Some 200 years ago, a ship sailed out from Massachusetts and made its way nearly to the mouth of the Mississippi River. But, sadly, the wind and the waters dragged it to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. For years that's where it lay, more or less forgotten about. That’s until modern-day marine archaeologists decided to take a closer look. While the wreck itself is fascinating, it was the identity and fate of the men on board that really captured everyone's attention.
We start in Westport, Massachusetts, a town with a reputation as a hub of the whaling trade. It’s 1815 and the ship, known as Industry, is setting sail for the first time. For 20 years it will cross the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and back in search of its prey. All that came to an end on May 26, 1836, which was the day it disappeared. And for a long time, it looked like no one would ever see it again.
Then fate intervened in the shape of a company scanning the seabed on behalf of a second firm with an oil lease covering that section of the gulf. It got a glimpse of the wreck in 2011 as it traversed the seabed. But it would be another decade before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finally took a look for itself while putting some new equipment through its paces. But all that waiting would be more than worthwhile.
Now, some shipwrecks are more famous than others. We’ve probably all heard of the Titanic, even if just from the movie. If you’ve studied the Tudors then you may have encountered references to the Mary Rose. That ship sank in 1545 and wasn’t found until 1971, but now it’s a major archaeological treasure. Wartime tends to breed shipwrecks, with the sad fate of the civilian liner Lusitania having a particularly profound impact during WWI.
The Gulf of Mexico
America has its fair share of shipwrecks. The site of the U.S.S. Arizona has become a National Historic Landmark. But not every ship has a name that echoes around the world. The Industry sank off the Gulf Coast, but how well do you know the stories of the El Nuevo Constante in 1766, the El Cazador in 1784, the S.S. New York in 1846 or the S.S. Robert E. Lee and U-166 in 1942?
Wind and war
The El Nuevo Constante and El Cazador were both Spanish; the first was a merchant ship and the second a brig loaded with silver. Both were caught in storms and lost for centuries. The S.S. New York was also stuffed with treasure, and the victim of a hurricane. The German U-boat U-166 torpedoed the S.S. Robert. E. Lee during WW2 before being sunk itself by a U.S. Navy depth charge.
Most of these ships met their watery fate as a result of bad weather, but there are also more than a few Union and Confederate ships lying near the sites of Civil War battles. It’s a journey through history seeing all the different types of vessels, with their different designs and purposes: each one is a window into a different time period. And no one loves a shipwreck quite like a marine archaeologist.
Life on the open sea is dangerous and unpredictable. Fires, bad weather and the rarer risks of sabotage, piracy, or indeed an explosion of dried peas are all threats. Yes, dried peas! The Augustus Moore was near South Carolina in 1855 when its cargo got wet, swelled up and exploded so fiercely that the ship’s hull was blown open! And globally there are a lot of shipwrecks: the United Nations has estimated more than 3 million exist worldwide.
The great white whale
Of course, some types of sailing are more dangerous than others: just ask Captain Ahab! Moby-Dick may be a work of fiction, but Herman Melville did a lot of research into the world of whaling. That includes the inherent risk of relatively small and fragile humans pursuing giant, sometimes predatory animals. Indeed, the titular creature may have been inspired by a real, legendarily aggressive whale called Mocha Dick.
A long history
Humans have probably been hunting whales since before records began. There’s evidence that our whaling traditions date back even to the Stone Age, Meanwhile, the Inuit tribes of North America have some of the most long-standing whale-hunting practices, one which they have sustained into the present-day. In the bleak, inhospitable lands around the Arctic, whales can provide everything from food and fuel to tools made from bone.
But commercial whaling is a different beast altogether. Ever since it really kicked off in the 17th century, mass whale-hunting hasn’t been a matter of survival or subsistence. Rather, it was about profit, and about man’s desire to show off his ability to conquer such large and dangerous creatures.
Europeans and Americans both wanted in on the whaling action, with the Dutch, British and the Norwegians all taking up the practice with enthusiasm. Later the Russians would become more dominant, with today’s limited commercial hunts centered around Norway, Iceland and Japan. Meanwhile some indigenous communities still practice traditional subsistence whaling too.
There’s an obvious problem with whaling on an intensive scale. Put simply, if you kill too many whales, eventually there won’t be any left. As technology advanced to allow stronger and tougher ships, it was possible to sail into even more hostile waters and slaughter animals on a massive, unsustainable scale. Once one stretch of sea was emptied, crews would just move on to new whaling grounds.
Harpoons in hand
In the ealy days smaller boats would launch from the larger whaler, each with a crew of between five and seven men. They would have to throw harpoons by hand to spear the 50-foot sperm whales. Later, there would be harpoon guns. Then ropes could be used to prevent it escaping before a lance made the killing blow. The carcass would then be towed back to the ship to have all its useful parts stripped away.
A dying industry
Eventually, people would realize that whaling was steadily pushing the species towards extinction, whilst vegetable oil and gas lamps removed the need for blubber as fuel. By the 20th century whaling was dying out, but more powerful guns and larger, floating processing stations enabled increased efficiency. Whale oil came into fashion again, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a proper, worldwide moratorium was agreed upon. Even then, not all countries signed up.
The age of whaling
In any case, the Industry had been sailing during whaling’s supposed glory days. Between 1815 and 1836 it had made 21 voyages in search of its prey. While the majority of whaling activity took place in the wider Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, there was still a significant level of activity in the Gulf of Mexico, where this ship plied its trade. In fact, according to a 2022 article in the Washington Post newspaper, of the estimated 250,000 sperm whales killed by American seamen in the 18th and 19th centuries, maybe 1,200 perished in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Industry was only 64 feet in length, with a size and shape that we’d expect from ships of the time. This would be important when the time came for modern experts to identify the wreck. There was plenty of brick to line the “tryworks” — special furnaces where blubber could be processed. It was also considered a “leaky” vessel because of the lack of copper sheathing on the hull.
Roughly 15 men crewed the Industry and they worked for a shipbuilder by the name of Paul Cuffe. Cuffe was biracial, being both black and Native American. His father had been an emancipated slave, whilst his mother was a Wampanoag woman. Cuffe was also an abolitionist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, so a pretty fascinating fellow in his own right.
On a mission
The first voyage of the Industry had come with the instructions: “You will not return to Westport without a full cargo of oil [or] until your provisions are expended... Wishing you an agreeable and prosperous voyage.” Around 230 barrels of whale oil had been collected on this journey alone. Such rewards did not come without risks, though. The Gulf of Mexico is known for its sudden squalls during springtime, when winds can gust to 70mph and change direction rapidly.
When the storm hit on May 26, 1836, it did so with a fury. The two masts of the Industry were snapped into pieces. The hull ripped open and the water roared in. By the time it was over, the vessel was resting 6,000 feet below the surface. For — as far as we know — the first and only time in history, a whaling ship had sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.
Wreck No. 15,563
The next thing anyone saw of the vessel, it wasn’t even the Industry any more. Rather, it was simply designated “Wreck No. 15,563” — that was the moniker assigned to it in 2011. An energy corporation had been granted an oil lease for that part of the Gulf, and a geological data company in charge of the survey had spotted the ship. Of course, at that stage it had no idea what it was or if it was important. It just made a record.
That record was passed to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), as was standard procedure. It didn’t really care about some random wreck either. It was a partnership between the private archaeology firm SEARCH, Inc. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that would really bring the fate of the Industry to light.
In 2021 the NOAA had some new tech that it wanted to try out, so it asked a SEARCH archaeologist if he knew of a good shipwreck to explore. Dr. James Delgado was curious about the original report on the discovery of 15,563 because of the mention of a whaler’s furnace. Remember, no other whalers had ever sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. He made his recommendation.
On land and sea
Now it gets clever. The NOAA sent out a ship called the Okeanos Explorer, but the actual investigation of the wreck would be carried out from a distance. Dr. Delgado, his fellow SEARCH scientist Michael Brennan and a BOEM marine biologist by the name of Scott Sorset watched their screens in fascination as a remotely operated vehicle was maneuvered around the wreck. Dr. Delgado was actually still in his home in Maryland.
An empty vessel
It didn’t take long to figure out that yes, this was a whaling ship with a distinctive furnace, but there was another important question. What had happened to the crew? There were no corpses among the wreckage. They had to be somewhere. More research would need to be done, which meant a trip to the Westport Free Public Library.
To the library!
There a librarian by the name of Robin Winters spent months researching with the help of another expert called Jim Borzilleri. Other than the general location of the wreck, all she knew was that the Industry’s captain was called Soule. But Borzilleri eventually found mention of Soule in reference to another whaler: the Elizabeth.
In the news
He managed to unearth an article from the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror newspaper from 1836. It described the Elizabeth returning home to Westport on June 17. Not only did it come with an impressive haul of 375 barrels of whale oil, but it had also picked up some extra passengers: Captain Soule and his men. By some strange luck, the Elizabeth had been near enough to the Industry when it foundered to rescue its crew.
15 souls saved
You might be breathing a sigh of relief for those 15 brave men, but it’s an even bigger deal than you might think. It turned out that it wasn’t only Cuffe, the owner, who had both black and Native American ancestry. His crew reflected the same kind of diversity, and that was a dangerous thing in the Antebellum South.
A fate worse than death
Imagine if the ship had gone down, but its crew had washed up in Louisiana or Mississippi? As Dr. Delgado explained to The New York Times newspaper, “If the black crewmen had tried to go ashore, they would have been jailed under local laws. And if they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery.”
From North to South
That’s certainly one reason for whaling ships to avoid the Gulf of Mexico! The moment the crew set foot in a Southern state, they’d have been criminals under local laws known as “Seamen Acts” just because of their skin color. Even if they’d managed to avoid enslavement, they’d have been in a lot of trouble. It was only a stroke of luck that another northern vessel found them first.
A long goodbye
There were a few factors that had made the rescue possible. One was that the Elizabeth was in the area, but another was that the ship didn’t go down on the day of the storm. Yes, it was damaged beyond repair, but it didn’t actually sink immediately. All that whale oil on board added buoyancy and kept the craft on the surface for eight more days.
The final resting place
Eight days and just over 70 miles: that was the final journey of the Industry after its crew had abandoned ship. In fact, another whaler in the area managed to stop by just long enough to claim the remaining whale oil, plus one anchor, for itself. Meanwhile, eventually, all that storm damage would spell the end for the doomed vessel. Its final resting place would be near Pascagoula, Mississippi.
They had names
We don’t have a full manifest of the Industry’s crew, despite knowing the captain’s name was Soule. Others on board did include Cuffe’s own son, William, who was a navigator, and Cuffe’s son-in-law, Pardon Cook. No other black man is thought to have been on as many whaling voyages as Cook, but these kinds of diverse crews generally weren’t unusual for the time.
An American story
We just don’t have the best records of them, meaning sometimes it’s easy to forget exactly how significant black and Native American contributions have been throughout American history. That’s why finding the Industry is so special. And it seems it wasn’t just who was on board that was notable, but what they represented. Both in the past, and today.
All men created equal
One of Cuffe’s descendants just so happens to be the president of the New Bedford Historical Society. Lee Blake observed that not only did Cuffe actively seek a diverse crew, but he “made sure all those people were paid equally according to their shipboard rank,” which was clearly the complete opposite of what was going on amid the forced labor of the slave states.
This isn’t just a ship but a window into a specific era in America’s complicated past. The NOAA released a statement from Don Graves, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce, saying, “Black and Native American history is American history, and this critical discovery serves as an important reminder of the vast contributions black and Native Americans have made to our country.”
Then and now
Graves continued: “This 19th-century whaling ship will help us learn about the lives of the black and Native American mariners and their communities, as well as the immense challenges they faced on land and at sea.” And that past may help us in the present, with what another Cuffe descendant, Carl J, Cruz, describes as “a lesson for us today as we deal with diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.”
But it’s not all about those big, grand statements. Let’s go back to Dr. Delgado and his observation that “history isn’t big names.” The Industry didn’t carry kings or generals. It didn’t change the course of the world. What it did do was provide a living to 15 ordinary men of different races as they tried to survive incredible challenges.
There’s so much we can learn from little corners of history such as the sailing and sinking of the Industry. But we can’t just go and poke around in the wreck ourselves. The NOAA is keeping its exact location secret, and making it clear that any salvaging of artifacts would be illegal. It’s to be preserved just as it is for even more years to come.