Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Interesting Facts about New Bedford

Today, New Bedford is a fishing port, with a big fleet of fishing boats in the harbor, and that's the image I had of the town before our visit. I didn't expect the lively historic town, charming buildings and cobblestone streets. I also didn't realize that in the 19th century the town was famous/infamous for its attitudes to slavery.

New Bedford was a Quaker town. I suppose this isn't surprising as it's right next to Rhode Island, but it still surprised me. The consequence of this was that the city was run along Quaker principles, which were admirably consistent with modern liberalism. In the Quaker faith, men and women were seen as equals - which would have been important in a town where so many of the men were at sea for long periods of time.

Moreover, the Quakers were active abolitionists. New Bedford was the town that Frederick Douglas and his wife escaped to when he was only 21. I've never read Autobiography of a Slave, but it's on my list, now. The so-called 'underground railway' led straight to New Bedford. Escaped slaves were fed, housed, sheltered and provided with the means to support themselves.

There was an account written by a slave who was brought by ship with his master. The ship was at anchor by a pier and the slave, waiting until his master's back was turned, jumped out of the ship and ran into the crowd. He heard shouts - 'fugitive' and knew he was being pursued but the crowd just parted to let him through and closed again to foil the pursuers. He was safe and was provided for by the Quaker abolitionists who ran the town. There were an estimated 700 fugitive slaves living openly in New Bedford, about half of the African American population of the town.

It was an ex-slave who invented the toggle spear, which was such an important tool for the whaling industry - horrible to think about now, but a remarkable invention nevertheless. It's a spear that goes in and opens up so the spear can't be easily dislodged.

When oil was discovered in America in the late 1800's, whaling as an industry declined, although there was whaling out of New Bedford until the 1950's or maybe even the 1960's. But there was a rather rapid fall in the level of income of New Bedfordites and that is probably one of the reasons the historic town survives so completely. It's perfect conditions for later historians. A town that is filled with wealth and lots of houses, then a rapid decline in fortunes so that the existing buildings are not torn down and rebuilt but just continue, unchanged.

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