Shorey, William T. (1859–April 1919), whaling master

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Niven, Steven J.. "Shorey, William T.." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, (accessed Tue Jan 27 12:53:40 EST 2015).


Shorey, William T. (1859–April 1919), whaling master, was born in Barbados, the eldest of eight children of a Scottish sugar planter named Shorey, and an African Caribbean woman, Rosa Frazier, whom the younger Shorey's biographers have invariably described as a “beautiful creole lady” (Tompkins, 75). Some biographical sources incorrectly suggest that William was born either in Provincetown, Massachusetts, or in India. Although he was born free twenty-five years after slavery was abolished in the British West Indies, Shorey's prospects as a black man in Barbados were limited. He apprenticed for a while as a plumber on the island, but sometime in the mid-1870s, when he was still a teenager, Shorey found work as a cabin boy on a ship headed to Boston, Massachusetts. The English captain of the vessel quickly took to the eager, quick-witted, and adventurous lad and began to teach him navigation.

Upon arriving in New England, Shorey determined that he would seek a life at sea, continuing his education in navigation and seamanship under Captain Whipple (or Whiffer) A. Leach of Provincetown, on Cape Cod. That Shorey chose a hazardous life aboard a whaling vessel was probably not simply a coincidence. Many other African Americans had been prominent in the whaling industry and in the ports of New Bedford and Provincetown, notably Lewis Temple, the inventor of an innovative harpoon, the Temple Iron, in the 1840s. Although the great age of American whaling described by Herman Melville, among others, passed in the 1850s, the industry still enjoyed a reputation for meritocracy. Unlike on other vessels, an ambitious, young man, even an ambitious young man of color, could still expect to rise through the ranks on a whaler, that is, if he managed to survive the typically arduous and highly dangerous journeys into the Arctic that were made by the New England whaling fleet. Shorey very nearly did not. In 1876 he completed his maiden voyage as a “green hand” on a whaler out of Provincetown with relative ease, rising to the position of boat steerer, but on another journey shortly after, he almost died when a sperm whale he was pursuing attacked his boat. Shorey was saved when his crewmates succeeded in firing a bomb into the whale.

Shorey's rise through the ranks was impressive. By 1880, still aged only twenty-one, he was appointed as third mate on the Emma F. Herriman, a fairly large whaler, which set off from Boston that November and took Shorey around the globe over the next three years. The Herriman crossed the North and South Atlantic oceans, stopped on the west coast of Africa (where Shorey's maternal ancestors had probably been born), rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and sailed into the Indian Ocean. Another lengthy journey brought the vessel to Australia, where it passed through the Tasman Sea, traversed the wide southern Pacific, rounded Cape Horn, and made calls at several South American ports, including Panama, before ending at San Francisco, California, in late 1883. By the end of his voyage, Shorey had been promoted to first officer. He undoubtedly owed his rapid rise through the ranks to his skills as a whaler, though the changing demographics of the industry after the Civil War was also a factor. By that time, native-born white seamen were finding better-paying work in the rapidly industrializing North, so more than two-thirds of whaling crews were foreign-born, many of them people of color from the Caribbean, Cape Verde, and even the South Pacific. While this reflected the low pay, harsh conditions, and extreme danger of life on a whaler, it also provided opportunities for ambitious sailors such as Shorey.

The destination of San Francisco and the timing of his arrival proved fortuitous for Shorey. By then, the more temperate waters of the Pacific Northwest had replaced New England as the new center of the American whaling industry. The typical voyages of West Coast whalers were also considerably shorter than the New England ships, usually lasting less than a year. In 1886, Shorey was promoted to full command of the Herriman, making him the only black captain of a whaling vessel in the Pacific fleet. The position must have been a daunting one for a man still in his mid-twenties, for as one whaling historian has noted, a whaling master had to act as “physician, surgeon, lawyer, diplomat, financial entrepreneur, taskmaster, judge, and peacemaker” in charge of a racially and ethnically diverse crew (Tompkins, 79).

Shortly before becoming master of the Herriman, Shorey married Julia Shelton, the daughter of a prominent San Francisco minister and one of the leading black families in California. For their honeymoon, the couple traveled to Hawaii on the Herriman, and Shorey also brought his daughter Victoria on several whaling trips. Several of these proved hazardous, though his family was not on board Shorey's next vessel, the Alexander, when it sunk in an ice pack off the Bering Sea in 1891. Captain Shorey managed to rescue all of his crew members. Shorey's skills as a captain and as a businessman soon assured him a new charge, the Andrew Hicks, which he commanded for eight voyages between 1892 and 1902. On a typical journey he returned from the Sea of Japan with as much as five thousand pounds of whalebone and nearly six hundred barrels of whale and sperm oil. During the mid-1890s Shorey also sailed on the Gay Head, a famous San Francisco whaler, to Hawaii, taking his wife and daughter Zenobia with him. On this voyage, however, Zenobia fell ill and died shortly after returning to San Francisco.

Shorey's final voyages were aboard a Maine-built whaler, the John and Winthrop, which he commanded between 1903 and 1908. In one of his final tours to the Okhotsk Sea between Siberia and Japan, he successfully and safely steered his vessel through two major typhoons that lasted several days. The crewmen of the John and Winthrop later credited the “coolness and clever seamanship” of their commander for preventing a near-certain shipwreck. Although he retired from whaling in 1908, Shorey continued to work as a police officer for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. He also remained active in fraternal affairs in Oakland, California, and served on the board of a home for the aged in the same city. Revered in the California press as the “Black Ahab,” after the captain of the whaler in Moby Dick, Shorey enjoyed a life that was as dramatic as the main protagonist in Melville's novel, and was, in fact, a much more successful whaler than the tormented, fictional Captain Ahab, who died aboard his vessel. Shorey died peacefully at his home in Oakland in 1919.

Further Reading

  • Beasley, Delilah L. The Negro Trail Blazers of California (1919)
  • Tompkins, E. Berkeley. “Black Ahab: William T. Shorey, Whaling Master,” California Historical Quarterly, LI (Spring 1972).


  • San Francisco Newspaper Union, April 1919.

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