I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.
Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.
The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 2015 is (understandably) getting a lot of coverage in the British press at the moment. For most British adults at the time, living in a state of war was all they knew, so the end of hostilities must have come as a great relief. It is difficult to imagine now not hearing such momentous news within minutes or hours of events taking place. But a whaling journal entry from August 1st 1815 brings home the reality of a world where the latest news events might have happened last week, or a month ago.
On that day, the whale ship Esk, commanded by William Scoresby Jr., was returning from the Arctic. After almost five months at sea, most of which had been spent north of the Arctic Circle, Scoresby and his crew encountered a fishing boat from Orkney. So it was, somewhere off the Firth of Forth, and over six weeks since the defeat of the French at Waterloo, that these whalers finally heard the news. This is what Scoresby wrote in his journal:
Tuesday 1st August, 1815*
… At noon spoke to a smack from Orkney bound to London with a cargo of fish, which gave us the gratifying intelligence that peace was once more returned to Europe, through the gallantry of our British troops with most splendid honours & that the pest of the world, the violator of treaties and oaths was again taken captive or has delivered himself up. This intelligence was so grateful to the feelings of all our crew was received with three cheers & returned by [the] smack with loyal heartiness. These pleasurable feelings were … enhanced by the distinguished [share?] which the idol of our country, the brave & judicious Wellington bore in the unequal contest.
*Scoresby’s journals have been transcribed and edited by C. Ian Jackson and published in three volumes by the Hakluyt Society. This extract comes from The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Volume II, 1814-1816. London: Ashgate, 2008.
Just a quick note to say I’m going to be giving a talk entitled Oil Lamps, Corsets, and Neptune’s Razor: The Popular Culture of Arctic Whaling at Liverpool Hope University on March 2nd, 1pm-2pm, room FML 123.
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 Iceexhibition 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.
On November 13th (6.30-8pm) I’m going to be giving a talk at the University of Liverpool about Arthur Conan Doyle and his 1880 voyage to the Arctic on the Peterhead whale ship, the S.S. Hope. Doyle’s journal of his voyage, during which he acted as ship’s surgeon, was published by the British Library in 2012. He would later draw on his experiences in the Arctic in stories and in a factual article in Strand magazine in 1897. Doyle was one of many young doctors who had visited the Arctic on whale ships over the previous century or so, but at a time when Arctic tourism was growing in popularity, his voyage can also be seen as an alternative grand tour for adventurous young men who preferred frozen seas to the Mediterranean.
I don’t usually respond to news reports here, but I have to note that today the Canadian government announced the discovery of one of the two ships Sir John Franklin took to the Arctic in 1845, and which has been lost ever since. The discovery confirms Inuit oral histories of ships in the same area and marks the end of 160 years of searching. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had seen service in Antarctic exploration under the command of James Clark Ross and were used in surveying the newly-discovered Ross Ice Shelf. Mount Erebus was named after Ross’s flagship. The Antarctic expedition, which lasted several years, had spent the southern winters in Tasmania and at the Falkland Islands. The Franklin expedition of 1845 was more challenging, however, because it involved overwintering amongst the ice. Erebus and Terror had been clad in iron and fitted with steam engines to improve their chances of survival.
By the Autumn of 1847 it was already clear that something was wrong. Besides government bounties that eventually reached £20,000 Lady Franklin said she would give up her whole fortune of £10,000 in searching for her husband, and in 1848 she put forward £2000 as an incentive for whalers in Baffin Bay to look for the explorers. It was not enough to persuade them, but by February 1849 several expeditions were ready to go looking for her husband, including a second private attempt by Sir James Ross. Realising that Arctic whalers knew the region best, Lady Franklin travelled to Hull with William Scoresby Jr, where she met with whale ship owners and captains. On February 16th the Times reported this visit, during which Lady Franklin offered the whalers even more money, and concludes that “We shall be joined, we are sure, by all, in wishing success to these affectionate and earnest efforts, of Lady Franklin on behalf of her husband and her imperilled companions.”
CBC has released footage of the wreck, which could be Erebus or Terror:
Incidentally, Sinead O’Connor’s recording of “Lady Franklin’s Lament” a folk song about the Franklin expedition, is worth a listen:
Doyle apparently “ran away” from his medical studies to join thePeterhead whaler, but it was relatively common for medical students to sign up as ship’s surgeon on Arctic whaling voyages, and in fact Doyle “inherited” the position from a fellow student at Edinburgh. As Doyle himself puts it: “I went in the capacity of surgeon, but as I was only twenty years of age when I started, and as my knowledge was that of an average third year’s student’s, I have often thought that it was as well that there was no very serious call upon my services.”
At least as far back as the early nineteenth century a voyage on an Arctic whaler was a kind of informal internship for young doctors. Their journals are among the most detailed and readable of the accounts of these voyages. Whaleship captains did not, as a general rule, mix with the crew, so besides their medical knowledge, surgeons were also recruited to provide companionship and conversation for the ship’s commander.
More on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Arctic at the Venetian Vase.