Modern history


The Killing Floes

As the Monticello and thirty-nine other whaleships gathered, pushing at the melting ice still blocking the Bering Strait in June 1871, they began killing walruses. Vast herds of the brown, wrinkled, elephantine creatures lay on the floes in full view of the whale ships, grunting, bellowing, or asleep in the sun, as the ice drifted slowly northward on the current with the advancing fleet. When the wind was in the right quarter, their strong smell carried for miles across the clean ice to the whalers.

The walruses were part of the same ecosystem that brought the plankton and the whales to these rich arctic waters. Their diet of clams and other shellfish lay in the silt beneath the floes in the shallow, mineral rich waters of the continental shelf between Alaska and Siberia. More localized in their habitat than the pelagic, migrating whales, the walrus herds spent the winters at the southern edge of the pack ice in the Bering Sea and moved north on the melting floes through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea during the spring—exactly in tandem with the whaleships. Although they had long been hunted by the Eskimos, this predation had been so small that when the whalers first encountered them in the 1840s, the walruses showed no fear of the men or their ships, but approached them out of curiosity. And in those early years of arctic whaling, faced with an abundance of their primary prey, the whalers had left the walruses unmolested. But in just four years, between 1848 and 1852, whalers killed a third of all the arctic bowhead whales they would catch between 1848 and 1914; by 1869, two-thirds of that overall catch had been taken. In August 1859, at the end of a dismal arctic season during which they had caught not a single whale on either side of the Bering Strait, the men of the New Bedford whaleship Cleone began killing walruses. The ubiquitous animals who lay around the ships on the ice “cakes” had previously been considered unworthy of the whalemen’s efforts. But the Cleone’s crew found that a single mature bull yielded around twenty gallons of oil (about two-thirds of a barrel), and from that moment on, the view from the deck of a whaleship in the Bering Strait was changed forever.

Walrusing increasingly became a factor in the profitability of whaling, whose primary resource had been in decline for decades. As demand grew, walrus oil proved at first almost as valuable as whale oil; but eventually, as refining techniques improved and walrus oil proved easier to refine than whale oil, its price rose even higher than whale oil. Compared with rowing after a whale in a small boat, followed by a dangerous struggle at sea or amid the ice floes, walrusing was irresistibly convenient: a man could walk up to a walrus as it lay on the ice or the shore and plunge a lance into the desired spot at the back of its head. While making slow progress early in the season toward the whaling grounds farther north, a ship’s crew could kill 500 walruses, netting 300 barrels of oil, perhaps half the seasonal catch for an arctic whaling ship at this time.

The surge in this preseason hors d’oeuvre of killing was sudden and devastating as walruses were reassessed by whalers as a prized commodity: from just three walruses killed in 1855, the number rose to 35,663 during the 1876 season. At that point the walrus population collapsed. Less than half that number, 13,294 walruses, were killed by whalers the following year, and the numbers would drop into the hundreds less than ten years later.

Both the whale and the walrus had long been a staple food of the Eskimos. Before the 1850s, whales had been plentiful along the arctic coasts, easily caught by the natives—in small numbers that had no effect on the size of whale populations or on the whales’ awareness of these predators. But since the appearance of the American whaling fleets, they had become scarce, and much warier when found, and the Eskimos had shifted their dependence to the walrus, not only for food but for clothing, boots, tools, and many items of daily use in their culture. Now, with the same terrible efficiency and consequences they had brought to whaling, the New Englanders were decimating literally an ocean of walrus herds, and by 1871 the natives along the Alaskan and Siberian shores were facing starvation.

It was an act of supreme generosity by the Eskimos to feed the crew of the Japan. “I felt that I had been taking the bread out of their mouths,” Captain Barker told his listeners. Later he wrote to the New Bedford Republican Standard newspaper: “Yet although they knew that the whaleships are doing this, still they were ready to share all they had with us. The wholesale butchery of the walrus pursued by nearly all the ships during the early part of each season will surely end in the extermination of this race of natives who rely upon these animals alone for their winter’s supply of food.”

Barker returned from his winter in the Arctic a changed man. He declared that neither he nor anyone aboard a ship he commanded would ever kill another walrus. He urged the other captains to give it up, though he knew what he was asking of them.

I have conversed with many intelligent ship masters upon this subject since I have seen it in its true light, and all have expressed their honest conviction that it was wrong, cruel, heartless, and the sure death of this inoffensive race [the Eskimos], that they would be only too glad to abandon the thing at once, if their employers would justify them. . . . To abandon an enterprise that in one season alone yielded 10,000 bbls. oil, for the sake of the Esquimaux who have found an advocate in one that has passed a few months with them, may seem preposterous and meet with derision and contempt, but let those who deride it see the misery entailed throughout the country by this unjust wrong, with death knocking at the door, while hunger was staring through the window, as I have during my travels, and I feel quite sure a business that can last not longer than two or three years more, will be condemned by every prompting of humanity that ever actuated the heart of a Christian.

The following year, another whaling captain, who signed his letter simply “A Shipmaster,” published a similar appeal in the New Bedford Republican Standard, but he was realistic about the response to this inconvenient truth: “I have seen most of the captains lately arrived home, and they all tell the same story—that the natives are or will starve if the business is not stopped. Some say, ‘I never will take another walrus,’ but several others I have talked with say they won’t take walrus if others will not, which means just this, ‘I shall take all I can.’ But it wants the condemnation of the shipowners and agents here in New Bedford, for I think their ships can be better and more profitably employed in whaling.”

But New Bedford’s shipowners and whaling merchants—the Howlands and their peers who read these entreaties—remained unmoved by such appeals. Walrus catches in 1871 were still rising, along with their significance in terms of profit. The dire predictions for the welfare of native peoples on the far side of the world meant nothing to them. What would happen was in the future, and it was going to happen to someone else. This was the way of the world—scientists from mid-century onward could now understand such apparent calamities through the wonderful new lens of Darwinism that put a fatalistic spin on misery and famine, and pious Quakers could, if they wished to, see in it the unfathomable hand of God. He had placed the walrus on the ice floes alongside their ships as surely as He had filled the seas with whales. Such explanations absolved them of moral responsibility.

By 1871, the crystalline surface of the ice stretching across the Bering Strait had become the dark, slippery floor of a sixty-mile-wide abattoir. For the Eskimos, this harvest was too great and wanton to profit from its leftovers. Years of natural stocks of this food source were butchered in a few months, most of it going to waste. Settlements along the strait were able to make some use of the meat of carcasses stripped of their blubber by the whalemen, but elsewhere the scarcity was pronounced: whalemen had seen natives on the ice thirty and forty miles from land trying to capture a single walrus.

“This cold winter,” the “Shipmaster” had written, “I have no doubt, there is mourning in many an Arctic home as the little ones cry for something to eat and the parents have nothing to give, for the walrus are killed or driven far away.”

Most of the whalemen agreed, sharing the fulsome expression of sentiments common to even the staidest newspaper writing of the day. But they had barrels to fill, and money to earn, that would be filled and earned by others if they did not, so they went “walrusing” as usual.

In 1871, most walruses were still killed by “iron”—harpoon and lance—or club. This method had the disadvantage of startling the entire herd on a floe when one of its members was attacked. The others would begin to slip off the ice into water, but the whalers still caught great numbers of them while they swam, hauling them back onto the ice to be skinned.

Ships’ logs recorded the daily tallies. Aboard the John Wells: June 23: “At about 5 o’clock [p.m.] commenced walrusing.” June 24: “Fine weather walrusing all day & night got about 75 in number.” June 25: “A wild goose chase after walruses. we got 3 or 4.” July 1: “Light breeze from South’rd 5 boats [the Wells’s five whaleboats] walrusing got about 30.” July 2: “Light breeze boats off about 30 miles from ship walrusing got about 50.” July 3: “Went off after walruses came in thick fog got 15 I believe.” July 4: “Light breeze boats off walrusing got about 40.”

The count aboard the Henry Taber: June 25, 20 walruses; June 26, 40; June 27, 48; June 28, 14—before wind and rain sent the boats back to the ship that evening.

Aboard the nearby bark Elizabeth Swift, also of New Bedford: July 1, 41 walruses; July 3, 51; July 12, 41; July 13, 20; July 14, 41.

Captain Thomas Williams, of the Monticello, allowed his twelve-year-old son, Willie, to go walrusing in the first mate’s boat. It was the boy’s first view of a live walrus up close, and he never forgot what happened.

The first walrus struck promptly drove his tusks through the side of the boat, tearing out a piece of plank large enough to have sunk us in minutes if the crew had not been used to such experiences. The walrus was promptly dispatched by a thrust of the lance, the boat pulled to the ice, hauled out and a canvas patch tacked over the hole in about the time it takes to tell it. [Canvas and tacks were routinely carried aboard whaleboats on walrus hunts.] After enough walrus had been killed to make a boatload they were hauled on the ice, skinned, and the blubber packed in the boat, when we returned to the ship.

Willie spent long days in the boats and on the ice through late June and most of July, watching the Monticello’s crew go about their work. The scale of the slaughter, and its pragmatic purpose, quickly eliminated any sensitivity another boy of twelve, even of his era, might have felt for these creatures.

While an old walrus will weigh over 2000 pounds [older bulls may weigh up to 4,000 pounds], you are not properly impressed by their size even when they are in full view on the ice, because having no legs they are always apparently lying down. In the water their size is still more deceptive, as you only see their heads and a small part of their back. Their movements, too, are so clumsy, that it is extremely funny to see them on the approach of a boat get off the ice, the females fairly shoving their young overboard in their anxiety to get them out of danger, and all the bellowing and barking as though bedlam had broken loose. At times, the water around the boat was fairly alive with young and old walrus; but as no one else seemed alarmed I took it for granted that there was no danger, although at first my nerves got a few bad “jars,” when upon hearing a terrific bellow at my back I would turn to find myself almost within arm’s length of a rather vicious looking combination, of a round head, wicked black eyes and a pair of long drooping white ivory tusks, but I soon learned that he was the most frightened of the two and promptly escaped if possible, either by diving or swimming away from the boat. Now and then a female walrus separated from her young, or an old bull walrus slightly wounded, would make a rush for the boat, sometimes causing an accident to some member of the crew, although I do not recall any that were fatal. The boats, however, were frequently stove so much so that it usually took about a week after the walrusing period was over, to put them in proper repair.

In less than a month, the Monticello’s men killed over 500 walruses, netting 300 barrels of oil. This full-time occupation for the ship and its men coincided with the summer solstice and allowed for great productivity:

It was no uncommon occurrence to see thousands of walrus upon the ice within an area of easy vision, and as the sun never set during this period, the hours of work were only limited by the physical capacity of the men, and that was tried to its utmost.

But Willie was writing of the last year or so, when walrusing was a mere addendum to whaling, practiced with whaling’s tools and methods. Within a very few years, the walrus harvest had become a main event in the Arctic, more dependable than whaling, and its efficiency was greatly boosted by the use of Sharps or Henry buffalo rifles. Captain Calvin Hooper described how the effectiveness of this was maximized by killing the first animal with a single shot to the temple:

At the first sound of the rifle they all raise their heads, and if one has been wounded and goes into the water the rest all follow; but if the shot has been effective, they soon drop their heads and go to sleep again. This is repeated a few times, until they become so accustomed to the firing that they take no notice of it. Then they are approached within a few feet and dispatched as fast as guns can be loaded and fired.

New Bedford captain Leander Owen, originally from Maine, was an expert at this. By himself, he once killed 250 walruses that lay on a single slab of ice. In one forty-eight-hour period in 1877, Owen shot 700 walruses.

Once the killing was finished, a boat’s crew began the grisly job of butchering the walruses, stripping the carcasses of their blubber, and using axes to chop the tusks out of their jaws. Though considered inferior to elephant ivory because of their more granular core, walrus tusks were readily sold for shipment to ivory markets in New York, London, China, and Japan.

As the whales grew shyer and scarcer in the Arctic, more walruses were taken. John Bockstoce, the preeminent historian and authority on American whaling in the western Arctic, estimates that of about 150,000 walruses caught by the whalers in the years 1849-1914, 85 percent of these were killed during whaling’s waning decade of the 1870s. “As appalling as the size of this catch was, the damage to the population was almost certainly greater,” writes Bockstoce. “The total kill was probably more than twice the size of the catch. Mortally wounded animals often escaped from the whalemen and, at times, the warm blood flowing from the slaughter broke up the ice floes, resulting in the loss of part or all of a particular harvest.”

This slaughter—far in excess of anything Captain Barker had seen or imagined during his hungry winter with the Eskimos—had devastating repercussions for his hosts. Though predictions of starvation for the natives had been made for some years, reports of a widespread tragedy were carried aboard ships sailing out of the Arctic after the winter of 1878-1879. “Fully one-third of the population south of St Lawrence Bay perished the past Winter for want of food,” Captain Ebenezer Nye wrote to the New Bedford Republican Standard,

and half the natives of St Lawrence Island died, one village of 200 inhabitants all died excepting one man. Mothers took their starving children to the burying grounds, stripped the clothing from their little emaciated bodies, and then strangled them or let the intense cold end their misery. . . . The people have eaten their walrus skin houses and walrus skin boats; this old skin poisoned them and made them sick, and many died from that. They also ate about all of their dogs and there are but three boats and three dogs left at what was once the largest settlement of Plover Bay.

A wishful story spread among the natives left alive that a Russian warship would come in the summer and destroy the whaleships for killing the walruses, but no Russian ship came. The American whalers, however, did what they could to provide aid to the native villages, feeding Eskimos who came aboard the ships and taking tons of their own food supplies ashore, though this was too little and too late.

The U.S. Revenue Service cutter Thomas Corwin discovered the extent of the disaster at St. Lawrence Island, at the southern end of the Bering Strait, where at least 1,000 of the island’s population of 1,500 had starved to death.

By the 1890s, the walruses had gone the way of the whales, their numbers shrunk to scarcity that finally made hunting them unprofitable, which was all that saved both species from total extinction.

IN LATE JULY OF 1871, with the fleet stretching from St. Lawrence Island in the south to the north end of the Bering Strait, a strong northeasterly wind began to blow across the Chukchi Sea. The ice that had blocked the strait was pushed south, through it, opening the passage to the north; and the ice that had clung to the Alaskan shore began to break up as the wind pushed it out into deeper water, creating the start of a channel of clear water between the ice and the land. This was what the fleet had been waiting for. The whalemen hoisted their boats aboard and beat toward the northeast, leaving the blood-soaked killing floes behind. Men were sent aloft to the crow’s nests and began again to look for the whales, which would also follow the opening channels in the ice.

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