Early Commercial Whaling

The hunting of whales is thought to have been pursued by the Basques from land as early as the 10th cent. and in Newfoundland waters by the 14th cent. It is not until the middle of the 16th cent., however, that the appearance of Basques in those waters is established by record. Whaling on a large scale was first organized at Spitsbergen at the beginning of the 17th cent., largely by the Dutch who, with the Basques, apparently developed methods of flensing and boiling. The Dutch were at first in competition with the English Muscovy Company of London, but before its collapse in 1625 they had gained ascendancy; in 1623 they established the port of Smeerenberg. Large profits continued only until c.1640, when the scarcity of whales forced the Dutch farther out into the northern waters in search of them.

By the middle of the 17th cent. whaling from the land was established in America. The earliest type, called drift whaling, consisted of harvesting whales that had washed up on the shore, mainly after storms. Drift whaling became economically important in Colonial America, and the first laws regarding it were written at Southampton, Long Island, in the 1640s. This practice was followed by shore whaling, in which whales swimming close to shore were hunted. Whaling centers, at first on Long Island and Cape Cod, shifted to Nantucket and then New Bedford, Mass., the greatest whaling port in the world until the decline (c.1860) of the industry. With the capture (1712) of a sperm whale by a Nantucket whaler, the superior qualities of sperm oil were discovered, and American whalers began fishing farther south in search of the sperm whale, which superseded the right whales in value.

American fisheries were set back by the American Revolution, but in 1791 the first Americans rounded Cape Horn to hunt in the S Pacific. Another, but temporary, setback occurred in the War of 1812, but the outcome spelled the complete defeat of British whaling. From c.1815 until shortly before the Civil War, the period widely known as the golden age of U.S. whaling, Americans sailed the Pacific from south to north, on voyages often lasting as long as three or four years, in search of whales. Melville's Moby-Dick gives an account of a voyage in this period. The advent of the Civil War, a decrease in the demand for sperm oil and in the number of whales, and the discovery (1859) of oil in Pennsylvania brought on the decline of the industry.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Environmental Studies