Ship's Boys: Child Labor and New London's Whaling Industry


  • Barbara May Tucker Eastern Connecticut State University


In the early nineteenth century, southern New England was undergoing tremendous change. Soil depletion, out-migration, industrialization, and immigration all caused considerable anxiety. The sense of community gave way to individualism; the pace of life quickened, and old relationships deteriorated. Additionally, wars, economic panics and depressions that lasted from 1836-1844 caused people to fear for their futures. What could young boys expect from this new society and economy? They knew that they had to work or go to school. For most education was costly in both time and money. Then there were the new factory towns such as Jewett City, Willimantic, and Putnam that offered unskilled jobs in the cotton and woolen mills. Or a boy could seek work as a hired hand. For many these alternatives were unacceptable, and they began to look to the sea for work. The "golden age" of whaling occurred during this period as well. New Bedford, Nantucket, and Provincetown Massachusetts as well as New London and the surrounding communities of Stonington and Groton, Connecticut offered employment to men and boys looking for work. For many, seafaring appeared glamorous, romantic, exciting, and even a bit dangerous. All of these qualities far overshadowed a future in a mill or working on a farm. And the whaling industry needed hands. Whaling had a tainted reputation, and seasoned seamen avoided such work. In 1841 the Hartford Courant noted that about one half of the men who joined whaling crews were green hands and called them troublesome material. (Hartford Courant, June 1841) Agents advertised for seamen, sent runners to factory towns to recruit hands, and enticed many young men and boys to go to New London. Boys as young as eight or nine joined the labor pool looking for work in New London. Many were hired on as ship's boys; they were usually the youngest, least experienced and vulnerable members of the crew. Their lives, treatment, experience at sea and later in life deserve scholarly attention. The rich database available through Mystic Seaport provided information on about 300 such boys who shipped out of New London between 1800 and 1860. Federal and state population schedules, town vital statistics, and newspapers among other sources provided additional information on about one-half of these ship's boys. Most were between thirteen and fourteen years of age; they were local boys from New England and nearby Pennsylvania and New York. About 12 percent were from the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, or of mixed ethnic and racial backgrounds. While some found their calling, others regretted their decision to go to sea. One boy wrote: "I am with my sailor clothes on in a dirty steerage, and if ever I get home alive, I shall know enough to stay there. . . ." (Mystic Seaport, Journal of James Benedict)….