A heritage ignored no more

Exhibit highlights Cape Verdean backbone of New Bedford’s whaling industry

President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde lauded the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibit exploring the ties between the city and the island nation. President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde lauded the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibit exploring the ties between the city and the island nation. (Photos By Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2011

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NEW BEDFORD — Jim Lopes’s great-grandfather was a New Bedford whaler who emigrated from Cape Verde in 1873. Lopes’s grandfather also worked on the ships in the waning days of whaling prominence in this coastal city.

Yet Lopes, who grew up four blocks from the New Bedford Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill, remembers feeling little connection to the city’s chief cultural institution, chronicler of his ancestors’ livelihood. In those days, the museum emphasized the industry’s Yankee captains and financiers, not its diverse crews.

For him and others with similar backgrounds, he recalled, “It was not a welcoming place.’’

That impression has changed dramatically in recent years, with the staff of the 107-year-old museum working diligently to honor those from other cultures — the backbone of an industry that made New Bedford the wealthiest city on earth, per capita, in the mid-19th century.

A new exhibit opening July 5 will focus on Cape Verdean heritage and the island nation’s contributions to New Bedford whaling. To kick off the exhibit, the museum will host several cultural events next week.

Lopes, an entertainment lawyer and professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, now serves as the museum’s vice president of education and programming. He was instrumental in soliciting the Cape Verdean community for donations of family keepsakes — photos, uniforms, logbooks — for the new exhibit, which opens on Cape Verde’s Independence Day. For more than a decade, he has been filming interviews about Cape Verdean whaling in America.

“It should have been done 20 years ago,’’ he said last week, sitting in the spacious brick atrium of the museum, large enough to accommodate the suspended skeletons of three leviathans, including a 66-foot blue whale. “The generation that’s passing now are the last children of the last whalers.’’

New Bedford was a true globalization pioneer, said the museum’s president, James Russell. By the mid-1800s, fleet owners were importing deckhands from across the Atlantic while shipping spermaceti oil overseas to light the streetlamps of London.

“The New York Yacht Club sailed into New Bedford Harbor,’’ said Russell, a Harvard graduate who was born in Ireland. “That’s how much cash was in this area.’’

New Bedford’s fortunes have flagged since the decline of the city’s key industry a century ago. With 91,000 annual visitors, the Whaling Museum is a linchpin in what is now a modest local economy.

Earlier this month, President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde traveled to New Bedford for a preview of the exhibit. The museum’s emphasis on immigrant cultures is a welcome development, the president said through an interpreter. Admiring a grainy photo of a Cape Verdean whaler, Pires said he could see determination in the man’s eyes and body language.

Decades after the collapse of the whaling industry, another wave of Cape Verdeans began arriving in New Bedford in the 1970s, when the country declared its independence from Portugal. It continues today: Of New Bedford’s 100,000 residents, an estimated 9,000 are Cape Verdeans, with many more in the immediate area. For his people, Pires said, America remains a land of hope.

The museum’s Cape Verdean initiative is “a terrific step forward,’’ said Dr. Laura Pires-Hester, an anthropologist and member of the Ernestina Commission, which oversees a historic Massachusetts schooner that served as a Cape Verdean packet ship. In 1982, the Cape Verdean government gave the Ernestina to the people of the United States; it is now part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park.

“The Cape Verdean-American experience on the southeast coast is one that has not been widely known,’’ Pires-Hester said. “It’s a relationship that’s very positive, with constant replenishment, as people move back and forth.’’

The upcoming events, all free, will feature a crash course in speaking Cape Verdean “crioulo,’’ or Creole, and two nights of indigenous music, art, and literature.

Russell readily acknowledges that the museum long undervalued the immigrant experience. After launching a similar exhibit dedicated to the city’s Azorean population a year ago, he said the new programs and exhibit are just the beginning of a long-term commitment to the local Cape Verdean community.

“You don’t just put on an exhibit and then let it die,’’ he said.

He credited Lopes with galvanizing the museum’s effort. The New Bedford native created an extensive wish list of items for the exhibit, and he instructed his colleagues in the customs of his heritage.

Shortly after assuming his leadership role at the museum, Russell sought out Marilyn Halter, a Boston University history professor who married a Cape Verdean descendant and published a book about Cape Verdean immigration based on her doctoral dissertation. The community was a priority, the incoming director promised.

When Halter was working on her dissertation in the 1980s, she lived within walking distance of the museum. At the time, she said, “They were of no help to me whatsoever.’’

Now, she is thrilled to see the Cape Verdean exhibit come to fruition. “It brought tears to my eyes,’’ she said.

Halter’s stepdaughter, Marcy DePina was born and raised in New Bedford. Now living in Newark, N.J., she is working toward a degree in ethnomusicology while producing a Cape Verdean radio show and BET’s “Soul of Africa’’ program. Although she loved visiting the museum as a child, she recalls being dismayed that the few photos of Cape Verdeans were not identified.

Now, DePina’s 8-year-old son will feel a strong Cape Verdean presence the next time they visit the museum.

“It’s exciting for him to see his ancestry as a living, breathing part of that,’’ she said.

James Sullivan can be reached at