Ric Burns’ Keynote Address
The 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan was launched at Mystic Seaport on July 21, 2013. After a nearly five-year restoration, the ship returned to the water in front of thousands of spectators during a ceremony at the Museum’s Shipyard. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns delivered the keynote address at the launch ceremony and described the ship as “an ambassador from a crucial moment in American history.” He continued, “This one ship has embodied, made possible, made real and brought alive the experience of whaling as no other single artifact on the planet.” Read Burns’ speech in its entirety below.
“The Re-Launching of the Charles W. Morgan”
Mystic Seaport, July 21, 2013
This is the first totally good thing I’ve been to in ten years!
Good afternoon. What a remarkable, moving, incredible day this is. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is to be here with you all. And so first of all, I want to say from the bottom of my heart – to Steve White, the president of Mystic Seaport – to Mystic’s valiant and stalwart board of trustees – to the talented and committed and heroic staff of this extraordinary institution – to all the many friends and associates of Mystic, the Museum of America and the Sea – Governor Malloy, Senator Richard Blumenthal – ladies and gentleman – distinguished guests:
Thank you so very much for what you’ve done here today. All of us are so honored and humbled to be here – and awed to see this happening. And so profoundly grateful to Mystic Seaport for what you’ve accomplished. Having taken in and cared for and lovingly provided a home for the Charles W. Morgan since 1941 you have now done something even more extraordinary. You have given her back her wings, made it possible for her to sail again, and given her back to the sea. I can’t begin to express to you what an honor and a joy it is to be here with you on this glorious and joyful occasion – to mark and celebrate the restoring, the re-launching – the rebirth – of the Charles W. Morgan – the oldest American commercial vessel floating, and the last wooden whaleship in the world. The last of her kind…. now reborn.
There is nothing more magical than a ship. And just as there is something magical about ships in general, there is something especially magical and deeply moving about the extraordinary compounded human alchemy – the commitment, the ingenuity, the passion, the dedication, the skill, the imagination – the sheer stubborn seaborne love and wizardry – through which this unique American treasure has been so lovingly restored, and brought back to life – re-timbered, re-caulked, and soon to be re-canvased, re-roped, re-masted, re-sailed, re-borne – set back out onto the waters to float and sail and go forth again.
With ships as with life there is always a ratio of the seen to the unseen – a ratio between what we clearly see above decks, and what we can’t see below the water line – between what is visible and invisible about the structure that sustains her, about the forces that propel her, about the meanings she holds within. We see the Morgan here and now and she is grand enough. But we have to remember or imagine or realize or be told that in the 172 years to the day since she slid down the launch in New Bedford on a bright July morning in 1841, she has been around the world on 37 voyages, carrying men and whale oil and whale bone and treasure in an eighty-year career. She has seen every corner of the globe. She has visited every port of call in every ocean, withstood innumerable storms, carried every kind of human being. What this single ship and this historic moment connects us to – looking back into the depths of our history – looking out into our bonds with the world – looking forward into the future – is nothing short of miraculous. That miracle is a gift. Those who made her, those who sailed her and those who have salvaged her from the depredations of time have collectively given us this gift, and we and those whom come after us are beneficiaries in ways we can only begin to imagine.
Of all the things we can’t see of a ship, the kelson and the keel are in many ways the most awesome: the keel timbers, the gigantically long, immensely strong timbers that runs from bow to stern all the way along the length of the ship far below what we can see; the things that hold it all together – where all the lines of force meet and converge – that sustain the ship’s buoyancy. They are the unseen center of the ship’s structure and creation – the physical equivalent of what binds human beings to either other – as Walt Whitman – a contemporary of the Morgan in every way – understood when he wrote in 1855, in “Song of Myself” – that “the kelson of the creation is love.”
Long before we Americans were a westering people, and learned to define ourselves by continuous westward expansion across the continent, we were a maritime nation, huddled along the eastern Atlantic seaboard. The sea was our life. Seafaring, and its many adjacent handmaiden industries were part of virtually everyone’s heritage.
And in all seafaring there was no harder core kind than whaling – America’s first global industry – the engine and rocket that first took us out across the globe – the industry that first fueled the industrial revolution – lighting the lamps and lubricating the gears of industry – the oil industry of 18th and 19th century.
Ships like people can be born under a good sign or a bad sign or star, and from the start the Charles W. Morgan has always enjoyed good fortune – however much she sometimes, like Blanche duBois, has been forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.
What does it take to be the last of your kind?
“The Morgan was a lucky ship from early on,” Quentin Snediker, master of the shipyard here at Mystic, once said – a thousand choices made with care over the years by those who designed and built her, and by those who sailed and navigated and commanded her, by those who thought to keep her painted and caulked, or to sew her sails.
At every turn along the way, people have cared for her, and she seems always to have had her own special spirit and power of survival, and inventiveness. She has been the magic seed in the pearl of the study of whaling in many ways. This one ship has embodied, made possible, made real and brought alive, the experience of whaling as no other single artifact. We have scrimshaw and paintings, harpoons and all the paraphernalia, manuscripts and letters and log books and journals, and each one of them is precious, each one of them discloses something indelible and profound and key. But the ship itself, the whale ship, is something else entirely – it is the basic unit of construction of the industry and of the experience of whalemen – it is a microcosm that shows us what the experience was like – the crucial link that not only conveyed individual whalemen to every part of the globe – but that conveys us back to that time and experience, in all its danger, wonder, excitement, fear and mystery – like nothing in the world.
Our good friend, Matthew Stackpole, is here in the audience today. He’s a historian and sailor and a lover of ships, and it’s true to say that of the people who made this day possible and without whom we wouldn’t be here, Matthew is second to none. His passion, his knowledge, his commitment have made this day possible as much as anyone. His love for ships, and whaleships and history is legendary, runs from Nantucket and Mystic, where he grew up, to Martha’s Vineyard, where he built ships and ran the historical society, and back again.
I know this ship means everything to Matthew. The Charles W. Morgan is an emissary and ambassador from a crucial moment in American history – and restoring her, Matthew recently wrote movingly, was like entering a time machine that magically transported the team back 1841.
As she sits here in Mystic, powerful cords of history link this glorious 107-foot-long, 351-ton wonder – built not for beauty and speed but for stamina, and staying power and perseverance – to whaling’s origins and to its great capitals – and of course from there all across the globe. All whaling in a sense went into making her what and who she is, and all America – and she is linked in time and space and by pedigree to the entire panorama of American whaling. Her builder and first owner, Charles Morgan himself started out in New Bedford in the counting house of the Rotch family – the greatest dynasty whaling ever saw – a family originally from Nantucket, who went on to pioneer and build New Bedford in the early years of the 19th century.
She was launched 75 miles east northeast of here at New Bedford, in the summer of 1841. On July 21st of that year, Charles W. Morgan made a fateful entry into his diary. Though he wasn’t quite sure that this brand new addition to his fleet of whaleships should be named after him, he was unambiguously ecstatic about the birth of the Morgan.
“A fine warm day,” he wrote, “– but very dry. This morning at 10 o’clock my elegant new ship was launched beautifully from Messrs. Hillman’s yard — and in the presence of both half the town and a great show of ladies. She looks beautifully on the water, she was copper-bottomed on the stocks. She is to be commanded by Captain Thomas Norton.”
She set sail on her first whaling voyage six weeks later on September 6, 1841 bound for the Pacific.
Her second mate, James Osborn, recorded in his journal: “May kind Neptune protect us with plesant gales and may we be successful in catching sperm whales.” Kind Neptune complied. She returned three years, three months and 27 days later with a cargo of 1,600 barrels of sperm oil, 800 barrels of whale oil, and 10,000 pounds of bone. She had cost $27,000 to build and $26,000 to outfit, and she almost always returned a handsome profit. Over the next eighty years, traveling to every ocean of the world, she would make 37 voyages in all – one of the 2,700 whaleships that made the worldwide whaling fleet over time, which embarked on a combined 14,864 voyages. Her longest voyage was almost five years; her average voyage was 2.
The whole world in all its diversity was part of her experience, and her timbers are imbued with that reality to this day. During that time, she traveled to every part of the globe – part of the whaling advance guard of American globalization, and a laboratory of the multi-cultural society we were on the verge of becoming. According to a New Bedford physician who vaccinated her crew in 1906 – as recounted by Matthew Stackpole’s father Edouard Stackpole, one of the grandfathers of American whaling history, the Morgan’s crew that year alone included – and I quote – “Americans, Chileans, Hawaiians, Germans, Australians, British, kanakas, Swedes, West Indians and two Chimoeans from the Island of Guam.”
During the eighty years the Charles W. Morgan sailed, from 1841 to 1921, America became America. She was launched on the very eve of our immense expansion West – an expansion that hadn’t even begun in earnest by 1841, but that would make the country what it is. During those eighty years as she went around the world, America fulfilled what the newspaper editor John O’Sullivan called her “manifest destiny” – which was he said in 1845 to spread with extraordinary speed across the magnificent continent providence had allotted her for her yearly multiplying millions.
In the next ten years alone, millions of square miles would be added to the American nation – an expansion that would trigger a lethal civil war over the meaning of freedom on the American continent.
In the decades following the Civil War scores of millions of new peoples would pour into the explosively growing country in one of the biggest demographic expansions and most spectacular movements of human beings in history – a huge combined geographical and demographic expansion.
By 1921, the year she retired, the adolescent nation of country people that was spreading its wings and flexing its muscles the year she was launched had become a world power and a main player on the world stage.
She was retired in 1921 – three years before the wreck of the Wanderer off Cuttyhunk left her an orphan and the last wooden whaleship in the world. Her career it turned out had been almost exactly co-terminous with the beginning of the peak years of American whaling – and the commencement of whaling’s decline.
But 172 years ago, all that was far in the future and beyond anyone’s ability to reckon. The Hillman Brothers Shipyard who built her completed seventeen ships in the years between 1826 and 1852 – and certainly no one on that warm July day 172 years ago could have imagined she would be the last of her kind, and eventually the only whaleship left in the world.
The Morgan alone it turns out has survived the apocalypse that was visited on the whaling industry and its fleet of ships, once 2,700 strong. She is – in that sense, as in many others – so movingly like Ishmael – the lone survivor of the whale ship Pequod when she went down apocalyptically in Moby-Dick. She alone has returned to tell the tale.
At yet, whales and whaling and whaleships keep speaking to us, it turns out, across great gulfs of time and space – long after whaling itself and all but one of the world’s whaleships have passed from the scene – or almost passed from the scene.
What a wondrous mystery.
Perhaps it’s because whales – after all, the first creature God thought to create in Genesis, after making the world – have always seemed to stand for something larger than ourselves – something deeper, something vaster, something beyond.
Perhaps, it’s because ships, too, have always been powerful metaphors for us humans – metaphors for experience, for existence, for the human community – a metaphor for passage – for crossing over – for transport – for movement from one place to another, from one time to another, from life to death and beyond.
So if whales and ships are metaphors – perhaps whaleships – both as facts and as symbols – are metaphors on steroids – as the great novelist Herman Melville knew so well.
Human beings having always celebrated resurrection, restoration, renewal, and return. The only thing greater than the miracle of life itself can sometimes seem to be the miracle of something being brought back to life – after being buffeted by the tempests and storms and high seas of life, after have been battered, or sunk or stranded or given up for lost, perhaps simply after having weakened, retreated and retired. In “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s late great sea-washed play, possibly his last, of loss and redemption, the spirit Ariel – chief agent and magical engineer of Prospero’s campaign to conjure a fantastic transmutation of loss into renewal – says to Ferdinand who mistakenly believes his father Gonzalo to have been lost in the shipwreck that stranded them all on Prospero’s island: “Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearls that were his eyes, Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strange.”
We’re here today to celebrate the wondrous fact that the whaleship Charles W. Morgan has this day finished undergoing its own kind of sea-change – has been restored like Prospero to her proper estate and proper regency…. and herewith takes another step forward to restoration to her full glory – not as it turns out for the first time.
It’s not just a restoration, of course. It’s an incredible transformation of purpose – sensibility – outlook – philosophy – world view – a transformation from instrument of death to vehicle of knowledge and wonder and understanding.
The occasion – the emblem – the instrument of an extraordinary alchemy: like magicians and sorcerers, Prosperos on our own island, we have transformed an instrument of commerce, of killing and rendering, into a source of wonder and imagination and knowledge and understanding.
Once it went out across the world and brought back profit. Now it sails here, both really and in our imagination, and brings back another kind of treasure far more valuable – information about worlds past present and to come….
“When the restoration is complete,” the literature for the restored Charles W. Morgan proclaims, “we plan to take the Morgan to sea once again on a ceremonial 38th Voyage. This time her cargo will not be oil and whalebone but knowledge and experience.”
Nature has given us brains for instrumental purposes – to compete, survive, prevail, to extend ourselves in space and time, to reproduce and to pass along our genes. But as socio-biologists and evolutionary theorists have noted for a very long time, our brains are far bigger than they need to be for mere survival – and are – accidentally, it seems – capable of so much more than simply getting by. We have many times more matter up there than we need for mere reproduction and survival. We alone, apparently, look forward and backward, and construct our lives into narratives with a meaning, think and dream of times before us and times when we are long gone. It’s never been clear how this helped anyone compete better or adapt more happily or pass on their genes with greater success. We are the creatures with a strong sense of before and after; and that imaginative power – not just now, but before and after, here but also there – is the gateway to wonder. We are the beings who are not just trapped in the here and the now, but have been blessed and cursed with an understanding of the far away, the before and the after – in the beginning and after I am gone – being able to understanding what we are now, where we are not now and times before and after our own existence – that is what we humans are capable of doing, as perhaps only a few other species can, and more completely.
The brain that fashioned the Morgan and its many sister ships – ingeniously, brilliantly, successfully – as instruments of commerce, sometimes instruments of war – never imagined the wonder of what it feels like to stand on her decks at the masthead, sensing and experiencing the infinite largeness and grandeur of the world, and the connection we all have to all creation.
“There you stand,” Herman Melville wrote as Ishmael, remembering what it was to stand at the top of the masthead looking out to sea – “– a hundred feet above the silent decks – striding along the deep, as if the masts were giant stilts – while beneath you, and, as it were, between your legs, swim the hugest monsters of the sea …. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, [until] at last … thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came – becomes diffused through time and space …. forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.”
Thank you all, and God bless the Charles W. Morgan.
— Ric Burns