Joseph Belain Portrait

Joseph Belain Portrait

The American offshore whaling industry was fiercely meritocratic. Rather than being paid wages like naval and merchant sailors, whalers received an agreed-upon share of the profits when the voyage was over. A successful voyage meant more money in everyone’s pocket, and a sailor’s racial or ethnic identity mattered far less than his skill at the difficult, dangerous work of catching and killing whales.

Whaling crews were often multiethnic, and Black and Native American men had a chance of rising to positions of leadership. One such man was Joseph Belain (1848-1926). Born in Gay Head (Aquinnah) into a family of whalemen, Belain’s first whaling voyage was at the age of 17 and his career at sea lasted more than 50 years. Over the course of 20 whaling voyages he served as harpooner, second mate, first mate, and twice as a replacement master. After he retired from whaling, Belain went fishing and lobstering between Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford. 

In this portrait of Joseph Belain, artist Elizabeth Whelan has painted him from a tintype taken when he was a young man. She envisions him in the manner of portraits of sea captains that were made in the first half of the 19th century–on shipboard, with a sailing ship in the background. 


Artist Elizabeth R. Whelan
Title Joseph Belain Portrait
Date 2018
Type Painting
Medium Oil on Canvas
Credit Gift of Elizabeth R. Whelan and Skip Finley
Ref No 2019.009.001
Thematic Collection 100 Years, 100 Stories: Harvesting the Sea
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