THAT NOBLE ENTERPRISE
THE WHALE FISHERY
AND A TRIBUTE OF LASTING RESPECT
TO THOSE BOLD AND ENTERPRISING SHIP MASTERS
SONS OF SOUTHAMPTON
WHO PERILED THEIR LIVES
IN A DARING PROFESSION
AND PERISHED ON ACTUAL ENCOUNTER
WITH THE MONSTERS OF THE DEEP”
The Broken Mast Monument watches over the dead of the Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, New York. The name of my 4th Great Grandfather is etched into its grey marble… Charles W. Payne, Master of the ship Fanny, died in the Atlantic Ocean, January 4th, 1838, in the 30th year of his age.
Within sight is the colossal grave marker of my 4th Great Grandfather, Captain Benjamin Huntting II. Despite being so deeply connected to animals, for as long as I can remember, I have had an “irrational” fear of whales. It is something that I have always been teased about. Most especially because I have lived nearly my entire life in the Rocky Mountains, thousands and thousands of feet above sea level. I have never had a first-hand traumatic experience with whales. None the less, I often have nightmares about them charging and coming up from underneath me. I have been known to go so far as to say that I would rather swim with a great white shark than a whale… Especially sperm whales. When you don’t know about ancestral trauma, and you have an “irrational” fear like this, you find yourself thinking “Maybe I watched Pinocchio one too many times as a kid”. Or “Maybe whales just represent something big and dark that I am afraid of in my subconscious mind.”
I will never forget the day when my parents were over for a visit. The image of a whale came up on a nature documentary that my son was watching. My father saw me cringe at it and he said “Huh… that’s interesting… One of your relatives on my side was a whaler. He was the youngest whaling ship captain in a whaling company. I was in total shock. I said “Excuse me… how is it possible that you are just now telling me this?” He went on to say that growing up, his mother always kept a piece of his scrimshaw on top of her dresser.
Some years later, I hired a team of genealogists. And low and behold, the story was even deeper than any of us knew. My fifth great grandfather, Captain Benjamin Huntting I is considered the father of the whaling operations on the East Coast of the United States. He revolutionized the early whaling industry, not of just Long Island, but of the world. He was the first to suggest the use of try-pots onboard ships, which unfortunately greatly increased the efficiency of whaling. It made whalers able to process whale oil out at sea rather than having to bring back barrels of blubber to be processed on land.
His son, Captain Benjamin Huntting II (my fourth Great Grandfather) was the youngest captain in the business. The ship he commandeered was the famous ship called the Golconda. The Huntting family held the record for most sponsored whaling ventures out of Long Island. And because whale oil was the fuel source for oil lamps and candles in a time before electricity, and was also used for things like soap and lubrication for machinery, they made an absolute fortune.
The bowhead whale and right whale were the ideal targets, because they are slow and docile. But the sperm whale was a whale with the highest abundance of wax esters in its blubber, and it had a reputation for fighting back.
At that time, when a whale was spotted, they would send smaller row boats out towards it. The men inside the boat would strike the whale with a harpoon, attached to heavy rope. The whale would then drag the boats (Something they used to call a Nantucket sleighride) until it was too tired, at which point the entire crew would lance the whale to death. If you were in one of these little row boats, and the hunt turned on you, you were powerless against a creature that completely outmatched you. And even if it went “well”, the experience of harvesting a whale, something they call “cutting in” was extremely grizzly and dangerous.
My other 4th great grandfather, Captain Charles W. Payne, who is remembered on the famous Broken Mast Monument, died in battle with a whale. Traumas and nightmares involving whales would have made up the bulk of my ancestor’s existence for multiple generations. And here I am, living nowhere near the ocean, with those fears still echoing through my blood.
It never ceases to amaze me how ancestral healing occurs, whether we are aware of it or not. At its essence, clearing ancestral trauma is about changing patterns that have been running through family lines for the better. As I write this, I can’t help but think of the image of myself, at four years old in the newspaper. I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, having been taken to a political march specifically for the protection of whales. Just four generations ago, my ancestors were exploiting some of the most sacred animals on earth. And four generations later, totally unaware of that history at the time, there we were, defending them. Without even realizing it, my father and I were clearing ancestral trauma on that day. As an environmentalist and animal rights activist, my father was the progression of his family line. And as a vegan and an animal rights advocate, I am the progression of my family line. These patterns in family lines repeat and repeat until someone in the family line resolves it and changes the pattern.
I have returned to the land of my ancestors to do exactly that. An entire branch of my paternal family tree belonged to the sea and sand of Sag Harbor in the Hamptons of New York. I came here bearing 26 names of my direct ancestors that are buried here, knowing that most likely there are many more that I am yet to learn of. Walking down the main street of the town, I feel as though I have been here a thousand times before… As if those who only live on in me, are surveying the town they knew so well, but through my senses; disgruntled about the many changes that they were not consulted on over the last hundred years. But the skeletons of their lives here still stand as landmarks of the town.
My fourth Great Grandfather’s house is now the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. It is as if I remember the weight of the front door. The muted, yellow light coming through the oculus is familiar to me. The fact that it now belongs to someone else, creates an acerbic sadness in me.
My 3rd Great Grandfather’s watch case manufacturing factory is now the Watchcase Condominiums. A collection of luxury residences in the historic building, which has been preserved as it was all those years ago. I was not looking for the building. Instead, the building found me. I saw it from afar and felt such pride and fondness when I caught sight of the building, I had an immediate intuition that my ancestors were connected to the place. And as it turns out, I was right. His name was Joseph Fahys. He came from Belfort, Franche-Comte France, to New York to apprentice himself to one of the two first makers of watch cases in the United States. And like so very many men in my father’s line, he became an absolute titan of early American Business. In 1857, Joseph started his company called Joseph Fahys & Co., with several watchcase producing companies in New York and New Jersey. Joseph relocated the original plant to Sag Harbor, Long Island. The business was officially incorporated in 1881, when Joseph went into partnership with his son-in-law, Henry Francis Cook (my Second Great Grandfather who was a manufacturer and financier. He was president of the Montauk Steam Boat Company, The Sag Harbor Real Estate Company and the Sag Harbor Water Company).
During this time, the company not only manufactured watchcases but was also the biggest producer of silverware in the United States. Joseph used his influence and success to found the Jewelers Board of Trade in 1884, and was the first president of the Watchcase Manufacturers Association. During the latter part of the 19th Century, the company was the largest manufacturer of gold and silver watch cases in the United States. It was Joseph’s wife (Maria L’Hommedieu Payne) whose father died in battle with a Whale in the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, I stand in front of the Fahys family tomb. All his greatness reduced by time to these monuments that remain. And to that which lives on in those of us that sprang forth from him. Right beside it, the grave markers of Henry Francis Cook (my second Great Grandfather). And right beside that, the grave markers of their son and his wife (my great grandparents). And so many other sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and children. All around me, I am surrounded by the remembrance of the family I always had, but had grown up never knowing. It is a surreal feeling. Like a belonging that is so much a given, it is in your bones. And yet, you can never quite touch it. So many conflicting emotions, it is like a riot in the heart. I wonder how they would feel knowing that their many times great granddaughter would be raised in the wild west, and would one day come to find them.
A pleasant breeze moves the tall grasses that frame the beach. There are no cresting waves. Only the motion of sparkling and lapping ocean water. My son, Winter is already swimming with a smile on his face. I brought him on this ancestral voyage to introduce him to his forefathers. Seeing him relish in this re-connection to where he came from is healing in and of itself. While he plays, I introduce myself to the ocean. I ask the ocean for forgiveness for what my forefathers took away. And as the aspect of them that lives on, I pledge to protect it and act as a steward to all those beings within it instead.
Living within each and every one of us, is the gift of all of those positive things that are running through our family lines. And also, living within us is the challenge of all of those negative things that are running through our family lines. The question is, will we consciously take advantage of those gifts and will we consciously master those challenges?
Standing in this ocean, I look down at my own hand. More than ever before, I can see my parents there. I can see my grandparents and my great grandparents and all of the generations of my ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. They are once again touching this water that meant so much to them. I am the continuation of each and every one of them.