Modern history

Chapter 2

The Whaling Times

Because whales are the biggest mammals, whaling is, I feel, the biggest crime.

Roger Payne

Among Whales, 1995

Whaling is ancient. Those ‘timeless’ Eskimos of the Arctic rim that Barry Lopez wrote about are thought to have hunted whales for anything between 4,000 and 8,000 years. The Japanese are probably not far behind. But coast dwellers everywhere in the world have known from the beginnings of all their times that whales occasionally beach themselves, and when they do, they are helpless and harmless and sometimes die. They saw the sudden, unpredictable arrivals of such ‘fish’ on their doorsteps as gifts from their oceanic Gods. If they had the tools to cut through the layer of blubber, there was a vast store of meat at their disposal, and if they could salt it or smoke it, there was enough to see them through the leanest of winters. There were also bones and baleen to fashion into other tools, weapons; sinews for bowstrings; blubber for candles; teeth to carve into brooches, ornaments, art.

They learned how to kill the whales that did not die of their own accord, then to drive whales ashore with their boats and to kill them in the shallows. Ever since, and over several millennia, the human mind has devoted an inordinate amount of energy to the task of refining its technique for killing whales. (The Russians achieved the apocalyptic zenith of that enterprise at the end of the 1950s with the launch of two factory ships of 32,000 and 33,000 tons, the biggest whaling factory ships ever built. After 25 years of sustaining the level of slaughter necessary to offset the cost of keeping these ships afloat, they were retired, only to re-emerge a few years later as floating slaughterhouses for 10 million sheep a year on regular voyages between Australia and Russia.) Over the same period, whales have not changed their behaviour towards us. They have simply gone on being whales, being our occasional neighbours, baffling us with their many mysteries as we doubtless baffle them with ours. They have troubled us too with their benevolence towards us despite our ever more ingenious hostility, and with their colossal strength and beauty.

It is more or less agreed among whale biologists that the first commercial whalers in Europe (as opposed to the unknown, undocumented legions of thousands of years of subsistence whalers) were the Basques on the shores of the Bay of Biscay. Having more or less cleared the whales from their coastal waters, they turned to the North Atlantic on whaling expeditions 500 years ago, a pattern which was echoed in other parts of the world. They began regular operations off Iceland and Greenland. The discovery by late twentieth-century archaeologists of sixteenth-century Basque ships west of Greenland was our first glimpse of the spoor of the earliest pelagic whalers at work.

By 1600 the Basques were venturing into the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island, and north of Norway around Spitzbergen. Britain, meanwhile, was more interested in discovering the Northwest Passage, but sea captains temporarily defeated by pack ice returned home with stories of immense numbers of whales, enough to quicken the interest of maritime entrepreneurs in London who despatched the Margaret to Greenland in 1611, specifically to look for whales. It seems to have been a less-than-wholehearted endeavour, and after a dozen years it fizzled out. But at the same time the Dutch were amassing a formidable whaling reputation. They built a whaling town on Spitzbergen so that they could turn blubber into oil more or less where they caught whales. The statistics are breathtaking: 14,000 men, 250 vessels, and in one four-year period they killed 10,000 whales.

The inevitable consequence has had to be learned and re-learned ad infinitum and ad nauseam throughout the history of whaling – the whalers ran out of whales. Every commercial whaling endeavour that ever failed anywhere in the world did so because of greed, greed that spawned overfishing. The whaling industry’s universal commercial philosophy ensured its right to call itself the most inefficient industry of all time. It was true in the seventeenth century, it is still true in the twenty-first century among the handful of nations still enslaved to that ancient whaling addiction. Sustainable whaling interested no one. It never has.

‘It is their refusal to show restraint when the evidence for the need to do so is so overwhelming that gives modern whalers their most indelibly black mark,’ wrote Roger Payne. ‘It is what makes them the undisputed champions of shortsightedness in the history of our species.’

Scotland dipped a tentative toe in whaling waters in 1750, belatedly for such an enterprisingly seafaring nation. A single vessel, the Tryal, was bought second-hand by the newly constituted Edinburgh Whaling Company and based at Leith. Its haul for its first season was no whales and four walruses, but a system of government bounties kept the enterprise afloat. Glasgow and Campbeltown followed suit the following year, although neither ever figured prominently in any rollcall of whaling ports. Dundee got involved in 1752 with the formation of the Dundee Whale Fishing Company; its first vessel, the Dundee, sailed the following spring. The city was already a long-established port, but its absence of whaling experience is reflected in the fact that the ship’s company included six foreign harpoonists. The Dundee caught twenty whales in its first four seasons, all of which was sufficiently encouraging to commission a second ship, the Grandtully. By 1756, then, Dundee had a whaling fleet, even if it comprised only two second-hand merchant ships. From this small beginning, the city would rise to a position of European pre-eminence in the whaling industry, but that particular voyage was a long, slow and risky venture both for the crews and the shareholders whose investment turned merchant ships into whaling ships and sailors in whalers. The Grandtully survived only six seasons, and caught only five whales, but the Dundee averaged almost three a season for thirty years before she was lost, a performance that was taken as a good enough omen to name a second and eventually a third whaler after her. By 1790, Scotland had twenty-three whalers and Dundee four, but by 1823, Dundee’s fleet was ten-strong, and performed spectacularly. Journalist Norman Watson wrote in The Dundee Whalers (2003): ‘. . . the safe return of all ten ships to Dundee in 1823, with the bounty of 268 whales lowering their hulls in the estuary, shines out in the firmament of star catches at this time.’

You can use language like ‘the firmament of star catches’ when your subject is the whalers rather than the whales. Thus, Watson can also allow himself to record, quite without irony, that: ‘Come the 1890s, only half of the fleet were able to meet the expenses of their voyage from their catch. When whales were scarce as this, men fell into a depression they called whale sickness . . .’

The men were depressed. The whales were dead. The men’s depression was the result of the absence of whales, an absence caused specifically by the same men who had killed so many there were none left to catch. They became depressed at the absence of more whales to kill. It sounds like the plot for a novel by Joseph Heller – Catch 22,000, say, or Catch 222,222. The invention of a disease called ‘whale sickness’ is just one more of the countless perversions the industry has deployed to justify the unjustifiable. It’s still doing it, too. As I write this, the Japanese announce plans to kill 1,000 humpbacks in the Antarctic ‘for scientific purposes’. They decline to explain the nature of the science they pursue, nor how the cause of science can be better served by studying dead whales on dry land than living ones in their natural habitat.

It is fair to say that many forces conspired against the industry and challenged its resilience. Ships and crewmen were lost every year, victims of storms and the unpredictability of ice; scurvy was ever-present; the loathed and feared press gangs raided the whalers’ crews to man naval vessels, for European wars were as rife as scurvy and the whaler crews viewed both as more or less equivalent evils; privateers seized ships and catches on the whaling grounds and demanded ransom from their insurers. The owners were as philosophical as they could be about losing a ship to storms and ice; they armed their ships in response to the depredations of privateers (and the whaling crews themselves were no pushovers); and crews became adept at jumping ship just before they made port and making their own surreptitious way home across country to thwart the press gangs. None of it impeded the head of steam that fuelled the industry. The rewards were such that every risk was worth it. From the first Basques to the twenty-first century, that didn’t change. A biography of Aristotle Onassis published in 1986 quoted the diary of a whaling factory ship hand: ‘Killed almost only blue whales today. Woe if this leaks out.’

The biographer, Peter Evans, added:

The slaughter meant nothing to Ari except in terms of profits and adventure. He never questioned the ethics of the expedition; the whales were there for the taking. It was merely a matter of beating the opposition and grabbing as many as possible. His first expedition in 1950 had netted ‘a very nice’ $4.2 million. ‘Whaling is the biggest dice game in the world,’ he said.

I dare say he might have thought his $4.2 million shone out in the firmament of star catches.

The mid nineteenth century proved a turning point in the story of whaling, in Scotland and the wider world. The development of steam ships that brought the whaling grounds closer was quickly followed by a series of crucial inventions. First there was a new bow-mounted canon for the new steam ‘catcher’ boats. Then there was a sharp-ended tube that could be rammed into a dead whale to allow compressed air to be pumped into the carcase so that it didn’t sink. And then the exploding harpoon arrived. In theory at least, this charming device not only attached a line between whale and boat but also killed the whale quickly by blasting its innards with shrapnel. As we have already seen, it was less than 100 per cent reliable.

The impact of all this technology on whale populations was immediate and devastating. No whaling port embraced it more enthusiastically than Dundee, where Stephen’s shipbuilding yard began to build a new generation of whaling ships that were quickly in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. The Narwhal was the first of the new breed. She was a fully rigged, wooden-hulled, auxiliary steamer, she was built in just four months, she was instantly the envy of the whaling industry across the world and she became the template for the new Dundee fleet. Huge cheering crowds greeted every launch of every new vessel. Even now, the historical records of the time resonate with the city’s pride in its whaling pre-eminence. Dundee built the ships, the engines, bred generation after generation of skippers and whalers and its reputation travelled the world. But the toll it took on whales, walruses, seals and even polar bears was frankly obscene.

The Dundee fleet quickly overtook Peterhead and Fraserburgh, which had both been early strongholds of the Scottish whaling industry, and even made an audacious cross-border raid to buy the finest ship in the Hull fleet. As Peterhead and Fraserburgh wilted under the pressure of poor catches (and doubtless its men succumbed to protracted bouts of the whale sickness), Dundee’s surging industrial economy bank-rolled its fleet and the whales of the North Atlantic paid the price.

It was, of course, completely unsustainable, and – not a moment too soon – a sudden reality check overtook the industry in 1886. That year, Dundee’s 15 ships brought back only 18 whales. To add to the misery, four ships were lost, and it suddenly occurred to the local newspaper, the Advertiser, to demand: ‘Why has prosperity deserted the prosecution of the Davis Strait fishing industry?’ It was the wrong question. The right question would have been ‘Why have the whales deserted the Davis Strait?’ And the answer was plain to see in the faces of every whaler who suffered from the whale sickness. The newspaper spoke the unspeakable: ‘all appearances point to the fishing having been overdone’. Watson quotes an unnamed skipper ten years later: ‘No distinction was, or could be made, in the sex or age of whales taken. Male and female, mother and sucker, were alike harpooned and cut up.’

Two years later, in 1898, Frank T. Bullen’s The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World after Sperm Whales rubbished the idea that no such distinction was possible, in the most graphic manner imaginable:

The harpooner rose, darted once, twice, then gave a yell of triumph that ran re-echoing all around in a thousand eerie vibrations . . . But for all the notice taken by the whale, she might never have been touched. Close nestled to her side was a youngling of not more, certainly, than five days old, which sent up its baby-spout every now and then about two feet into the air. One long, wing-like fin embraced its small body, holding it close to the massive breast of the tender mother, whose only care seemed to be to protect her young, utterly regardless of her own pain and danger. If sentiment were ever permitted to interfere with such operations as ours, it might well have done so now; for while the calf continually sought to escape from the enfolding fin, making all sorts of puny struggles in the attempt, the mother scarcely moved from her position, although streaming with blood from a score of wounds. Once, indeed, as a deep-searching thrust entered her very vitals, she raised her massy flukes high in the air with an apparently involuntary movement of agony; but even in that dire time she remembered the possible danger to her young one, and laid the tremendous weapon as softly down upon the water as if it were a fan.

So, in the most perfect quiet, with scarcely a writhe, nor any sign of flurry, she died, holding the calf to her side until her last vital spark had fled, and left it to a swift despatch with a single lance-thrust. No slaughter of a lamb ever looked more like murder. Nor, when the vast bulk and strength of the animal was considered, could a mightier example have been given of the force and quality of maternal love . . .

But sentiment never was permitted ‘to interfere with operations such as ours’. That meticulously executed ‘murder’ was simply symptomatic of the nature of the industry, an industry which, by the last few weeks of 1883, had created in Dundee the climate of reputation and public opinion in which one more particular murder was about to be executed.

Every spring, the city’s whaling fleet sailed north to the whaling grounds, and every spring and summer they plundered the whales in their breeding grounds. But what died, what sullied even a reputation won on the back of killing so many thousands of whales, was a lost juvenile whale that fate sent into the city’s home waters, a winter whale. But then, as the skipper said, no distinction was, or could be made, in the sex or age of whales taken. Male and female, mother and sucker were alike harpooned and cut up. Likewise the spring whale, the summer whale, the winter whale.

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