Four Language Passport for the Whaling Schooner Pedro Varela, Signed by Ulysses S. Grant as President

The Pedro Varela crew mutinied in later years, an event which is the subject of a book

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In the 1840s, around the time Herman Melville was completing Moby Dick, whaling was a booming worldwide business and the United States was the global behemoth. The U.S. whaling industry grew by a factor of fourteen between 1816 and 1850, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, accounted for half of America’s whaling output. In...

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Four Language Passport for the Whaling Schooner Pedro Varela, Signed by Ulysses S. Grant as President

The Pedro Varela crew mutinied in later years, an event which is the subject of a book

In the 1840s, around the time Herman Melville was completing Moby Dick, whaling was a booming worldwide business and the United States was the global behemoth. The U.S. whaling industry grew by a factor of fourteen between 1816 and 1850, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, accounted for half of America’s whaling output. In 1846, the U.S. owned 640 whaling ships, more than the rest of the world put together and tripled. Demand for New Bedford’s haul came from all over the country. Sperm oil could lubricate fancy new machinery. Inferior whale oil could light up a room. Whale cartilage could hold together a corset or umbrella. At its height, the whaling industry contributed $10 million (in 1880 dollars), enough to make it the fifth largest sector of the U.S. economy.

In the 1870s, however, the industry started to decline as whale resources decreased and the price of whale oil fell as a result of increased petroleum production. Capitalists began to funnel their cash into other domestic industries, notably railroads, oil, and steel. When New Bedford’s whaling elite opened the city’s first cotton mill and petroleum-refining plant, the handwriting was on the wall. By the late 1890s, the industry was virtually dead.

Anthony P. Benton was a whaling ship owner and captain who plied the trade for decades. He was one of the last whaling hold-outs, still searching for whales in 1900. The Schooner Pedro Varela was a whaling vessel out of New Bedford, built in 1853. It was still active well into the 1910s. Its crew was fed up with an arduous voyage in 1910 and found a way to prematurely bring it to an end; they threw whaling equipment overboard. The book “Mutiny on the Pedro Varela” recount this tale. In 1876 Benton signed on to take the Pedro Varela on a whaling voyage to the Atlantic whaling grounds off South America.

Document signed, as President, Washington, November 4, 1876, being a passport providing that “Leave and permission are hereby given to Anthony P. Benton, master or commander of the Schooner called Pedro Varela of the burthen of 89 tons, lying at present in the port of New Bedford bound for the Atlantic Ocean and laden with Provisions, stores and utensils for a whaling voyage, to depart and proceed…on his said voyage…” The document is countersigned by Hamilton Fish as Secretary of State, and by James Taylor, Deputy Collector of the port of New Bedford. The passport is in four languages (English, Spanish, French, and Dutch), as befits a ship’s traveling in international waters.

Passports for whaling ships signed by Grant as President are rare, which is hardly surprising considering that fewer whaling passports were being given out by the mid-1870s. This is our first, and a search of public sale records going back over 40 years shows none having reached that marketplace since 1991.

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