British Arctic Whaling in the 19th Century






For the most part, the following was an article of mine, ‘British Arctic Whaling in the 19th Century’ within the 11th edition of The Family and Local History Handbook:-



This dirty town has been my home,

since last time I was sailin’,

but I’ll not stay another day,

I’d sooner be a whalin’!


So begins a ‘Sailors’ Hymn’, not about whaling as becomes apparent from the chorus:-


O Lord above,

send down a dove,

with beak as sharp as razors,

to cut the throats,

of them there blokes,

wot sells bad beer to sailors!


Instead, this is a commentary on the pitfalls of a recently discharged foreign-going mariner rapidly losing his money and possessions through his own weaknesses and ending up forced back to sea, in debt to a crimp. Even with the harsh realities of merchant service, the above reference clearly exemplifies the aversion that many mariners held towards whaling. So, was this perception fair?


The first known Atlantic whalers were the Basques c.1500, reaching to the Arctic within one hundred years. Then rapidly taken up by northern Europeans, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there had been friction between whaling fleets of numerous nations, but primarily the English and Dutch. With ‘command of the sea’ established in the North Sea through Admiral Duncan’s victories in 1797, Dutch activity subsequently declined. Nationalistic antipathies aside, competition was patchy and the industry had been variously encouraged and subsidised by Acts of Parliament since 1645. The earliest operations were characterised by the Muscovy and later Greenland companies of London. Hull soon had its own whaling fleet, with other places such as Whitby and Durham following. It would seem that there had also been some seventeenth century Scottish activity too, but this began in earnest mid eighteenth century, producing strong fleets from the Forth to Peterhead. Traditionally there had been keen competition from the Americans (in shipping whale oil across the Atlantic), hence British government subsidies. Between over-fishing, the large-scale use of coal-gas and substitution of mineral oil (initially from Pennsylvania) for whale oil, between the 1830s and 1870s the British whaling industry almost disappeared. Dundee was the exception though and soon was the primary whaling port in Britain, replacing wood and sail, for iron and steam in a new generation of vessels. Whale oil had been found to soften jute fibre prior to processing. Nevertheless, this too had dwindled by the 1890s through further over-fishing, not just by the Scots, but other competitors such as the Norwegians.


Of course, this was not the end of whaling by any means. Voyages to Antarctic waters had been conducted for a long time and twentieth century technologies and methods have increased the killing rate yet further. However, this falls outside the remit of this particular article.


The Arctic whalers’ main target was the species, Balaena mysticetus, or ‘Right’ whale. These were advantageous to the hunters because not only were they slow moving, making them easier to attack, when dead they floated. Additionally, this species provided materially more than any other of a naturally particularly useful product known as baleen, or ‘whalebone’. In an era before plastics had been developed, its flexibility meant that it was suitable for numerous products: if only now remembered for women’s corsets. Oil, extracted from the layer of blubber, was the other product. This, along with vegetable oil, was used both for lighting and the lubrication of machinery (in an age of increasing steam-power).


Whaling vessels were dry-docked, on a care and maintenance basis over winter until February. Then the sheathing (presumably along with the felting underneath) received attention and the hull down to the waterline was heavily coated in tar. Crews assembled; signed articles; and on sailing were given a good send off by their communities. Often, but not always they called into Orkney or Shetland ports for the specialist whalers and by May Day hoped to be well on their way north to the Greenland fishery.


Outward bound, fishing gear was carefully prepared. One important task was in splicing and spanning the fore-gangers on to the harpoons that had recently been sharpened by the carpenter, his mate(s) and the harpooners. It was important to get this right and an eight or nine-yard length of best 2¼-inch hemp was used. In use this would be attached to lines spliced together serially and skilfully coiled down in the small boats. These lines were also of hemp of the same diameter and commonly six were combined: totalling 120 fathoms (one fathom being precisely 6.08 feet this equates to approximately 243 yards or 222 metres). Multiple lines were stowed in each boat. Another necessity was rigging up the canting tackle block, or gyn, probably primarily done by the seamen.


The sighting from the crowsnest of a whale brought the rapid launching of two of the six or so boats. Normally boats’ crews numbered six. Initially five were on pulling oars, plus a steersman using a specialist oar (since these craft were rudderless). The harpooner, in command of the boat was the oarsman furthest forward; with the steersman his second in command. On getting into position the harpooner took his station in the bow by his weapon.


By the nineteenth century harpoon-guns were often deck mounted, although many preferred the older hand versions. When fired, rather than the heavy line being attached, instead there was a light ‘foregoer’. The harpoon having found its mark, the boat would then be made fast to the whale, where the heavy line replaced the ‘foregoer’ and played out. At this point the steersman became the line-manager, ensuring smooth running of this heavily tarred 2¼-inch rope from what would have been a highly-confined space. Failure to perform this task could and did lead to injury and death in wrecked and capsized boats.


Their prey did not necessarily give up easily, or quickly, with some managing to escape. Nevertheless, on successful occasions the magnificent creature finally succumbed, exhausted, especially as other boats’ harpooners might also have got their hooks in. At the relevant point extremely sharp lances would be driven deep into the unfortunate’s vital organs. The telltale sign of fatal damage was when ‘the chimney caught fire’, euphemistically describing masses of blood spurting from its blowhole and covering everything around!


Dead, two holes were made in it’s tail and it was hauled back to the vessel. Once there, the carcass was strung up from the cant purchase gear that ensured turning for the ease of flensing.


Others then took over. Under the supervision of the spectioneer, flensing (or regional variations) was the removal of the blubber and baleen in large strips from men in boats, or actually on the corpse. Winched or otherwise brought aboard, the blubber was cut up, thrown into the hold and consigned to casks, overseen by the skeeman and two assistants known as ‘kings’. The latter was regarded as particularly ‘messy’ work. On completion the remains were cut adrift to sink and the whalers would be allowed rest, perhaps with an issue of grog.


When whales were not in evidence apart from the navigation of the ship, routine work was ‘tween decks, the weather being bitterly cold. Carpenters, blacksmiths and coopers, for instance would have gear to care for, while others would perform tasks from picking oakum through to producing sennit.


Filthy by the end of a season, the first sign of the return was in a general cleaning. With this done the best (and therefore most efficient) set of sails was bent on. Whale lines were removed from the boats for drying in the rigging, with whales’ jawbones secured to the lower rigging. The boats were then stowed ‘tween decks; the crowsnest lowered; and dried lines coiled down in the line room. Further, maintenance of lesser equipment, cleaning and even painting was carried out on the homeward leg.


Making port in the autumn, the casks of by then rancid, maggot-infested blubber would be discharged ashore. Eventually this would be boiled to extract the valuable oil, cooled and casked, but not until it had decomposed further. It was hardly surprising that whaling centres were infamous for their foul smells!


Although having previously been discharged from their vessels, it was not until the baleen and oil went to market that they were paid their bone, oil and striking money (the latter for the capturing process). These were awarded according to laid down percentages according to role. In fact this was the all-important element of their pay. Depending on the size of the catch and the market conditions prevailing, in good years substantially higher sums could be and were earned than working ashore, or in merchant service. In the lean years it was very different and because of the scale of the industry, had a detrimental knock-on effect within the wider communities.


Already briefly alluded to, this was a highly hazardous industry, both for those at sea and also, incidentally, for the shipowning investors financially. There were comparatively few years when vessels and their crews were not lost. All the same there were some that were long remembered. 


The season of 1836 had been unsuccessful and in an effort not to return ‘clean’, six vessels tarried in Davis Strait during August. They were the Swan of Hull; the Grenville Bay of Newcastle; the Norfolk of Berwick; the Advice and Thomas both of Dundee; and the Dee of Aberdeen. Within days all were enmeshed in the ice field. Efforts were made to get as far south as possible and carve out ice docks, only partially effective by mid November when the sun disappeared for winter. What followed was harrowing.


Miles apart, communications could only be maintained by trekking across the icefields. While still physically able, parties were supplied to aid those in most need. In mid December the Thomas was crushed, but before complete destruction most of her company, as well as equipment and stores were retrieved. Unfortunately, due to the sheer distance, wood could not be salvaged for burning as fuel. Without heating, internally, ships and men froze. Relatively early the Advice had become short of food. Hardly surprising, even with normal civilian seamen’s diets of this era, scurvy had set in badly by the New Year. For instance, a third of the men on the Dee were affected by then. Lice and severe diarrhoea added to their plight. In the darkness the Swan drifted away, isolating them further. While they still had strength there were instances of rebelliousness, but these did not last. Cold, hungry, weak, filthy and in severe pain, in their nightmare existence they became melancholic and died increasingly.


Conditions changed in mid March 1837, with heavy gales that broke up the ice. Subsequently, the Grenville Bay managed to make it to Stromness on her own accord in late April, gaining supplies from passing merchantmen. Twenty had died onboard, although only half were from her own company. The Norfolk made it back to Berwick with a lesser cost: eight dead.


Fellow whalers had mounted a rescue operation in the last days of February. By the time she was found in mid May the Swan’s crew were dead, or incapable of work. Dundee’s Princess Charlotte aided her greatly and by early July the Swan had reached northern Scottish waters.


Incapable of competent navigation by spring, the Dee had drifted southward. She was effectively saved by another Dundee vessel, the barque Washington. Breaking her own voyage, on April 25th she towed the Dee to the Butt of Lewis, supplying men and food as well. When she finally arrived in Aberdeen in early May, only fifteen men remained alive including survivors of the Thomas.


Similarly, the Advice had drifted a massive distance, initially westward to within a few hundred miles of Newfoundland, then east and southward. Sailing vessels were rarely ‘dry’, but with a permanent three to four feet of water in the hold, the pumps were continually manned. So short-handed, in time the helm was secured and the poop left unmanned for at least part of the night. (Whether there was any kind of watch on deck either is not apparent from accounts.) As men became too weak to work, they took to their beds and died. Finally, on June 3rd the Liverpool-registered Grace sighted her off Ireland, in a truly dreadful state. Although not breaking her voyage, the merchantman gave supplies and men. Ten days later, when she arrived in Sligo, there were seven survivors (including her master George Deuchars), three of whom were close to death.



Finally, one particularly interesting and informative book I found was:-


Norman Watson: The Dundee Whalers 1715-1914 (East Linton, East Lothian: Tuckwell Press Ltd., 2003)




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