Shetland Sixareens and Arctic Whaleboats

Boats moored in Hays Dock, Lerwick.
Boats moored in Hays Dock, Lerwick.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whalers left their home ports in England and mainland Scotland in late February or March heading for the Arctic fishing grounds. Many of them stopped at Shetland, which is about a third of the way between ports such as Whitby and the edge of the ice where Bowhead whales spent the summer months. There they picked up supplies, spent a day or two adjusting ballast, but most importantly they collected men to complete their crews. In some cases almost half the crew of a Hull whaleship would consist of ‘Shetland Men’ who had a reputation for good seamanship, especially in small open rowing boats.

A modern sixareen in the boat shed at the Lerwick Museum.
A modern sixareen in the boat shed at the Lerwick Museum.

It is not immediately obvious why a man from Shetland would be prized over one from any number of fishing villages on the east coast of England or Scotland, or at least it wasn’t to me until I visited Shetland and found out about the Sixareen, a six-oared boat with a prow at each end used for fishing, and its smaller cousins, Yoals, Fourareens and haddock boats. These boats, many of which were imported from Norway before 1830–Shetland has very few trees–were used on fishing trips, sometimes with a small sail to supplement the effort of the rowers. Sixareens were used for deep-sea fishing on trips lasting three days or more. Shetland’s lack of roads at that time also meant that it was quicker and easier to travel around by sea than over land so they were also used for general transport around the islands for people as well as animals and other cargo. Sixareens and Yoals, or boats like them, are now used for racing.

Yoal made at Shetland Museum, Lerwick.
Yoal made at Shetland Museum, Lerwick.

I’m far from an expert in the details of these boats, but the similarity between the smaller, narrower Yoal and a whaleboat is striking, and Shetland men, besides being used to spending time at sea in small open boats, must have been physically well prepared for rowing at speed for long periods. In contrast, whaleship crews from ports in mainland Britain would have less experience, and significantly less long-distance rowing ability.

Small boats in Hay's Dock, Lerwick.
Hay’s Dock, Lerwick.

The boats pictured above are at the Shetland Museum, which is at Hay’s Dock in Lerwick, the last part of Lerwick harbour remaining from the early nineteenth century. Hay’s Dock was new when William Scoresby Jr. and the Arctic whaling fleet anchored in Bressay Sound on their way northward. Scoresby’s aim was to recruit whaleboat crews, but It is intriguing to wonder whether the connection went both ways, and whether Sixareens, Yoals and Fourareens influenced the design of whaleboats themselves.

Steps up to the pier at Hay's Dock, Lerwick.
Steps up to the pier at Hay’s Dock, Lerwick.

From Liverpool’s Greenland Street to Greenland’s Liverpool Coast: William Scoresby, Whaling, and Exploration

On April 17th this year I gave a public lecture based on my research on William Scoresby Jr, Liverpool, whaling and exploration at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. This was the first in a series of public talks exploring whaling and Liverpool as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival. The video below is a recording I made while I was speaking combined with the slides from my talk. I’ve also included links below to the audio on its own.

If you want to listen to the talk without the slideshow, the mp3 is downloadable from here, or you can use the audio player below.

This public lecture series was organised as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival by Claire Jones of the Department of Continuing Education, University of Liverpool.

Arctic Whaling in Liverpool

I aim to write something about the extraordinary weekend I’ve just had, helping to organise and taking part in Moby Dick on the Mersey, and about all the wonderful people who turned up and read. But before that, here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC website which came out while we were busy reading Moby-Dick. It’s about the brief, but quite significant role Liverpool played in Arctic whaling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Arctic whaling in Liverpool

Moby Dick on the Mersey: Maritime Lectures

The lecture programme for the Moby Dick on the Mersey project is taking shape. This is still in draft, but it will be updated as speakers confirm. Here’s the list: Maritime Lectures.

Moby Dick on the Mersey, a Marathon Reading in Liverpool

This is going to be keeping me busy for a while. Moby Dick on the Mersey is a marathon reading of Melville’s famous novel, taking place at the Merseyside Maritime Museum from the 4th to the 6th of May 2013. I am organising it through the University of Liverpool’s department of Continuing Education, where I look after courses in English. The reading will take over 130 readers 26 hours, and we are arranging other events alongside it, including a series of talks and lectures about Liverpool and whaling, Herman Melville, and the novel itself. With a bit of luck we will also have a Moby Dick ale brewed for refreshment.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Arctic Whaling Journals

The Hope of Peterhead, on which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent the summer of 1880 in the Arctic.

According to Maev Kennedy in The Guardian, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Arctic whaling journal is going to be published by the British Library. I wrote about his 1880 voyage over at the Venetian Vase blog in February last year, basing my post on Doyle’s published reminiscences. Kennedy’s short article describes the journal as a “a rip-roaring account of his adventures as ship’s doctor on the Arctic whaler Hope.”

Doyle apparently “ran away” from his medical studies to join the Peterhead 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.

EDIT: The book Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure is available for pre-order from the British Library Shop.

Minds in the Water: Surfers for Cetaceans

Here’s the trailer for the film Minds in the Water, which is “a feature-length documentary following the quest of professional surfer Dave Rastovich and his friends to protect dolphins, whales and the oceans they all share”.

There’s a long, thoughtful review of the film’s UK premiere at Vulpes Libris.


Cheap Oil and the Hunting of Whales

Andrew Nikiforuk has a piece over at the British Columbia-based web magazine The Tyee about whaling and the oil industry, reviewing a book about Moby Dick by energy banker, Robert Wagner Jr. Wagner’s reading of the novel in the context of the modern oil industry and its unwillingness to countenance alternatives offers an interesting perspective on our reliance on cheap oil, and the lengths to which we are prepared to go to defend it. As I’ve noted before, the hunting of whales in the Arctic, before Moby Dick was written, also has parallels with the oil industry in the twenty-first century. By about 1820, as the whales began to be ‘fished out’ in the Greenland sea, whalers moved on to the Davis Strait, to the West of Greenland, which, coincidentally, is where modern oil companies are preparing to drill for oil as their desperation for new reserves increases. The Davis Strait proved lucrative for a while, but a lot more dangerous, and even that, in the end, was fished out:

A couple of years ago Robert Wagner Jr., a well-known Houston energy banker, read the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a former whaler. It’s a rambling and gritty tale about the 19th whaling industry and America’s first energy boom.

The narrative, which richly details the nature of an economic obsession, squarely harpooned Wagner, a good friend of the late energy critic, Matthew Simmons. “I was blown away by the synergies and the comparisons of whaling with the oil and gas industry, ” says Wagner.

For more than 40 years the 69-year-old banker financed Texas oil deals and had a front row seat to the world’s most volatile commodity while working for the likes of Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen.

And so the maniacal pursuit of a white whale to illuminate North American homes haunted Wagner. It also reminded him how every age irrevocably passes into another whether people are prepared for change or not.

“The rampant obsessive exploration, production and consumption of hydrocarbons that saturates our society today can be read much like the situation for the men on the Pequod,” notes Wagner. The world of “There she blows” and “Give it to him” actually led, if not descended to “Drill, baby, drill.”


Moby Map

I love the Internet. I really do. People are out there doing imaginative things, and coming up with wonderful stuff like Moby Map, an interactive map based on Moby Dick, which “compiles over 350 geographic locations from the novel (with a few mysteries still unsolved!) into an interactive flash based Google map of the world. Also included is the plotted course of the Pequod, accompanied by descriptions from throughout the novel and icons showing historic whaling grounds.” Brilliant.

Hat-tip to Power Moby Dick.

Sea Pie, Stale Beer, and a Catchup to Keep 20 Years

The question of food on board an Arctic whaler is a matter of some mystery. While there are accounts of the proceedings on board ship in the act of pursuing and catching whales, little is known about the lives of the whalers themselves. William Scoresby Jr. documents the provisions loaded onto a whale ship in preparation for the fishery: vast quantities of salt pork, hams, and beef, as well as bread, and potatoes, but little else. Variety might be had in the form of whale meat, fish, or seabirds. Scoresby notes that the price of Shetland oysters doubled when ships were nearby.

Basil Lubbock, whose The Arctic Whalers (1937) remains an important work in the history of the ‘fishery’ devotes little more than a paragraph or two to the subject of food, and then only to say that the ‘half deck’ men received better quality rations than the rest of the crew. These men were skilled hands, and included the second mate, harpooners, cooper, carpenters, and the specksioneer. They shared a mess, where they received their own special menu, which included a ration of cheese, and ‘Sea Pie’. Lubbock gives the following description, taken from a sailor’s log, written in 1820:

This savoury dish was made in layers or decks; the first one of bones to keep the paste from burning to the bottom of the pan; then followed a stratum of fresh beef paste and seasonings, deck after deck, until the great kettle was full. Sufficient water was added to enable the mess to be cooked. (Lubbock, p.53)

Captains fared rather better. The closest recipe I can find to this is in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), in the chapter headed For Captains of Ships:

To make a Cheshire Pork Pie for Sea

Take some salt pork that has been boiled, cut it into thin slices, an equal quantity of potatoes, pared and sliced thin, make a good crust, cover the dish lay a layer of meat seasoned with a little pepper, and a layer of potatoes, then a layer of meat, a layer of potatoes, and so on, till your pie is full. Season it with pepper, when it is full, lay some butter on the top, and fill your dish above half full of soft water. Close your pie up and bake it in a gentle oven.

Elsewhere in the same chapter is a recipe for a ‘Catchup to keep twenty years’:

Take a gallon of strong stale beer, one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle, a pound of shalots peeled, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, three or four large races of ginger, two quarts of the large mushroom flaps rubbed to pieces. Cover all this close and let it simmer till it is half wasted then strain it through a flannel bag, let it stand till it is quite cold, then bottle it. You may carry it to the Indies. A spoonful of this to a pound of fresh butter melted makes a fine fish sauce or in the room of gravy sauce. The stronger and staler the beer is, the better the catchup will be.

Cross-posted from Letters to Elizabeth