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    Whaling: Greenland and Davis Strait Fishery

    Encyclopedia Arctica 14: Greenland, Svalbard, Etc. Geography and General

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    EA-General: Greenland-Svalbard

    (R.N. Rudmose Brown)


            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

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    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.

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            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

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    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


            The introduction of auxiliary steam to the whaling barques and ships

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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.

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    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

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