In doing research for my fourth Will Rees mystery, I studied the whaling industry of the 1790’s. And I have to say, with all the problems associated with the oil we extract from the ground, taking the whales for their oil is a far less defensible practice.
What a dangerous and bloody job.
Although the Native Americans and early colonists whaled from shore, the right whales that were easily caught in canoes and with simple harpoons were rapidly depleted. But in the early 1700s, a new kind of whale was discovered: the sperm whale. Unlike the peaceable right whale, the sperm whale was a 55 ft hard fighting whale with teeth. But its head was filled with a pure oil called spermaceti that, when exposed to the air and hardened, was prized for candles. Sperm whales were also much faster. The harpoons were fastened to long ropes and the whale, when it ran, pulled the boat after it. In New England, this was called the Nantucket Sleigh Ride.
Sometimes the whale pulled the boat so far away from the mother ship, they could not find it again. Sometimes the whale, in pain, used it’s tail to flip and smash the boat and the sailors were killed.
Even whale hunting in the Atlantic might take several months. The ships were small and most of the crew slept in narrow bunks stacked in threes. If the trip was long enough, the food spoiled and even the water went bad. There were long periods of inactivity in which the crew carved whale bone – scrimshaw or made elaborate rope forms.
But these trips were, of course, much worse for any whale spotted and pursued.