is not known, when humans first started to hunt whales but countless
finds of the past leave no doubt that whaling already started thousands
of years ago, long before written records were kept.
In Scandinavia several rock paintings were discovered that
depict small whales. Historical evidence for whaling in early history
can also be found in other parts of the world, for example, in Korea,
Japan, North America or Siberia.
There is no archaeological evidence for all possible areas but
we can assume that wherever people have lived, they have always
found “use” for these exceptional mammals, as long as
they could find a way to catch them.
Due to the long and extensive history of whaling, it is impossible
to write an exhaustive documentation at this point. The information
on hand lays no claim to be comprehensive. It is at best a summary
of the historical key figures and focuses mainly on the developments
in Northwest-Europe. The American-European whaling business of the
14th century will therefore not be dealt with here (For the
reader interested in further reading, a look at the list of reference
books is recommended. Please see about whaling
› further reading).
1. The Significance of the Whale
Whaling was not always related to harpoons, ropes and boats. Whales
were captured in more primitive ways, before these ingenious fishing
methods were established: poisoned arrows, fishing nets and the
easiest method – to process beached animals or those that
had strayed into shallow waters.
It is easy to understand why the whale was a very popular catch,
as every part of the animal could be used. The meat and blubber
served as high energy food, the train-oil was suitable as fuel,
the whalebone could be used as an elastic basic material for many
products, and the bones as stable building material. Moreover, one
single animal was able to supply huge quantities of these raw materials.
The blue whale, the largest whale species, is a good example to
illustrate this point, even though the hunt for this huge animal
started relatively late:
A female blue whale can grow to be about 33 metres, weighing about
150 tons. This corresponds to the weight of 25 to 30 fully-grown
African elephants, about 250 cows or 2000 humans. The blubber
of such a whale alone would supply more fat than the milk of 250
cows produced in a year.
Even though the body measurements in this example mark the upper
limit, it is not surprising in the view of such or similar statistics,
that it was seen as a godsend when larger animals stranded near
human habitats. Without a doubt, whales have always been a “fat
2. The Beginning
The inhabitants of Lapland were probably one of the first people
in Europe to hunt whales on a larger scale – even before the
Vikings. The period of the Vikings, the spreading of the Normans
is dated to the 9th–11th century. Towards the end
of this period the hunting for whales in Scandinavia and the North
Sea region lost in significance, while new whaling centres formed
in Southern Europe. The business flourished especially in the Spanish
and French Basque region. Soon the French city of Bayonne, located
at the bottom of the Pyrenees, became one of the most important
trading centres for whale meat. The Spanish town of San Sebasián
and other places have seen similar developments.
The Bay of Biscay was a very rich fishing ground. In particular
the North-Atlantic right whale (also known as the Biscayan right
whale) migrated to spend the cold season in Biscay. But for these
right whales it was much easier to swim into the bay than to get
out: Continuously improved fishing techniques proved very successful
for the Basques, resulting in a serious decimation of the whale
population in Biscay at the beginning of the 11th century.
This lead to reduced yields near the coast and the need to open
up new distant fishing grounds. For this reason, in the mid 16th century
Basque whalers crossed the Atlantic and began hunting near the North-American
Around the same time their efforts expanded within Europe, in particular
into the North. At the beginning of the 17th century Basque
whalers were also present in the Westfjords of Iceland.
Here, in the European Arctic, ships from all well-known whaling
nations could be found: Norwegians, Germans, French, Dutch, Spaniards
and Britons, too.
Although the European neighbours pushed into this business, in terms
of fishing techniques, experience and specialised knowledge, the
Basques remained the masters for a long time.
3. Greenland Trade, Bay- and Ice Fishing
Dutch voyages of discovery started the next important period in
the history of European whaling.
In the second half of the 16th century the southern sea passages
to the Far East were subject to the supervision of Portugal and
Spain. To escape their control, the English and Dutch seamen intensified
the search for an alternative, northern route, the so-called “Northeast
Passage”. While the search for a route through the Polar Sea
was unsuccessful the Dutch explorers made another rewarding discovery:
The polar waters around Spitsbergen were teeming with whales and
walrusses. After the seamen were forced to spend the winter on Novaya
Zemlya they brought the news of these rich fishing grounds to Europe
on their return in 1597.
Some years later, around 1611/1612, the first English and Dutch
whalers appeared on the coasts of Spitsbergen and started the epoch
of the so-called “Greenland Trade”. Although this name
soon established itself, it was founded on a mistake: The Dutch
explorer Willem Barents had mistakenly taken Spitsbergen for the
East Coast of Greenland. The Region, in which “Greenland Traders”
hunted their prey, reached from the European North Sea to the Greenland
Sea up to the Barents Sea – from the Norwegian Jan Mayen to
The probably most famous whaling station, which consisted of eight
boiling stations was Smeerenburg on Amsterdamoya located on the
north-western corner of Spitsbergen. For over 40 years mainly Dutch
whalers, coopers, and men who boiled the train oil worked there
– in busy times a few hundred men.
As many whales stayed near the coast, in the bays, the demand could
be fulfilled for some time by bay-fishing alone. But stocks were
quickly depleted and therefore the work of catching and processing
of whales had to be moved to the open sea. The era of ice- and sea
fishing had begun. Far from the coast, methods for catching and
processing whales had to be adapted to the changed conditions. Due
to the large distance to the train oil boiling stations on land
the blubber of the animals had to be stored in barrels and stored
on board. The animals would be cut up in the water alongside the
ship and “flensed” i.e. the blubber was cut off in pieces,
hoisted in and the oil boiled out on board.
The bowhead whale (balaena mysticetus) and the so-called North
Atlantic right whale (eubalaena glacialis) were the most sought-after
catches during the period of historical arctic whaling. Both species
have features that make them a valued and relatively easy catch:
Because of their large, stocky build they are slow swimmers (between
five and ten kilometres per hour), they have an exceptionally thick
layer of blubber, the largest baleen plates (up to four metres)
and – most important – their carcasses float on the
surface of the water. Especially this last feature gave the North
Atlantic right whale it’s name “right whale”.
This was of great importance as a dead but floating carcass could
much easier be pulled ashore.
With the advent of modern fishing techniques in the middle of the
19th century the hunt was extended to the faster Rorquals (Balaenopteridae)
(see also about whaling › modern
whaling › The Invention of the
The era of the “Greenland trade” lasted into the 20th century,
more precisely until the start of the First World War. Therefore
the epoch of European whaling lasted for almost exactly three centuries.
Without question English and Dutch whalers set the tone during this
time period. But the fleets of other nations had a considerable
part in the events in the Polar sea: besides the French and Danish,
also German ships of Hamburg or Altona ship owners – mostly
manned by Friesians.
The whaling business in Iceland had been under the control of foreign
countries for a long time. Norwegians founded the first whaling
station on the island in 1880. Soon companies from Germany, France
and other nations set up business there. The Icelanders themselves
did not run their own whaling station until 1930.
4. The Hunt for Doeglings
The advance of harpoon guns and steam-powered ships changed not
only the technique of whaling, but it also considerably increased
the variety of animals that could be hunted.
Until then it had been necessary, due to the sluggishness of the
large sailing boats, to use small rowing boats (“sloops”)
to pursue the whales. Now it was possible to harpoon them directly
from the ship – firstly, because the harpoons had the necessary
range, secondly, because the steamers were not dependent on favourable
weather conditions and therefore much easier to manoeuvre (see also
about the story › the
age of steamboats).
The combination of these technical innovations now enabled the
whalers to harpoon whales that before were largely spared due to
their speed: Rorquals like humpback whales, sei-, blue- and finback
whales. Or doeglings.
The hunt for doeglings plays only a secondary role in the history
of whaling, but nevertheless, this 40-year period is of importance:
Here the harpoon guns were first employed on a large scale to hunt
In the 1880s Norwegian and British seal hunters started to hunt
doeglings (also called bottlenose- or beaked whales). Even though
these animals did not constitute an important part of the catch
during these hunting trips, they were still a welcomed addition
to the seal catch.
Pictures from this time clearly show, that doegling pods were hunted,
using harpoon guns, firing directly from the bow of the mother ship
or from rowing boats. Firing the harpoon gun from the mother ship
has become the preferred method, as it is advantageous for the hunter
and hasn’t changed significantly to our day.
Photos (from the top): IMSI Masterphotos, USA; Jens F. Ehrenreich
(illustrations: harpoons, paintings and map);© pxcom/visipix.com;
IMSI Masterphotos, USA