I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about whales for some time now. And as I make slow, stately, and somewhat distracted progress through my project on the whaler and scientist William Scoresby Jr., I’ve been thinking more about how whales appear to us now, and how they appeared 200 years ago. The obvious difference of course is that, apart from a few dishonourable exceptions, most countries–and most people–now think killing whales is a bad idea. But it is the idea of whales that interests me: how do we look at them, what do we see, and what do they mean to us?
Most whales are of course, very large, and it is this aspect of the whale that dominates our view of them. But there is more than a trace here of an old-fashioned Western view of otherness in which that which is not of us is necessarily mysterious and strange. The whale skeletons in places like the Natural History Museum in London certainly provide a spectacle, and their size, emphasised by their room-filling juxtaposition with the large gallery spaces used to display them, is akin to the marvellous size of a Saturn rocket, or some vast Gothic cathedral. But of course in their context none of these things is large or powerful at all. Saturn rockets may have helped transport a few men to the Moon, but they were sacrificed in so doing; the vastness of a cathedral may hint at the glory of heaven, but it is a weak effort in the face of a divine power that notionally created the universe.
And so it is with whales: in the museum, or more poignantly, stranded on a beach, their bulk is a spectacle, and a logistics problem. But out at sea, perhaps thousands of kilometres from land, they are, if not small, then to scale. The vastness of the whale skeleton, like the surprising girth of a fallen tree, is a puzzle: how can something so large and extraordinary exist alongside us? But here, in their family group, Sperm whales rest at the surface, as ordinary as birds on a lawn.
My work on the whaler William Scoresby Jr. centres on his 1822 voyage to Greenland, a small, but significant episode in a very diverse and influential life. Scoresby gave up whaling after his voyage the following year–there were commercial as well as personal reasons in play–and became a clergyman. In the early 1840s he was Vicar of Bradford, and, besides bringing him into contact with the Brontë family at Haworth, his experiences there made him an outspoken social reformer. Scoresby was never less than opinionated, but his dismay at the way workers in the mills and factories of Britain’s industrial towns was enough for him to establish schools for poor children in Bradford, to give lectures on the conditions men and women endured in their employment, and in their lives. Following a visit to Massachusetts in 1844, where he investigated the conditions experienced by American factory workers (better than in Britain, he thought), Scoresby gave a series of lectures about his findings, and collected them into a book, American Factories and their Female Operatives, published the following year in Britain and the US.
When reading this we must bear in mind Scoresby’s paternalistic and moralistic view of the working poor–he was at least as interested in saving souls as saving lives–but there is real concern and forcefulness here:
“The consideration, let it be observed, of the long hours of labor, is one by no means belonging peculiarly to our factory system. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed by the government, ‘for inquiring into the employment of children and young persons in mines and collieries, trades and manufactures,’ have brought to light a most appalling amount of misery induced, as to this one essential element, by over-working. And from hence we find, taking the whole range of the investigations under this humane commission, that the oppression of the laborer is no local or peculiar incident, but an evil of huge magnitude, as a national sin. It is an evil which has grown up insidiously amongst us, the offspring of success in trade and of an excess of laboring population.”
William Scoresby Jr. _American Factories and their Female Operatives_ Boston: Ticknor and Co. 1845.
More on Scoresby here, and here. And a bit more about the 1822 voyage here.
For several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.
This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.
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.
On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.
This is a fascinating talk about Melville’s novel in which Philip Hoare touches on his own interest in the book, on perceptions and representations of the whale, and how he came to be so connected with whales.
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.
I’ve been working for a while now on a book about William Scoresby Jr. and his 1822 voyage to Greenland, though with other work to do, progress has been slow.
By 1820, Arctic whaling was in decline in Liverpool, and it stopped altogether after the 1823 season, but in the late eighteenth century it was big business. Evidence of its significance exists even today in the street name “Greenland Street”, which runs perpendicular to the Mersey, and parallel with Parliament Street. It is divided now by modern development, but it used to connect up with what was then the southern end of the Queen’s Dock. Greenland Street is now home to Camp and Furnace and an ice-cream van depot, among other things. It seems likely, given the name of the street, that the oil works that stood by the Queen’s Dock in the late eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, serviced a mixed industrial area of bone cutters, stay makers and warehousing, centred there. In the 1780s, when Liverpool whaling was at its peak, Greenland Street would have been on the edge of town. I suspect it was a good thing that it would also have been downwind of the city most of the time.
The area around Greenland Street must have been an unpleasant place to live, but quite a few whaleship captains did just that. Between about 1818 and 1825, Scoresby himself lived a quarter of a mile up the hill, on the then relatively new development of Upper Stanhope Street. Very few of the buildings that Scoresby would have known now exist, apart from the church of St. James (above) and possibly the once rather grand, but now sorry-looking house below. Gore’s Directory suggests he lived at number seven, so not very far from this derelict remnant. On foot, he could have been at the Queen’s Dock in ten minutes.