History of Whaling


The first known whalers were the Inuit people of the far north. Each spring, as the sea ice melted, they would paddle out in their canoes, called uniaks, and use stone headed harpoons and inflated seal skins to force the whale to surface.

Once the whale tired they would stab it repeatedly with their harpoons. All the villagers would then help drag the dead whale ashore and almost no part of it was wasted. The skin, fins, blubber, flesh, tongue, intestines, kidneys and heart were all eaten and oil from the blubber was burnt to provide light and heat. The bones were used as building materials and tools.

Whaling Trade

In the early 1100s, Basques from the Bay of Biscay, on the border between France and Spain, began hunting whales for profit. The Basques used similar methods to the Inuits, hunting the whales off their coast, although they had their own methods of capturing the whale. A number of wooden boats were used, working together, to herd the whales, cutting off the open sea and forcing them into closed inlets. The men then killed the whales with harpoons and dragged them ashore.

The blubber was then boiled in large pots to extract the oil. This was sold to churches and public buildings to be used in oil lamps. Due to their efficiency the Basques wiped out their supply of whales and had to build large sea-going ships in order to continue their hunting. By the 1500s they had found a new source of whales off the coast of Canada.

Eighteenth Century

Europeans had begun whaling off the coast of Nantucket, a small island off the coast of North America, by 1712. After Captain Hussey’s ship was blown out to sea he captured a new species of whale, a sperm whale. When the crew cut open the whales head they found it full of oil and a new type of wax.

By the 1750s the islanders where making candles from the new wax, which burned with a brilliant smokeless flame. These candles where extremely popular and they where sold and shipped via North America to all over Europe.

In order to supply demand the islanders sailed further into the Atlantic and built bigger ships so they could carry more blubber back to the island furnaces. Shortly after this the islanders began to build brick furnaces onto the decks of their ships. Once they had the ability to boil the blubber at sea ships could stay at sea until their hold was full, some journeys could last up to 4 years!

Steam power

By the 1860s steam powered catcher boats with harpoon cannons helped with catching the faster breeds of whale. This meant that the ship could steam up to and, using a steam powered device, shoot a harpoon into the whale. These harpoons had an explosive charge set into it that would incapacitate the whale to stop it racing away. With a steam powered winch the harpoon and whale could be dragged back to the ship reducing the need to use catcher boats. In the 1880s whalers began to pump air through the harpoon to keep the whale afloat. 

Selected bibliography

This is just a very small selection of the resources available in the Hull History Centre.

Natural history of whales

Slijper, E.J. (trans. by A.J. Pomerans.) Whales. Hutchinson and Co. London, 2nd Ed. 1979

Martin, Anthony. Whales and Dolphins. Salamander Books Ltd, 1990.

History of whaling

Chrisp, Peter. The Whalers. Wayland, 1995.

Lubbock, Basil. The Arctic Whalers. Brown, Son and Ferguson, Ltd. Glasgow, 1968

Scoresby, W. An Account of the Arctic Regions and of the Whale-fishery. (2 Vols.) Edinburgh, 1820.

Scoresby, W. A Voyage to the Whale Fishery 1822. Caedmon Reprints. Whitby, 1980 (First published 1823)

West, Janet and Arthur Credland. Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler. Hutton Press, Beverley, 1995.