Joseph Bement and the Charles W. Morgan - Littlefield, David W.

Log of Mystic Seaport, Vol. 45, no. 2 (Fall, 1993): 43-47.

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It had been a long voyage. Fifty-nine months earlier, the Charles W. Morgan had left New Bedford, heavily refitted, freshly painted, and looking for success on the New Zealand sperm whaling grounds. Now she was back, with obvious signs of chafe and wear despite a homeward-bound coat of paint, bleached and patched sails, and a dejected crew, worn out by storms and bickering and a scarcity of whales. When they were paid off in that summer of 1886 some would find that their lays of the meager $26,545 cargo would barely cover the debts to the ship they had amassed in nearly five years of service.

Charles W. Morgan. MSM 1945.459.20

With that crew paid off, the Morgan’s agents, J. & W.R. Wing, looked to do better with the next voyage, which would dramatically alter the career of the Charles W. Morgan. Until recently, we knew very little about the Morgan's 1886 voyage, but during a visit to the Seaport, Francis and James Bement, grandsons of a crew member from that voyage, gave us a glimpse of life aboard the Morgan as related by their grandfather, Joseph Bement. When combined with information from the business records of J. & W R. Wing, the Bements' reminiscences offer us a much clearer understanding of the Morgan's thirteenth voyage and of whaling in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Joseph and William Ricketson Wing were among the third generation of New Bedford whaling agents. In earlier generations, men might become agents after successful careers at sea, or in their roles as commission merchants or manufacturers of spermaceti candles or whale oil, or, as in the case of Charles W Morgan, through marriage. Not so the Wings. Born on a farm at Russells Mills near South Dartmouth, southwest of New Bedford, Joseph Wing had arrived in New Bedford in 1833, finding employment as a 13-year-old clerk in a dry goods business. After becoming a partner in the firm in the 1840s, he set out on his own, opening a clothing business on 1 January 1849. As partners he brought in his brothers, 19-year-old William R. and 16-year-old John, who began as clerk.1

From the beginning, the Wings were intimately related to the whaling fleet, which was New Bedford's largest employer. The American whaling fleet had just passed its peak year, but the New Bedford fleet would continue to grow for another eight years. The thousands of men who came to town to ship aboard whalers, or who arrived back after years at sea, all required suitable clothing and personal items, which the Wings and other outfitters supplied.

To secure their ties with the fleet and increase their outfitting business, the Wings began to invest in whaleships in 1849, and in 1852 they became managing owners and agents of their first vessel. Unlike the prominent whaling merchants of the previous generation, such as Charles W. Morgan, they were less interested in the production and sale of the whale products taken by their ships than they were in the profits to be made from the men employed on their ships. Right into the 1890s, the outfitting of seamen would remain an extremely lucrative and essential part of their business. 2

During the Civil War, the Wings increased their fleet, purchasing the managing share of the Charles W. Morgan in 1863, and buying other whalers, until they managed 16 vessels in 1866. By the end of the decade they controlled the largest fleet of American whaleships.

* Funding for digitization provided by: Mystic Seaport