Monday, February 26, 2007

The cruelty of whaling in the 19th century

Above: a 19th century whaler

I spoke in my last article about the proud history of the old, hand-harpoon days of whaling, and even the romance which surrounds it, certainly when compared with the brutally efficient murder of the modern counterpart, which gives the whale virtually no chance of escape.

The 19th century whalers, in the heyday of the industry, hunted using hand-thrown harpoons and lances, and whales, even when harpooned, would often escape, or turn on their attackers, smashing men and boats to pieces.

I don't want to glorify the early whaling industry, as it was the start of the indiscriminate slaughter which decimated the populations of these wild creatures. Although I have some admiration for the men, who were undeniably brave, I still regard it as a brutal slaughter, though one which, back then, at least brought the man into intimate contact with his living quarry, and which furnished a product to industry for which there was no equal substitute at the time.

I can understand that there was a genuine demand for the products of whaling. It was an industry which serviced a real need, as opposed to today's artificially subsidised factory process. Once the harpoon-cannon was introduced however, the whales were doomed, and the rate of killing outstripped the need for the products.

Ultimately, artificial whale-oil substitutes became available, and there was no need for the slaughter to continue. But continue it did, in a way reminiscent of the unrestrained slaughter of the American Bison, stopping only when the dwindling whale stocks threatened the existence of the industry itself.

It was as if the existence of the industry was reason in itself to carry on whaling. Very much as the farming industry is supported now, despite massive over-production, when it should really be left to market forces, and its scale adjust accordingly, with some farms returning to scrub, marsh and woodland, and the workforce redeployed in other industries. I can't agree with keeping an industry on life support, especially one which is so barbaric and uncompassionate.

The old-time whalers were, i suspect, capable of far more feeling and compassion for the animals they hunted. That's not to say they had any sentimentality about it, but when you have to look someone in the eye and use a piece of cold steel to kill them, you are inevitably going to feel differently to a man behind a big cannon, tens of metres from his victim, physically, and a million miles spiritually and emotionally.

My heart aches when I think of the age of some of the huge animals which perished, stuck through with whaler's lances, choking on their own blood, vainly trying to draw breath with punctured lungs. The whales may at least have had a chance of getting away, but their death was as slow and painful as any since.

To get an idea of the mentality of the old whalers, and the means by which they hunted and killed the whales, I urge you to read this, from Herman Melville's magnificent 'Moby Dick'. A breathtaking piece of writing. Remember that Melville served on a whaler, and this is the reality of the kill, drawn from Melville's first hand experience. The description of this particular hunt is relentless, cruel, exciting, and ultimately, heartbreaking:

(note: I've edited the chapter slightly to remove elements not directly concerned with the pursuit and kill)

"There were eight whales, an average pod. Aware of their danger, they were going all abreast with great speed straight before the wind, rubbing their flanks as closely as so many spans of horses in harness. They left a great, wide wake, as though continually unrolling a great wide parchment upon the sea.

Full in this rapid wake, and many fathoms in the rear, swam a huge, humped old bull, which by his comparatively slow progress, as well as by the unusual yellowish incrustations overgrowing him, seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity. Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake, though indeed their back water must have retarded him, because the white-bone or swell at his broad muzzle was a dashed one, like the swell formed when two hostile currents meet. His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds, followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble.

"Who's got some paregoric?" said Stubb, "he has the stomach-ache, I'm afraid. Lord, think of having half an acre of stomach-ache! Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys. It's the first foul wind I ever knew to blow from astern; but look, did ever whale yaw so before? it must be, he's lost his tiller."

As an overladen Indiaman bearing down the Hindostan coast with a deck load of frightened horses, careens, buries, rolls, and wallows on her way; so did this old whale heave his aged bulk, and now and then partly turning over on his cumbrous rib-ends, expose the cause of his devious wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.

"Only wait a bit, old chap, and I'll give ye a sling for that wounded arm," cried cruel Flask, pointing to the whale-line near him.

"Mind he don't sling thee with it," cried Starbuck. "Give way, or the German will have him."
With one intent all the combined rival boats were pointed for this one fish, because not only was he the largest, and therefore the most valuable whale, but he was nearest to them, and the other whales were going with such great velocity, moreover, as almost to defy pursuit for the time.

It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled towards the sky his one beating fin. So have I seen a bird with clipped wing making affrighted broken circles in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. But the bird has a voice, and with plaintive cries will make known her fear; but the fear of this vast dumb brute of the sea, was chained up and enchanted in him; he had no voice, save that choking respiration through his spiracle, and this made the sight of him unspeakably pitiable; while still, in his amazing bulk, portcullis jaw, and omnipotent tail, there was enough to appal the stoutest man who so pitied.

Seeing now that but a very few moments more would give the Pequod's boats the advantage, and rather than be thus foiled of his game, Derick chose to hazard what to him must have seemed a most unusually long dart, ere the last chance would for ever escape.

But no sooner did his harpooneer stand up for the stroke, than all three tigers--Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo--instinctively sprang to their feet, and standing in a diagonal row, simultaneously pointed their barbs; and darted over the head of the German harpooneer, their three Nantucket irons entered the whale. Blinding vapours of foam and white-fire! The three boats, in the first fury of the whale's headlong rush, bumped the German's aside with such force, that both Derick and his baffled harpooneer were spilled out, and sailed over by the three flying keels.

"Don't be afraid, my butter-boxes," cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; "ye'll be picked up presently--all right--I saw some sharks astern--St. Bernard's dogs, you know--relieve distressed travellers. Hurrah! this is the way to sail now. Every keel a sunbeam! Hurrah!--Here we go like three tin kettles at the tail of a mad cougar! This puts me in mind of fastening to an elephant in a tilbury on a plain--makes the wheel-spokes fly, boys, when you fasten to him that way; and there's danger of being pitched out too, when you strike a hill. Hurrah! this is the way a fellow feels when he's going to Davy Jones--all a rush down an endless inclined plane! Hurrah! this whale carries the everlasting mail!"

But the monster's run was a brief one. Giving a sudden gasp, he tumultuously sounded. With a grating rush, the three lines flew round the loggerheads with such a force as to gouge deep grooves in them; while so fearful were the harpooneers that this rapid sounding would soon exhaust the lines, that using all their dexterous might, they caught repeated smoking turns with the rope to hold on; till at last--owing to the perpendicular strain from the lead-lined chocks of the boats, whence the three ropes went straight down into the blue--the gunwales of the bows were almost even with the water, while the three sterns tilted high in the air. And the whale soon ceasing to sound, for some time they remained in that attitude, fearful of expending more line, though the position was a little ticklish. But though boats have been taken down and lost in this way, yet it is this "holding on," as it is called; this hooking up by the sharp barbs of his live flesh from the back; this it is that often torments the Leviathan into soon rising again to meet the sharp lance of his foes. Yet not to speak of the peril of the thing, it is to be doubted whether this course is always the best; for it is but reasonable to presume, that the longer the stricken whale stays under water, the more he is exhausted. Because, owing to the enormous surface of him--in a full grown sperm whale something less than 2000 square feet--the pressure of the water is immense. We all know what an astonishing atmospheric weight we ourselves stand up under; even here, above-ground, in the air; how vast, then, the burden of a whale, bearing on his back a column of two hundred fathoms of ocean! It must at least equal the weight of fifty atmospheres. One whaleman has estimated it at the weight of twenty line-of-battle ships, with all their guns, and stores, and men on board.

As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock.

Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said--"Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!" This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod's fish-spears!

In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes' army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!

"Stand by, men; he stirs," cried Starbuck, as the three lines suddenly vibrated in the water, distinctly conducting upwards to them, as by magnetic wires, the life and death throbs of the whale, so that every oarsman felt them in his seat. The next moment, relieved in great part from the downward strain at the bows, the boats gave a sudden bounce upwards, as a small icefield will, when a dense herd of white bears are scared from it into the sea.
"Haul in! Haul in!" cried Starbuck again; "he's rising."

The lines, of which, hardly an instant before, not one hand's breadth could have been gained, were now in long quick coils flung back all dripping into the boats, and soon the whale broke water within two ship's lengths of the hunters.

His motions plainly denoted his extreme exhaustion. In most land animals there are certain valves or flood-gates in many of their veins, whereby when wounded, the blood is in some degree at least instantly shut off in certain directions. Not so with the whale; one of whose peculiarities it is to have an entire non-valvular structure of the blood-vessels, so that when pierced even by so small a point as a harpoon, a deadly drain is at once begun upon his whole arterial system; and when this is heightened by the extraordinary pressure of water at a great distance below the surface, his life may be said to pour from him in incessant streams. Yet so vast is the quantity of blood in him, and so distant and numerous its interior fountains, that he will keep thus bleeding and bleeding for a considerable period; even as in a drought a river will flow, whose source is in the well-springs of far-off and undiscernible hills. Even now, when the boats pulled upon this whale, and perilously drew over his swaying flukes, and the lances were darted into him, they were followed by steady jets from the new made wound, which kept continually playing, while the natural spout-hole in his head was only at intervals, however rapid, sending its affrighted moisture into the air. From this last vent no blood yet came, because no vital part of him had thus far been struck. His life, as they significantly call it, was untouched.

As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discoloured bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

"A nice spot," cried Flask; "just let me prick him there once."

"Avast!" cried Starbuck, "there's no need of that!"

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground--so the last long dying spout of the whale.

Soon, while the crews were awaiting the arrival of the ship, the body showed symptoms of sinking with all its treasures unrifled. Immediately, by Starbuck's orders, lines were secured to it at different points, so that ere long every boat was a buoy; the sunken whale being suspended a few inches beneath them by the cords. By very heedful management, when the ship drew nigh, the whale was transferred to her side, and was strongly secured there by the stiffest fluke-chains, for it was plain that unless artificially upheld, the body would at once sink to the bottom.

It so chanced that almost upon first cutting into him with the spade, the entire length of a corroded harpoon was found imbedded in his flesh, on the lower part of the bunch before described. But as the stumps of harpoons are frequently found in the dead bodies of captured whales, with the flesh perfectly healed around them, and no prominence of any kind to denote their place; therefore, there must needs have been some other unknown reason in the present case fully to account for the ulceration alluded to. But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor' West Indian long before America was discovered.

What other marvels might have been rummaged out of this monstrous cabinet there is no telling. But a sudden stop was put to further discoveries, by the ship's being unprecedentedly dragged over sideways to the sea, owing to the body's immensely increasing tendency to sink. However, Starbuck, who had the ordering of affairs, hung on to it to the last; hung on to it so resolutely, indeed, that when at length the ship would have been capsized, if still persisting in locking arms with the body; then, when the command was given to break clear from it, such was the immovable strain upon the timber-heads to which the fluke-chains and cables were fastened, that it was impossible to cast them off. Meantime everything in the Pequod was aslant. To cross to the other side of the deck was like walking up the steep gabled roof of a house. The ship groaned and gasped. Many of the ivory inlayings of her bulwarks and cabins were started from their places, by the unnatural dislocation. In vain handspikes and crows were brought to bear upon the immovable fluke-chains, to pry them adrift from the timberheads; and so low had the whale now settled that the submerged ends could not be at all approached, while every moment whole tons of ponderosity seemed added to the sinking bulk, and the ship seemed on the point of going over.

"Hold on, hold on, won't ye?" cried Stubb to the body, "don't be in such a devil of a hurry to sink! By thunder, men, we must do something or go for it. No use prying there; avast, I say with your handspikes, and run one of ye for a prayer book and a pen-knife, and cut the big chains."

"Knife? Aye, aye," cried Queequeg, and seizing the carpenter's heavy hatchet, he leaned out of a porthole, and steel to iron, began slashing at the largest fluke-chains. But a few strokes, full of sparks, were given, when the exceeding strain effected the rest. With a terrific snap, every fastening went adrift; the ship righted, the carcase sank."

That poor old bull, blind and unable to swim properly, run down and slaughtered, only to be released, to sink as so much shark-meat, to the bottom, a wasted death. Melville includes the description of the stone spear point dug from the whale, to illustrate its great age, and the tragedy of his death is deliberately evoked.

Melville felt for the whale, I'm sure. His compassion bleeds from that heartbreaking line:
"It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright."
That whole section makes for uncomfortable reading: it's like an old blind lame man being hunted down mercilessly, and slaughtered.

Of course, the whale, as a species, gets its own back, in the form of the almost supernatural Moby Dick, an old, white-humped bull who, despite his age, and the assorted ironmongery which is embedded in his ancient hide, is the polar antithesis of the weak, blind, wretched victim of the pursuit and murder described heretofore.

Though this is fiction, the same must have occurred many times, Wise old whales of a century's age or more, wise and with poor eyesight, like any elderly human, shepherded by their loving family, treated like so much meat. It's not just the age of the animal, or the fact that its wild, free life was ended, but the agonising slowness, the torture of that death.

The following links all lead to sites featuring whaling, largely taking an anti-whaling stance. Please visit them for a look at their argument. If you want the other side, the pro-whaling side, it's easy enough to find.

I make no pretence of balance. I'm resolutely anti-whaling and always have been.


  1. I have to confess, I ate a whale once.

    Not a whole one. Although I am a man of prodigious appetites, often biting off more than I can chew, it was "hval karri" - whale curry.

    I was young, in Norway (Lofoten Islands climbing trip) and having a rebellious streak and a "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" frame of mind, I went for it. All washed down with a six quid pint of lager.

    I feel bad about it now and I wish I hadn't. It didn't taste particularly special, could've been beef. Might have been beef!

    They're beautiful creatures and there was really no need.

    Mind you, from a conservation point of view, there are worse things one could eat. If you're partial to cod and chips you might as well ask for a side order of giant panda while you're at it!

  2. Yeah, sadly the cod are becoming like that. The fishing industry has really shot itself in the foot. Both feet. And the head. Just like whaling, once it became mechanised and super efficient, the fish had no chance really. Perhaps it's best if the fishing fleets do go bankrupt, although I'm very much afraid they'll just find other, hitherto unexploited dspecies to decimate (vis patagonian toothfish).

  3. PS Don't feel too bad about eating whalemeat. We all do things we later regret. Just as long as we learn from it.

  4. Anonymous12:42 AM

    I would just like to inform you that the picture of the ship leading off your post is not actually a 19th century whaling ship. This a Dutch-built naval training vessel; it never served as part of a whaling fleet. Currently, this ship is owned by the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
    A whaling ship would have large whaling boats hanging over the rails and raised above the deck, though it is hard to see that there are no boats on board in this picture, due to the angle and the fact that it was taken in the winter (the spars are slanted to avoid ice build up and the sails have been removed--likewise boats would probably be stored inside as well).

    Otherwise, I enjoyed your post.


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