Why Arctic Whalers Did Not Become Explorers


Scoresby’s observation of ships appearing to be inverted by refraction at high latitudes.

The forgotten history of Arctic whaling had something of a boost from the British Library in the form of a blog post by Philip Hatfield on the contribution of William Scoresby Jr. to the exploration of the Northwest Passage. Hatfield is a curator of the Lines in the Ice exhibition at the British Library and his post reproduces some of Scoresby’s beautiful detailed drawings from An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) to support his view that the whaler and scientist is overlooked in the history of the Northwest Passage. Scoresby’s two volume book was arguably the most important text on the Arctic and Arctic whaling for a century after it was published. It is referenced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851), Charles Darwin had a copy in his library, and the second volume remains the most comprehensive description of the processes involved in Arctic whaling before about 1860. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Scoresby was frequently referenced in newspapers as an expert on the Arctic, and was a champion of Lady Franklin in her attempts to find her missing husband. Her efforts in 1849 included paying Hull whalers significant amounts of money to join the search. Scoresby went with her to Hull to help her persuade them.

I agree with Hatfield that the significance of whalers in Arctic exploration has been overlooked by historians, but their part in the story was necessarily limited by commercial concerns. While some whalers did contribute to exploration, the number who contributed to scientific knowledge from outside of Admiralty-sponsored expeditions is very small indeed. Scoresby of course is the great exception, but as a talented and university educated scientist he was unusual among whalers in any case. Even so, Scoresby struggled throughout his whaling career to square scientific interests with financial obligations to the ship owners and his crew.

Scoresby’s achievements are many. In 1817 his letter to Sir Joseph Banks, informing him of a sudden, significant, and unexplained retreat in the sea ice, helped convince Sir John Barrow that an attempt on the Northwest Passage might then be possible. Although he was to play no part in the failed expedition led by Capt. John Ross in 1818–he sailed instead from Liverpool as commander of the whaleship Fame–Scoresby later became a friend of Ross and in March 1820 visited him at Stranraer when the Baffin took shelter in Loch Ryan on her maiden voyage north. In 1822, Scoresby made the first detailed map of a section of East Greenland, naming it the Liverpool Coast, and noting that it was 70 miles West of where the Admiralty maps suggested.

Like many people at the time Barrow subscribed to the belief that sea near to the North Pole was warm and free of ice. The popularity of this view can be gauged by its appearance in Frankenstein (1818), in which the narrator Walton declares “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.” (p.5) Scoresby himself remained sceptical about explorations by ship in the high Arctic. The Caledonian Mercury reported in October 1818 Scoresby’s suggestion that an attempt on the Pole might be made with sledges: “… he proposes to pass the winter in the island of Spitzbergen, and starting in the spring with sledges drawn by dogs, to pursue a direct journey of 600 or 700 miles to the Pole. He might then expect to find a continuous sheet of ice, stretching through his whole track.”

Scoresby’s achievements, however, stand out among whalers, whose priority was to bring home a full ship in the shortest time possible. Whaleship crews became restless, and even threatened mutiny, if they felt time was being wasted. Even the enticement of a reward for any whaler who found a passage through the ice could not persuade captains to take the risk of becoming beset. A ship full of blubber and a winter beside the hearth at home, while by no means guaranteed, was a more attractive prospect. Indeed, Barrow complains in an 1817 Quarterly Review article “On the Polar Ice and Northern Passage into the Pacific”, that whaleship captains, who received a substantial government bounty on their catches, had to swear to the custom house to pursue whales and “other large creatures” and undertake no other activity. Whalers were legally obliged to catch whales, rather than explore. Even Scoresby’s own explorations, notably the 1822 voyage to Greenland, were undertaken alongside commercial whaling (he caught nine large whales that year) and his freedom to go ashore was granted by his Liverpool underwriters. Led by Scoresby’s friend William Rathbone, they gave him more generous insurance terms than other whalers, with the express purpose of aiding his research, but the owners–and the law–still expected him to bring home a full ship if he could. Frustrated, Scoresby gave up whaling the following year.

Whalers have certainly been overlooked in the history of Arctic exploration, but the neglect of twenty-first century historians is less significant than the failure of the governments of the time to take advantage of their expertise and experience. As Barrow himself argues, the presence of large British whaling fleets in the Arctic offered an opportunity for exploration which the Admiralty did not adequately encourage or exploit.