One name, two lives: notes from whaling archives on the mysterious Henry Greens

by Emily

After half a year of building up data on Sag Harbor whalers, I’ve finally determined for sure that the Henry Green whose whaling voyages are so well documented is not the same Henry Green who lived in the working class neighborhood of Eastville; married Esther, the sister of their locally prominent African American neighbor David Hempstead; and had a large family of daughters who supported their mother and each other for decades by working as servants and seamstresses, buying property with their cousin Mary Jane, and writing each other into their wills.

No, the Henry Green who kept excellent journals of his career as a whaling captain was definitely not the Henry Green whose family I find so fascinating and inspiring. Henry Green the captain was probably white, well educated, and became wealthy at sea. Henry Green the husband of Esther was a person of color who earned enough to buy a small property and build a house…and apart from his inclusion in a list of native whalers at the Shinnecock Museum & Cultural Center, that’s all I know. The voluminous journals of Henry Green do not belong to that Henry Green.

Frustrating as that is, I’m glad to have this question resolved. It’s not too surprising – historical records duplicate the inequalities and exclusions in which they are produced. Even though whaling has been lauded as one of the few fields where people of color or those with modest means could advance based on their own hard work, it was still part of the early modern United States, where exclusion was based on race and resources. Most of our records were made by people like the captain Henry Green; few were made by people like the sailor Henry Green.

In their own time, these two probably never met or knew about each other, even though they worked in the same industry in a small port city; the captain was a little older, and  I have found no records of their sailing together. Yet in my mind, they are mirror images of each other – what might the more elusive Henry Green have written, if he’d had the same opportunities as his more privileged historical doppelganger?

For instance, might he too have written something like this?

“It would be a great comfort to one banished as I am from all that is Dear to me to learn that my beloved Family are well; Indeeed this unremitted hard service is a great sacrifice, giving up all that is pleasurable to the soul or soothing to the mind and engaging in a constant contest with the elements or tempers and dispositions as boisterous and untractable, great allowance should be made for us when we come on shore for being long in the habits of absolute command we grow impatient of contradiction and are unfitted for the gentle intercourse of quite life, I am sally (?) in great hopes that it will not be long before I can make the experiment again for I assure you that I will endeavor to conduct myself with as much consideration as possible. “ (Henry Green, back leaf of the journal of the ship Phenix, 1831; Log 208, Mystic Seaport G.W. Blunt Library)