Whaling and Victorian Values

Today, the 1st of December 2015 Japan’s whaling fleet sailed from Shimonoseki in south western Japan. The ships will head to the Antarctic and hunt whales from the end of December until March 2016. During that period they will kill hundreds of whales in an unequal contest between humanity’s technology and mammals who have no defences. The people and press of Great Britain and most of the world look on with horror.  It is a century since Scotland and Britain’s last ships returned from commercial Arctic whaling and fifty-two years since Britain renounced commercial whaling anywhere in the world.

Today, except for a few out-of-line states, the world renounces commercial whaling. Indeed those nations who were once the prime exponents of the industry are among the most vociferous in decrying Japan for the slaughter of the whales. Perhaps that is some sort of guilt-trip, a case of the collective conscience of the country clamouring to prove it is now cleansed. In its day, Great Britain was a major player in the industry, following the Netherlands as the old masters of the brutal art of whale murder in the Arctic Ocean before exporting these bloody skills to the vast waters of the Antarctic.

The statistics are frightening. To take just one ship, Achilles of Dundee, a typical 367 ton sail powered vessel. She was 101 feet long with a crew of 52 men and sailed from Dundee for a decade, until she was lost in the Arctic ice in 1830. During that period her catches were as follows:

1820: 3 whales

1821: 9 whales

1822: 5 whales

1823: 37 whales

1824: 2 whales

1825: no record

1826: 7 whales

1827: 19 whales

1828: 24 whales

1829: 7 whales

Total known: 115

That was just one whaling ship in one decade. Other ships had longer careers and higher catches, with, for instance, Arctic II ‘capturing’ four whales, 27,585 seals and 485 ‘white’ seals in 1877. To put that in perspective, Dundee was part of the Arctic whaling industry from 1752 to 1915. At her peak she floated 18 whaling and sealing ships. In 1776 she sent three ships north out of a British total of 83, at a time that the not-yet-United States floated more and the Netherlands was queen of the northern seas.

The ships did not just hunt whales: seals were another prime catch.  In a good season the hunters could come across a pack of seals that could be four miles broad and stretch as far as the eye could see. It was not unknown for two or more vessels to be fishing the same pack of seals but be out of sight of each other.  Given such numbers it is not surprising that there seemed no limit to the possible success of the sealers; they could not imagine such a bounty ever ending, or their constant slaughter eroding the seal numbers to such an extent that they became an endangered species. The Victorian mind seems to have been incapable of such a thought process.

Polar bears were hunted for sport and profit, and indeed everything that could be killed, was killed. Such was the culture of the period, at home and on land. Big game hunters were revered as heroes, landowners ran their estates as killing grounds for so called ‘game’ and the elite and the wannabe elite ran their lives around the hunting seasons, be it grouse, pheasant, deer or salmon. ‘The aristocrat that hunts and shoots’ was the same man who ran the country and the greatest empire that the world had ever known.

To give one example, between 1837 and 1840 the estate of Glengarry cleared away all ‘non-game’ animals to ensure the ‘game’ birds and beasts were prolific to make the shooting fun. In the course of these three years, 198 wild cats were killed, 246 pine martens, 106 polecats, 27 sea-eagles, 15 golden eagles, 18 ospreys, 98 blue hawks, 275 kites, 285 buzzards,63 goshawks, 67 badgers, 48 otters,462 kestrels, 35 horned owls. . . the list goes on in a sickening display of slaughter that shows not only the attitude of the Victorians to animal conservation but also the prolific amount of wildlife there had been in the country before the elite carried their sporting instincts to the glens.

Of course by that time there were few of the indigenous population remaining in the highland countryside. They were cleared first, sent to the seething slums of the industrial west, transported to the coast and forced to become fishermen or forced into coffin ships to emigrate to Australia and North America, there to impinge on, and often replace, the indigenous peoples of these places in a hideous game of dominoes that saw the removal or replacement of native cultures and the degrading of peoples throughout the world. All hail progress.

So whaling was only one example of man’s inhumanity to man, woman, child, nature and the planet as a whole. Yet whaling possessed its own brutality even for the perpetrators. Life at sea was always brutal: the British fishing industry scarcely noticed when a boat was lost and only the regular disasters such as 1881 when 189 Scottish East Coast fishermen lost their lives, had a major impact on public opinion. Slaving, that most heartless of occupations, accepted a death rate of 25% among the seamen, while in 5.9% of whaling voyages, the vessel was lost. Over 150 years, 46 Dundee whaling ships succumbed to the ice. Such losses were deemed acceptable for the company shareholders. Life on land was equally cheap: death by starvation was not unknown among the desperately poor of Britain’s slums, with workplace accidents common at a time before health and safety legislation. For example in April 1837 eight year old James Templeman died when he fell backward into factory machinery in Dundee, while in 1844 Archibald Menzies who fell into boiling water at the Dron distillery and died in unspeakable agony the same day. Life was cheap in the good old days.

But are we not more advanced now? Are we not better able to understand the horrendous loss of life caused by whaling, and do we not abhor cruelty to animals and people?

Or is our concern merely a veneer of false civilisation covering the inherent savagery we still possess underneath all?

The world professes shock and horror at the Japanese actions in sailing south to slaughter the whales, but at the same time there are a multitude of armies butchering both each other and sundry civilians in the Middle East and Africa. The British government is seeking a parliamentary consensus to send even more war planes to add to the misery of Syria, while fawning to Saudi Arabia whose human rights record would equate with that of IS.  The arms trade is booming, the television and films laud the achievements of gun-toting men and women, violence stalks the screens of computers via the gaming industry and the money men and women pile up their obscene profits while half the world scrapes by below starvation level.

I have nothing but contempt for modern whaling: there is no need to slaughter these beautiful animals. I have nothing but contempt for those who fiddle huge bank balances while the world burns: Nero will be applauding from Hades or wherever it is that evil creatures spend eternity. Is there a conclusion to this blog? No: only a slide of sick despair at the continuation of our assault on nature and on ourselves; the loss of one creature diminishes all, while the loss of one of God’s masterpieces, a human being of whatever creed, colour, race, gender or religion, is a gut-wrenching tragedy.



About malcolmarchibald

Happily married for 34 years to Cathy, I have three grown children and live in the depths of Moray in northern Scotland. I was educated in Edinburgh and Dundee and work as a lecturer in Inverness, while writing historical books, both fiction and fact.
This entry was posted in arctic, arms industry, BBC, Arctic,Whaling, Maritime, Scotland, Sea, children, crime, Dundee, Emigration, history, humanity, Japanese whaling, maritime, People, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s