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The Spirit Within
The rancid smell of whale oil pervaded the air and perfumed the purses of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841. When Herman Melville arrived at the wharves in search of work, square-masted whaling ships flew Union Jacks and tricolors alongside boats flying flags from Russia and Spain, but the Stars and Stripes waved for the largest fleet of whalers in the world. The local sloop Acushnet, sailing for the Pacific, gave Melville a place on its crew, and he soon began the expedition that inspired his masterpiece Moby-Dick.
While his captain acquired provisions and assembled a crew, the writer strolled along the streets. On slippery cobblestones that sloped down to the river, he passed odd-looking sailors from near and far: dark-skinned men from Cape Verde, blond-haired boys from the Netherlands, swarthy sailors from Portugal, dreaded cannibals from Fiji, tattooed natives from the South Seas, and runaway slaves newly arrived on the Underground Railroad from the South. With time on their hands before their ships set sail and their last prayers at the Seamen’s Bethel yet unsaid, they roamed the shops, packed their pouches with tobacco, purchased razors, blankets, and mattresses stuffed with straw, stopped at the public houses to down some shots of rum, paid visits to the brothels, and slept at the Swordfish Inn or the Crossed Harpoon.
Along the bustling waterfront hundreds of men toiled on the boats. Caulkers, riggers, carpenters, and other craftsmen slogged for adventure, escape, and a share in the profits. Sweat oozed from the pores of the sailors as they off-loaded the casks of whale oil that lighted America’s homes, lubricated its tools and instruments, and primed its paint and varnish. Salty language flowed from their lips as they lugged the whalebone that corseted and hoop-skirted the women, perfumed the ladies with ambergris, stayed the men’s collars, handled the buggy whips and walking sticks, and entertained the children with chess pieces and piano keys. Whale oil was as valuable then as petroleum is now.
While the sailors hauled the barrels, the captains inspected their ships. On the top decks they checked the brick furnaces: as soon as the whales were caught, their blubber was burned down until it turned into oil. Squinting up at the crows’ nests the men saw the lookouts high on the masts where sailors at sea could spot the whales. They thrilled recalling the words “Thar she blows!” and prayed they had the right answer when they returned from their expeditions. “What luck? Clean or greasy?” the owners always asked, hoping the barque was slick with oil.
As Melville walked along the wharves he passed blacksmiths, ironmongers, sail makers, and warehouses filled with supplies. A whaling trip took five hundred barrels of fresh water; fifty barrels of salt; seventy barrels of flour; one hundred gallons of molasses; four hundred pounds of coffee; four hundred pounds of sugar; and enough dried apples, pork, rice, beans, beef, butter, cheese, codfish, corn, raisins, potatoes, onions, liquor, tea, and tobacco to satisfy the hunger of twenty-five men for as long as forty-eight months. In addition, a ship needed spermaceti candles, linseed oil, pine board, pine nails, oak nails, gunpowder, copper sheathing, cordage, flags, bricks, lime, cotton, canvas, twine, tar, and paint to keep it seaworthy, harpoon the whales, and, four years later, return with the prize to New Bedford.
At the countinghouses nearby, clerks perched on high stools and, pencils in hand, leaning over account logs, entered the whalers’ expenses and income. At the trading firm on Pleasant Street, whaling owners bought and sold commodities, hedging bets on the future cost of provisions and the price they might get for their goods. Close by at the fresh oyster stand on the wharf, the whalers swallowed the slippery oysters and slurped the juice, joined at lunchtime by men who manufactured steam engines, boilers, sewing machines, candles, or leather shoes, who sold insurance or dry goods, served as lawyers, published newspapers, or ran the banks.
Heading up from the waterfront and the railroad station built in Egyptian Revival style, Melville edged his way along the narrow streets. Pink-cheeked women in horse-drawn carriages rode by, while freed colored men, white men in well-cut suits, and Quakers in dull coats and wide-brimmed hats passed one another on the sidewalks. Inside the granite banks, clerks and officers welcomed dozens of men making deposits and others seeking loans to sow their businesses. In the small wooden shops the atmosphere bustled with women buying brocades from France, tea leaves from India, and spices from the Middle East. At Polly Johnson’s popular store, girls and boys licked whipped-cream cakes while the colored owner helped them decide over chewy ginger cookies or candy sticks. In the back of the shop Frederick Douglass practiced a speech on abolition.
Farther up the hill stood the Lyceum, where Emerson delivered his lecture, and buildings of every sort, from the Unitarian church with its crenellated towers to the Quaker meetinghouse, simple and square, called congregants to prayer. Streets shaded by elms and horse chestnuts boasted gracious gardens and stately homes occupied by sea captains and shippers, manufacturers and merchants, bankers and businessmen, many of whom were members of the Society of Friends, the first settlers of New Bedford. Inside the Federal frame houses and the granite houses in Gothic or Greek Revival style where Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Catholics, and even a few Jews lived, fancy furniture and vivid silks embellished the rooms. But the stone house of Edward Mott Robinson and the Greek Revival of his father-in-law, Gideon Howland Jr., avoided show of any sort—no stripes or florals or gaudy colors; like their clothing, their plain Quaker homes lacked adornment.
Everyone in New Bedford, white or black, worldly or Quaker, had an interest in whaling. Whether it was a quarter, an eighth, or a thirty-second, they all bought a share in the expeditions. New Bedford residents owned more whaling ships than the people of any other town, and though the voyages might end in disaster—the ships lost at sea, destroyed by mutinies, or downed by storms—more often than not they brought home a bountiful return. One journey alone might bring back $100,000 in whales. It wasn’t only Americans who bought the by-products of the giant mammals: seven million gallons of whale oil and two million pounds of whalebone were exported every year.
But ships could not be built, sailors could not be hired, supplies could not be purchased to launch a voyage without money from the banks. The Howland and Robinson families were a mainstay of whaling and banking: their agency, Isaac Howland Jr. and Company, owned more ships than any other in town, their banks made more loans than most, and their personal wealth ranked near the top. To New Englanders of every sort, prosperity was a virtue. To those in the Society of Friends, wealth was the visible sign of election by God. For Edward Mott Robinson, wealth was an obsession, a relentless pursuit of righteousness.
The shrewd, sagacious businessman held his money closely, followed the Quaker precepts, and attended the Quaker worship. Almost everyone he dealt with was Quaker. He trusted his brothers in commerce and knew he could rely on them for honesty and goodwill, candor and rectitude.
Seven years earlier in a quiet Quaker ceremony, Edward had married his partner’s younger daughter, Abby Slocum Howland. Like the Jews who lived in nearby Newport, the closely knit Society of Friends prayed together, transacted business together, and married within their circle. Howlands, Hathaways, Rodmans, Rotches, Grinnells, and Pells: it was rare to find a family in which these names were not entwined. Nor was it easy to find a family without the given names of Isaac, Moses, or Samuel, Rachel, Rebecca, or Sarah. The Bible had its place in every house and daily readings ensured that family members could quote the Scriptures chapter and verse. Indeed, the Quakers cited them at their special meetings where they quelled their members’ anger and helped them resolve disputes. Anger, they believed, was the cause of war. As conscientious objectors, they promoted peaceful coexistence.
Through their method of dialogue, they kept their members out of the law courts and kept their quarrels from spiraling outside their sphere. Their ministers and arbitrators, women as well as men, mediated family arguments and settled business feuds. All were equal in the eyes of the Friends, and women played an important role in religious and business affairs. Independent and often outspoken, they ran their own meetings, made their own decisions, and frequently managed their own businesses.
As self-sufficient as they may have been, Quaker women were expected to be obedient wives, but even as a newlywed in 1834, Abby Howland Robinson was more diffident than most. She deferred to her husband, Edward Robinson, in every way. Other women may have voiced their opinions quietly, but Abby shriveled in his presence and quivered at his word.
Dressed in the dull, dark clothes and small white cap that distinguished her as a Quaker, she walked meekly beside him on Seventh Days as they went together to the meetinghouse. They entered the building through their separate entrances, took their places on the long, hard benches, Brother Robinson with the men, Sister Robinson with the women, and faced the small group of elders and ministers perched on a raised bench in the front. A blanket of quiet silenced the hall. No prayers were read, no reverend preached, no choir rang out. Restless children squirmed, their parents frowned, and the young ones settled down in the stillness. Heads covered and bowed, the congregants focused: they centered their thoughts, and searched for the light inside.
Slowly, someone rose and removed his hat; spurred on by the spirit within, he began to talk. Restrained at first, he spoke in a quiet voice, and as his courage increased, his voice grew firm, his words gained strength. Then, when the spirit faded and the words no longer flowed, he took his seat and covered his head again. More time went by. More stillness filled the air. More children squirmed. More parents frowned. Again a Friend stood up, spoke as the spirit moved him, and sat down. So it went: male and female, young and old. Sometimes the speakers trembled. Sometimes passion poured forth. Sometimes silence prevailed. Sometimes Edward Robinson spoke. Rarely would Abby utter a word. An hour later two of the elders stood and shook hands, the signal the meeting was over.
Afterward, it was the Quaker tradition for the Robinsons to join Abby’s family for dinner at her father’s house. A lively widower who had once captained a whaling ship, Gideon Howland had taken a cousin, Mehatable, as his bride, but she died soon after the birth of Abby, their second child. With no one to care for his young children, Gideon moved in with his father-in-law, Isaac Howland, and continued to live with the late Isaac’s second wife, Ruth.
Gideon’s older daughter, Sylvia, physically weak from a spinal problem at birth, had been spurned by Edward Robinson in favor of her younger sister. Strong-willed and outspoken, Sylvia remained a spinster in the house with Gideon. While the widow Ruth concentrated on running the household and overseeing the servants, twenty-eight-year-old Sylvia, well known for her quick tongue and lack of charm, fought for control. Every few years she changed her will.
The family slipped into their seats in the dining room and bowed their heads in silent grace, then dined at the polished wood table. New Englanders savored the fresh fish caught daily in their waters and the fruits and vegetables they stored all year: steamed scallops; fried clams; oyster chowder thick with pork, potatoes, onions, and peas; corn bread; and apple crisp thick with rich cream. Although the meal was plentiful, the talk at the Howland table was terse. Gideon’s insobriety added to the tension. Emotions simmered under the Quaker silence. Below the smiles of serenity, Abby and Sylvia stewed over sibling jealousies; Ruth and Sylvia bristled over their turf.
While the family chewed in silence, Edward did little to ease the strain. He and Sylvia eyed each other suspiciously: he, certain she was trying to sabotage him; she, convinced he was after the family fortune. Consumed by wealth and the intent to increase his means, he admitted that “making money was the great object” of his life. He pursued his fortune like Ahab pursued the great white whale.
Ordinarily, he focused his thinking on commerce and calculated his talk: the new building his partner Gideon just put up on the riverfront; the arrival of one of their ships; the price that whale oil was bringing. But now with his wife in a family way, his dreams floated toward his future son.
They had no doubt their firstborn would be a boy and they would call him Isaac. He would carry with pride his father’s deep Rhode Island roots and his mother’s Mayflower ancestry. Robinson took satisfaction in knowing his son would inherit both the wealth and the pedigrees. It wouldn’t be long before he would take the young boy down to the Howland wharves, where he would educate him in the intricacies of enterprise: he would teach him how to read the ledgers at the countinghouse; he would pat him on the back when the young man bargained well for a captain and crew; he would swell with pride when his son squeezed the profits as he did.
It was the duty of every heir, Robinson believed, to increase the family riches. With that in mind, he would teach his boy to loan at interest and tell him never to borrow a cent. “Never owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness,” he always preached. Kindness rarely entered his world. How well his wife discovered this when, on November 21,
1834, instead of a son, Abby delivered a baby girl. They named her Hetty Howland Robinson.
Devastated by the birth of this child, Robinson insisted upon a male heir. Before the infant Hetty was nine months old, Abby’s stomach swelled again with child. Once more the future danced before Edward Robinson, and this time his dreams came true. Once more he saw himself mentoring the future entrepreneur, teaching him the secrets of stocks and bonds, commodities, profit and loss. But if disappointment befell him when his firstborn turned out to be a girl, Robinson seethed when his second born, Isaac, died at a few weeks of age.
In the graveyard of the Quaker meetinghouse they buried their infant Isaac. But they could not bury Edward Robinson’s anger. His wife, fearful of his rage and depressed over her loss, took to her bed. Edward fumed at his fate, Abby sobbed in her pillow, and both rejected their only child. Like the biblical Ishmael, the unwanted Hetty was cast aside. Dismissed from the house, she was sent to live with her grandfather Gideon.