There was a very interesting programme on BBC TV 4 on Monday last (next episode today, 16 June) about the British whaling industry (which was indeed carried out on an industrial scale) in the Antarctic during the twentieth century. Visits to crumbling whaling stations (especially on South Georgia, more famous to people of my generation for its significance in the Falklands War of 1982), were mixed with the memories of the elderly men who had worked on whalers in the 1960s and 1970s. Very disturbing archive footage (as grim in black-and-white as in colour) showed the harpooning of whales and the whole process of skinning, evisceration and dismemberment. (The term is ‘flensing’, but I found a variant spelling ‘flinching’, which seems appropriate, in both directions, as it were.)
The history of whaling was sketched in – and of course, from a European perspective, it began in northern waters centuries before the Antarctic was discovered, let alone recognised as a source of whales. The reason for whale-hunting was that the animals were useful. Whale meat and whale fat were evidently part of the Viking lifestyle, and the Viking method of hunting was apparently to use small boats to drive whales into a bay and effectively force them towards the shore, where men with spears would messily finish them off.
Whale oil was used as fuel for lamps, and to lubricate iron machinery. The waxy oil known as ‘spermaceti’ found in the heads of sperm whales was especially prized as burning with a very bright, clear flame, either in lamps for processed into candles. (John Adams, when U.S. ambassador to Britain, tried unsuccessfully to persuade William Pitt, the prime minister, to light London streets with this American export.) And on all occasions when corsetry was in fashion (for women and/or men), so-called ‘whalebone’ (in fact the baleen which in many species of whale acts as a filtering system inside the mouth), prized for its combination of strength and flexibility, was used for the stays, or rigid strips in the corset. (Carving the central stay, or busk, was a love-offering, and these decorated busks are now very collectable.) Another artefact was the walking stick: this one was owned by Charles Darwin.
We have two books which feature Antarctic whaling: James Colnett’s A Voyage to the South Atlantic and Round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, For the Purpose of Extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries, and Other Objects of Commerce (1798); and The Cruise of the ‘Antarctic’ to the South Polar Regions (1898) by Henrik Johan Bull. This voyage was financed by financed by Svend Foyn, the Norwegian inventor of the harpoon gun, which had changed the close grappling with the whale from small boats to a long-distance chase as the wounded animal tried to escape.
However, there are very few books in our extensive list of voyages in the Arctic seas which don’t mention whales, at least in passing. There are also some unexpected connections: one (for me) was that the young Arthur Conan Doyle had served as a ship’s doctor on a Greenland whaler in 1880, and had learned to use the harpoon. And European royalty occasionally went whale-hunting as a change from big-game hunting: here is Kaiser Wilhelm II’s catch.
Undoubtedly, the most knowledgeable writer in English on the subject of Arctic whaling was William Scoresby (1789–1857). His father, William senior (1760–1829) was from a farming family near Pickering, Yorkshire, who first went to sea in 1780, and became a very successful whaler, spending the summer months in Greenland waters and the winter in coastal trading vessels. He became exceedingly wealthy as a result of his nautical skills, which were based on systematic scientific observation, but retired in 1823, aware that the Greenland waters were now so overfished as to be barely profitable. His son William junior was taken on his first voyage at the age of ten, and was apprenticed to his father in 1803. He spent several winters at Edinburgh University, studying chemistry and natural philosophy, while his teachers suggested various experiments he could carrying out during his summer voyages. He also came within the orbit of Sir Joseph Banks, who supported him with ideas and apparatus. Scoresby’s first book was his two-volume Account of the Arctic Regions, With a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery (1820), which gives a history of the exploration and economic exploitation of the region. It attracted the attention of scientists, and also of more general readers such as Mrs Gaskell, who took details of the whaling trade for her novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, of 1863, which is set in a thinly disguised Whitby in the 1790s. Scoresby’s last whaling trip was carried out in 1823, when, after his first wife’s death, he undertook ordination in the Church of England. He was simultaneously involved in pastoral duties and scientific research, publishing his Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale-Fishery in 1823, his two-volume Magnetical Investigations between 1839 and 1852, and various Memorials of the Sea, including a biography of his father. His own life was recorded by his nephew, R.E. Scoresby-Jackson, in 1861. By an extraordinary coincidence, Scoresby had once taken a voyage on the Royal Charter, testing out an improved form of compass. The ship was wrecked in a storm off the Welsh coast in October 1859, with over 450 lived lost, and this disaster was one of the drivers for an improved meteorological service in Britain. Scoresby’s widow was given a chair made from the ship’s timbers, recognising her husband’s work as a scientist and a humanitarian, and the ‘Scoresby Chair’ was presented in 1922 to the parish church of St Mary at Whitby, where it can still be seen. By this time, of course, the whaling industry in northern waters had been almost abandoned (except by the Inuit) for lack of quarry, and fifty years later, the whales of the Antarctic had been driven to the verge of extinction as well. Let’s hope that with an almost universal ban on whaling, they will be brought back from the brink. Caroline Caroline