May I suggest another cure for a dreary November, Ishmael?

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell (1804-1885) and Caleb P. Purrington (1812-1876). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell (1804-1885) and Caleb P. Purrington (1812-1876). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  –Moby-Dick

Though Ishmael’s November was metaphorical, our literal November here in Boston has seen a good share of damp and drizzle, as well. And while Ishmael sought to counteract his melancholy by heading to sea on the whaling ship Pequod, I wouldn’t recommend that same course for us – maybe sipping on some drinking chocolate would more safely lift the mood instead? But really, you may be wondering, what has chocolate got to do with whaling? 

It may come as a surprise, but many North American whaling voyages did include chocolate among their rations for the sailors. The significant Quaker influence in Nantucket and New Bedford led to many “dry” vessels departing from these whaling centers, and, though certainly not a daily beverage, drinking chocolate may have provided an alternative to the grog ration permitted on “wet” ships. As early as 1753, the crew of the Quaker-owned Greyhound (from Nantucket) enjoyed a hearty meal of seabird meat pies washed down with drinking chocolate.

A chart of Nantucket shoals. Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Published 1794. Courtesy of The Leventhal Map Center.

A chart of Nantucket shoals. Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Published 1794. Courtesy of The Leventhal Map Center.

By the mid-19th century (the peak of the whaling industry) a typical whaling crew of 30 sailors would set out from New England with between 25 and 50 pounds of chocolate on board. This is quite a small amount for the lengthy voyages that would often last three to four years, but there would have been ample opportunity to restock on chocolate when the vessel came to port in cacao-producing locations, such as Brazil. The rationing of chocolate also likely followed the strict hierarchy that was observed on ships, with the captain and officers having the greatest access to chocolate. Even assuming that no reprovisioning of chocolate occurred over the duration of the voyage, the captain and officers could have enjoyed chocolate up to once per week if starting with 50 pounds of it. Common sailors, or greenhands, may have been provided with chocolate as a treat on holidays or after particularly hard days of work, such as rounding Cape Horn or a 20-hour shift following the successful catch of a whale. Additionally, the commonly held belief in chocolate’s medicinal uses would have likely led to sailors being issued chocolate when they were ill or suffering from the effects of scurvy.

So if you head to the movie theater next month to check out In the Heart of the Sea, maybe pick up a chocolate candy bar to enjoy during the movie and remember that the real crew of the Essex would have likely enjoyed the occasional bit of chocolate, too.

2 Comments on “May I suggest another cure for a dreary November, Ishmael?

  1. Pingback: Ambergris: The Chocolate Additive Worth Its Weight in Gold | From the Hearth & Home of Mrs. Newark Jackson

  2. Pingback: Oh, What a Chocolate-Filled Year! | From the Hearth & Home of Mrs. Newark Jackson

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