Scott MacKay Commentary: New Bedford's Rich Past And Present

Feb 5, 2018

As part of Rhode Island Public Radio's series One Square Mile: New Bedford, political analyst Scott MacKay reflects on the city's past, from whaling to textiles, to its role in the Underground Railroad.


Before the city was established, the area we now know as New Bedford was populated by the Wampanoag tribe, who had settlements throughout southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In May of 1602, nearly two decades before the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, an English explorer and privateer, Bartholomew Gosnold sailed into what today is New Bedford Harbor. One of his fellow voyagers wrote in his diary that the land “was the goodliest continent that we ever saw,” filled with “fair fields and fragrant flowers,” all fed by two rivers.

By the middle of the 18th century, New Bedford’s economy was fueled –as it still is today—by fishing. The city, with its deep, protected harbor, birthed the whaling industry and became North America’s most important whale center, along with its island neighbor, Nantucket.

There was a local market for whale byproducts, especially whale oil, and also a demand from England. By the American Revolution, New Bedford was home port to almost 80 vessels and about 1,000 seamen.

The golden era of whaling, from 1815 to 1860, fueled the city’s early fortunes and set the template for the diverse New Bedford that exists still. The early whaling voyages drew New England farm boys eager for adventure, but the industry also attracted Native Americans, Cape Verdeans, West Indians and black fugitives from slavery.

By 1847, New Bedford had become a linchpin in the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad. A census that year showed that of the city’s 16,000 residents, about 1,000 were African-American, including 400 fugitives from slavery. Massachusetts was a lodestone for opposition to the fugitive slave laws. New Bedford’s large population of Quakers, Congregationalists, Unitarians and freed blacks vigorously opposed slavery and protected fugitives, including Frederick Douglass and his wife.

The city’s motto became “I spread the light” because the refinement of high viscosity whale oil lit lamps around the globe.

New Bedford was forever enshrined in the nation’s literary history when in 1841 a young Herman Melville became a crew member of the whaleship Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. The trip inspired him to author “Moby Dick,” his epic allegory of man’s attempt to tame the natural world.

“Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent than in New Bedford,” wrote Melville. Melville captured the wealth whaling spurred, even if most residents lived more modestly.

The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania on the eve of the Civil War began the demise of whaling. Soon, the factory smoke stack and the power loom would replace the whaleship and harpoon as the foundation of the city’s economy.

New Bedford evolved into a thriving textile manufacturing center. The cotton mills drew a new wave of the immigrants who have forged the modern city. Workers came from French Canada, England, Portugal and the Azores, filling sturdy triple-deckers.  By 1928, 30 factories made textiles that were shipped around the world. The city’s population jumped to 120,000 in 1920.

But labor unrest, including strikes in the late 1920s, the stock market crash of 1929 and competition from southern cotton mills dented the industry. On the cusp of World War II, just 13 textile factories remained.

Today’s New Bedford is smaller, with a population of about 95,000. The whaling past is honored at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, but the city’s maritime economy continues to flourish in the most lucrative commercial fishing port in North America.

This week, we’ll take you to this historic port city. To diversify the economy, New Bedford is hoping that the wind that fueled its whaleships can be harnessed for renewable energy. We’ll also dig into the cleanup of the harbor. And how New Bedford is working to keep its scallop fishery sustainable.

You’ll learn about how the opioid epidemic has affected fishermen, and meet immigrants from Guatemala, who speak a Mayan language.

One Square Mile New Bedford airs all this week Rhode Island Public Radio. Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. and at 5:44 p.m. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our "On Politics" blog at RIPR.org.