From the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, American whalers dominated the seas. Whaling not only generated saleable products but also offered careers to numerous men of little means, including escaped slaves. However, as the industry hunted whales to the brink of extinction and as other, less expensive, products took the place of those supplied by whales, the industry eventually collapsed.
In the United States, commercial whaling was connected with the Quaker colony of Nantucket for much of its early history. As members of a religious minority, the Massachusetts colony’s Quakers had been forced to live on Nantucket Island, where farming was impossible and the only way to make a living was by fishing. Initially, colony members only towed whales to shore for butchering and processing. In this period, the Nantucketers hunted “right whales,” so called because they were the “right” whales to be hunting.
In 1712, a whaler captained by Christopher Hussey, after being blown out to sea, brought in a new kind of whale, a sperm whale, named for the clear fluid, or spermaceti, that filled its enormous head cavity. Larger than right whales and carrying less blubber, sperm whales held enormous value for the colonists. Spermaceti candles, for instance, burned clear, unlike those made from animal tallow, which smoked. Sperm whale oil, when burned in oil lamps, did not give off the bad smell produced by right whale oil.
During the 1750’s, Nantucket Islanders began building brick furnaces onboard their ships and fortifying the ships for long sea voyages. These treks, stretching literally around the world, would surge in popularity as whaling became increasingly profitable over the next forty years. Whale oil and parts could be used for any number of products. All whales produced lamp oil. Baleen whales, including right whales and Bowhead whales, produced baleen plates that were used in umbrella ribs and corsets. Spermaceti candles and ambergris perfume (made from a particular part of the sperm whale’s intestine) were popular sperm whale products, and sailors carved scrimshaw on sperm whale teeth.
A ship’s crew earned a portion of the vessel’s profits from selling whales, theoretically motivating them to stay at sea until the ship’s hold was full of oil. However, as the men had to buy almost all their supplies from the ship’s owners while at sea, they often spent their profits before returning to shore. They were then indentured to take another cruise with the ship to discharge their debts. By far, the majority of the working hands on American whaling ships were
Whaling’s center shifted from Nantucket to Hudson Bay after the latter location proved to have a better harbor for fortified whale ships, which were built to last for years at sea. Occasionally, a whale ship would be lost to the seas or, very rarely, to whale attack. Such losses cost the landside ship owners heavily, as, after outfitting a ship, they already had to wait years to see a profit from it. Such stories as that of Mocha Dick, a white whale said to have attacked numerous ships and been harpooned on nineteen different occasions before finally being killed off the coast of Switzerland, and the tragedy of the whale ship Essex, sunk by an angry sperm whale, spurred Herman Melville to write Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851).
Whaling began experiencing a decline in popularity as early as the 1860’s. Two factors led to its decline. First, fossil fuels offered a cheaper source of lighting fuel than did whale oil, reducing the demand for sperm whales. Second, right whales and Bowhead whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Whalers temporarily boosted the industry through the use of steam-powered harpoon cannons, making captures easier, safer, and less expensive, and allowing them to capture faster and larger rorqual whales, such as the enormous blue whale.
During the early twentieth century, whale oil could be made into products ranging from medicines to margarine, and whale meat enjoyed brief popularity during World War II, when other meat products were scarce. However, the central fact remained: Whale populations worldwide were declining. After World War II, whaling nations formed the
Whale populations continued to decline. Moreover, human perceptions of whales and whaling began to shift during the 1970’s, and whaling was perceived as both unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel. Finally, in 1982, the IWC declared a moratorium on all whaling, with only minor loopholes, to give whale populations a chance to recover. The moratorium has not been lifted, as populations continue to struggle, and many former whaling companies have turned to offering whale tours, eschewing hunting altogether.
Chrisp, Peter. The Whalers. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995. Aimed at junior high school students, this work is nonetheless fully applicable to high school and college audiences. Includes discussions of commercial whaling and the downfall of modern whaling beginning during the 1860’s. Dolin, Eric Jay. Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. New York: Norton, 2007. History of whaling including its rapid growth in the American colonies to its heyday in the nineteenth century and its ultimate demise. Several chapters focus on the products and business of whaling. Ellis, Richard. Men and Whales. New York: Knopf, 1991. Examines whaling from colonial days until the 1986 moratorium. Includes inland whaling, as well as the more well-known business of whaling at sea. McKissack, Pat, and Fred McKissack. Black Hands, White Sails: The History of African-American Whalers. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Details the lives of African American whalers. Discusses the reasons such jobs were readily available to them, including white distaste for rough professions. Philbrick, Nathaniel. Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000. Examines the whale attack that sank the Essex, leading its crew to set forth for land in whale boats, where most perished at sea. Includes thorough discussion of whaling as a Quaker business and its Nantucket Island origins.
Fur trapping and trading