The Doric Columns
Life of a Whaler
The Oscar was one of Aberdeen’s whaling ships. It used to go to the oceans off Greenland to catch whales. It 1813 the Oscar hit the rocks off Girdleness and was wrecked. Forty-four of the crew died in the shipwreck. Many people were sad because of this and wanted to remember those who died. Oscar Road in Torry is named after the ship.
With the sailing ships and rowing boats used by the Greenland Fishery it was virtually impossible to catch whales out at sea. The killing took place near to the ice where the whales could be harpooned as they surfaced to breath at the edge of the ice pack, or in openings within the ice field. In 18th century, and earlier, whaling was concentrated in the Greenland Sea, between Greenland and Spitzbergen. The whaling ships sailed in March or early April, after a traditional Celebratory Foy in the local taverns. On the way north the boats usually called into Orkney or Shetland to take on extra stores, and to pick up additional crew members - probably because the islanders would work for lower wages than those demanded by mainland Scots. In most years the ships reached the ice at around 79 degrees north. Once there, they sailed along the edge of the ice field in pursuit of the Bowheads and the slaughter began. By July the ice was breaking up and the whales were widely dispersed and difficult to find, let alone to catch. The time had come for the ships to head home with their cargoes of blubber and bone, reaching Peterhead or Aberdeen in July or August.
Originally a Foy was a fee paid to men when they signed aboard a Whaler for a voyage north. With this money the crewmen entertained themselves and their women in the inns and taverns before setting sail. The harbours buzzed with activity day and night as sail-makers, rope-makers, butchers bakers, blacksmiths, coopers and wrights all enjoyed a busy time as the Whalers made ready for the February and March sailings.
By 1820, the Greenland Sea was pretty much fished out and the whalers had to seek out more profitable killing fields in the Davis Strait, to the west of Greenland. There they found an abundance of large whales and for some years large profits were made. However, the fishery was a free-for-all, with no control of catches, and inevitably this area too was overfished. As the years went by the whalers were forced to move further and further north, through the Davis Strait and up into the highly dangerous waters and ice fields of Baffin Bay.
Seeking whales in these northern areas was a dangerous and difficult undertaking. The journey was now much longer and the ships had to leave Peterhead in February or early March. To the west of Greenland the whales tended to follow the edge of the ice as it retreated in the spring and advanced in the autumn. The ships stayed with the whales as long as the ice permitted and usually did not get back to port until November. To make matters worse, the ice was much heavier in these areas and when the wind was from the west the ice would close up and whole fleets of ships could be trapped for months on end. For example, in 1835 and again in 1836 large numbers of British ships were caught in the ice and were forced to over-winter without adequate supplies. Many men died of scurvy, starvation and exposure. The fate of the crew of the Dee, an Aberdeen whaler, is typical; when they reached Orkney in April 1837 only 9 of the original 46 were still alive.
By the late 1820s, whales were scarce everywhere and the taking of seals became a primary objective for many captains. Seals were found in large numbers on the sea ice in the Greenland Sea and the Peterhead ships happily left the Davis Strait and returned to safer waters to the east of Greenland. Ships involved in sealing left Peterhead in February so as to reach the breeding colonies of seals at the end of March when mothers and pups were on the ice. The season was short and over within a month. Then, the masters went after the few remaining whales. Whaling was now only possible because it was being subsidized by sealing. By the 1870s the seals of the Greenland Sea were, in their turn, becoming rare and the hunt moved west, yet again, to Labrador and Newfoundland. Martyn Gorman
The whale having reached the ship it was taken to the larboard side and secured with the head towards the stern, ready for flensing, the removal of the blubber. For this a variety of knives and other implements were used. The rump, the tail end of the whale, was supported by a tackle and drawn forwards by a stout rope, the head being drawn in the opposite direction by means of the nose-tackle. In this way the body of the whale was forcibly extended. A band of blubber, 2 to 3 feet wide, lying between the fins and the head, was known as the kent and was used to turn the whale over. A system of powerful blocks and pulleys hanging from the head of the main mast was attached to the kent by means of a hook. The rope was then pulled tight by the ship's windlass, raising the whale in the water. The whale, lying belly up, extended and well secured was now ready for flensing. At this point the crew usually took a meal, and a dram, before the arduous labour began.
The harpooners, their feet armed with primitive iron crampons to prevent them slipping, climbed down onto the belly of the whale. Under the direction of the specksioneer (the principal harpooner) they divided the blubber into oblong pieces or slips by means of a blubber-spade. A hook was then attached to the slip and drawn upwards, by means of a rope and capstan, progressively flaying the strip of blubber from the carcass. The slips, weighing up to a ton each, were winched on to the deck where they were cut up into 1 foot cubes. The blubber was then passed through the hatches into the hold and temporarily piled up. Once the belly had been flayed the whale was rotated onto its side by the kent tackle, and the upper surface stripped of fat. The lips were then removed exposing the whalebone (baleen) which was extracted in one mass. Once safely on deck the whalebone was split, with bone-wedges, into pieces containing 5-10 plates of baleen.
Eventually once all of the blubber, including the kent, had been removed, the carcass, or kreng as it was known, was released, to sink or to become food for Polar Bears, Sharks, and birds. To strip a whale of 20-30 tons of blubber would have taken little more than 3 hours.
Whale Catching Boat
A well constructed Greenland Boat floated lightly in the water, was capable of being rowed with great speed and readily turned around, was large enough to carry 6 or 7 men with 800 pounds weight of whale-lines and other equipment, and yet was safe and bouyant even in a considerable sea. Whale-boats often suffered damage from whales and ice and were always carver-built, with the planks fastened edge to edge, to allow easy repair. Six oared boats, designed to carry a steersman and 6 rowers, one of whom was also harpooner, were 26-28 feet in length and about 6 feet in breadth. The bow and stern of Greenland Boats were both usually sharp but boats in the Peterhead fleet usually had a square stern.
This 1/16 scale wooden model represents a whale catching boat from around 1865. The boat is typical of the Peterhead type with a square stern. The boat would have carried a crew of 7 including a harpooner and a steersman and 1 kilometre of whale-line, made up of 5 lines of 219 metres each. The lines were carefully coiled so that they would not snag. As would be usual by that date, the boat is fitted with a harpoon gun in the prow. The model harpoon can be seen projecting from the gun. When a whale was sighted, 2 boats like this one were lowered from the steam whaler to fire the harpoon into the whale’s back. Possibly 6 other whale catching boats were then lowered to assist the capture, using more harpoons. Once the whale was exhausted, it was killed by lances and taken back to the whaler for further processing. Martyn Gorman
The whaling season was traditionally begun at the beginning of May. By this time the ice pack was beginning to melt and retreat and this allowed the whaling ships access to the hunting grounds. On board duties had been carried out during the Atlantic crossing and the equipment would be ready and stowed in each boat. The boat's crews were usually chosen by boat commanders, who drew lots in turn. This meant that expertise was spread evenly throughout the fleet. Each whaleboat would be hung ready for immediate launch from davits along the ships rail.
When the call A fall! A fall! came from the masthead lookout in the crow's nest, pandemonium would break out as the seamen rushed to their stations in the boats. Woe betides any latecomer who might delay launch, because a bonus was available to the boat that made the first strike. There was no ships watch routine, a watch was kept 24 hours a day and if whales were in the vicinity the hunt would continue for as long as they remained. It was not unknown for a whaler to have 3 or 4 whales alongside. With the boats launched the crews would row as quietly as possible to get close to the whale. The best approach was from behind and slightly to one side and if possible bump its body with the bow of the whaleboat frightening it so that its back arched as it dived. This presented the harpooner with a clear target at which to aim. The tight skin meant that the harpoon would penetrate more easily and grip better so the whale was less likely to escape
The success of the Arctic whalers was dependent upon the relative ease with which the placid Bowhead whales could be approached. The following account of how men in rowing boats, armed with simple harpoons, were able to dispatch these huge animals is based on, eye-witness accounts. "Whenever a whale lies on the surface of the water, unconscious of the approach of its enemies, the hardy fisher rows directly upon it; and an instant before the boat touches it, buries his harpoon in its back. But if, while the boat is yet at a little distance, the whale should indicate his intention of diving, the harpoon is thrown from the hand, or fired from a gun, the former of which, when skillfully practiced, is efficient at 8 or 10 yards, and the latter at the distance of 30 yards. The wounded whale, in the surprise and agony of the moment, makes a convulsive effort to escape. This is the moment of danger. The boat is subjected to the most violent blows from its head, or its fins, but particularly from its ponderous tail, which sometimes sweeps the air with such tremendous fury, that both boat and men are exposed to one common destruction.
The moment the wounded animal disappears, or leaves the boat, a jack or flag, elevated on a staff, is displayed; on sight of which, those on watch in the ship, give the alarm, by stamping on the deck. At the sound of this, the sleeping crew are roused, jump from their beds, rush upward on deck and crowd into the boats. The first effort of a "fast-fish", or whale that has been struck, is to dive towards the bottom of the sea. To retard, as much as possible, the flight of the whale, it is usual for the harpooner, who strikes it, to cast one or two, or more turns of the line around a bollard; which is fixed within 10 or 12 inches of the stem of the boat. Such is the friction of the line, when running around the bollard, that it frequently envelopes the harpooner in smoke; and if the wood were not repeatedly wetted, would probably set fire to the boat. The utmost care and attention are requisite, on the part of every person in the boat, when the lines are running out. When the line happens to run foul, and cannot be cleared on the instant, it sometimes draws the boat under water; on which the crew are plunged into the sea.
The average stay under water, of a wounded whale is about 30 minutes. Immediately that it re-appears the assisting boats make for the place with the utmost speed , and as they reach it, each harpooner plunges his harpoon into its back. It is afterwards actively applied with lances, which are thrust into its body, aiming at its vitals. At length, when exhausted by numerous wounds and the loss of blood, it indicates the approach of its dissolution by discharging from its blowholes a mixture of blood along with the air, and finally jets of blood alone. In dying, it turns on its back or side; accompanied with 3 lively huzzas!" Martyn Gorman
Blubber into Barrels
Only the Baleen, Jawbones and Blubber was stripped from the whale; the latter being stripped from the whale carcass as it wallowed alongside. The whale meat was discarded or left to the scavengers. Blubber had to be boiled to extract its oil. The American whalers often did this on board ship, whilst still at sea, but the British Greenland whalers always brought the blubber back to port for processing. Whilst there were whales still to be killed, blubber was simply piled up in a convenient space in the hold, known as the flens-gut. Once they ran out of space, or when there was a lull in the killing, the whaling crew started the process of making-off (from the Dutch afmaaken, meaning to finish or complete). This involved freeing the fat of skin and any bits of muscle, cutting it into small pieces and putting them into casks through the bung-holes. For making-off the ship was moored to a convenient ice-floe and the sails furled. Then the whole crew got to work, most on deck but a few in the hold under the supervision of the skeeman, the hold officer. The whole process was highly organised with different categories of the crew taking on specific responsibilities. On deck, the speck-trough, a box 12 feet in length, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, with a square hole in its bottom, was placed over the hatch leading to the hold. Attached to the trough were tables covered in chopping boards made from whales' tails.
The blubber was thrown from the flens-gut up onto deck where crew members known as krengers removed any muscle. From the krengers, the blubber was passed to the harpooners who sliced off the skin. From the skinners the blubber passed to the chopping boards where the boat-steerers, armed with chopping knives, cut it into oblong pieces less than 4 inches in diameter. Finally, the blubber was thrown into the speck-trough to fall back into the hold. There, the line-managers (the men who were in charge of the harpoon lines during the hunt) fed the pieces into the bung-holes of the casks. The casks, once tightly filled with blubber, were securely bunged-up. Fifty skilled men could process about 3 tons of blubber per hour. The hold was packed with several tiers of casks and filling, moving and arranging them must have been a stinking, 3-dimensional, logistical nightmare for the skeeman. If the ship was so successful in the hunt that it ran out of barrels, then slabs of blubber were laid, skin down, on the top layer of barrels and scattered with salt. Once the hold was full, or the season at an end, the ship made for home, as rapidly as possible, and hoping for cool weather once it left the ice.
The whole body of a baleen whale is impregnated with oil. The blubber contains most, yielding 50-80% by weight, the bones contain 40-60% and the muscles 6-7%. When whales were commercially exploited, there were 4 grades of oil on the market; grade 1, a clear straw coloured liquid, was the finest while grade 4 oil was dark brown and contained up to 60% of unsaturated fatty acids giving it a foul fishy taste and smell
This 1946 photograph shows fishermen loading barrels of shark oil extracted from basking sharks caught off the Western Isles, Scotland. The barrels used by the whale industry a century earlier would have been essentially similar.
Ex-Scots Guards Major Gavin Maxwell purchased the small island of Soay to build a shark factory and also owned the boat used for hunting, 'The Snow Leopard'. His crew of 7 launched the vessel when a shark was sighted and used a harpoon gun, specially designed by Maxwell, to kill the fish before it was hauled ashore. A basking shark produced 160 gallons of oil worth �90 a barrel; the flesh was salted and exported and the skin sold too. Gavin Maxwell went on to become a celebrated writer. His works include 'Ring of Bright Water', the story of adopted Otters. Martyn Gorman
Whale oil was a basic raw material of an industrialising economy, widely used as an illuminant and in processing jute, cheap woollen cloth, sail-making, tanning, soap-making and marine metal-working.
As an illuminant, whale oil consumption reached a peak about 1820 just before its widespread substitution by coal-gas. Many of the larger communities in the region used street lights that burned Greenland Oil. There are illustrations of such in contemporary Aberdeen lithographs. There were over 200 in Newcastle alone.
One of the earliest uses of whale oil was for burning in lamps to illjuminate houses. Originally the pungent smell associated with whale oil went largely unnoticed but as sweeter oils became available whale oil began to lose its popularity.
Once back in Port the barrels of blubber were unloaded and taken to the premises where the oil was extracted. The barrels were carted a short distance to the Boilyards. The blubber was boiled in copper vessels of up to 10 tons or more capacity. These were round in section and raised about 6 feet above a furnace. A pipe, fitted with a stopcock, led from the boiler to wooden coolers lined with lead or cement and each capable of holding 10 tons of oil. Oil was run from the coolers directly into casks. By the time the ships arrived in port, much of the oil had separated from the firm, fatty blubber. The contents of the barrels were simply poured directly into the boilers, filling them almost to the top. The fire was then lit and the oil brought to the boil. Throughout the heating the contents were stirred with a wooden pole to prevent any solids sticking to the sides and burning. When the oil began to boil the fire was reduced allowing the boil to gently boil for 1-3 hours. Usually 2 loads of blubber could be boiled every 24 hours, the Sabbath excepted. Once cooled, the oil was in a state ready for immediate use and was simply transferred from the coolers into wooden barrels ready for shipment throughout the land.
For over a 100 years barrels of blubber were unloaded in Aberdeen. The scene depicted in this engraving is at New Bedford, in the USA, but the activity at Aberdeen would have been much the same. The ships are hove-to for repairs. The large barrels used for transporting blubber can be seen on the quay.
There are 10 species of Baleen whales. Their name comes from the whales’ feeding structures they have “baleen plates” instead of teeth. Baleen, also called “whalebone,” is made of keratin just like fingernails and hair. Each whale has many plates that hang down from its upper jaw, one after the other. The inner edge of each plate is frayed and forms a fibrous mat. The plates act like a sieve, straining out food from the water. Baleen whales are called “filter feeders.” They eat small schooling baitfish, herring and pollack, and they also eat very tiny organisms like plankton and krill. The baleen plates can catch krill a few centimetres long!
The Baleen was generally taken from the mouth in 1 piece. In Bowhead whales there were some 300 baleen plates on each side, the biggest up to 15 feet long and 1 foot wide. Once on board ship, the whalebone was split into pieces containing 10-12 plates and generally transported back to port without any further processing beyond the removal of pieces of gum. Back in Peterhead, the whalebone was cleaned and prepared. First of all any remaining gum tissue was removed and then the plates were submerged in water to loosen any blood and dirt. They were then taken out, piece by piece, placed on a plank and scrubbed with sand and water. Once clean they were passed to a second worker who scraped the root-end, where it had been embedded in the gum, until it was smooth. Next, a knife or shears were used to strip off the hair-like fringes on the inner edge. Finally, the whalebone was exposed to the air and sun until it was completely dry. Before it was offered for sale, it was given a final polish with brushes and hair-cloth.
Whalebone was generally brought back from Greenland in much the same state that it was taken from the whale. It was usually divided into portable junks, or pieces, comprising 10 or 12 plates of baleen, occasionally it was divided into individual pieces, and the gum and fringing "hairs", removed at sea. The photograph shows two seamen splitting off individual plates of baleen. They are using a piece of whale tail as a chopping block. The hairs on the inside edges of the baleen plates can clearly be seen. Martyn Gorman
The Baleen which was used for furniture, waist pinching stays and pandybats. Pandybats were long leather-covered cane like instruments which Irish Schoolmasters used as canes.
A leading Whitby skipper, William Scoresby, came to be regarded as the most daring and successful of all whaling men. Born in 1760 the son of a farmer at Cropton, near Pickering, he made 30 trips and captured 533 whales - more than any other European whaler. Seeking better means of sighting the whales he invented the crow's nest. The 1st was introduced in 1807 and consisted of a wooden frame covered with leather and canvas. It included space for a telescope, a compass, signal-flags, a megaphone, and a musket. A movable screen was provided to protect the sailor from exposure on lookout.
Scoresby's catches were usually 2-1/2 to 4 times greater than those of rival skippers. His skill as a navigator, allied to a unique sailing technique, enabled him to reach the whaling grounds before the rest of the fleet. Scoresby put his trust in exceptionally heavy ballast. Once the ship was moving, the ballast tended to impel the vessel forward under her own momentum. It also helped Scoresby's ship to sail more successfully against the wind than any other vessel. Rival skippers, while ready to copy some of Scoresby's other ideas, including modifications to sails and spars, feared that heavy ballast would worsen any collision with the ice. Their timidity meant that on one occasion Scoresby caught 14 whales before his fellow whalers arrived -the early bird gets the Worm. In 1806 he had enough time to pursue the whales to within 510 miles of the North Pole, the furthest point ever reached by a sailing ship.
When a whale was sighted the lookout would shout down to the crew on deck, "A Fall! A Fall!"
The crew on duty would then rush to the whale boats which hung on ropes on both sides of the ship and lower them into the sea. Most ships carried about 6 whale boats, each manned with a crew of 6 oarsmen, a helmsman and a harpooner.
The oarsman nearest the bow of the boat would also act as line manager. It was his job to look after the long whaling line, a rope that was fixed to the harpoon, and make sure it didn't get caught or tangled when the harpoon was thrown or fired from a special gun, at the whale.
There are a number of anomalies in Scoresby's account of wages. It is not clear how the low amounts recorded for the armourer, seaman and landsman were calculated or whether "hand-money" (payment in advance to the seaman's dependents) had been deducted. Harpooners were normally paid more than boat steerers and a reversal of their respective earnings might seem more appropriate. A footnote indicates that harpooners were paid 11 Guineas "fish-striking money" for the 1820 voyage, indicating that the vessel had secured 22 whales. The wages include "oil money" at1/6 per tun.
The 1st principal use of whale oil was as an illuminant in lamps and as candle wax. Other uses came in time. In the 1700's it was noted that the burning oil from sperm whales glowed brightly and clearly and did not have a disagreeable odour like the oil from right whales did (Bonner, 1989). The sperm whale was the main whale being sought for its oil when the petroleum industry opened in 1859. The whale fishery, however, was in a declining state and had been so a decade or more before Drake struck petroleum in his drilled well and before general refining of crude oil commenced in Oil Creek Valley and elsewhere.
Drake's Fist Oil Well still preserved
Scurvy in the Arctic
Scots travelling in the 18th and 19th centuries could encounter all kinds of hardship and hazard. As well as ordinary illness and injury, there were riding and coach accidents, shipwrecks and even assault and robbery. While some travellers needing medical attention were treated by local doctors, others, including John Royston, sought hospital care. John was a sailor on the brig Mary, one of many ships that sailed from Aberdeen and Peterhead to Greenland and the Davis Straits, to take part in whaling and seal-fishing. The ships’ crews were away from home for many months and John’s medical notes give us some idea of the conditions that the sailors often had to endure.
He was admitted to the Aberdeen Infirmary in November 1847, when the Mary arrived back from the Arctic. Four months into the voyage, some of the crew had developed scurvy and John was the first to show symptoms. His hand first grew stiff, hard and swollen, he found he was unable to straighten his legs as formerly; his knees were bent when he walked and when he moved the affected limbs he felt a sharp cutting pain in them. His right thigh then became affected in a similar manner and he observed the outside of his right knee present an appearance as if it had been bruised and pit deeply on pressure. While this would have made working difficult, worse was to follow:
He then began to have a very
disagreeable taste in his mouth; his gums got swelled, livid, painful when
touched and used to bleed profusely on the slightest pressure. His teeth became
loose and he could scarcely eat any of the ship’s provisions, a little soaked
biscuit or boiled rice being all that he could masticate. … on the way home he
began to emaciate and get very weak and could rarely venture from his hammock a
slight exertion sometimes making him faint. On arrival in Aberdeen John
applied to be admitted to the Infirmary. He had the classic symptoms of scurvy,
a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C, and common in sailors whose ships did
not carry vegetables or lime or lemon juice. He told the Infirmary doctor:_
In hospital John was prescribed red wine and was given plenty of vegetables at meal times. On 18 November, barely 2 weeks after admission, he was discharged ‘cured’. The Mary sailed for Greenland in 1848 and again in February 1849. This time she failed to return, being lost with all hands. It is not known if John Royston was then still one of the crew.
Life at Sea
The social gap between a skipper and crew could not have been wider. Even at the highest polar latitudes, on the rare occasions when work was slack and the weather allowed it, ships’ masters would entertain each other to dinner. At Captain’s table the strictest rules of Victorian etiquette were religiously observed as guests - ships’ officers, surgeons, and sometimes ‘travelling gentlemen observers’ - enjoyed freshly-shot sea fowl, usually eider duck or diver, washed down with a fine claret, and followed by brandy, conversation, and a rubber of whist. Below decks the scene was quite different. A persistent fog of tobacco smoke filled the crowded crew’s quarters where ‘half n’ half’ - a mixture of porter and gin - flowed liberally, and Shetland fiddles played as bawdy songs were bellowed out with passion.
The ‘whale-boys’ were, in the main, a rough and ready bunch, deeply superstitious, and God-fearing to a man. A Sunday never passed without a time of worship, but it was not unknown for a service to be interrupted by the ‘blow’ of a whale. Men would rush to their boats, Bible in hand, and after slaughtering the poor beast return to their psalms and prayer. Harpooners ruled the roost below deck, and not without good reason. They had experience in every field of work at sea and their journey up through the ranks was long and hard. Even more importantly it was their skill and judgement that made the difference between a good pay and a poor one when at the end of the trip shares of the oil and bone profits were handed out with the wages.
Whaling was a seasonal trade. As the winter storms began to subside the fleet left, amid great celebration, for the Orkney or Shetland Islands. There the mainland crewmen were joined by a complement of islanders, men who were known to be expert boatmen and first-class hard weather sailors. With the ships trimmed for a rough passage north, and extra sand ballast and fresh water on board, the fleet then made for the sealing grounds of either east Greenland or the Labrador coast. The timing of the fleet’s arrival was crucial to the trip’s success. The huge herds of harp seals would only be on the ice for a couple of weeks, soon after they had pupped in early April they returned to the open sea. The kill was a brutal business and thousands of pups, favoured by the fashion world for their soft white coats, were clubbed and axed when only a few hours old.
With the skins salted and blubber casked, the smaller ships, the sealers, left for home, often with a good number of letters for the wives and sweethearts of the crews who would now be heading for the Greenland Right Whale hunting grounds off Spitzbergen or the Bowhead Whale hunting grounds in the bays and inlets of the Baffin archipelago. The ships were among the whales of the higher latitudes by mid-May. Greenland Right Whale was so called because it was, in commercial terms, the ‘right’ whale to catch. It was a slow docile creature, and it carried a good supply of blubber. It also floated when dead a most important point. One third of the Right’s body was its head, and this meant a good yield of highly priced whalebone, a tough yet supple material found in the animal’s mouth which acted as a plankton sieve. It sold in later days of trading at little less than £2000 a ton. Though whalebone had many uses, from carriage springs to umbrella spokes, market prices were governed by the major fashion houses’ demand for bone stays.
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