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Thar She Blows!

Thar She Blows!

While many cultures and countries engaged in whaling this page is concerned with the history of the New England whaling industry. In no way should this be seen to justify modern whaling.

Thar She Blows!

Commercial whaling in the United States began in the 17th century in New England. The industry peaked in 1846–1852 when the availability of petrochemicals and over-hunting made the practice increasingly impractical.

At one time whale oil was absolutely necessary. It's main uses were for household lighting and lubrication of machinery. There were alternatives to whale oil, but they were inferior in performance and cleanliness of burn. While the oil was the primary driver there were secondary products. The baleen some whales used to strain food from the sea were a secondary harvest. They were used in applications that would be accomplished in the modern world with plastic or steel. Simply put whale hunting allowed civilization to grow and prosper.


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1
The New Bedford Wharves.
The New Bedford Wharves.
Colonial whaling took place from many places along the New England coast but, the business was particularly centered in Nantucket and New Bedford. There were times when 100% of the economy of these areas depended on whaling.

Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 184. Published 1884.  
 
2
Present and Abandoned Whaling Grounds 1884.
Present and Abandoned Whaling Grounds 1884.
Typically a whaling voyage would last two years but it was not unknown for them to go as long as four years. Once the ship set sail they would not return until every barrel in their hold was full of whale oil. The world was their hunting ground with the desirable areas changing with the seasons. In the beginning it was easy to find whales off the coast of new England. As whale populations were reduced ships had to sail farther and farther from home.

The more heavily shaded areas represent “present grounds,” (from a 1884 perspective). The less heavily shaded, “abandoned grounds.” Grounds are marked S for Sperm whale, R for Right whale, B for “Bowhead or Polar whale,” C for California Gray whale, H for Humpback whale, and F for Finback whale.

Map from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 183. Published 1884. 
 
3
The Whales.
The Whales.
While there are 90 some species of whales, colonial hunters had limited interests. The Sperm whale was the most prized because of it's oil yield. They would take males or females but the males were larger and if they had a choice they would go after the male.

The Bowhead and Right whales were the next choice. Right whales were named because they were the "right" whale to hunt. Besides the oil they were harvested for their baleen. (the cartilage like food filter that filled their mouths)

Humpbacks and Grays were smaller. They not only yielded less oil, it was of inferior quality. The Humpback tended to sink when killed. The Gray was a ferocious fighter. There were other whales they would have liked to have hunted, like the Blue whale however they were much to fast tor the technology of the time.

Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 184. Published 1884.  
 
4
The Whaling Crew.
The Whaling Crew.
The ship owners typically took 60 to 70% of the profits leaving the rest to be divided among the crew. The percentage they got was known as a "lay". The shares listed below are typical. There was no standard. Nor was there a standard crew size. 40 to 50 depending on the needs of the ship was typical.

The captain received 1/17th. The captain was entitled to bring his family with if he chose to. If that was the case he had to reimburse the ship owners for their share of the ships stores. To add insult to that the wife would be expected to work assuming the duties of cook, seamstress and nurse without remuneration!

Mates (officers) had the daily contact with the crew. They were expected to maintain smooth operations and a high level of maintenance. The first mate might get 1/22nd. The officers under him would get less. A perk of being a mate was they got to eat with the captain at a private table and, they typically got food better than the food that was served to the crew.

Boatsteerers (harpooneers) received 1/75th.

Mechanics were the craftsmen. They received 1/75th depending on experience. Included among these ranks were:

A blacksmith. He repaired and sharpened tools. He fashioned metal bands for the construction of barrels.

A Cooper (barrel maker) needed to be skilled. Nothing would have been worse than the oil (profits) draining from their casks!

Carpenters were needed to repair the ship, tools and, boats.

The steward attended to the officers needs and served their meals.

The cook was extraordinarily important. The food stores were abysmal, consisting of salt-preserved meat and, hard biscuits. Along the way they might catch fresh fish or turtles. When restocking at island ports they might be lucky enough to trade fish for onions, potatoes, figs, and apples. A cook who could manage to keep the crew set with food that was edible was a valuable asset.

Foremast Hands (crewmen) percentages varied by experience. 1/2 of a percent was not an uncommon wage. None of them were getting rich. They had the daily duties of cleaning the vessel and taking turns on watch. One designated the keeper kept the daily ship's log. During a hunt, these men rowed the whaleboats. If they were successful the rowers had to tow the whale back to the mother ship. This might mean yards or miles. To say the job was strenuous doesn't begin to do it justice. Once the whale was back the crew divided into two and worked six hour shifts butchering the whale and processing the blubber to get the oil. This might take hours or days. It was extremely dangerous. The decks would be slippery. They worked with sharp tools and, the work attracted sharks. Once the whale was processed and the cargo stowed the work of clean up began.

Greenhands were individuals on their first voyage. They were paid the worst but, expected to do a full share of the work. One of these might have been the captain's cabin boy. Typically someone who hadn't even reached his teens but was expected to maintain the officers cabins and help the steward at meal time. They were not making enough money to maintain a life back home. It was expected that they would learn enough to become crew on their next voyage.

The "slop chest" was a whaling ships equivalent of the company store. Crew could buy clothing, soap, tobacco, first aid supplies and medicine. If a sailor wasn't careful he might end up owing more money than he made. It wasn't uncommon for crew to sign up for their next voyage immediately upon returning.

Picture from: Hunting and Trapping Stories; A Book For Boys by J. P. Hyde Price, McLoughlin Brothers, New York 1903. pages unnumbered. 
 
5
The Whaling Schooner Amelia.
The Whaling Schooner Amelia.
Organized attempts at whaling is first recorded in New England in 1644. At that point in time whales could be hunted close to the shore. By the 1720 there was a noticeable decline in whales sighted along the coast. Single masted sloops were outfitted to extend the chase. When this became inadequate two masted schooners began to make six month voyages.

Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 186. Published 1884.  
 
6
Deck and Interior of the Amelia.
Deck and Interior of the Amelia.
Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 188. Published 1884.  
 
7
The Whaling Bark Mary & Helen.
The Whaling Bark Mary & Helen.
Soon the economics dictated longer voyages. Three and four masted barks were used for voyages intended to be two years but four was not uncommon. The longest whaling voyage on record is eleven years!

Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 187. Published 1884.  
 
8
Deck and Interior of the Bark Alice Knowles.
Deck and Interior of the Bark Alice Knowles.
Picture from: The fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by George Brown. Volume, Section V, Plates. Plate 189. Published 1884.  
 
9
Scrimshaw.
Scrimshaw.
The only thing worse than the work was the boredom. Days, weeks, maybe months would pass between hunts. When whaling ships encountered each other they would socialize, trade and share meals.

Another way of passing time was the art of scrimshaw. Whales teeth, bones, shells and other marine materials were carved or engraved. The earliest known example is a dated tooth in a London museum that carries the date "1817". The earliest written record was found in a ships log that noted that during a spell of no wind and thick fog, that “all hands employed scrimshonting (sic)." After engraving ink, soot, or tobacco was used to introduce contrast. While most carvings represented nautical topics, portraits were popular as well.

We now look at these as beautiful objects of art. The most popular medium was the tooth of a Sperm whale. The lower jaw containing the teeth would be set on the deck and left to rot until the teeth were loose enough to remove. Given that stench of their work permeated the entire ship and everything on it, it's likely no one notice the smell of a fifteen foot long rotting jaw.  
 
10
Sea Horse Pie Crimper.
Sea Horse Pie Crimper.
In addition to engravings sailors carved a lot of objects. Pie crimpers were enormously popular. It's not hard to guess why. They missed the people they left behind and they missed edible food! Most whaling museums now have cases full of pie crimpers. The design was only limited by the imagination of the craftsman. While this seahorse strived for aesthetics some tended towards the practical and included a fork for venting the crust.  
 
11
Nantucket Whaling Museum
Nantucket Whaling Museum
With the exception of some native populations, United States whaling can only be found in museums. The U.S. officially outlawed whaling in 1971. In 1976 the ban was extended to include foreigners operating in U.S territorial waters.  
 


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