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.

Where Scoresby’s Ship, the Baffin, Was Built

A note on where Scoresby’s ship, the Baffin, was built, by Mottershead and Hayes, shipwrights, in 1819-1820. It seems she was constructed in a yard on the site of what became, in 1846, the Albert Dock. More at my Scoresby blog, Letters to Elizabeth.

Prevailing Winds, History, and Forgetting

One of the things I find most fascinating about the process of trying to understand the past is the extent to which we forget collectively about things that no longer seem to matter. How things that were once an acceptable or at least tolerable part of life become almost inconceivable. What we call progress is not simply a matter of overcoming problems and sidestepping obstacles, but of denying they exist. The Icelandic volcano that has disrupted air travel across Europe in the past month has been a reminder of just how dependent we are on a stable and predictable environment. We want our transport to be reliable and nothing less than a volcanic eruption can stand in our way. But even so the idea of being delayed in our travels round the globe because of a volcano seems faintly ridiculous. Volcanos are so prehistoric and passenger jets are so, well, shiny and modern. But what if transport, industry, and commerce could be disrupted by something as mundane as the wind blowing in the wrong direction?

In March 1822 William Scoresby and his crew of fifty men were preparing to sail from Liverpool to the whale fishery off Greenland in the ship, Baffin. Unfortunately the voyage was delayed for about a week because a westerly wind prevented them from leaving the dock. This would no doubt have caused problems for Captain Scoresby, since not only would the men have to be retained on the ship (as it happens two of the crew deserted during the delay) but the loss of a week from the short Arctic hunting season was expensive. Scoresby finally managed to begin his voyage north on March 27th when the wind shifted a little southward, but his ship was almost alone when it left the Mersey. Here’s how he describes it:

[We] were prevented from sailing by strong westerly winds, which prevailed for several days … At this time, nearly 500 ships were lying in the different docks wind-bound; but scarcely any of them attempted to put to sea on this occasion as the wind was not suitable for the South Channel, the outlet most suitable for the voyages to which the principal part of the fleet was destined.

Scoresby’s troubles should be seen in a wider context: around forty percent of world trade was conducted through Liverpool in the early nineteenth century.  Delays had a significant effect not only on individual ships but on the economy of Britain as a whole. Far more significant, no doubt, than the restrictions on European flights are today. It is also worth noting that the prevailing wind in Liverpool is from the West.

May-Day Ceremonies of Greenland Sailors

The first day of May is traditionally the first day of summer. It is an ancient date of celebration and ceremony of pagan origins, which is marked traditionally in England with such rites as Maypole dancing, garlanding and the crowning of the “Queen of the May”. Sailors in the Greenland whale fishery had their own traditions, marking May Day with ceremonies that began just after midnight and continued for several hours. At close to 80° Latitude, as far north as Spitzbergen, the Barents Sea, and Ellesmere Island, there is perpetual daylight from late May, so the ringing in of May Day at these latitudes would have taken place in dusk or twilight. William Scoresby Jr. recounts the events on board the Baffin on May 1st 1820 in his A Voyage to the Whale Fishery, 1822, and describes an excitable, rowdy scene in which the hierarchy of the crew was established and scores settled in an elaborate theatrical display. No doubt drink was taken. Scoresby himself did not join in the festivities:

The proceedings commenced on the striking of eight bells at midnight, by the suspension in the rigging of a garland (very gaily decorated with ribbons, and surmounted with a representation of Neptune, and emblems of the fishery), by the hand of that individual among the crew who had most recently entered into the state of wedlock. Another sailor, strangely metamorphosed in a garb studiously extravagant, was then heard to hail the ship, ordering the main-yard to be braced aback, and a rope to be given for his boat; and immediately afterwards the odd figure, representing Neptune, with his wife, a barber, and his mate, ascended the deck over the bows of the ship. All hands were now summoned by this assumed marine potentate; when each individual, as he passed before him, received from the barber distinguishing patches of black and white upon his face. His marine majesty then went below, and entered into a division screened off from the ‘tween-decks for the occasion, and ordered all the hands, who were not free of the Greenland Sea, to come before him. One at a time they were brought into his presence, and each submitted to his humorous interrogatories, and to the coarse operation of shaving.

Neptune was a striking figure; his back carried a huge hunch, and his swollen bandied legs rivalled the diameter of his body. He was clothed in a naval dress, augmented by a cloak and an immense wig, of which a swab formed the tail. His assistant, whose office it was to perform the shaving operation, was dressed in a neat suit (with the exception of some embellishments) of white nankeen, and formed a singular contrast to his acknowledged sovereign. His lather was a mixture of soot, grease, tar, and other filth, scraped up for the occasion; a tar-brush was the utensil with which it was applied, and a coarse piece of iron-hooping, the substitute for a razor. When the lathering commenced, various questions were proposed by Neptune, respecting the man’s occupation, station and country; and if the unlucky fellow happened to give an answer, the brush invariably penetrated to his throat, and filled his mouth with its superabundant juices. The shaving of such as were decent, well-behaved and orderly characters, though at the best not very delicate, was, nevertheless, accomplished without any severity; but some who had shipped themselves as seamen, and proved to be not only unacquainted with the profession, but, at the same time, mean and worthless characters, were shaven with vast deliberation and coarseness. Two of these being introduced to Neptune in the character of hypocrites, were ordered by him to pass through two or three courses of the operation, on the principle, that, all hypocrites having two faces, it was necessary to scrape frequently and deeply, that the false face might be removed, and the true one appear! The shaving being concluded, and all hands made free, a sort of rude masquerade commenced. The characters were not numerous, but they were, in general, well supported. The introduction of a female character, the wife of Neptune, though any thing but lovely, gave occasion for battle, plot, and dramatic incident. This scene being passed, the ship’s company were marshalled on deck and reviewed. Feats of agility by individuals succeeded; and some tumbling, which was commenced by an expert master of the ceremonies, was attempted by all hands, though at the expence of many coarse thumps on the deck, which it required all their thick and varied clothing to defend them against.

After these feats of agility, a rude, but active and energetic dance succeeded, sustained or directed by the noisy vibrations of every kettle and pan to be found in the ship, but without any instrument more harmonious. The whole terminated with a loyal song, which was chorussed by the whole crew; and then they dispersed with three huzzas, on a summons from the boatswain to “splice the main-brace.”

Baffin of Liverpool: The Last Liverpool Whaler?

The Liverpool Whaleship, Baffin, by Francis Hustwick, c. 1834

I seem to be developing a minor obsession with whales and whaling. I’ve been reading recently about William Scoresby Jr, a Whitby whaler who built and sailed the Liverpool whaleship Baffin on a famous voyage to Greenland. Scoresby, besides being a whaler, arctic explorer and naturalist, designed the Baffin himself, overseeing her construction at Liverpool. In his Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery Scoresby describes the ship:

The voyage was accomplished in the ship Baffin, burden 321 tons, built at Liverpool, under my personal inspection, expressly for the whale-fishery, in the year 1820. No expense having been spared in the construction of this ship, every known principle calculated for producing strength, accommodation, sea-worthiness, and fast sailing, in so far as these properties were compatible, was adopted, and with such good effect, as to answer, upon trial, our highest expectations.

As far as I have been able to work out, Baffin was the only whale ship based in Liverpool in 1822*. Scoresby made one last trip to the Arctic before he gave up the sea and became a clergyman. The Baffin–almost certainly the last Liverpool whaler–also sailed out of  Leith, before being wrecked in the Davis Strait off Greenland in 1830. The ship with its bow towards us in the picture above is thought to be the Baffin. The painting is held at the Hull Maritime Museum.

*Text originally claimed Baffin was one of two whalers sailing from Liverpool in 1822, and that Lady Forbes was lost that year. In fact she was wrecked off Greenland in 1821.

Edited, December 17, 2009 and February 11, 2015.