- Historic Sites
So the lookout’s cry resounded while Yankee whalers roamed the seas. Their perilous, arduous trade spanned three centuries
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The business could make money, in other words. It was run on a unique system that let officers and crew share (to a certain extent) in the profits and compelled them to share also in the losses. Neither officers nor men were paid salaries or wages. Each man got a “lay,” or share in the net profits of the voyage if there were any, the size of the lay depending on the importance of the man’s job. The lowly cabin boy might get a twohundredth share, and the captain’s lay could be onetenth, or even better, and the rest ranged in between. If the voyage made money, everybody got paid. If it did not—and some voyages did not—nobody made anything.
Life on a whaler was hard. Each ship needed a large crew to man the boats, and between whales the deck force had lots of time on its hands. To kill time the men practiced and perfected the unique art of scrimshawing, carving intricate designs in the teeth extracted from the sperm whale, or cutting pieces of the jawbone or other parts of the skeleton into walking sticks, kitchen utensils, or what-not. When two whalers met in some distant sea they would break the monotony by having what was called a gam—each ship sending a boatload of men aboard the other for a few hours, for a chat and a general comparing of notes.
Discipline alternated between the very lax and the very rigid. Merchant sailors tended to avoid whalers if they cou Id, and so the crews—except for officers and harpooners—were usually made up of green hands from the farm. Maintaining order among two or three do/en men on a cruise that might last four years was difficult, and sometimes there were mutinies. Food and living quarters were bad, as indeed they were on most sailing vessels. The staple article of diet was salt beef, universally known as “salt horse” (occasionally for the best of reasons); it tended to be tough, stringy, and odorous. Another staple was molasses, known as “black cat.” All in all, the work was a little like soldiering—long spells of utter monotony, broken by brief periods of intense activity and danger.
The golden age of whaling was the latter part of the half century between the end of the War of 1812 and the outbreak of the Civil War. Then began the long decline. During the Civil War the government bought a number of whalers, filled them with stone, and sank them at the entrances to Charleston and Savannah harbors in a vain attempt to block the ship channels of those rebellions ports. Confederate commerce raiders sank many whalers. Most notable of these raiders was the Shenandoah , which got up into the North Pacific and the Arctic late in 1864 and early in 1865 and went on destroying whalers after the war was over, word of the Confederate collapse not having reached the Shenandoah’s officers. ( See “Last of the Rebel Raiders” in the December, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE .) In 1859 the American whaling fleet numbered 263 vessels—roughly half the number in service just before the war.
The real cause of the decline, however, was that the country no longer needed whale products in such large quantities. In 1859 America began to use petroleum, a much cheaper and better source of illuminating oil. Expanding industries ollered better opportunities for investment and better opportunities for labor than the whaling business could afford. The number of vessels engaged in the trade kept on declining. In 1869 Nantuckct dropped out entirely. The value of oil and whalebone kept on going down, and America’s merchant marine as a whole was on a downhill slope. More and more of the old whalers were sold or laid up, and new ships turned to other trades. In 1871, thirty-three whalers were lost in the ice of the Bering Sea. The chief base of the industry came to be San Francisco. New Bedford remained a whaling port, but it sent out fewer and fewer ships.
There came, finally, a technological revolution in which America simply did not bother to take part. To stay alive, the whaling industry had to be mechanized. America’s industry remained as it always had been, a handcralt aflair, and at last it went out of existence.
For years whalemen had been experimenting with guns that would fire harpoons. These were never widely used until about 1875, when Sven Foyn of Norway brought out a small cannon which fired a prodigious harpoon that also carried a bomb—a weapon that could strike from a distance and that would kill the whale when it struck. This harpoon could also carry a heavy hemp line much stronger than the light lines used with hand harpoons. A steamer with this gun mounted on its bow could catch and kill whales quickly and easily. It was possible now to take whales previously not so generally hunted—the finner, the mighty blue, the other rorquals, and the humpback; monsters bigger than the sperm whale, many of them, but not so often taken by the old system because they swam too last and took out line more rapidly than the whalemen could handle it. With the bomb and the heavier line, these creatures could be managed, and if the whale sank alter being killed, the carcass could be hauled to the surface and kept afloat with an injection of compressed air. Whaleships now became factories, processing the entire whale—saving flesh for meat, grinding up bones to make fertilizer, extracting glue from other parts, using indeed practically everything except for the stomach contents. Fully mechanized, the industry survives today, abroad, with the Norwegians and their floating factories playing the principal role in it.