Whaling History

by Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards

About This Lecture

Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards's  lecture "Whaling History" was recorded in July of 2012 at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport.  The recording and web presentation of the lecture were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To watch an interview with Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, visit Dr. Mary K. Bercaw Edwards Interview.



1. Whaling Industry

Whaling is not chronological, it's rather circular. I'm sure this is going to sound to you a lot like the stuff you've been hearing about all the fisheries. It's the same sort of thing: discovery, enthusiastic hunting, declining catch, increased exploitation, collapse, find another fishery.  The whaling industry continued to redefine itself; there were originally whale products, meat for food, but there was a lot of in shore whaling where the whales would come ashore. If you've ever read the Lewis and Clark journals, Lewis and Clark talk about that there was a whale that had come ashore and they walked down to get some of the whale meat and bring it back. But of course preservation is difficult, if you can imagine what it was like not to have much meat and then have a whole whale landing on your beach. Oil for lamps, lubrication, tanning leather, processing wool, rope making, paint, varnish, soap, and then things change. The industrial revolution comes, so they need more oil. People often think that the most part of whaling was done in the nineteenth century for lighting, but it was far more for lubrication. That started in the latter half of the eighteenth century and there was a huge demand for lubrication that swelled the whaling industry. Then in 1859 is of course the discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. It's not that people didn't know about oil in the ground, but the discovery of oil there and the ability to get it easily out of the ground changes everything. Whaling still continues because baleen becomes important, baleen was used for fashion. In whalebone corsets the whalebone is actually baleen from the mouths of the whales. It's being used for hoop skirts and also for corsets around the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century and there's a redefinition where whale products become important for margarine, pet food, cosmetics, human food, and then the end of whaling for that reason. 

2. The Discovery of Whales

It's interesting now because whaling has redefined itself so that the big moneymaker tends to be whale watching. So the patterns of overfishing are repeated as well. The Basques fish out the Bay of Biscay, they go to Labrador, the English and Dutch fish out the East Arctic around Spitsbergen, they go Bath Bay and the Davis Straight in the West Arctic. Nantucketers fish out around the shore, they go out to sea, Americans fish out the Pacific, they go north up into the North Pacific and then in the twentieth century whale men go down into the Antarctic to get the blue, the biggest whale and then down to the Minkies, the smallest whale. Whalers kept finding new stocks and then depleting them, so the solution to declining numbers was often to intensify the hunt and essentially bring it to collapse and find a new stock.

It's impossible to know when the aboriginal humans first stumbled upon stranded whales, but this was the first contact. Some areas are prone to stranding, New Zealand, Cape Cod, Holland, and every species has come ashore, but especially sperm whales. The whale was seen as a vast source of meat and an oil factory, suddenly there was all this oil there. Aboriginal whaling began so that people didn't have to wait for whales to strand. There was a lot of aboriginal whaling that was developed independently in a lot of different places. Whales have had a profound effect on man as well as vice versa. The whale is the first animal mentioned in the Bible, “and God created great whales and every living creature that moveth which the waters brought forth abundantly” Gen. 1:21. Alexander the Great notes that there are whales in the Fourth century BCE. 350 BCE Aristotle notes that whales are mammals. He doesn't use the word mammals but he notes the characteristics of whales that are the characteristics of mammals. In 1598 in Holland, a whale expired in the shallows and his carcass was sold off for oil. That was drawn by Henrik Guiltsithe (slide).  This is the picture that was copied for two-hundred years. There are so many variants of this picture, but this comes from a 1598 strandee. 

Even so, Melville says that looking at a stranded whale is like looking at a wrecked ship. He talked about how hard it is to get a true conception of whales because of what they look like. The Basques are seen as the beginning of European whaling. These are some town coats of arms, and it's so interesting to look at them because so many things are similar, including the double flue iron here, so that's the main type that was used. Just the way the oarsmen are set up, and then the person in the bow throwing the harpoon with the person in the stern steering. You can see how the whaleboat that you just saw evolved out of this, they were the first to hunt in organized fashion as far back as records go. The Bay of Biscay were protective waters for breeding, and it was also a place that people settled, so there was this form of in shore whaling where they built look-out towers, went out in boats, and then brought the whales back to shore. They caught Right Whales, the Atlantic Sperm Whale, and it is said that they occasionally caught what was called the Atlantic Grey Whale, which is the only species of whale to have gone extinct. There's evidence that it was called “San Lugia (?)” which means “sand layer,” because it stays low in the sand. There's evidence from bones that have been found and from early descriptions; they seem to be describing something that was different from the others and this whale is listed differently from Right Whales so it appears to be an Atlantic Grey Whale like the Pacific Grey Whales, but a separate species and as I said, the only species of whales to have gone extinct. There are a lot of species that are very close, but that is the only one.

The products they got were oil; which was used for soap, leather, wool, paint and meat, the tongue was a royal delicacy. In 1150 in San Sebastian, Spain there's a record of warehousing baleen plates which attracted the attention of tax collectors, that's why the record exists. The Basques may not have taken many whales, but they did succeed in driving them out of the Bay of Biscay, so farther away. Between 1400 and 1500 they enlarged their scope across the Atlantic to Labrador and 1536, Red Bay, Labrador there's archaeological evidence of that shore station. The Spanish Armada destroyed many of the whalers, but they still had Canadian shore stations as late as 1738, but they were then hired out to the English and Dutch. There are a lot of records that say that the Basques are the only ones who know how to whale.

This is a very interesting picture as the description says. These photos that I'm showing you right this moment are from Richard Ellis's Men and Whales. I love these guys; naked with these odd hats. The naked men are probably supposed to represent aborigines, perhaps Newfoundland Indians. Their hats present a problem and might have something to do with the Basques. In the mid sixteenth century the Iberian powers, Spain and Portugal, controlled the southern routes to the Far East. The English tried to find the Indies by going north, looking for the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage. What happens up there when they're looking for the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage is that they discover some more whaling grounds.

In 1576, Elizabeth I gives the Muscovy Company a monopoly on the grounds. In 1585 John Davis and John Bruton discover Bathin Bay and Davis Straits. 1596 Barrons discovers Spitsbergen and Bear Island. Spitsbergen is so important in early whaling, there's Spitsbergen and you can see the Bering Sea and Bear Island there. Those were the areas that they could use for the hunting of more whales. They were hunting what was called the Greenland Right Whale, so basically the Bullhead Whale. In 1611, James Poole of the Muscovy Company and six Basque harpooners are heading up to Bear Island looking for whales. He's the one that says that Basques are the only people who understand whaling. I have another picture of Spitsbergen whaling here. Northwest of Norway in the Bering Sea whales came to the same bays yearly to breed and the English sailing to the islands set up temporary shore stations; houses, furnaces for trying out workshops, cooperage. They would sight whales from shore; later they had watch towers. They would go out in boats, tow the whales to the shallows, strip and boil them and take the casks out to the anchored ships. By 1613 there are four dodge twelve Spanish vessels despite the monopoly and then they are chased off by the English. 1614 is the last full year of the English supremacy because the Dutch had a legitimate claim. So now there's rivalry between the English and the Dutch over whaling. Interestingly the British fill up and go home but the Dutch set up these shore stations, like on this island John Mayan Island.  The Dutch dominate the industry because they set up more permanent shore stations so they're able to be more efficient than the English. The Dutch are dominating the industry at this point but also the English, German, French, Norwegians were too. Suddenly the whales become scarce. Then they head west and look for whales closer to the American coast.

3. American Whaling

Now I'm going to talk about American whaling. As I said, there's aboriginal whaling despite claims to the contrary. Cape Cod was often the site of stranding, so the Indians must have known the value of whales. In 1605, George Weymouth described Indian whaling where they went out in canoes with harpoons and they also shoot bows and arrows at the whales. One of the Mayflower's passengers commented on the presence of whales and he said “if we had instruments and means we could catch these whales.” In 1629, the Royal Charter granted to Massachusetts granted rights to fishes, royal fishes and whales to the settlers. This was pretty interesting because having given the rights of whaling to the settlers was very different from along the English coast where the right of parts of the whale was supposed to go to the crown.

1640 was the first organized American fishery along South Hamton, Long Island. This is a later picture from the same area. So they set up a colony, set up to render stranded whales and there were regulations about where you could try them out and how you could try them out, because the smell was a great problem. Of course by far the cradle of American whale fishery was Nantucket. In 1641 the island was bought by Thomas Mayhew. By 1649, Thomas Macy, Edward Starbuck and other Quakers came to the island to escape religious persecution. In the 1670s in shore whale fisheries were established. Of course, 1712 is always mentioned as the point when Christopher Hussey killed a Sperm Whale and came back and talked about the difference in it. It was often written up in the past as if Christopher Hussey discovered a whale that nobody had ever seen before, and it was the Sperm Whale and that changed everything. There's a question of how apocryphal or not the story is; and certainly they knew of Sperm Whales because Sperm Whales had been strandees. The great thing about sperm whales is that it's far superior oil. They did continue Right Whaling for baleen. So trying out was done at shore, blubber was stripped at sea and the big change comes around 1750 with the innovation of on board try-works. On board try-works changed the nature of whaling so that they could go much farther away; that was a huge thing that they could travel great distances once they have try-works on board. There's no longer the smell of trying out on shore; they can render the oil much more quickly so that they don't have to try and keep the blubber until they can get back to shore and then render it. So the oil is far superior and the big thing is, as I said, that they can go farther afield. That leads to the great change in the desire for sperm whales. The big thing about sperm whales is that the oil is much superior oil. So the regular whale oil, which was also called train oil that came from whale blubber, dolphins, seals, walruses, manatees; that was called whale oil and that was about half the price that you got for sperm oil. So that's why if you ever do work, you will see how many barrels of whale oil or train oil, or whatever expression they use and then how many barrels of sperm. In the head of sperm whales, as you probably know, is spermaceti, which coagulates when it first hits the air, but it can be rendered or smushed with your hands or put back into oil. It makes candles that are smokeless, drip-less and odorless. The big thing was that the oil that was produced did not change viscosity under changes in temperature or pressure. It's just astounding, the quality of that. The big difference is that the sperm oil is a wax but everything else is actually a fat, so it’s actually got a different chemical makeup.

This is a map showing various whaling grounds, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, African, the Falkland Islands, Brazil Banks, so they're going various places in the Atlantic and then start to go farther and farther up into the Pacific. The American Revolution interrupts whaling except for Nantucket. Nantucket did continue to whale to some extent during the war. There was also an attempt to move Nantucket whaling industry to England, also to France and to Halifax. So there were groups of Nantucketers that were settled in other parts of the world to try and revive other nations whaling. In 1792, Milford-Haven, England has got a group of Nantucketers and also in Dunkirk, France there's a group of Nantucketers. They also became captains on British and French vessels. The trouble was that most of the Nantucketers were homesick for Nantucket so the British were forced to begin their own Sperm Whale fishery, and it was dominated by the Enderby family.

Americans are leading the way throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1820s, the Japan grounds are discovered, 1830-40 the industry moves to New Bedford out of Nantucket partially because the bar across the entrance to Nantucket Harbor makes it so you can't get the whale ships in and out; so they have to be lifted on a camel, which is a device that sinks down in the water, the whale ship is pushed on it, the water is pumped out, the device floats up a little higher, just enough to get the vessel over the bar and then has to finish being loaded outside where there's no protection really. It is just too difficult to continue to do that. New Bedford, if you ever have a chance to look at a chart or map, you can see why New Bedford becomes the center of American whaling. New Bedford is an absolutely perfect harbor, its deep water that goes right up into the harbor, there's nothing in the way, there's islands around the sides but there's a nice straight entrance to it. Once you get in it's very well protected. Now they have a storm gate that can come down and gate off the whole area, so that everybody that's in is totally protected. But even without that it's a pretty narrow entrance and then once you get in you're very protected. New Bedford totally takes over from Nantucket. Also in Nantucket there was a fire in the 1840s and that destroys most of the waterfront, and after that it never really recovers. So in 1846, the peak of American whaling, there are over seven-hundred and thirty American whale ships. 

So you can see that the Morgan is built in 1841; she's built right before that, she whales through those years and that's why she's just so typical. There are vessels registered in all kinds of places: New Bedford, Nantucket, New London, Sag Harbor, Greenport, Waterford, Stonington, Mystic, Westerly, Perth, and one of my favorites, Hudson. Hudson, New York had a whaling port one-hundred and twenty-five miles inland because whaling was so lucrative. In the middle of the nineteenth century, New Bedford was the wealthiest town in America per-capita. Wealthier than any place else, wealthier than Manhattan or Boston or any place like that and that it was all whale oil.

Melville talks about it in Moby Dick where he talks about expecting to see the streets paved in gold. One of the ways you can still see it now, if you walk through the old section of the town you can see that almost every corner is a bank. There's just so much money and it's coming in from whaling. Because of this great demand for whaling and the great money that whaling bought, it was bad news of course for the whale. It became harder and harder to get enough whales. That's why the average whaling voyage goes from the average of a few months in the North Atlantic, to years, to the average of two to five years. The longest whaling voyage ever was a vessel out of New London named the Nile that was eleven years, but by the time they got back nobody was the same, not even the captain. There was not a single man on the boat that had started on that boat. (This is a whale chart put together by Matthew Fontaine Maury in the middle of the nineteenth century) So you can see the logbook here. This is the symbol for when a whale was sighted and got away and then when they caught a whale it would have this symbol and you could tell what kind of whale it was, if it was a Bowhead or a Sperm often by the stamp that was used.  These are pretty advanced stamps but sometimes they were pretty simple ones with a white square in the middle and inside that white square it would say the number of barrels that were caught from that whale. Some of the logbooks have these beautiful drawings in them and others just don't; they're pretty simple.

The whale had a much better chance than the whalemen in the earlier days. But one of the solutions was, as always, to intensify the hunt and this is a Temple-toggle iron. This is Lewis Temple, we actually don't know exactly what he looked like, but he was an African American and the child of slaves is what I believe it is, I don't think he was ever a slave himself. He perfected it; the idea wasn't original to him. The idea was one that he had gotten from the Indians in Alaska, but he perfected it, he made it in his ship smith’s shop in New Bedford and then everyone started using it. This is a forged head, here and within a year they began to cast the heads. The ones with the cast heads were called the Standard Toggle. They start to take off because casting could produce a lot of them. Interestingly, we always think of 1848 as this big watershed moment when the type of harpoons change, but if you look at bills of lading that tell you what went on the whale ships, they were still carrying double flues much later, even after they start to use the toggles.

There are all kinds of problems that start to hit the whaling industry. The decimation of whales, the lengthening of whaling voyages. 1849 is the California Gold Rush, people are trying to get to California in any way they can and then abandoning ships. 1861-65 is of course the Civil War, and the destruction of much of the fleet, part of the fleet was burned by the Shenandoah; it specifically attacked northern whaling vessels but also took forty different vessels, twenty-two the first time and eighteen the second time, old whale ships were taken down to the south to try and block up the harbors of Charleston and Savannah. In Charleston they filled these old whale ships with stone and sank them right across the entrance to try and block up the harbors. Actually they came back five months later and the channel had deepened by five feet.  Apparently the sinking of the whale ships helped to kind of settle the sand down and deepened the harbor; it was not a success.  

1871 was the abandonment of the fleet, thirty-four vessels were lost in the ice and then in 1876 twelve vessels were lost in the ice. The trouble is that the vessels were lost, frozen into the ice and then the few that weren't frozen in had to take everybody out. I think it was 1,219 people that were all on these ships, made their way across the ice, and I think there were seven vessels or something that were outside and brought them back, so everybody lost that season. So the industry goes into decline, limps into the twentieth century, and things change with the invention of modern whaling.

In traditional whaling they were only hunting basically three types of whales; this is out on the open ocean whaling, they're mostly hunting Righthead Whales, Bowhead Whales, and Sperm Whales. Whales that were slow enough to catch up to; like Finbacks were too fast, and floated once they were killed. They also hunted California Greys along the shore, especially in the lagoons; they occasionally hunted Humpbacks, especially pregnant Humpbacks because they would float once they were killed. So there were other kinds that they hunted but primarily those three kinds. Then with Svend Foyne, things change because he invents the harpoon cannon in 1868. Here's an advertisement for one of them: “Fasten to and kill instantly whales of every species.” They also figure out how to catch whales that were too fast to catch in the old days, and also they would pump air into them and figure out how to keep the whales floating. They were finding ways to kill what were called “underutilized species.” There's another redefinition; they're using glycerin from the whales for warfare, margarine is made from the whale fat, and it's also used for making food for pets. They start to catch all different types of whales. So this is an 1886 woodblock of his shore station in Norway, and it's a Finwhale and the bones and the front are probably from the Blue Whale, another whale that hadn't been hunted.

Cartoon: Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the discovery of oil wells in Pennsylvania.

We always talk about the hunt in the nineteenth century, but this shows you how dramatically the catch changes in the twentieth century. So you see the Sperm Whale catch just goes up enormously once they have much faster and easier methods to catch the whales. The Blue Whales they're going to go after once they figure out how to catch the biggest whales, except for that little blip in the 1930s, they catch them, catch them, catch them until they're all gone. Partly what's happening in the early forties is the Second World War but you can see that after the War ends it continues down. Once the decline of Blue Whales comes, they're getting much more of the Fin Back Whales, except for the War then there's that precipitous decline of the Fin Back Whales and then they're going after the Sail Whales that are a smaller whale that there's not much interest in until after the Fin Backs start to decline. So that same type of thing again and again where they're just decimating the whales.

4. The End of Whaling

This is the end of whaling, this is the wreck of the Wanderer along Cuttyhunk, she left on the last whaling voyage in 1924 from New Bedford and she didn't make it very far. Cuttyhunk is not far from there, and she went ashore. This shows you some of the crowds. That's the last of the whale ships to go after whaling. There's still some whaling done from schooners a little bit but this is kind of the end of this type of whaling but not the end of whaling at all. Then there's vessels that start to have slip ways on them so that as soon as they catch the whale they can pull it right on and then there's an enormous amount of whaling that goes on in the middle of the twentieth century until most of the whales are gone.

In 1972 we pass the Marine Mammal Act which not only ends whaling in the United States and the last whaling station closes in San Francisco in 1972. It also bans the importation of whale products, so it's not like whaling can be done some place else and we can have the stuff; we're trying to stop it. But, of course, we do have some exceptions in the United States, so there are indigenous people still allowed to whale up in Alaska and also along the Northwest Coast.

But what we're trying to preserve here is the story of the industrial side of whaling and the importance of whaling economically but is also going to be really important culturally.