William T. Shorey
Wikimedia

Editor’s note: For Black History Month, The Root is spotlighting less famous figures from the African American National Biography, whose stories cast a light on hidden or barely remembered episodes from the African-American past.

William T. Shorey, a whaling captain known as the Black Ahab, after Moby Dick’s protagonist, was born in Barbados in 1859, the eldest of eight children of a Scottish sugar planter named Shorey and a woman of African descent, Rosa Frazier.

Although he was born free 25 years after slavery was abolished in the British West Indies, Shorey’s prospects as a man of color in Barbados were limited. As a teenager, he apprenticed as a plumber on the island before finding work as a cabin boy on a ship headed to Boston. The captain of the vessel quickly took to the eager, quick-witted and adventurous lad and began to teach him navigation.

Arriving in New England in the 1870s, Shorey, like many African Americans before him, was drawn to the whaling industry. To be sure, few had prospered like maritime trading titan Paul Cuffee or achieved the fame of Frederick Douglass, who worked as a caulker on whaling vessels when he first arrived in New Bedford, Mass., in 1838.

Unlike on other vessels, an ambitious young man, even an ambitious young man of color, could still expect to rise through the ranks on a whaler—that is, if he survived the whaling fleet’s typically arduous and highly dangerous journeys into the Arctic. Shorey very nearly did not. He nearly died on one of his first hunts when a sperm whale he was pursuing attacked his boat. Shorey was saved when his crewmates succeeded in firing a bomb into the whale.

Shorey rose quickly through the ranks. By 1880, at age 21, he was serving as third mate on the Emma F. Herriman, a large Boston whaler that took him around the globe over the next three years. The Herriman crossed the north and south Atlantic oceans, stopped on the west coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and sailed into the Indian Ocean. Another lengthy journey brought the vessel to Australia, where it passed through the Tasman Sea, traversed the wide southern Pacific, rounded Cape Horn and made calls at several South American ports, including Panama, before ending at San Francisco in late 1883.

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Shorey, by this time, was the Herriman’s first officer. His promotion was due largely to his skill as a sailor, but he also benefited from whaling’s changing demographics in the 1880s. As whites left the whaling industry in search of better pay and conditions, they were replaced by people of color from the Caribbean, Cape Verde and even the South Pacific. During the “nadir” of American race relations, then, as blacks in the South and East Asians in the West endured segregation and racial violence, a life at sea offered the possibility of advancement.

Moreover, Shorey arrived in San Francisco just as the temperate waters of the Pacific Northwest were replacing colder New England as the center of the American whaling industry. In 1886, still in his mid 20s, he was promoted to full command of the Herriman, becoming the only black captain of a whaling vessel in the Pacific fleet. The position must have been daunting. As one whaling historian has noted, a whaling master had to act as “physician, surgeon, lawyer, diplomat, financial entrepreneur, taskmaster, judge and peacemaker” in charge of a racially and ethnically diverse crew.

Around this time, Shorey married Julia Shelton, the daughter of one of California’s leading black families. For their honeymoon, the couple traveled to Hawaii on the Herriman. Life on a whaler remained precarious, however, and in 1891 one of his vessels sank in an ice pack near the Bering Sea. Fortunately, Shorey was able to rescue all of his crew. Between 1892 and 1902, Shorey commanded the whaler Andrew Hicks on eight lucrative voyages. On a typical journey he returned from the Sea of Japan with as much as 5,000 pounds of whalebone and nearly 600 barrels of whale and sperm oil.

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In one of his final tours to the Sea of Okhotsk between Siberia and Japan, with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, on board, Shorey steered his vessel through two major typhoons lasting several days. His crew later credited the “coolness and clever seamanship” of their commander for preventing a near-certain shipwreck on an ice drift off the coast of Siberia. Delilah Beasley, a pioneering black journalist in San Francisco and a friend of Shorey, reported Shorey’s recollections:

“On a wild, stormy night we were driven into an ice-drift at Shanter Bay, and when daylight came we found ourselves caught by ice on every side. … There was nothing in the world we could do but wait for the ice-fields to break up, and for eight days we lay wedged in the drift while the tides carried us back and forth, ever threatening to carry us on rocks or dash us on the shore.” Finally the ice was carried out to the open sea and the drift released the whaler.

Shorey retired in 1908, just as the era of the whaling bark came to an end, replaced by larger, steam-powered vessels; he would be the first and last black captain of a Pacific whaler. Shorey died at his home in Oakland, Calif., in 1919, a victim of that year’s great influenza epidemic.

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Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.