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Explain the importance of the China trade and the whaling industry to 19th century New England, and give examples of imports from China.


Focus Question: What was the role of the China Trade and the whaling industry in 19th century New England?


Topics on the Page

Whaling in New England
The Economic Significance of Whaling
  • Multicultural Resources and Primary Sources
  • Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World
The China Trade


external image Walfang_zwischen_1856_und_1907.jpg

Whaling In New England


Whale oil was a major industry in New England during the 19th Century.
  • The whale's oil, obtained from the blubber and used for lighting and lubricating, and other byproducts became important resources for trade.
    • Europeans had whaled in the Atlantic for many centuries prior, but the practice didn't expand in the colonies until the late 1700's.
  • New Bedford, Massachusetts would eventually become known as the "whaling capital of the world."
    • As many as 700 ships called New Bedford's port their home at the middle of the 18th century. However, the industry that provided so much to the regions economy met its demise with the expansion of underground oil extraction.
  • The ships would shoot harpoons at the whales with wooden floats attached by ropes
    • The whales would become exhausted pulling the floats through the water
      • They would be killed with lances and then towed to shore
  • The blubber from the whale would be removed and boiled into oil
    • The blubber was boiled in iron vats called "try-pots"
  • When whales started to disappear from the coasts, whalers moved their search into the deeper water
    • The whaling ships held 30-35 men
      • The whaling industry began its decline in the 1860s

Link here for more information on the whaling industry

Economic Significance of American Whaling
Estimated 900 vessels engaged in whaling worldwide in the late 1840s
Over 700 of them were considered American vessels
Americas economic viable years was 1845 at which 525,000 barrels of whale were produced.
Whaling was Massachusetts third largest industry from 1840 to 1850 and its fourth largest in 1850 according to US census
Direct employment on whaling vessels during this period is estimated to be between 20 and 35 men working on each vessel


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Location of New Bedford, the Whaling Capital of the World

Multimedia.pngPacific Encounters: Yankee Whalers, Manjiro and the Opening of Japan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum uses the life of John Manjiro, the first Japanese person to live and work in the continental United States to explore the connections between east and west.

book.pngLink here to listen to an audio book version of Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville.


Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.16.22 AM.pngLink here for a youtube playlist of popular whaling songs of the 19th century, recorded by Paul Clayton in the 1950s


Rotating_globe-small.gifMulticultural Resources

  • Portraits of Ports, a website from the New Bedford Whaling Museum presents a look at whaling ports in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Barrow, Alaska, home to the western Arctic's first whalers, the Inupiat Eskimo peoples.
    • The site focuses on the people, the community, and the impacts of the whaling industry ecologically and economically
Oil Made from Sperm Whales
Oil Made from Sperm Whales




Massachusetts_state_seal.pngIn the 19th century New Bedford, Massachusetts became the center of the New England whaling industry as well as a main point of Portuguese immigration. The city became known as the "Portuguese capital of the United States."

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read letters of whalers, from the Nantucket Historical Society

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a timeline of American Whaling from PBS
womens history.jpgClick here to read about the wives of whalers

Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World


Image from New Bedford Whaling Museum
Image from New Bedford Whaling Museum

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngLongest Painting in North America--Measuring a Quarter-Mileā€”Is Restored at a Massachusetts Museum (November 24, 2017)
  • Artists: Benjamin Russell & Caleb P. Purrington (1848)

Multimedia.pngPurrington and Russell's Whaling Voyage Round the World



The China Trade

There was high demand for Chinese products after the revolution in the United States. Having observed the British reap profits from the trade with China, the colonies were eager to secure these profits for themselves. Some of the reasons for the need to trade with China were;
the need for manufactured goods
provide employment for American citizens
the need to generate profits for capital development on the colonies
  • China was traditionally isolated and the only trading post available was Canton
  • external image 13two.jpgDuring the 1800s, trade with the Chinese rose as it subsequently declined in Europe
    • Ships would start from the Eastern coast of the US, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, and ended in China
  • Upon their return from the Oriental Region, ships provided:
    • paintings
    • tea
    • wallpaper
    • furniture
    • lacquer ware silver
    • ivory
    • jade
      jade.jpg
      Chinese Jade
    • textiles
    • porcelain
    • navigational instruments and charts
  • Owning Chinese goods represented being in a higher class and being cultured
    • A lot of the furniture styles that made there way over can still be found in the New England region and beyond today.
Tea became the dominant imported commodity Americans obtained from China through the end of the 19th Century. Trade expansion in tea jumped from 36% in 1822 to 65% in 1860.

Image result for chinese ships during the silk roads
Image result for chinese ships during the silk roads



Click here for more info on American trade with China

Click here to read "China's Gifts to the West" by Professor Derk Bodde


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  • Link to USI.28 for more on the changing economy in mid-19th Century America

  • Link to K-12 Modern China wiki for material on Chinese history in the 20th Century