Ribbons and Garters: New Whaling Technology in the 1820s

Most people are familiar with the industrial method of catching whales in the twenty-first century. In news items and protest video footage we see the giant warship-like vessels, armed with powerful harpoon cannons, dragging in the massive carcasses on chains, and the mechanised butchery that takes place on their decks. But in the 1820s, whaling was a dangerous and inefficient business. Around a hundred ships sailed each year to the Arctic, each with a crew of sixty men, and they pursued whales in small boats, harpooning them by hand. The image above illustrates how close whalers came to their prey: lances for killing the “fish,” flensing knives for removing blubber from the carcass as it floated alongside, grappling hooks, hatchets, and splicing tools for securing and towing the whale. These tools had been developed over two centuries of whaling, and while they had been refined in that time, they would have been recognised, or at least understood, by a whaler from the 1600s. In the 1820s, however, new technology was challenging the work of the most valued members of a whaleship’s crew, the harpooners.

The work of a harpooner was dangerous, and highly skilled. The best harpooners were so accurate in directing the boat, and throwing their weapons, that their abilities were regarded as somehow magical or otherworldly. Harpooners were the best paid amongst the crew of a whale ship, and were given privileges other whalers envied. There was a great deal of superstition surrounding their craft, and harpooners were careful not to jinx their luck. George Manby, who accompanied William Scoresby on his voyage from Liverpool on board the Baffin in 1821, observed harpooners weaving ribbons and garters, given by wives and sweethearts, into the lines attached to their harpoons. He explains “this at once elucidated the “magic spell,” as they were intended to animate the powers of the harpooner, who derives fame, and consequently, the approbation of his lass, in proportion to the number of whales he is able to strike and to capture.”

Whaleship owners took a rather more practical view of the process of capturing whales. They preferred technology to talismans, and were keen to develop harpoon guns that did not rely on the strength of the harpooner. One of the reasons Manby accompanied Scoresby on the 1821 voyage was to test his design for a harpoon gun (Manby is more famous for his rocket propelled line, used to rescue survivors of shipwrecks). By1820 several attempts had been made to design a gun, some, including rocket-propelled harpoons built by Sir William Congreve, more successful than others. In 1821 several Greenland ships carried harpoon guns or rockets, including the Whitby ship Fame, commanded by Scoresby’s father, which used Congreve rockets, the Trafalgar, of Hull, which had been supplied with Manby’s guns, and the Baffin herself.

Naturally, the harpooners were “jealous” of the harpoon gun, fearing their skills would no longer be needed, and Manby had a difficult task in persuading them otherwise. He explains in his journal that his inventions, including shells, to be used in killing the whale from a distance, were intended to improve the efficiency and safety of whaling: “The employment of these last missiles, was, I also stated, desirable on the ground of humanity, by their quickly terminating the misery of the fish, and obviating the necessity of the barbarity often avoidable in the present system”. Manby’s experiments with his harpoon gun and explosive harpoons, were undermined by the crew who refused to use them as instructed. Manby’s explosive harpoon was just one of several similar designs over the following sixty years. The gun which eventually brought about the end of whaling as Scoresby knew it, was designed in the 1860s by a Norwegian, Svend Foyn, whose harpoon gun was fired not from a small boat, but from the prow of a steam-powered whaleship. It was not until the 1880s that Foyn’s gun, and his harpoon with “umbrella” barbs and exploding head, was widely adopted, putting an end to the mystique and “magic” of the traditional harpooner.

In 1821, Manby knew his invention faced strong opposition, and felt it necessary to make the following address to Richard Simpkin, the harpooner of the gunboat:

“Richard Simpkin, you have been selected to the charge and direction of the boat, appointed to try the practical utility of my gun and other apparatus, which are intended to promote and ensure success in the whale-fishery, and to afford assistance, in the time of danger, to those who are prosecuting that service. I only ask for A Fair and Impartial Trial, to judge whether the adaptation of my inventions to their several intentions, will confirm their utility by practical examples of success, (which I expect that the inveteracy of prejudice cannot withstand,) or whether they will require any alteration or improvement to render them effectual. It is now proper for me to state, that you have been selected, as, this being your first voyage in the rank of harpooner, there is less liability of your being influenced by prejudice, or by an obstinate adherence to old customs.

I wish you to keep in mind, that my intention is to do an essential public benefit; and in its operation, to obtain advantage to the owners of the ship who give you employment; to your captain who promoted you to the situation of harpooner; to your companions, who are deeply interested in the success of your boat; and lastly, to yourself, not only from the rewards you may acquire from the use of the gun-harpoon, but the credit you will derive in being the first man to establish its utility.

Let these considerations animate your zeal; let it be ever foremost in your thoughts, that the success of the new system depends upon your own exertions, your collected conduct in the moment of use, and your ability when it is applied; and let these motives induce your particular attention to a branch of service, from which success will never fail to be derived, when the direction of it is skilfully executed.”

–From George Manby’s Journal of a Voyage to Greenland, in the year 1821.

From Letters to Elizabeth