The contributions of African Americans in America’s whaling industry date to the earliest days of the trade, and they continued up to its end. African Americans followed whaling into the world’s oceans, including the mid-nineteenth century shift to the North Pacific and the rise of San Francisco as America’s principal whaling port. Among the whalers who regularly sailed through the Golden Gate, Captain William T. Shorey stands out as an exemplary man.
Born in Barbados in 1859, William Shorey left home as a cabin boy, sailed to Boston, and entered whaling in the 1876. At that time the whaling industry was in decline, but Shorey, educated, intelligent, energetic, and dedicated, not only survived but thrived. By 1880, Shorey was a whaling officer, serving as Third Mate on the three-year cruise of the whaler Emma F. Herriman. At the end of the voyage, both Shorey and Herriman were in San Francisco. Sailing again on two shorter voyages of less than a year each, in 1886 Shorey gained his first command. Hailed as the “only colored captain on the Pacific Coast,” William Shorey married, taking his bride to sea in Emma Herriman as far as Hawaii before embarking on a short and profitable cruise off Japan and into the Sea of Okhotsk. They had five children in their lifetime, two of whom survived into adulthood,
In 1889, Captain Shorey took command of the whaler Alexander and ventured into the North Pacific, whaling in the Pribilofs. Pack ice claimed Alexander in 1891, but Captain Shorey saved his crew and performed admirably. Alexander’s owners gave him a new command, the whaler Andrew Hicks, upon his return to San Francisco. William Shorey successfully commanded Hicks well into the new century, pursuing whales in Arctic waters with a crew so diverse that a contemporary account described it as “heterogeneous as that has made port in many a day. Bright, active Americans are in the forecastle with rugged Northmen, yellow-skinned Chinese, brown Esquimaux and kinky-haired sailors as black as ever walked the plank of a river packet.” Shorey’s crews greatly admired and respect their captain, and various accounts speak of his exceptional seamanship and leadership.
Captain Shorey’s final whaling voyages were in command of the bark John and Winthrop from1903 to 1908. Not fully retiring, Shorey maintained his Master’s license while serving as a Special Police Officer on the Oakland docks. Admired and respected in the community of Oakland, where he and his family had loved for many years, the Captain was recognized in 1907 when Oakland’s Shorey Street was named in his honor. In 1912, after years of delays occasioned by his time at sea, William Shorey also became a United States citizen. Captain Shorey died of pneumonia in April 1919, and is interred with his family in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.