Life on a whaler was difficult and dangerous, but for black men and boys in the 1800s, it held the promise of freedom and respect. What was it like to be a whaler?

“There she blows!” cries the lookout, and the chase is on. It’s a difficult and dangerous life, but it’s a free life as well, and for blacks, a far better life than slavery. On a whaler, respect is based on a man’s skills rather than the color of his skin.

Imagine the life of a runaway slave, just ten or twelve years old, who just signed on as part of a whaler’s crew. First, there’s relief as the ship sets sail, leaving the shore behind. The further he gets from the Americas, the easier it will be for him gain respect, and the less his skin color matters. He’s given a few days to get over his seasickness, and then he’s expected to learn, and learn quickly.

In addition to the mechanics of working with other crew members to sail the ship, he has to learn a new language, for whalers are a proud group, setting themselves off from other kinds of seamen, and their language is one way they do it. He must know the chain of command, and understand that the captain is the absolute ruler of his ship, whose every word in law. Discipline is harsh, and disobedience is not tolerated. And finally, he must learn how to find, capture and render the huge whales, more than 400 times his own size.

He’s one of twenty or thirty men who must live together, alone on the high sea for the next three or four years. Finding his place in the crew and learning how to get along with the other men is essential. The whaler’s commandments will help him do that, for they spell out what he must do to gain the respect and friendship of his peers:

  1. Steal, but not from a friend.
  2. Lie, but not about anything important.
  3. Fight when you think you can win
  4. Run when you think you can’t
  5. Cheat before you get cheated on
  6. Swear, but not in front of a good woman
  7. Drink as much as you can hold
  8. Bed as many women as you can catch
  9. Never tattle
  10. Never volunteer

This greenhorn’s life isn’t going to be easy, but if he learns his lessons well, he’ll have the respect of the rest of the crew, and the self-confidence that comes from knowing he can do his job well. Someday, he might even become an officer, a captain, a ship owner, or a businessman.

So come to sea on a whaling ship, listen to the rush of the wind in the sails, feel the pull of the ropes, smell the sweat and the sea air, listen to the sea chanteys of the other men as they work, watch the horizon for the spout of a whale the size of a building, and call down to the captain on the deck below, “There she blows! There she blows!”