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Whaling: Greenland and Davis Strait Fishery: Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Whaling: Greenland and Davis Strait Fishery

EA-General: Greenland-Svalbard
(R.N. Rudmose Brown)

WHALING: GREENLAND AND DAVIS STRAIT FISHERY

The hunt of the Biscay whale ( Balaena glacialis or biscavensis )
began at least as long as the tenth century by Basque whalers who
b g radually exterminated the whale in Biscayan waters or drove them from
inshore waters out to sea. The hunt went westward on to the high seas
until it was pursued off Newfoundland and New England in the sixteenth
century. Icelanders sought the same whale around their coasts and the
Norwegians too had a fishery in northern seas. Gradually but surely this
whale, wanted mainly for oil, was hunted to virtual extinction. Thus the
whalers were driven to more distant seas and to the chase of the closely
allied Greenland or Nordkaper whale ( B. mysticetus ), also called the
right whale, since all others except the sperm whale, which rarely enters
the Arctic seas, were wrong whales from the whalers standpoint. Closely
related is the bowhead (sometimes called B. japonica ) of the Bering and
Beaufort seas hunted by American ships. Possibly this whale is the same
as the Greenland whale. Also closely related is the southern right whale
( B. australis ) hunted in the southern ocean in the first half of the
nineteenth century. A full-sized Greenland whale yields over a tone of
whalebone or baleen and nearly 30 tons of oil. It is a slow-moving animal,
rarely going over four knots, and so accessible to the hand harpoons of the

EA-General: Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

old whalers. Its gregariousness has also hastened its fate even though
the schools are small, six or eight as a rule. Originally, like the Biscay
whale, they seem to have frequented inshore waters but to have moved in the
high seas when excessively molested.
The discovery in 1596 of Bear Island and Spitsbergen by Barents soon
drew attention to the enormous number of whales in these waters. H. Hudson
in 1607 and J. Poole in 1611 reported vast numbers in coastal waters. The
Muscovy Company chartered in 1555, and the Noordsche Company consolidated
the respective interests of England and the Netherlands, and each was given
a monopoly in whaling. Whaling was an art little understood by the English
and at first the Moscovy Company's skippers were more interested in the easily
caught walrus and seal, but the employment of Basque harpooners soon taught
the other nations how to share in this new harvest of the Arctic seas.
The ships of the two monopolists did not have it all to themselves.
Danes, Basques, and French and, somewhat later, Germans, were on the scene.
There were also many interlopers from Hull, York, London and other ports.
Rivalry and armed disputes arose in Spitsbergen regarding the use of bays;
some bays were better than others or afforded good landing places and sites
for the coppers in which the blubber was boiled down for oil. J. Fotherby
of the Muscovy Company had authority in 1613 to claim Spitsbergen as King
James His New Land and erected several posts to this effect in the northwest
where whaling was inactive. This roused Dutch resentment and they sent more
ships and protective vessels. Then the King of Denmark in 1618 made a claim
on the grounds that the land was part of Greenland, long a Danish possession,
but neither the Dutch nor the English paid much attention to the King's
argument or claim.

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

The problem gradually solved itself; the Dutch used bays in the north–
west and the English chiefly those in the southwest. Ships of other nations
had to do the best they could. In some years there were several hundred
whalers at work in Spitsbergen waters, at Bear Island and at Jan Mayen.
The majority were Dutch and they were the most assiduous. The English
whalers prompted by either curiosity or desire of new whaling grounds fre–
quently explored to the north and east and their names figure often on the
map of Spitsbergen; the Dutch were less interested in such work though there
were exceptions. They had several shore settlements of which Smeerenberg
(Blubber-town), founded in 1617, was the largest with a summer population
of some 2,000 from about 1633 to 1640. Smeerenberg was on Amsterdam Island
and originally was mainly an Amsterdam venture, but soon had huts or "tents"
as they were called of other ports, Middelburg, Flushing, Delft, etc., as
these ports became embraces in the charter of the Noordsche Co. The remains
of the brick foundations and the nearby graveyars have long been the only
trace. Other inlets on the west also bear traces of their old use in brick
foundations and many graves. The whales, killed near the coast, were towed
ashore for the extraction of the oil and whalebone. The skeletons lay for
years on the beeches and most have long since crumbled. Examination of those
on Jan Mayen show that it was the Greenland and not the Biscay whale that
was hunted in Spitsbergen waters.
By the middle of the seventeenth century the monopolies both of the
Dutch and English companies had expired and interlopers were common.
Hamburg and Bremen ships also began to "fish" in 1640 and did well for half
a century or even longer. From 1625 onward English whaling decreased in
numbers of ships and by 1666 was practically moribund but the Dutch maintained

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

their numbers and had a clear ascendency. In 1683 there were 204 Dutch
ships and 50 Hamburg ships, in 1721 Dutch ships were 251, German 79 and
Biscayan 20, but already (1718) the Dutch had pushed west to Davis Strait.
In those days the risk of being forced to winter in the Arctic through
shipwreck or other misfortune was looked upon with horror. "No other thing
could be looked for but a miserable and pining death, seeing there appeared
no possibility of inhabiting there, or to endure so long and so bitter a
winter." So wrote Ed. Pelham of a party of eight men accidentally left
behind by a whaler in Green Harbour in 1630. But they proved to be men of
stout heart. They chose Bell Sound, where there was an English summer sta–
tion with adequate huts and timber, for their winter quarters. For fuel
they had a few broken boats, empty casks, and packing cases and they began
the winter with a store of meat from nineteen reindeer and four bears.
They were on short rations at times but, luckily for them, had no salt meat
to fall back on. From time to time they killed a few walrus or foxes and a
bear and when spring came guillemots and puffins, and they collected plenty
of eggs. The following spring they were reembarked in good health. The
whalers were anxious to find a few willing winterers to protect their property
ashore. At Smeerenberg such a party in 1633-34 survived, while at Jan Mayen
an equal number perished, as did a later party at Smeerenberg.
As the bay fishery began to fail, the whalers went westward to the open
sea though Spitsbergen bays were utilized but to a decreasing extent during
the eighteenth century. The open-sea fishery, which was chiefly Dutch,
entailed the transport of the blubber to Europe and the establishment of
cookeries and blubber houses at whaling ports in the Netherlands and Germany.
A change of cruising areas of the whales from inshore waters to the open sea

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was held to be due to the whales' timidity and fear of being hunted. Very
likely this was a contributory reason but the main reason was the rapid
reduction in number of whales owing to excessive slaughter.
The Greenland whale lives in the vicinity of the pack, hence its fond–
ness for northwest rather than southwest Spitsbergen waters. Its migrations
are dependent on various small crustaceans and pterpods which in their turn
are dependent on diatoms. Diatoms flourish best in cold waters near the
pack. Spring migrant whales pass Jan Mayen from the southwest following the
retreating pack ice. In summer they are off Spitsbergen moving west and
northwest. In autumn and winter they are off the east coast of Greenland
beyond the pack ice of the East Greenland Current and it was there that the
new phase of the Greenland fishery developed.
Thus it followed closely the pattern of the earlier Atlantic whaling in
its movement to the high seas. It was still called the Greenland Fishery, as
it had been originally termed when Spitsbergen was beliefed to be part of
Freenland. This new Greenland fishery was less successful than the earlier
one and drew fewer ships. At first it was pursued in high latitudes up to
lat. 80° N., about 100 miles west of Spitsbergen. Later it came south and
farther west, but the Greenland whale was always the chief prey. The Dutch
were still the most active. From 1749 to 1758 they made 1,337 voyages to
the Greenland Sea as well as 340 to Davis Strait. That was the peak of
that fishery: at the end of the century the Dutch were sending to Greenland
only 287 vessels in the period 1789-1794 and a quarter of that number to
Davis Strait.
The English participation would have been slight were it not for the
government bounty established in 1736 and lasting until 1824. It began at

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£ 1 per ton on ships over 200 tons: in that year there were only four English
ships against 100 Dutch. In 1740 the bonus was increased to 30/- plus a
war bonus of 10/- but it had little effect on the industry. A further
increase to 40/- in 1749 began to tell and by 1759 the English whale fishery
was well established. The Dutch also had a bounty system. The high importance
of whaling was in the provision of oil for soap and illumination, though in
modern times it has found other uses. The whalebone or baleen was also of
growing value before the days of thin and highly pliable steel. There is no
accurate figure of the whales caught in any fishery but between 1670 and 1794
the Dutch alone - and they were certainly the predominant partners - are said
to have taken 53,000 whales in the Greenland Sea, while between 1719 and 1794
they took another 10,000 in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.
The nineteenth century was a period of almost steady decline in the
Greenland fishery, though the growing price of whalebone allowed a voyage to show some profit ,
even when only two whales were caught. In 1819 Hull had 65 whalers but by
1828 the total of all British whalers was only 89. The whaling became a
gamble. A "clean" ship meant loss; a good catch brought a share of the pro–
ceeds to everyone aboard. There was always the risk of losing the ship. The
pack ice off East Greenland was dangerous to vessels caught in its grip.
Gradually the fishing deserted the Greenland Sea for Davis Strait. This
was about the same time — before the middle of the nineteenth century —
that American whalers from their fisheries off Kamchatka and in the sea of
Okhotsk went through Bering Strait in chase of the bowhead whale in the
Beaufort Sea, the Russian forbidding foreign whalers on the coasts of
Siberia.
The introduction of auxiliary steam to the whaling barques and ships

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

began about this time. Its effect on the Davis Strait fishery is noted
elsewhere; it came too late to have much influence on the Greenland fishery.
The use of i t r on in the construction of whalers was not successful; i t r on
could not withstand heavy ice and several iron ships were promptly holed
and lost. Some Norwegians clung to sail as being more economical but the
few British vessels that went to the Greenland fishery all had auxiliary
steam. Apart from the expense and practical difficulty of installing engines,
there was the argument that the best of the propeller would frighten the
whales. The advantages, however, were too great to be ignored. Steam
reduced greatly the ever-present danger of being caught in the pact and crushed.
The first English steam whaler was a Hull vessel in 1857, and soon nearly all
the dwindling fleet had steam. Hull gave up whaling in 1868 but the several
Scottish ports held on and some of their vessels continued to go to the
Greenland fishery. In 1868 there were in the Greenland fishery 15 British
whalers who took between them 3 whales and some seals, ten of them returned
"clean." The general plan was to leave the home port in February and, calling
at the Shetlands to complete the crew, to hunt the saddleback or harp seal
on the south or east ice, north of the island of Jan Mayen, in March; then
return home and set out again in April or May for the west and north ice,
the pack on the verge of the East Greenland Current, or to Davis Strait
and Baffin Bay, and home at last in October and November. The Scottish
ports Dundee, Peterhead, Kirkaldy, Aberdeen, Leith, etc., persisted both
in the Greenland Sea and Davis Strait fisheries long after the English ports
had given up.
During the nineteenth century the Dutch ships also disappeared. Many
of the Norwegian whalers and sealers built later than the British vessels
carried a more lasting fame as the vessels of exploring expeditions to Arctic

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

or Antarctic after their commercial days had ended. Among others were the
Jason , the Antarctic , the Aurora , the Frithjof , the Eclipse , the Patria
(later the Belgica ), the Hekla (later the Scotia ), and several others. As
whales became scarcer more ships went west to Davis Strait. Some of the
vessels that clung to the Greenland Sea showed a disposition to hunt
anything marketable. In 1897-98 one Dundee whaler, the Balaena , hunted
walrus in Franz Josef Land, and in 1892 several Scottish and Norwegian
whalers looked for right whales in the Antarctic but failed to find them,
though half a century or so earlier they had been plentiful.
By the opening years of the present century only a few Dundee ships
and some Norwegians visited either the Greenland Sea or Davis Strait. By
1912 the last two Scottish whalers from Dundee gave up the hopeless quest.
The Greenland whale was almost extinct.
The invention in 1866 of the harpoon gun by Sven Foyn and its applica–
tion to whalers provided with steam power, in short the mechanisation of
whaling, came too late to affect the languishing pursuit of the Greenland
whale in any arctic sea. But before long it made it practical to hunt the
quickly moving "finners," the fin whale ( Balaenaoptera physalus ), the blue
whale ( B. musculus ), and the humpback ( Megaptera nodosa ), and allied
whales. The industry, using steam whalers and shore stations, spread
from northern Norway to Iceland, the Faeroes, the Shetlands, and the
Hebrides. Active agitation by fishermen against whaling in Norwegian
waters was founded on the belief that the whales drove away the fish from
inshore waters. It was probably a misconception but it led the Norwegian
government to prohibit whaling in territorial waters. This resulted in
Spitsbergen again becoming a whaling base. From 1905 to 1908 there was a
Norwegian whaling station on Bear Island (Björnöya) which dealt with 231

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

finners and humpbacks. In Spitsbergen, Green Harbour (Grönfjorden),
Horn Sund, and Bellsund had shore stations or floating factories from
1905 to 1912 when the poverty of the catch put an end to the last remain–
ing station. Bear Island and Spitsbergen were notably successful only
in their first year. In 1905 together they returned a catch of 599 whales
from 16 whalers. Whaling in Scottish waters was also restricted by law
and in 1920 there were only three stations in Scotland and one in Eire.
The Scottish stations were reported in that year to have taken 658 whales,
including one right whale, but mainly blue whales. Since 1915 Iceland has
had only one station which up to the war was taking from 28 to 140 whales
a year. This last phase of the Greenland fishery is rapidly dying out;
for a time at least arctic whaling is at an end. Many years' freedom from
hunting will be needed for the stock of whales to recover.
Davis Strait Fishery
The Davis Strait Fishery was the outcome of the growing failure, in the
eighteenth century, of the Greenland fishery. In 1719, if not earlier, the
Dutch sent ships to Davis Strait and the number grew slowly. In 1787, if
[: ] there were 8 Dutch ships in Davis Strait against 59 at the
Greenland fishery; in 1791 there were 14 in Davis Strait and 48 in the
Greenland fishery. Davis Strait grew slowly in popularity. From 1719
to 1778 the Dutch are said to have taken 6,986 whales in Davis Strait,
that is, about 116 whales a year, a small number compared with that of
the old Greenland fishery. In fact, it was not until 1819 after Ross and
Parry on their polar expeditions had reported abundant whales that British
whalers went to that "country" in large numbers. Before that time they had

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

rarely gone north or west of Disko. In 1823 Hull whalers alone took 2,000
whales and in the years 1827-30 British ships are said to have taken 3,391
whales or 848 a year in Baffin Bay, Lancaster Sound, and Pond Inlet. The
whales appeared off the southwest coast of Greenland in May, presumably
coming from Atlantic waters, specially the Labrador Sea. They moved north
and west whither the whalers followed them, cross the hundred miles or
more of the dreaded Melville Bay with its heavy floes and bergs to the
North Water off Smith Sound and especially to the West Water off Barrow
Strait and Pond Inlet. There was the richest "country" for the whales
but the price of getting there might be high.
It was a usual occurrence before steam was introduced for two or three
ships to be lost every year in Melville Bay. In 1830, the worst year on
record, twenty-one ships were lost. The ships used to make the crossing
in single file, jib to stern. The crew might have to get out onto the
pack and "track" or tow the vessel. Sometimes the whalers staye x d too late
in the West Water waiting for the autumn "run" of the whales. Others
wintered by choice to be on hand for the spring "run." A few Americans also
did this and it was safe enough in an inlet like Cumberland Sound but to
be caught in the drifting pack generally meant disaster. In 1890 there
was one American whaler in Davis Strait, in 1892 one, in 1895 five, and
in 1897 two. At that date British whalers were still fairly numerous but
all did not go to the Davis Strait fishery. In 1830 thirteen Scottish ports
had 91 whalers; in 1857 seven Scottish ports had 60 and in 1868 six ports
had 30 vessels. In that year ten of the Scottish whalers caught 104 whales
in the Davis Strait fishery. The numbers of whalers and whales annually
decreased and the English decline was quicker than the Scottish. For
many years an Aberdeen and Peterhead firm had a shore station at Blacklead

EA-General. Brown: Greenland-Svalbard

Island, in Cumberland Sound, where Eskimos were employed in whale hunts.
This continued into the early years of the present century though Aberdeen
and Peterhead whalers left the high seas many years earlier.
Like the Greenland fishery, that of Davis Strait has long ago ceased;
the Greenland whale if not extinct is now very scarce. Some idea of the
steady decline of this fishery is shown in the following figures for
Dundee, the last of the British whaling ports. Greenland and Davis Strait
figures are not separated. All whales are Greenland whales. (Figures
from different sources are not identical for same years).
Year Ships Whales
1874 11 190
1885 17 27
1887 10 20
1890 17 12
1893 5 29
1898 7 8
1910 10 18
1911 8 7
1913 2 0
The following table gives the average number of whalers from the port of
Hull from the beginning of its interest in whales until near the end of
its whaling history in 1868. Until the 1820's most voyages were to the
Greenland Fishery, thereafter to Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.

EA-General. Brown: Greenland Svalbard

Year Ships
1772-76 10
1777-81 5
1782-86 10
1787-91 28
1792-94 18
1795-1806 29
1807-13 40
1814-24 54
1825-34 29
1835-44 1
1845-52 12
References :
See W. M. Conway No Man's Land, 1906: J. T. Jenkins, A History of the
Whale Fisheries
, 1921; B. Aagaard, Den Gamle Hvalfangst, Oslo, 1933;
Sir Sidney Harmer, "The History of Whaling", Linncan Soc. of London ,
140 Session, 1928; W. G. Burn Murdoch, Modern Whaling and Bear Hunting , 1917.
Various volumes descriptive of whaling cruises to the Greenland Sea or Davis
Strait "Fisheries" have been written by naturalists or doctors who sailed
with the ships. It was usual to carry a doctor, often merely a medical
student. Among such volumes are F. Martens Spitsbergische oder Greenlandische
Reise Beschreibung
Hamburg, 1675, or a translation in A. White, Spitsbergen ,
Hakluyt Society, 1855; J. Laing, A Voyage to Spitzbergen , 1815, and other
editions in 1818, 1820, and 1822; W. Scoresby, Journal of a Voyage to the
Northern Whale Fishery
, 1822; A. H. Markham, Whaling Cruise to Baffin Bay ,
1874; C. E. Smith, From the Deep of the Sea , 1922; and Sir A. Conan Doyle,
"Life of a Greenland Whaler" Strand Magazine , January 1897.
R. N. Rudmose Brown
HomeWhaling: Greenland and Davis Strait Fishery : Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General
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