History of whaling

History of whaling

The history of whaling is very extensive, stretching back for millennia. This article discusses the history of whaling up to the commencement of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Prehistoric to medieval times

Humans have engaged in whaling since prehistoric times. The oldest known method of catching cetaceans is simply to drive them ashore by placing a number of small boats between the animal or animals and the open sea and to frighten them with noise and activity, herding them towards shore in an attempt to beach them. Typically, this was used for small species, such as Pilot Whales, Belugas, Porpoises and Narwhals. This is described in "A Pattern of Islands" (1952) by British administrator Arthur Grimble, who lived in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands for several decades.

The next step was to employ a drogue (a semi-floating object) such as a wooden drum or an inflated sealskin which was tied to an arrow or a harpoon in the hope that after a time the whale would tire enough to be approached and killed. Several cultures around the world practiced whaling with drogues, including the Ainu, Inuit, Native Americans, and the Basque people of the Bay of Biscay. Archaeological evidence from Ulsan in South Korea suggests that drogues, harpoons and lines were being used to kill small whales as early as 6000BC. Petroglyphs (rock carvings) unearthed by researchers at the Museum of Kyungpook National University show Sperm Whales, Humpback Whales and North Pacific Right Whales surrounded by boats. Similarly-aged cetacean bones were also found in the area, reflecting the importance of whales in the prehistoric diet of coastal people.

A description of the assistance a little European technology could bring to skilled indigenous whale hunters is given in the memoir of John R. Jewitt, an Englishman blacksmith who spent three years as a captive of the Mowachaht (Nuu-chah-nulth/ Nootka) people in 1802-1805. Jewitt also mentions the importance of whale meat and oil to the diet. Whaling was integral to the cultures and economies of other Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest as well, notably the Makah and Klallam. For other groups, most famously the Haida, whales appear prominently as totems.

The Basque fishery

The first mention of Basque whaling was made in 1059, [Ellis (1991), p.45.] when it was said to have been practiced at the Basque town of Bayonne. The fishery spread to the Spanish Basque region in 1150, when King Sancho the Wise of Navarre granted petitions for the warehousing of such commodities as whalebone (baleen). [Ellis (1991), p.45.] At first, they only hunted the whale they called sarda, or the North Atlantic Right Whale, using watchtowers (known as vigias) to look for their distinctive twin vapour spouts.

By the 14th century they were making "seasonal trips" to the English Channel and southern Ireland. The fishery spread to Terranova (Labrador and Newfoundland) in the second quarter of the 16th century, [Barkham (1984), p.515.] and to Iceland at least by the early 17th century. [Rafnsson (2006), p.4.] They established whaling stations at the former, and probably established some in the latter as well. In Terranova they hunted bowheads and right whales, while in Iceland they appear to have only hunted the latter.

The fishery in Terranova declined for a variety of reasons. Principal among them the conflicts between Spain and other European powers during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, attacks by hostile Inuit, declining whale populations, and perhaps the opening up of the Spitsbergen fishery in 1611. The first voyages to Spitsbergen by the English and Dutch relied on Basque specialists, with the Basque provinces sending out their own whaler in 1612. The following season San Sebastián and St. Jean de Luz sent out a combined eleven or twelve whalers to the Spitsbergen fishery, but most were driven off by the Dutch and English. [Conway (1904), p.7-8.]

They continued whale fishing in Iceland and Spitsbergen at least into the 18th century, but Basque whaling in those regions appears to have ended with the commencement of the Seven Years' War (1756-63). [Du Pasquier (1984), p.538.]

The Greenland & Spitsbergen fishery

In 1611, the Muscovy Company's Jonas Poole, in the 60-ton bark "Elizabeth", [Purchas (1625), p.27, v.14.] led the first whaler, the 150-ton "Mary Margaret", under Stephen Bennet, to Spitsbergen to exploit the whale stocks found there. [Conway (1906), p.43.] One of the six Basque specialists they had recruited from the town of St. Jean de Luz caught the first whale there on the 12 June. [Purchas (1625), p.12, v.13.] Although they were able to capture thirteen whales, the voyage itself was a complete disaster, as both Poole and Bennet lost their ships, the former capsizing and the latter being driven ashore by ice. Luckily, Thomas Marmaduke (who had been walrus hunting in Horn Sound, on the west coast of Spitsbergen), in the Hull ship "Hopewell", agreed, after much proding, to take both of them back to England. [Purchas (1625), p.38-39, v.14]

The next season the Company sent the ships "Whale" and "Seahorse", [Purchas (1625), p.15, v.13.] while other nations had decided to join in on the trade as well. The Dutch sent a vessel under Willem Van Muyden and piloted by the former Muscovy Company employee Allen Sallows, [Conway (1906), p.49.] the Spanish Basques sent one piloted by another former Muscovy Company employee Nicholas Woodcock, [Jackson (1978), p.12.] while the "Hopewell" of Hull and another London interloper were also sent to prosecute the trade. In 1613, the Muscovy Company was granted a monopoly on the fishery at Spitsbergen. The three English men-of war sent to protect their whaling interests that season either drove off any foreign vessels they came into contact with or forced them to pay a fine, that being some seven or eight from San Sebastián, three or four from St. Jean de Luz, three Dutch vessels, and five French ones.

In 1614, the Northern Company of Holland, was granted a monopoly on the trade. They sent fourteen ships supported by three or four Dutch men-of-war to the fishery that season. [Conway (1906), p.66.] On 23 June they agreed with the English General, Benjamin Joseph, to fish at Spitsbergen to the exclusion of third parties. In the 1617 season William Heley, an English whaler, seized the catches of one of the Dutch whalers. [Conway (1904), p.40.] This angered the Dutch, who came the next season with twenty-three ships to Spitsbergen, driving away some of the English vessels without their catches and burning down the English whaling station in Horn Sound. Following this fiasco, the English and the Dutch settled in different areas, with the Dutch occupying Amsterdam Island and the region north of Fairhaven (the area south of Danes Island), while the English occupied all the bays south of Fairhaven, principal among them Foreland Sound, and Ice, Bell, and Horn Sounds. [Conway (1906), p.124.]

The trade for the English and Dutch followed very different paths following this division of the whaling areas, as the Dutch would dominate the trade, and that of the English would struggle to even exist. In 1617, the Dutch established a semi-permanent settlement at Amsterdam Island, Smeerenburg, or "Blubbertown." [Conway (1906), p.68.] At its height (1633-35), it consisted of warehouses, cooperages, quarters for the crews, a fort, and a church. It was visited by nearly 1,000 (or as few as 200, according to one author) whalers during the season, [Ellis (1991), p.64.] who worked in shifts throughout the short summer season to ensure that the tryworks were always boiling blubber. By the 1640s Smeerenburg was in decline. It was finally abandoned sometime before 1660. Despite this, Smeerenburg continued to be used as a place of rendezvous until the late 18th or early 19th century.

With the decline of the west coast Spitsbergen bay fishery in the mid-17th century, Dutch whalers began to sail north and east in search of new whaling grounds, finding the "West Ice" to the north and west of Spitsbergen and "Waigat" to the northeast of the island.

In 1719, the Dutch began "regular and intensive whaling" in the Davis Strait [ Ross (1979), p. 94. For a century or so prior to this date the Dutch and Dano-Norwegians had irregularly sent out whaling and trading voyages to the region.] . Nevertheless, encouraged by import duty exemptions, the South Sea Company financed 172 unprofitable whaling voyages from London's Howland Dock between 1725-32. In 1733 the Government introduced a 'bounty' of £1.00 per ship ton, increasing to £2.00 per ton in 1749. These subsidies along with high oil and whalebone prices encouraged expansion. London sent out six whalers in 1749; 45 in 1777 and 91 in 1788. However, reductions in the bounty, and wars with America and France saw Londond's Greenland fleet fall to 19 in 1796.

The British would continue to send out whalers to the Arctic fishery into the 20th century, sending her last on the eve of the First World War.

The Japanese fishery

The oldest written mention of whaling in Japanese records is from Kojiki, the oldest Japanese historical book written in the seventh century. In this book whale meat was eaten by Emperor Jimmu. In Man'yōshū, the oldest anthology of poems in the eighth century, the word "Whaling" (いさなとり) was frequently used in depicting the ocean or beaches.

One of the first records of whaling by the use of harpoons are from the 1570s at Morosaki, a bay attached to Ise Bay. This method of whaling, known as the harpoon method (tsukitori-ho) spread to Kii (before 1606), Shikoku (1624), northern Kyushu (1630s), and Nagato (around 1672).

Kakuemon Wada, later known as Kakuemon Taiji, was said to have invented net whaling, or the net method (amitori-ho) sometime between 1675 and 1677. This method soon spread to Shikoku (1681) and northern Kyushu (1684)

Using the techniques developed by Taiji, the Japanese mainly hunted four species of whale, the North Pacific right (Semi-Kujira), the humpback (Zato-Kujira), the fin (Nagasu-Kujira), and the gray whale (Ko-Kujira or Koku-Kujira). They also caught the occasional blue (Shiro Nagasu-Kujira), sperm (Makko-Kujira), or sei/Bryde's whale (Iwashi-Kujira).

Whaling has been frequently mentioned in Japanese historical texts. [ [http://record.museum.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kujira/ Œ~ŠG E•ßŒ~Žj—¿ ] ]
*"Whaling history" (鯨史稿), Seijun Ohtsuki, 1808. [ [http://record.museum.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kujira/geisiko/6/geisiko6.html Œ~Žj?e @Šª”V˜Z ] ]
*"Whaling Picture Scroll" (鯨絵巻), Jinemon Ikushima, 1665. [ [http://record.museum.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kujira/kujiraemaki2-1/kujiraemaki2-1.html Œ~ŠGŠª ?ã ] ]
*"Whale Hunt Picture Scroll" (捕鯨絵巻), Eikin Hangaya, 1666. [ [http://record.museum.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kujira/hogeiemaki3/hogeiemaki3.html •ßŒ~ŠGŠª ] ]
*"Ogawajima Whaling Wars" (小川島鯨鯢合戦), Unknown, 1667. [ [http://record.museum.kyushu-u.ac.jp/kujira/ogawajima/ogawajima.html ?¬?쓇Œ~?‡?í ] ]

In 1853, the US naval officer Matthew Perry forced open Japan's doors to the world. One of the purposes of this was to gain access to ports for the whaling fleet in the north-west Pacific Ocean. The traditional whaling was eventually replaced in the late 19th and early 20th century with modern methods.

The Yankee whale fishery

The towns of Long Island are believed to have been the first to establish a whale fishery along the shores of New England sometime around 1650. Nantucket joined in on the trade in 1690 when they sent for one Ichabod Padduck to instruct them in the methods of whaling. [Starbuck (1878), p.17.] The south side of the island was divided into three and a half mile sections, each one with a mast erected to look for the spouts of right whales. Each section had a temporary hut for the five men assigned to that area, with a sixth men standing watch at the mast. Once a whale was sighted, rowing boats were sent from the shore, and if the whale was successfully harpooned and lanced to death, it was towed ashore, flensed (that is, its blubber was cut off), and the blubber boiled in cauldrons known as "trypots." Even when Nantucket sent out vessels to fish for whales offshore, they would still come to the shore to boil the blubber, doing this well into the 18th century.

The South Sea fishery


Samuel Enderby, along with Alexander Champion and John St. Barbe, using American vessels and crews, fitted out twelve whaleships for the southern fishery in 1776. More were sent in 1777 and 1778 before political and economic troubles hampered the trade for some time. [Jackson (1978), p.92.]

Alexander Champion, with his brother Benjamin, sent the first British whaler east of the Cape of Good Hope in 1786. She was the Triumph, Daniel Coffin, master. In 1788 Enderby sent the first whaler, the Emelia (270 tons), under James Shields, around Cape Horn into the Pacific. Archelus Hammond of Nantucket killed the first sperm whale there off the coast of Chile on 3 March 1789. She returned in 1790 with 139 tuns of sperm oil.

In 1784 the British had fifteen whaleships in the southern fishery, all from London. By 1790 this port alone had sixty vessels employed in the trade. Between 1793 and 1799 there was an average of sixty vessels in the trade. The average increased to seventy-two in the years between 1800 and 1809. [Stackpole (1972), p.282.]

In 1819 the first British whaleship, the Syren (510 tons), under Frederick Coffin of Nantucket, was sent to the Japan grounds, where she began whaling on 5 April 1820. She returned to London on 21 April 1822 with 346 tuns of sperm oil. The following year at least nine British whalers were cruising on this ground, and by 1825 the British had twenty-four vessels there. [Mawar (1999), p.126.]

Despite this discovery, the number of vessels being fitted out annually for the southern fishery declined from sixty-eight in 1820 to thirty-one in 1824. In 1825 there were ninety ships in the southern fishery, but by 1835 it had dwindled to sixty-one.

Fewer and fewer vessels were being fitted out, so that by 1843 only nine vessels were clearing for the southern fishery. In 1859 the last cargoes of sperm oil from British vessels were landed in London.


Having failed in an attempt to establish a colony of Nantucket whalemen in England, William Rotch, Sr. went to France in 1786 and was able to establish his colony in Dunkirk. The first two vessels to be fitted out were the Canton and the Mary. By 1789 Dunkirk had fourteen vessels in the trade sailing to Brazil, Walvis Bay, and other areas of the South Atlantic to hunt sperm and right whales. Just a year later Rotch sent the first French whalers into the Pacific.

There were twenty-four vessels sailing out of France for the southern fishery by 1791, but the majority of these ships were lost during the Anglo-French War that broke out two years later. Rotch fled France, keeping subordinates there should war tensions ease and allow them to fit out ships for the southern fishery again.

The trade began to revive after hostilities, but when Napoleon came to power Rotch's holdings in Dunkirk were seized. After the Napoleonic Wars the government issued subsidies in an attempt to revive the trade once more, but it wasn’t until 1832, with a further increase in bounties, that several whalers were sent by C.A. Gaudin on sperm whaling voyages.

In 1835 the first French whaleship, the Gange (573 tons), Narcisse Chaudiere, master, reached the Gulf of Alaska and discovered an abundance of right whales. Within a decade a large number of American and French vessels would be cruising on this ground. The following year, 1836, the first French whaler had reached New Zealand, but by the 1840s, with the decline of bay whaling, very few French vessels would make their way here.

In 1851 a law was passed to encourage the trade, at which point the French had seventeen vessels employed in it. It wasn’t successful. The last whalers returned in 1868.

The Rorqual fishery

It wasn't until the 1850s that Euro-American whalemen made a serious attempt at catching such rorquals as the blue and fin whale. This era was inaugurated by one Thomas Welcome Roys. Roys, while cruising south of Iceland in the 441-ton Hannibal, was able to kill a sulfurbottom (blue whale) with a Brown’s bomb gun in 1855. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.66.] He realized that if he had a better way to dispatch such large rorquals as the sulfurbottom that he could easily fill his ship’s hold with whale oil. Due to his ship having taken a beating in a heavy gale in these waters, he was forced to put into Lorient, France. While there, he ordered for "two rifles in pairs for killing [rorqual] whales," staying long enough in France to see them nearly completed, then leaving for home in a steamer, and, when finished, having the guns sent by way of England to the US.

The following spring, he went out in the 175-ton brig William F. Safford to test his experimental whaling guns. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.67.] The guns Roys had ordered from France were lost on the voyage out, so he had to persuade C. C. Brand of Norwich, Conn., to let him use his bomb lance, but to increase his bomb missiles to three pounds in order to ensure greater success. Roys sailed to Bjornøya, where he encountered vast numbers of blue, fin, and humpbacks. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.68.] He fired at around sixty, with only a single blue whale being saved. He then sailed to Novaya Zemlya, capturing two humpbacks there. After cruising off Russia and Norway, he came to anchor at Queenstown, Ireland, and thence went to England to reconstruct his lost French-made guns. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.70-71.] He had Sir Joseph Whitworth manufacture him some rifled whaling guns and shells. Roys returned to his ship, sailing from Queenstown on 26 November for the Bay of Biscay. Here, when testing one of the guns, he blew off his left hand, having to amputate it "as well as we could with razors." They sailed to Oporto, Portugal, where Roys's lower arm had to be amputated. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.71-72.]

Having failed in securing whales on another cruise in 1857, Roys redesigned his gun. This time, the rocket-powered harpoons proved too weak to penetrate the whales correctly. Undaunted, he made another cruise, this time to South Georgia, but he wasn’t able to take any whales. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.73.] He cruised north to put into Lisbon, sailed to Africa, then west to the West Indies in early 1859, where he was able to capture several humpbacks. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.74-75.]

In 1861 Roys joined forces with the wealthy New York pyrotechnic manufacturer Gustavus Adolphus Lilliendahl in order to perfect his "whaling rocket." [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.92.] In mid-May 1862 Lilliendahl purchased the 158-ton bark Reindeer, appointing Roys as her master. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.95.] Unfortunately, she was seized on suspicion of being a slaver, and when everything was finally cleared up, she sailed to Iceland, but arrived too late for the summer whaling season, and had to return home and wait until next year.

In 1863 Roys refitted the Reindeer and once again sailed to Iceland, but he damaged his rudder while off the coast of the island, and was only able to save one of the many whales he shot that season. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.101-102.] Roys was much more successful the following season of 1864, saving eleven of the twenty whales that were shot, in part because he was using stronger harpoons and better lines. In November 1864 Roys obtained the rights to establish a shore station on the coast of Iceland from the Danish government. He acquired the twelve-ton, sixty-two-foot iron steamer Visionary in Scotland, and returned to Iceland in the spring of 1865. He arrived at Seydisfjordur on 14 May, finding his bark Reindeer had already arrived there in April, loaded with whaling equipment, boilers, steam engines, timber, bricks, and everything necessary for the construction of his shore station. Lilliendahl supplied them with defective rockets, and before the station was built, they were forced to tow the dead whales to the Reindeer, where they were flensed and processed the old fashioned way. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.105-108.]

After his rockets were rebuilt, Roys and his crew set out in the Visionary, with whaleboats in tow astern, to search for rorquals. Once a whale was sighted, the crews went to their respective boats, and if a whale was successfully captured, they’d heave the carcass to the surface with a steam winch, fasten it to the side of the ship, and tow it back to Seydisfjordur. For the 1865 season they took twenty or more whales, but also lost another twenty. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.113.] The next season, 1866, he used the Sileno and the iron steamers Staperaider and Vigilant- identical ship, bark-rigged, 116-feet long, each carrying two whaleboats and equipped with steam tryworks and powerful winches to bring aboard large strips of blubber when flensing whales. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.116-117.] They killed ninety whales this season, with forty-three or forty-four being saved to produce 3,000 barrels of oil. Roys and Lilliendahl parted company at the end of the season, with Lilliendahl continuing on in Iceland for another year. Using the Vigilant and Staperaider, he only caught thirty-six whales. After this season, he departed as well. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.134-136.]

Roys and Lilliendahl found imitators in Iceland, in the form of the Danish naval officer Cap. Otto C. Hammer and the Dutchman Cap. C. J Bottemanne. The former formed the Danish Fishing Company in 1865, and wound up operations in 1871; while the latter formed the Netherlands Whaling Company in 1869, closing down operations a year after Hammer. [Schmitt et al. (1980), p.154-164.]

In 1866 James Dawson, a Victorian emigrant from Clackmannanshire, Scotland, and a man named Warren tried catching whales in Saanich Inlet, British Columbia, but lost all three whales they struck to bad weather. [Webb (1988), p.125.] In 1868 Dawson joined in a partnership with a 27 year old from San Francisco, Abel Douglass, along with two other Californians, Bruce and Woodward. [Webb (1988), p.125.] They were joined by Roys, who chartered the eighty-three-foot, twenty-five-ton steamer Emma. His first cruise was a disaster, while the second cruise from early September to October he allegedly struck four whales, killing three, but lost all three in dense fogs. [Webb (1988), p.126.] Dawson began whaling on 26 August with the forty-seven-ton Kate, cruising in Saanich Inlet, where they managed to catch eight whales using bomb lances, despite thick fog.

Persistent as ever, Roys formed the Victoria Whaling Adventurers Company on 22 October, and in January 1869 he sent the Emma to erect a shore station in Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island. Again, Roys was met with by failure, having made fast to only one whale. The harpoon broke free, and the whale escaped. [Webb (1988), p.126-127.] He was defeated once more by the Dawson and Douglass Whaling Company, who took fourteen whales by mid-September 1869 to produce 20,000 gallons of oil.

Dawson and Douglass then joined forces with a man named Lipsett, forming the Union Whaling Company. They only took four whales during two cruises in the winter of 1869-70, forcing the company to suspend operations as of 3 February 1870. [Webb (1988), p.128.] Lipsett reorganized and formed the Howe Sound Company, while Dawson found new partners had formed the new Dawson & Douglass Whaling Company on 27 June 1870. Another unidentified group of whalemen using "the Roys Rocket" arrived in June, charting the schooner Surprise and hunting whales in Barkley Sound. Only one of the companies used a vessel equipped with a whaleboat, while the others apparently sent rowing boats out from their shore camps. The three firms only took thirty-two whales, for a yield of 75,800 gallons of oil. [Webb (1988), p.129.]

The next season, seemingly undeterred, Roys returned to British Columbia in the 179-ton brig Byzantium on 10 May 1871. He constructed a station at Cumshewa Inlet in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and fitted out the Byzantium with proper onboard tryworks. Douglass split from Dawson and paired with the Victorian vintner and publican James Strachan, while Dawson rejoined Lipsett and formed the British Columbia Whaling Company. Dawson and Lipsett's company produced 20,000 gallons of oil in 1871, with Douglass and Strachan producing about 15,000. Both companies lost money on their ventures, with the former soon being liquidated. The Kate and other possessions of the company went on the auction block in March 1872. The schooner and equipment went to former company partners Robert Wallace and James Hutcheson, who unsuccessfully attempted to continue whaling operations. We last hear of them in July 1873, when the Kate was said to have been cruising near Lasqueti Island, in the Strait of Georgia, with little success. By the end of the year the schooner had been sold.

As usual, Roys fared the worst. The Byzantium struck the rocks in Weynton Passage, Johnstone Strait, forcing the men to abandon her and row ashore, to spend a frigid night huddled on the beach. Roys never operated a whaling company again.

In 1877, John Nelson Fletcher, a pyrotechnist, and the former Confederate solider from North Carolina, Robert L. Suits, modified Roys’s rocket, marketing it as the California Whaling Rocket. They used the small five in a half ton steam launch Rocket of San Francisco in 1878, killing 35 humpback, fin, and blue whales with their rocket outside the harbour and north to Point Reyes.

In 1880, Thomas P. H. Whitelaw fitted out the forty-four-ton steamer Daisy Whitelaw of San Francisco. With the California Whaling Rocket she "very successfully" hunted fin whales though the Farallon Islands to Drake's Bay. That same year, some of the rockets were purchased by the Northwest Whaling Company, or Northwest Trading Company, of Killisnoo Island, on the west coast of Admiralty Island, Southeast Alaska. They hunted fins and humpbacks, firing rockets from the deck of the company's small steamer Favorite, as well as from whaleboats. They established a whaling and trading station on Killisnoo Island, giving a few jobs at the whale processing plant to both Killisnoo and Angoon residents. After a few years of whaling, the station was turned into a herring processing plant, going out of business in 1885.

In the late 1870s schooners began hunting humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine. In 1880, with the decline of the menhaden fishery, steamers began to switch to hunting fin and humpback whales using bomb lances in what has been called a "shoot-and-salvage" fishery because of the high-rate of loss due to whales sinking, lines breaking, etc. The first was the steamer Mabel Bird, which towed whale carcasses to an oil processing plant at the head of Linekin Bay in Boothbay Harbor. Soon there were five such factories in Boothbay Harbour processing whales. At its height in 1885 four or five steamers were engaged in the Menhaden whale fishery, but it dwindled to one by the end of the decade. Fin whales accounted for about half the catch, with over 100 whales being killed in some years. The fishery ended in the late 1890s. Before Svend Foyn launched the industry into the modern era, there were the Norwegians Jacob Nicolai Walsøe and Arent Christian Dahl. The former was probably the first person to suggest mounting a harpoon gun in the bows of a steamship, while the latter experimented with an explosive harpoon in Varanger Fjord (1857-1860). While they were the first in their class, it was Foyn who successfully adopted these ideas and put them into practice. In 1864, his methods, through trial and error, would lead to the development of the modern whaling trade.

During the 1930s, as German whaling in the Antarctic was coming about, the Nazis maintained that a gunsmith from Bremerhaven, H. G. Cordes, was responsible for Foyn's invention, and should thus receive credit for having brought whaling into the modern era. Foyn had indeed ordered material from Cordes, but he had found it unserviceable, and only experimented with his gun for a season. Cordes, working with John P. Rechten of Bremen, had developed an improved version of the Greener gun in 1856. They made a second version of this swivel gun with two barrels, side by side, with the left barrel shooting a harpoon and the right a bomb lance. Their invention was successfully experimented with in the North Sea in 1867. With this success, Rechten attempted to introduce this idea on the American market two years later, but it isn't known as to whether he succeeded or not.

Modern whaling


In February 1864, the Norwegian Svend Foyn set sail from Tønsberg, south of Oslo, in the schooner-rigged, steam-driven whale catcher Spes et Fides (Hope & Faith) on a voyage north to Finnmark to hunt rorquals such as the Blue and Fin Whale. He had her fitted out like a minor man-of-war, with seven guns on her forecastle, each firing a harpoon and grenade separately. Several whales were seen, but only four were captured. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.28-29.]

He tried again in 1866 and 1867, but he couldn’t catch a single whale in the former season and only caught one whale the latter, while two others were killed but lost. Experimenting with a harpoon gun that fired a grenade and harpoon at the same time, Foyn was able to catch thirty whales in 1868. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.30.] He patented his grenade-tipped harpoon gun two years later.

Foyn was given a virtual monopoly on the trade in Finnmark in 1873, which lasted until 1882. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.32.] Despite this, local citizens established a whaling company in 1876, and soon others defied his monopoly and formed companies.

With the commencement of unrestricted catching in 1883, the number of whaling stations increased from eight to sixteen, and the number of whale catchers from twelve to twenty-three. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.34-35] Catching material peaked in 1886-88 with an average of about thirty-one catchers operating each season, while peak catching wasn’t reached until 1892-93 and 1896-98, when between 1,000 and 1,200 whales were caught each year.

Only half the number of whales were taken in 1899, and catching continued to decline until 1902, when it improved somewhat. By this time most of the catching was done far from the coast. The last station closed down in 1904.


In 1883 the first whaling station was established in Alptafjordur, Iceland. In the first season, using an 84 gross ton whale catcher, only eight whales were caught, but in the following season (1884) twenty-five were caught, all of which were Blue Whales, with the exception of two.. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.76.]

In 1889 another station was established. Between 1890 and 1894 three more companies, all Norwegian, established themselves in Iceland. Seeing the success of these companies, another five established whaling stations on the island between 1896 and 1903. Catching peaked in 1902, when 1,305 whales were caught to produce 40,000 barrels of oil. By 1907, only 268 whales were caught, and by 1910 the score stood at a mere 170.

A ban on whaling was imposed by the Alting in 1915. It wasn’t until 1935 that an Icelandic company established another whaling station. It shut down after only five seasons. In 1948, another Icelandic company, Hvalur H/F, purchased a naval base at the head of Hvalfjordur and converted it into a whaling station. Between 1948 and 1975, an average of 250 Fin, 65 Sei, and 78 Sperm Whales were taken annually, as well as a few Blue and Humpback Whales. Unlike the majority of commercial whaling at the time, this operation was based on the sale of frozen meat and meat meal, rather than on oil. Most of the meat was exported to England, while the meal was sold locally as cattle feed. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.646.]

Faroe Islands

The Norwegian Hans Albert Grøn established the first whaling station in the Faroe Islands in 1894 at Strømæs, situated in the sound between the islands of Strømø and Osterø. He caught forty-six whales his first season, intercepting the whales as they migrated north. He operated alone the first four seasons, until Christian Salvesen & Co. formed a company in Oslo for whaling from the islands.

Grøn established another station in 1901, as did Peter O. Bogen, who set up one on the island of Suderø. Three more companies arrived between 1902 and 1905. One was Norwegian, another Danish, and the last a joint Danish-Norwegian concern.

Peak catching was reached in 1909, when 773 whales were caught to produce 13,850 barrels of oil. By 1913 the production of oil had dropped to 3,515 barrels. In 1917, with the war and poor catches, whaling was suspended from the islands. Four companies resumed catching 1920. The results were disappointing; with only one Norwegian company staying at the islands as late as 1930. Further attempts were made to revive catching in the Faroes during the 1930s and after the Second World War, with the last attempt being made in 1962-64.


In 1903, the Norwegian Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship, the wooden steamship Telegraf (737 gross tons), to Spitsbergen. She returned to Sandefjord in September with 1,960 barrels of oil produced from a catch of fifty-seven whales- of which forty-two were Blue Whales. [Tønnessen & Johnsen (1982), p.98.]

He sent a larger ship, the 1,517 gross ton Admiralen, to Spitsbergen the following season (1904). She returned with a cargo of 5,100 barrels from 154 whales. By 1905 there were eight companies operating around Spitsbergen and Bear Island, while seven (using fifteen whale catchers) were there in 1906-07. The peak had been reached in 1905, when 559 whales (337 Blue) were caught to produce 18,660 barrels. Only a quarter of this was produced in 1908. Two companies left in 1907, and another two the following year.

As the three companies remaining produced a dismal amount of oil in 1912, they decided to suspend operations. Two unsuccessful attempts were made in 1920 and 1926-27 to revive catching in Spitsbergen waters- since that time only Northern Bottlenose and Minke Whales have been hunted there by converted Norwegian fishing boats.

ee also

*Whaling in Australia
*Whaling in the Netherlands



;General references
*Barkham, S. H. 1984. The Basque Whaling Establishments in Labrador 1536-1632- A Summary. Arctic 37: 515-519.
*Edvardsson, R., and M. Rafnsson. 2006. Basque Whaling Around Iceland: Archeological Investigation in Strakatangi, Steingrimsfjordur.
* George, G. D. and R. G. Bosworth. 1988. Use of Fish and Wildlife by Residents of Angoon, Admiralty Island, Alaska. Division of Subsistence. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Juneau, Alaska.
* Purchas, S. 1625. Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes: Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and others. Volumes XIII and XIV (Reprint 1906, J. Maclehose and sons).
* Reeves, R. R., T. D. Smith, R. L. Webb, J. Robbins, and P. J. Clapham. 2002. Humpback and fin whaling in the Gulf of Maine from 1800 to 1918. Mar. Fish. Rev. 64(1):1-12.
* Schokkenbroek, Joost C. A. (2008). [https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/dspace/handle/1887/12669 "Trying-out: An Anatomy of Dutch Whaling and Sealing in the Nineteenth Century, 1815-1885."] Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers. 10-ISBN 9-052-60283-2; 13-ISBN 978-9-052-60283-7 (cloth)
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3638853.stm BBC News report on the engravings]

External links

* [http://www.du.edu/~ttyler/ploughboy/starbuck.htm History of the American Whale Fishery Industry]
* [http://nantucket.plumtv.com/stories/how_nantucket_helped_light_world History of Whale oil on Nantucket on Plum TV]
* [http://www.teara.govt.nz/EarthSeaAndSky/HarvestingTheSea/Whaling/en Whaling in New Zealand in the 19th & 20th centuries; from "Te Ara, the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand"]

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