Whaling

Duke of York ship model showing try pots bricked in on the deck

Duke of York model showing try pots bricked in to the ship's deck

Whaling and sealing were two of the earliest industries developed in Australia.  Within a few years of the establishment of the convict settlement at Port Jackson, whaling ventures began to explore coastal waters around New South Wales and Tasmania, sometimes venturing as far as New Zealand. Small whaling and sealing settlements were soon established around the coast. Some, like that on Kangaroo Island, were extremely isolated settlements, harbouring runaway sailors and convicts. The products of whaling and sealing together constituted Australia’s principal export commodities until the 1830s.

Not surprisingly, the South Australian Company identified whaling as one of the industries that would help secure the financial viability of the new province of South Australia. The first Company ships leaving England for South Australia in 1836 were charged with establishing a profitable whaling station on Kangaroo Island.  The Duke of York was equipped to hunt and process whales on its return voyage in 1836.

Hunting whales was dangerous work.  Whalers approached the huge animals in small boats and had to get close enough to spear them with harpoons.  There was an obvious danger that the boats would overturn, particularly if they came too close to the whale’s tail. Harpoons did not kill the whales, but were intended to allow the animals to be towed towards the whaling ship. Harpoons would capture the whale, anchoring it to the whaleboat. The death blow came from the master’s stroke with a killing lance (a much longer and thinner weapon) designed to pierce the ‘life’ (lungs) of a whale. After death, the whale was bound round the tail and towed very slowly back to the ship (or shore) for trying out.

Despite the dangers whaling was often a profitable venture for everyone on board. It was common for the crew of a whaler to split the proceeds on return to port, so that even the lowliest seaman received a share of the profits.  However this arrangement could also lead to problems, as occurred on the Duke of York in March 1836.  Long delays in leaving England and then the prospect of a lengthy voyage to deliver passengers before the crew could even begin whaling, led to discontent amongst the crew, who tried to bargain for payment of ‘monthly wages’, presumably in addition to a share of the catch, although this is not clear.  However on joining the ship the crew had signed articles of engagement that precluded payment of wages, and the captain and company refused the request. The ringleader of what really amounted to a strike on board was arrested and imprisoned and the rest of the crew resumed their duties.

Products from whales
In the early nineteenth century whales were highly valued.  Almost all parts of the huge animals were used. The two main products were whale oil and baleen or whalebone.  Baleen is not actually bone at all, but keratin, like hair or finger nails. It was used extensively to create the ‘bones’ in women’s corsetry and later in their dresses as well.  It was also used to make the sticks of fans and parasols.

There were also different types and qualities of whale oil, derived from different whales and in different ways.  Baleen whales, like right whales, yielded large quantities of oil when the blubber, the thick layer of fat beneath the skin that helped to insulate whales against cold waters, was boiled down.  The Duke of York was fitted with large boiling tubs on deck for this purpose.  Whale oil was used for many purposes, including oil for lamps and for lubricating machinery.  The meat from right whales was also eaten in some countries.

Sperm whales were particularly valued for the quality of oil produced from the spermaceti, the waxy substance that fills most of the whale’s bulbous head.  It made the best quality oil for domestic lighting, since it burned cleanly and without odour, and was the base ingredient in the best quality soap, cosmetic creams and candles. Sperm oil was also an excellent lubricant for delicate machinery (there is still no substitute of equal quality,) and was used in tanning the best quality leather and in dyes for the woolen and textile industries.

Another very valuable product of the sperm whale was the small quantity of ambergris produced in the hindgut.  This black, semi-viscous liquid forms around indigestible parts of the whale’s diet, like squid beaks. On exposure to sunlight and air it hardens into a waxy substance with a pleasant aroma.  It has been used from ancient times and in many cultures as a fixative in rare perfumes, since it has the capacity to make the aromas of perfumes last much longer.

Art and craft
Sperm whale teeth were also collected by sailors who engraved them in a craft that helped to occupy some of their leisure hours.  Scrimshaw as it is called can be highly decorative and is now valued by collectors. Many museum collections, including the South Australian Maritime Museum, include items of scrimshaw.

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