The Bowhead whale, the most important target species for 17th century whaling
Both the survivors of Barentsz’ expedition as well as other explorers such as Henry Hudson brought home with them the tales of the rich whaling grounds of the arctic seas. It took only a few years until the first whalers of several European nations, most importantly England and Holland, sailed up to Spitsbergen. The English were the first ones, but focused on Walrus rather than whales during the very first seasons. Back then, Walrus were abundant at the west coast of Spitsbergen and even on Bjørnøya, where hundreds of them were slaughtered. Dutch entrepeneurs did not waste a lot of time until they sent the first expeditions in the wake of the English ones. In the first years, everybody had Basque whaling masters on board to learn how to hunt the large marine mammals. Soon, a number of shore stations was established. These were needed to process the whale and to boil the blubber (fat) down into oil. Whale oil could be sold for good money in Europe and was used as lamp oil, to make soap, as lubrication and for other purposes. Also the baleen could be sold for umbrellas, female fashion etc. By far the most important target species was the Bowhead whale (Baleana mysticetus), also called the ‘Right Whale’. It was the ‘right whale to hunt’, because it had a thick layer of blubber, swam slowly and stayed at the surface also when it was dead.
Hunting itself was done from small, open boats. Whenever a whale was seen, boats were launched and rowed out to the whale. The harponeer hand-threw his weapon to the whale, which was finally killed with a lance. The whale was then pulled to the shore station, where it was cut into pieces (‘flensed’) on the shore. The blubber pieces were then boiled down to oil, the rest was not used in the early decades of whaling.
A number of shore stations was soon established both on Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen, and competition for good whaling grounds and places for stations grew. There were armed conflicts, which made the company of warships necessary. In 1693, the northernmost sea battle ever took place in the Sorgfjord, when three French warships captured about 40 Dutch whalers, several of which escaped. But in these years, the late 17th century, the busy years of whaling in the waters near Spitsbergen’s shorelines were already gone. The shore stations, including the famous Smeerenburg (‘Blubber town’) on Amsterdamøya in northwestern Spitsbergen, had their heydays in the 1630s. In those days, the territory on land and at sea had been devided between the two most important whaling nations England and Holland. Additionally, Danes, French, Spaniards and Germans had established their stations. The size of the shore stations had for a long time been strongly exaggerated in literature, until Dutch excavations of Smeerenburg showed that there were never more than a few 100 people working at a station at one time. Rumours of churches, internet cafes and brothels, frequented by more than 10 000 workers, are nothing but legends. Nevertheless, remains of blubber ovns and graves can still be seen in many places.
These places were in use only during the summer season. After plundering, a wintering was attempted by the Dutch to protect the important facilities. In 1633, a small party of seven men was left at Smeerenburg and another seven on Jan Mayen. The latter ones died, whereas the brave whalers at Smeerenburg survived. Another wintering party was left again at Smeerenburg in 1634; this time all seven perished.
After a few decades, the land stations were abandoned, as the whales which had frequented the fjords of Spitsbergen so abundantly only a short while ago, became very scarce, and advancing technology allowed to process the whales at sea.