The Greenland Trade and Social Mobility

In late eighteenth century England there were few opportunities for rising up through the social ranks, or even improving on one’s financial situation. Most people lived a life of hand to mouth, dependent on the harvest, and the availability of work. Labourers tended to remain labourers, and ordinary sailors remained, on the whole, ordinary sailors. In its boom years, between about 1760 and 1820, Arctic whaling was an exception. Sailors who had talent with the harpoon, or who showed leadership in a whaleboat, had a real chance to earn more, and to have a ‘career’ in the modern sense. Whalers were paid a share of the profit on the catch, so in a good year, some of them might have more money than they needed to see them through the winter. It was not uncommon for whaleship captains to have begun as ordinary seamen, and then, having impressed the owners of the ship, made their way through the ranks to a command of their own.

This was true of William Scoresby Sr., the father of the better known Scoresby, the Arctic scientist. Scoresby Sr. was originally a farmer, but went to sea in 1785 as an ordinary sailor on board the whale ship Henrietta. He so impressed the master, and the ship’s owners, that in 1791, two years after the birth of his famous son, he was given command of the Henrietta. This success allowed him to move his family to a large house in Whitby, to send young William to a good school, and eventually to become a shipowner in his own right.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s romance Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) there is evidence that this was not an isolated case. The novel is not one of Gaskell’s best known, and it is at times rather melodramatic, but it is one of only a small number of novels set amongst whalers. Early in the novel, Gaskell describes the town of Monkshaven (Whitby, North Yorkshire) in the 1790s, and the press gangs that roamed the streets waiting for the return of the whalers from Greenland. Whalers were exempted from the press gang, as the supply of oil was deemed too important to put at risk. Whalers signed up for the following Spring’s voyage could, in theory, show their papers and be set free. In reality, and in Gaskell’s story, whalers were as susceptible as any other sailor, whether they had papers or not. Interestingly, Gaskell speculates that the possibility of social improvement made Northern whalers less willing to be pressed than sailors in “southern towns,” since a sailor on the deck of a frigate had much the same hard life as a sailor on a cargo ship:

… it is certain that the southerners took the oppression of the press-warrants more submissively than the wild north-eastern people. For with them the chances of profit beyond their wages in the whaling or Greenland trade extended to the lowest description of sailor. He might rise by daring and saving to be a ship-owner himself. Numbers around him had done so; and this very fact made the distinction between class and class less apparent; and the common ventures and dangers, the universal interest felt in one pursuit, bound the inhabitants of that line of coast together with a strong tie, the severance of which by any violent or extraneous measure, gave rise to passionate anger and thirst for vengeance. A Yorkshireman once said to me, “My county folk are all alike. Their first thought is how to resist. … [From Sylvia’s Lovers, Chapter 1.]

Letters to Elizabeth