Entry begun at home in Bellevue, KY, Saturday, July 19, 8:30 am
There were no disturbances in sea or sky on the morning of Saturday, June 28. The cloudless day, with a temperature in the ‘70s, provided the perfect conditions for the Opening Ceremony scheduled from 10 am to noon, immediately alongside the Charles W. Morgan on New Bedford State Pier. Since the ship had docked on Wednesday, her crew had been preparing for a week of visits by the public that would begin at 1 pm today. At the same time, the traveling dockside exhibits from Mystic Seaport, trucked to each port in succession, were being set up near the pier for a week of visits that began this morning at 9 am. I had been so busy with the exhibition since getting off the ship that I had been unaware of the Saturday morning Homecoming Ceremony until Christina had mentioned it the day before. I am very glad she did.
The first phrase that comes to mind about the Opening Ceremony is “world class.” The two-hour program was beautifully planned and smoothly executed. Punctuating the sequence of speakers was a surprisingly rich variety of musical performers: a brass quintet, a vocal chorus, two vocal soloists, and a sea shanty chorus. In addition to the political speakers, we heard Remarks by Mystic Seaport President Steven White, a Keynote Address by author and historian Nathaniel Philbrick, and a Commemorative Poem by New Bedford Poet Laureate Patricia Gomes. James Russell, President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and co-chair of the Steering Committee for the entire Morgan celebration, kept the event moving with admirable rhythm and vitality.
The first political speaker, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, set the tone and established the theme for the day by saying that the arrival of this grand old ship is not only about the past but about the future. “The city that lit the world” from the whaling industry in the 19th century “will do it again,” she said, but this time with light from the wind industry being developed in the waters beyond Buzzard’s Bay. The Marine Deep Water Terminal now under development in New Bedford may one day provide “25% of the nation’s wind resource.” The city of New Bedford is now also second only to Honolulu in harnessing solar power, she noted. And it has recently been recognized nationally for its excellence in art and culture.
I was surprised and delighted to see Senator Warren at this event because I knew she would be at a fundraiser in northern Kentucky for Alison Lundergan Grimes this same evening. I had hoped to attend that fundraiser, and disappointed to find out that I would be in New Bedford on that date. But now, instead of meeting her there, I was hearing her here at the pier, welcoming the ship on which I had just sailed in from Martha’s Vineyard.
Senator Warren’s theme of New Bedford as the “city that will again light the world” was elaborated by Mayor Jon Mitchell and several other speakers. Mitchell called whaling “America’s most quintessential industry” and suggested that New Bedford had been the nation’s “first energy capital” in 1850, when “one half of the world’s whaling ships sailed from New Bedford.” He emphasized that whaling, in addition to bringing wealth to the city, brought a true true egalitarianism memorably expressed by the writings of Herman Melville, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the rich cultural diversity of a city literally built and inhabited by people from around the world. This cultural diversity was strikingly expressed throughout the program by Candida Rose’s singing of the Portuguese song Sodade, Ann Vinagre’s singing of the song Barca Negra, and Patricia Gomes’ commemorative poem to “Welcome the Morgan Home,” whose refrain featured “hands of black, brown, and white, / We stand as one to greet her.” Mayor Mitchell concluded his remarks, as did several speakers, with a heartfelt appreciation to the Mystic Seaport Museum for adopting the Morgan, restoring it, and sailing it back to its original home.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s keynote address struck many of the same notes with his own historical slant. Being from Nantucket, he explained why the center of American whaling had moved from that city to New Bedford’s deep water port. Standing now in New Bedford, he highlighted the vicissitudes by which the Charles W. Morgan had been rescued, restored, and given a new life in Mystic, Connecticut. With regard to the ethnic diversity of the city in the mid-nineteenth century and now, he cited the essential role of Wampanoag Indians, African Americans, Cape Verdians, and South Sea Islanders in the work of the whale ships and in the subsequent growth of the city (noting that the ship itself had been “constructed of live oak secured from the Chesapeake; white pine, spruce, and hackmatack from Maine; all of it pinned together with locust trammels from Long Island”).” Looking ahead to the future, he cited the brief passage in which the “women of New Bedford” bloom with a beauty as “perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens” in Moby-Dick,” hoping that “the return of this iconic ship [will] mark the beginning of a new era of prosperity” for all of its citizens.
Of all the moments in this remarkably orchestrated and deeply felt ceremony, the one that sticks with me most strongly is hearing Candida Rose sing the Cape Verdian song Sodade. I did not at the time understand the words in Portuguese, but the sound, the inflection, and the outflowing of the heart carried the emotion of this song, like the ceremony itself, from the burdens of the past into a spirit of communion and reunion. Only now as I transcribe this entry from my journal have I learned that “Sodade” means “Longing” and that the last stanza (in which I had made ouit only the words “scrieve me”) declares that “If you write me letter . . . / I will write you back / If you forget me . . . / I will forget you / Until the day . . . You come back.” What an appropriate song members of a Cape Verdian culture whose men were often away on foreign whale ships for three years or more—or for a community welcoming back a homemade whale ship that not sailed for almost a hundred years.
The Opening Ceremony ended, appropriately, with the raising of the city’s flag on the mast of the Morgan and the ringing of the ship’s bell. The weather and feeling were so absolutely satisfying that few were eager to leave. Some joined the line that had already formed for the opening of the ship to the public one hour later. Others drifted slowly through Mystic Seaport’s dockside exhibits, ranging from demonstrations of whaling implements and techniques, to an lifesize “inflatable” quite accurately representing a sperm whale, to a theatrical performance of Moby-Dick in thirty minutes.