Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Shipwreck ID'd as Westport vessel tells history of South Coast's Black and Native American whalers

NOAA Ocean Exploration
This image of a tryworks was taken from the shipwreck site of brig Industry by a NOAA remotely operated vehicle. The tryworks was a cast iron stove with two deep kettles used to render whale blubber into oil. It was manufactured by G & W Ashbridge, a Philadelphia company.

The wreck of a 19th-century whaling ship from Westport, Massachusetts, has been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.

The brig, called Industry, was hunting for sperm whales when it went down in a storm in 1836.

It’s a unique find — in part because of the multiracial crew, said Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“What's really cool about this story is that it … has very deep and fascinating roots in southeastern Massachusetts,” she said.

The ship holds a place in local history, in part because it was built in Westport, but also “because of who was crewing the ship, who was leading the ship,” she said.

PHOTO - whaleship outline.PNG
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
This mosaic of images from the NOAA video of the shipwreck of the brig Industry, recorded in the Gulf of Mexico on February 25, 2022, shows the outline in sediment and debris from the wooden hull of the 64-by-20-foot whaling brig. The tryworks and two anchors are also visible. A third anchor is buried in the sediment near the tryworks. The mosaic was created by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management using NOAA ROV video footage.

Although the crew list for Industry’s last voyage went down with the ship, previous trips included mariners who were part of a local community of mixed Black and Native American ancestry.

Among the known crew from previous voyages were two historical figures, Pardon Cook and William Cuffe, the son of sea captain and businessman Paul Cuffe.

In Westport and the surrounding area, “there were a lot of marriages in the late 1700s and early 1800s between freed African slaves and Wampanoag people,” Allen said. “And their children were active in a lot of ways, in that region, in the whaling industry, which was one of the first big industries of our nation.”

Historians say Cook commanded more 19th-century whaling voyages than any other person of color.

NOAA Ocean Exploration
This image of an anchor was taken from the 1836 shipwreck site of brig Industry in the Gulf of Mexico by a NOAA remotely operated vehicle deployed from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer on February 25, 2022.

NOAA and its research partners — the private archaeology company Search Inc. and the U.S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — examined the remains of the ship and determined it is most likely the Industry.

The Industry is the only whaleship known to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the seafloor, the only visible trace of the wooden hull is an outline of debris and sediment where the hull disintegrated into the sand.

According to NOAA, an energy company first spotted the location of the wreck in 2011, and the site was viewed briefly by an autonomous vehicle in 2017, but never fully examined. In February, a team aboard a NOAA ship piloted a remotely operated vehicle to the site with help from partners on shore.

The artifacts they found with the wreck, including three anchors, glass bottles, and a tryworks — a furnace with two deep kettles used to render whale blubber into oil — will be left on the seafloor, Allen said. The site will be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.