History Student Blends Academics and Living History for a Whale of an Educational Experience
By Eric Baxter, COCE Advisor
When Chris Gauld helped row a wooden whale boat to within a few oars-lengths of a group of humpbacks in the Atlantic, he couldn’t help thinking of what he had once heard described as the “audacity of these men of the 19th century” who hunted the giant beasts almost to extinction.
Those men used similar boats and had only harpoons. Though the boats were of robust construction, they seemed frail against the elemental power of the prey.
“It was a little terrifying,” Gauld said of watching whales bigger than the boat breach the waves a short distance away.
Yet he also spoke about the thrill of being among the first sailors in close to a century to put off from the recently refurbished wood-masted whaling ship Charles W. Morgan and row in pursuit of the giants of the deep. Rather than harpoons, they were armed with cameras; they were wide-eyed and seeking knowledge, not profit.
For Gauld, a student in the Master of Arts in History program, the elusive pursuit of history is taking place online as well as in the ocean.
When Gauld talks about history, it’s in his role as a high school history teacher or his part-time role as history interpreter at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum. The history program is providing Gauld with broader understanding to better convey history as an interconnected whole rather than a set of discrete facts. At the museum, for example, it enables him to deepen his knowledge about whaling and provide visitors with a more informative (and entertaining) experience.
Gauld used the example of the Charles W. Morgan to illustrate his point. The Morgan is the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels at its height. It was built and launched in 1841 and left service in the 1920s, and is the oldest commercial ship still afloat. Only the USS Constitution edges out the Morgan in age.
A deeper look, the one history scholars seek in reaching a wider understanding of the past, shows the Morgan’s history was far from smooth sailing. Its most perilous days came in the winter of 1941 when the ship, then dry-docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was falling apart. Its future was far from certain. The museum, seeing the value in it, took possession of the Morgan on Dec. 1, 1941. Less than a week later, Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“If [the museum] waited any longer, the ship would probably have never survived with the war on,” Gauld said.
The more he understands the academic side of the past through the lens of his master’s degree program, the more the past opens to him, feeds his passion and enables him to pass that along to others.
Gauld said while he doesn’t know where his proclivity for history will take him or where his degree will channel his focus, he is certain the past is his future.