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HomeSpits­ber­gen infor­ma­ti­onHisto­ry → 17th cen­tu­ry wha­ling

17th century whaling

History of Spitsbergen

17th cen­tu­ry wha­ling

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.

The Bowhead wha­le, the most important tar­get spe­ci­es for 17th cen­tu­ry wha­ling

The Bowhead whale, the most important target species for 17th century whaling

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.

17th cen­tu­ry wha­ling ships

17th century whaling ships

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.

Remains of blub­ber ovns at Smee­ren­burg (Ams­ter­damøya)

Remains of blubber ovns at Smeerenburg (Amsterdamøya)

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 in Kval­ross­buk­ta 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.

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last modification: 2019-03-02 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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