Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Second Advisor

Timothy Hacsi

Third Advisor

Julie P. Winch


America’s whaling industry serves as a microcosm of the interaction between white settlers and people of color, as well as the effect of that interaction on both groups. As an enterprise that brought great wealth to many, it also provides an opportunity to explore the realities of the relationship between races as it evolved from the early days of whaling in America. At issue here is the story of how men aboard whaling ships received a share of the profits, wherein each member of a crew would be assigned a share, called a “lay,” of whatever profits a successful voyage would achieve in the marketplace. The lay system represented itself as a fair and appropriate method to reward experience with a higher share, with ship’s officers and captain receiving the greatest portion. Appearances aside, the realities of the system were quite different as experienced by ordinary crew members.

Through primary and secondary sources, this review of the socio-economic situation at successive points of the whaling industry in America questions the validity of a claim that the lay system was fair and equitable, especially to minority groups, specifically Native Americans, Black Americans, and Portuguese immigrants. It offers a comprehensive look at the experience of whaling in New England, and the involvement of people from marginalized backgrounds. While whaling ships may have been known for the diversity of their crews, the hierarchy of class and race remained firmly in place. Despite broader interpretations of whaling as an equal-opportunity experience, the onboard system of rank ultimately did not benefit non-white Americans.


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