Century American whaling ship captain known to his crew as the Black Ahab
Known affectionately as the Black Ahab, William Thomas Shorey was born on January 25, 1859 on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies. In 1875 he shipped to Boston as a cabin boy and in the next year made his maiden voyage on a whaler.
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Learning navigation and moving up rapidly through the ranks, Shorey came to San Francisco on the whaler Emma F. Herriman in 1878. After only ten years at sea he became the only African American ship captain on the west coast. In 1886 Shorey married Julia Ann Shelton, daughter of one of the leading black families in San Francisco. Together they had five children and Captain Shorey occasionally took his family to sea with him.
Shorey was a skilled captain, known for his ability to bring both ship and crew back safely from long voyages to dangerous Pacific and Arctic whaling grounds. His crews included men from the United States, Europe, Australia, Asia and the Pacific Islands, and vessels under his command were known to be “happy ships.” Gradually petroleum and other products replaced those made from whales and Captain Shorey retired from the sea in 1908 at the age of 49. Onshore he lived in Oakland and worked on the docks as a special policeman for Pacific Coast Steamship Company from 1912 to 1919, the year he died of pneumonia. William, Julia and daughter Zenobia share a headstone in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Shorey was attracted to the sea early in his life. A seaman's life was not easy, but for Shorey, and many other Black men, it offered opportunity and a freedom unattainable in other occupations. In 1875, as a crew member aboard a British vessel bound for Boston, Shorey gained the attention of the ship's captain, who took time to teach him the basics of navigation. By 1880, Shorey had become an officer.
He sailed out of Boston harbor aboard the Emma F. Herriman on a three-year whaling voyage that would eventually take him to San Francisco. While stationed on the West Coast, he advanced his rank from officer third class to first officer. After only ten years at sea, Shorey became the only Black captain on the West Coast. A whaling career was treacherous and unusually short. Shorey's skills as commander were often tested. His intelligence and experience earned the respect and admiration of his crew.
The Shorey residence in Oakland was at 1774 Division Street.
In 1891, with the brig Alexander under his command and sinking in the Arctic ice pack in the Bering Sea, Shorey did not suffer a single casualty. Returning to port in 1907 after surviving two typhoons, the crew testified that "nothing but Captain Shorey's coolness and clever seamanship saved [it from] a wreck.” His nickname was "Black Ahab" from the Herman Melville novel "Moby Dick."
Shorey retired from whaling in 1908. By that time the whaling industry in the United States was dying. Once oil was discovered, the demand for whale products rapidly declined. He spent the remainder of his days ashore in Oakland until his death in 1919.
When most people think about early black history in Oakland, they think of the Pullman Porters. Less well known is William T. Shorey, who was captain of a whaling ship in the 1880s, the only black captain operating on the west coast at that time. He was known to his whaling crews as the 'Black Ahab'.
William was born in Barbados in 1859, went to sea as a teenager, and made his first whaling voyage in 1876. Whaling brought him to California, and he married Julia Ann Shelton, the daughter of a leading African American family in San Francisco. He was a skilled captain and navigator, earning his masters license which allowed him to command any size vessel anywhere in the world. He and Julia Ann had 5 children, living in West Oakland at 1782 8th Street. William retired from the sea in 1908, as the whaling industry was winding down as petroleum was discovered.
The Black West by William Loren Katz.
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Tompkins, E. Berkeley, “Black Ahab: William T. Shorey Whaling Master,” California Historical Quarterly 51 (Spring): 75-84. http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/history/williamshorey.html
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