi Arabia, home to a whaling fleet of wooden ships that ranged the seven seas, on epic voyages that might last three years or more, and end with no return at all.

But no wrecks were ever found – until now.

For the first time, American marine archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Nantucket whaler, the Two Brothers, that sank 188 years ago in this very same February week of 1823.

She was on her way to newly opened whaling grounds off Japan when she foundered on a hidden sandbank beyond the far western end of the Hawaiian archipelago, some 12,000 miles from her home port.

On Friday researchers from the government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented their findings, and a fascinating tale it is.

The NOAA team was exploring a treacherous stretch of atoll called the French Frigate Shoals, 600 miles north-west of Honolulu, looking for other, more recent wrecks. But just before they were due to leave, they noticed an old anchor resting on the seabed 15ft below the surface, clearly visible through the crystalline water.

Naturally the wooden structure of the Two Brothers had long vanished, but what remained was sufficient to identify the vessel: the anchor from the early 19th century, lances and harpoons to catch the whales, plus ceramic fragments and three metal trypots – cauldrons in which whale blubber was rendered into the precious oil.


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NOAA Nantucket the Two Brothers Rupert Cornwell Nantucket whaler