The earliest accounts of encounters between whale and human date from the 2nd century AD. These include the Greek historian Arrian’s description of Alexander the Great’s journey to India, some 500 years earlier, when his sailors, seeing whales blow, were “so horrified the oars fell from their hands”.
People in both subarctic and tropical regions have hunted whales for thousands of years, but commercial whaling for oil and food – not to mention women’s corsetry, jagging wheels for pastry decorating and scrimshaw for bored sailors – began with the Basques in the 11th century, and possibly earlier. By the 14th century the Basques were sailing as far as Newfoundland in search of right whales, their favoured targets, having been efficient enough in their own waters to have hunted stocks into scarcity. It’s estimated that, even harpooning whales singly from rowing boats, the Basques dispensed with some 40,000 right whales alone over about seven centuries.
The English subsequently took to hunting whales alongside their spice enterprise, mostly for oil and bone. Unlike the Basques – who considered whale tongue “particularly good ... accompanied by peas” – they disdained to eat it, even though Queen Elizabeth I, who in 1577 decreed that her men should “hunt whales within any seas whatsoever”, is recorded as having, at the very least, nibbled on a “porpesse”.
In a new book, Australian writer John Newton, better known as a food critic, lays bare the audacity, the sheer grunt-work, of whaling over time. A Savage History: Whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans (NewSouth Publishing; $49.99) covers early exploration, colonial conquest, European bloodlust and the gargantuan mammals in whose wake all these things churned. Part benign coffee-table production, part catalogue of horrors, A Savage History tugs deeply at the reader, even if it feels at times a little hurried.
The catalyst for whaling operations in the southern Pacific was the arrival, in 1788, of the First Fleet in Australia. The next year, Samuel Enderby, a London “whaler and merchant prince”, rounded Cape Horn, where his harpooner killed the first of many sperm whales in “the great South Sea”. The already very experienced American whalers arrived shortly after that. Until then, whale harvesting in the Antipodes had been relatively passive, through the sourcing of beached whales by Aboriginal tribes.
It was in a dispute over a beached whale at Manly Cove in 1790, in fact, that Governor Arthur Phillip was himself speared in the collarbone by Willemering, a resident Aboriginal man. The year after, Captain Thomas Melvill (no relation to the author of Moby-Dick) reported seeing “sperm whales in great plenty ... within 15 leagues of the latitude of Port Jackson”. “Our people was in the highest spirits at so great a sight,” he wrote, “and I was determined as soon as I ... got clear of my live lumber [his cargo of convicts], to make all possible dispatch on the Fishery on this Coast.” By the time the new century had arrived, and the monopoly of the East India Company had been smashed, a patchy but committed international whaling presence existed around Australia’s coastline.
Newton conscientiously documents the wavering commercial prospects of whaling; its symbiotic relationship with colonial settlement; the ruthless nature of 20th-century whaling that “felled the tree to obtain the fruit”; and this century’s vicious battles between Japan’s recalcitrant whale “researchers” and staunch animal rights activists. But the book ranges haphazardly, up and down, across the centuries, and can be erratic with timelines and events.
The failure to raise Soviet whaling efforts in the Antarctic – whose catch totals were exposed by the International Whaling Commission to have been significantly underestimated – seems an oversight, for instance. Newton also occasionally repeats himself, such as when the unforgettable Dutch word “Specksynder” – the literal translation being “fat-cutter”, meaning “chief harpooner” – is explained twice.
Accounts of whalers’ early daredevilry impress, as do their ironic echoes in the contemporary bravery of Paul Watson and his intrepid Sea Shepherd crews, risking just as much now to protect whales. Of the former, the Maori earn the highest honours, having been fearsome harpooners. One witness recorded in awe how a Maori whaler leapt into the brine, clung to his catch, disappeared in a “whirlpool of blood and foam”, only to re-emerge “coolly with his hand on the gunwale”. Sperm whales apparently could tow a tiny whaleboat at 40 kilometres an hour, a phenomenon known as a “Nantucket sleigh ride”, during which boats would often disintegrate.
In 1840, Japanese author Hoshutei Riyu wrote about how merciless men were to “feel no pity for [the whale’s] resounding cry of pain ... then row the carcass to shore, cut it up in a barn and ... boil the meat or grill it”. Newton’s disturbing descriptions of the capture and slaughter of whales remind us how little has changed.
Being “pricked” by harpoons, then brought to heel in a long and agonising death, complete with “masses of clotting blood”, much moaning and thrashing, and “a deep sigh escaping ... just before death”, seems nothing but a demonic torture. Many of the book’s photographs depict men (no women here) engaged in deeds such as incising the eyes of whales with hooks, flensing their glistening hides, stripping away blubber as one peels a banana, winching monolithic dissections overhead, then committing the “horrendously difficult job” of a decapitation (the head being the repository, in the sperm whale, of the most valuable oil). The photos show the whalers as they might well have felt themselves to be: grim-faced midgets.
Although centuries of exploitation have caused serious declines in whale populations, no species has yet been brought to extinction. Indeed, many populations are in the process of recovering, ongoing Japanese efforts notwithstanding. Not only are the hunters being hunted, by Sea Shepherd, but whale meat is increasingly unpopular in Japan. As recently as 2010, it was being offloaded onto the lunch menus of the country’s primary and junior high schools. Perhaps Herman Melville’s deadpan observation of more than 160 years ago should have been heeded: “The whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down to a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite.”
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