Panorama Audio Tour

Free Audio Tour

Dive deeper into the scenes and stories told throughout the Panorama with the free audio tour. Walk the Panorama and the tour takes you around the world through the eyes of a whaler.


Audio Tour Contents

Stop #1: Introduction to the Grand Panorama (01:34)

This Panorama authentically depicts a whaling voyage around the world. In an era before the age of cinema, the Panorama traveled the country as a “moving” panorama. It was a performance spectacle, scrolling on giant spools with accompanying theatrics and narration. As you embark on your voyage, note that the Panorama is viewed from right to left, beginning with your departure from the New Bedford Harbor.


Stop #2: About the Artists – Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington (02:33)

The Panorama was painted in 1848 by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington. Russell rightly deserves the accolade of New Bedford’s definitive whaleman artist. Only a few professional American artists ever went whaling, but in 1841 he did on board the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford. Russell hired Purrington, a “fancy” painter, and took it on tour through cities on the east coast.


Stop #3: Start of Section 1: New Bedford and Buzzards Bay (03:51)

Looking across the Acushnet River toward the Acushnet Heights section of New Bedford, the railroad passes the Wamsutta Mills cotton cloth factory and a farmer’s windmill dominates the heights. The smoking stack of the New Bedford Steam Mill Company rises in the middle distance. The stack of the Acushnet Iron Foundry on Fish Island also rises prominently. This view highlights the city center, including the churches identified by their steeples. Coastal and small craft ply the waters, whale ships tie up at several wharves, offloading cargo, outfitting for another voyage, or “hove down” at wharf-side undergoing repairs.


Stop #4: The North Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream (00.60)

Bad weather aside, the central North Atlantic Ocean included a number of important sperm whaling grounds. Vessels could cruise along the edge of or south of the Gulf Stream on the Western Grounds or northeast on the Commodore Morris Ground. Powerful storms could develop at any time of the year, but particularly in the autumn and winter months. 


Stop #5: The Azores (01:56)

Many New England voyages to the South Seas followed the prevailing westerly winds and the Gulf Stream eastward across the Atlantic before turning south. The Azores, a collection of volcanic islands, are located almost exactly at the point where the winds veer southwest, where the Canary Current flows south. 

It is extraordinary how accurate and detailed these scenes are; as there is no evidence that either Benjamin Russell or Caleb Purrington ever visited the Azores. Here, the New Bedford whale ship Charles W. Morgan, on her 1845 voyage flying the house flags of both Charles W. Morgan and William G.E. Pope, is shown sailing down the Canal do Faial between Pico and Fayal.


Stop #6: Start of Section 2: Cape Verde (03:47)

The voyage continues across the open ocean between the Azores and Cape Verde. Of the nine main islands of Cape Verde, all volcanic, the Panorama focuses on São Nicolau, Sal, Santiago, Fogo, and Brava. These islands are directly in the path of vessels bound on voyages around the southern Capes, and as such, were of primary importance to whalers. In April of 1847, the 7000-foot-high volcano, Pico do Fogo, erupted. Russell and Purrington captured this event beautifully, although neither artist actually witnessed the eruption. Russell’s expertise as a whaleman artist rises to the fore. In a major sperm whaling scene we see ships, boats, men, and whales captured in a hunting tableau.


Stop #7: Rio de Janeiro (02:53)

Among the finest ports of call in the South Atlantic is Rio de Janeiro. Located in a deeply sheltered harbor on the coast of Brazil, its diverse services served the maritime commerce of the region. One needs only to trace the initial sequences of the Panorama—from the Azores, then Cape Verde and Brazil—to understand the extent of the Lusophone diaspora and the one-time might of Portugal as an imperial power.


Stop #8: Start of Section 3: Cape Horn (03:12)

Ships hunted across a number of prolific whaling grounds off the coast of South America on the way to rounding Cape Horn.  Vessels passing Cape Horn eastward into the South Atlantic past Staten Land and the Falkland Islands often came through very heavy weather.

 The necessity for radically shortening sail is evident in almost every eastward bound vessel in this portion of the painting. The ship Lyra of New Bedford passes seals and icebergs and enters the 62 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean after safely “rounding the Horn.”


Stop #9: Juan Fernandez Islands (01:26)

About 400 miles due west off the coast of Chile is the Juan Fernandez Island group. From 1704-1708, this was the fabled home of the privateer Alexander Selkirk, or, as he came to be known from Daniel Defoe’s famous work of fiction, Robinson Crusoe. The region around these islands was also a very popular sperm whaling ground for the much of the nineteenth-century.

A school of flying fish soars by a whale ship hove-to off shore at Juan Fernandez. Here the ship Kutusoff is seen making a passage between Juan Fernandez and Pitcairn Island, a distance of 2900 miles.


Stop #10: Pitcairn Island (01:59)

Pitcairn, like Juan Fernandez, is another of these fabled islands of the South Pacific with great associated stories. The mutineers of H.M.S. Bounty settled the island after seizing the ship from her reportedly tyrannical master, William Bligh, in 1789. Russell shows several details including the famous Banyan tree under which the Bounty people built their village later named Adamstown, for the patriarch and last-surviving mutineer, John Adams. Apart from the curiosity associated with the place, there was little reason for whalers to make extended visits to Pitcairn. One feature of traveling across the Pacific Ocean that Russell simply cannot convey is the vast distances involved. It is 2000 miles from Cape Horn to Juan Fernandez, and 2900 miles from Juan Fernandez to Pitcairn Island.


Stop #11: The Marquesas (02:49)

This section shows an exciting sperm whaling scene. The action takes place off the high volcanic island of Ua Pou, called Roapoua by whalemen. This island, with its distinctive mountain spires was one of the most often illustrated of the Marquesas group. The natural beauty of the ocean, the birds, fish, whales, dolphins, and other natural phenomena are a recurring theme throughout this painting. For instance, in this scene off the Marquesas Islands, we see a large school of dolphins cavorting in the sea.

The harbor of Nuku Hiva, on the island of the same name, was among the most popular ports of call in the Marquesas. It is famous as the place where Herman Melville deserted the ship Acushnet of Fairhaven in July of 1842, where he conceived his ideas for his first great work of literature, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.


Stop #12: The Society Islands (Tahiti) (01:57)

Leaving the Marquesas, the voyage continues southwest toward the Society Islands, the most commonly known of which is Tahiti. Here, the panorama depicts the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While cruising in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820 she was rammed and sunk by a large and furious sperm whale. The crew of 20 men took to the whaleboats and made for the coast of Chile over 4000 miles away. Only eight men survived the ordeal – having resorted to cannibalism. This terrifying story was widely known from First Mate Owen Chase’s 1823 narrative, and decades later influenced Herman Melville’s greatest work, Moby-Dick.


Stop #13: Start of Section 4: Hawaii (03:07)

One of the most famous of all the islands of Polynesia, and beyond a doubt the most important to American history, is the archipelago of Hawai’i. Centrally located in the North Pacific within easy distance of the great sperm whaling region the Japan Grounds and the great right whaling region of the Northwest Coast, and later of the Western Arctic, the deep water ports of Hawai’i became pivotal to the success of Yankee whaling in the Pacific. The artists convey not only the beauty of the islands with their high, volcanic peaks, and waterfalls, but also the elegance of the islanders with their tapa cloth draped clothing. Quite prominent, as in the Marquesas and Tahiti, are the canoes. These Hawaiian canoes employ not only out-riggers, but the distinctive “crab-claw” sails, or Oceanic lateen sails.


Stop #14: Right Whaling Grounds of the Pacific Northwest (03:51)

The whaling grounds in the northern Pacific Ocean, commonly referred to by 19th century whalers as “the Northwest Coast,” were first discovered around 1835 and were home to a particularly large, and aggressive species of right whale.


Stop #15: Fiji (02:05)

The Melanesian Fiji Islands, composed of 154 islands, 64 of which were inhabited, were populated by the most unpredictable and often warlike, people. The Fijis were largely uncharted, or at least, their positions, and the positions of surrounding reefs, sand-banks, rocks, and atolls were “uncertain” at best. Shipwrecks were common and massacres of ship’s crews by the Fiji islanders were legendary. Even some of the missionaries who took up station there abandoned their efforts in the face of violent denunciations by the islanders.


Stop #16: The end of the voyage, the missing section (01:35)

The Fijis are the final port of call on this last surviving roll of the Panorama, but they are by no means the final port of call on our voyage ‘round the world. Other ports frequented by American whalers were originally in the Panorama, but the last section of the last roll has gone missing.

As we conclude our voyage there can be no doubt that the commerce of Yankee whaling encompassed a global embrace. Not only have we touched many shores, but those shores have touched us and we have learned of growth, decline and change while pursuing our extractions from the seas the world round.