The 1830 Baffin Fair

Caught in the Ice, 1830, by Thomas Henry Binks

Like modern oilmen, Arctic whalers took oil first from where it was easy. They began with Greenland and eastward towards Spitzbergen. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century whalers in that region caught 50 percent more whales than in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay to the West. By the late 1820s, though, the whales had almost been wiped out in the Greenland fishery, and like the deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, whalers were prepared to take more risks. In the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay the weather was less predictable, the ice more likely to trap you, and crush your ship.

In June and July 1830, after several years of poor catches in the Greenland Sea, the Davis Strait was packed with vessels. Whaling, especially Arctic whaling, was always a risky business, and some ships were lost every year, but in 1830 the weather in the Davis Strait was appalling. Violent storms pushed ice into the Strait, crushing ships and lifting them out  of the water.

That year the British whaling fleet lost 19 ships out of 90 in the Davis Strait. These included William Scoresby Jr.’s former ship Baffin, and the John, once captained by his brother in law, William Jackson. In 1830 the John was based at Greenock and her crew had a reputation for trouble. In 1829 some of them had refused to sail on a voyage of exploration in support of Captain John Ross and his ship Victory. The story of what happened on board the John in 1830 is not at all clear, but what is known is that when she was wrecked on September 24th, she was commanded by one of the officers, that her captain was dead, and that the mate and several of the crew had been set adrift in a boat. The John was the last whaler to sail out of Greenock.

Each of the 19 wrecked whalers had on board over fifty men, and for a while around 1000 were camped on the ice, drinking ale, wine, and rum plundered from the wrecked ships. This drunken way-below-zero jamboree was known as the Baffin Fair and went on for several days until the wrecked ships had been emptied and burnt. Free from the discipline of their ships the men were out of control, but when the food and drink was exhausted most were picked up by other ships and surprisingly few died. Basil Lubbock, whose book The Arctic Whalers is one of the best on the subject, estimates ‘eight or ten,’ did not survive, some of whom were deserters from French ships, and had been wandering on the ice even before the storms broke.

Besides the 19 ships lost, many more were damaged and 21 came home empty. After the 1830 catastrophe, whaling in the Davis Strait declined by about two thirds, and to make matters worse the American deep sea whaling industry had started to dominate oil production, making the Arctic fishery less attractive. Many British whalers turned to killing seals instead.

The image above can be downloaded from the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

Scoresby’s Map of Greenland, 1822

In 1822 William Scoresby Jr., commander of the ship Baffin of Liverpool, spent the summer months in the Arctic, catching whales and mapping the coast of Greenland. It is sometimes difficult, looking back from the twenty-first century, to remember where to leave gaps when making sense of history, to remember what wasn’t known. This map, which you can click to see in more detail, is a good example. Scoresby’s voyage of 1822 came in the wake of two significant voyages of discovery funded by the Admiralty under John Barrow. As a mere whaler Scoresby had been passed over in the search for the North West Passage in favour of Captain John Ross, whose failed expedition of 1818 met with widespread public ridicule, and William Parry, who was more successful in his expedition of 1820.

Scoresby was not a man to harbour grudges, but he must have felt wounded by the rejection, given that he was widely acknowledged at the time to be the foremost expert on the Arctic region. His voyage in 1822, commanding the ship he had designed and had built for the purpose in Liverpool three seasons earlier, was primarily to catch whales. Without government assistance, Scoresby had to make his voyage pay. And pay it did: despite sailing outside the usual fishing grounds around Spitzbergen, and despite narrowly avoiding shipwreck, Scoresby brought back a full ship.

More importantly, Scoresby’s map of the Eastern coast of Greenland, as well as his examinations of the ‘mineralogy’ and botany of the region, were a significant advance on what had existed before. In the section of the map shown here the gaps are obvous. Huge areas of the land back from the coast are uncharted; the assumption was that rather than being a single large landmass, Greenland was in fact a series of small islands joined together by ice. At the end of his 1822 journal, published in 1823 as A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, Scoresby quotes a letter from Sir Charles Giseiké on ‘the Structure of Greenland’:

It is past doubt, that the whole coast of Greenland formerly consisted of Large islands, which are now, as it were, glued together by immense masses of ice.

Such inlets, or rather firths (fiords), which once formed sounds or passages, terminate always, according to my observations, with glaciers filling up the valleys at each end. Such is (to confine myself to the more northern latitudes), the ice-firth, or ice-bay, of Disco Bay, in 68° 40′. Such, also, is Cornelius Bay (North-east Bay, or Omenak’s Fiord), 71½°, the north-eastern arm of which is blocked up at both ends with ice running through a valley, and bending rather towards the ENE.

Scoresby named many of the headlands and islands he discovered after his friends and acquaintances back in Liverpool. If you look closely at the map you will see ‘Scoresbys Sound’ (named after his father) and ‘Jameson Land’ after his mentor Professor Jameson of Edinburgh University, but this section of coastline he names the ‘Liverpool Coast’: names such as Holloway Bay (after a Liverpool minister) and Rathbone Island (after the famous Liverpool shipping family who were close friends) betray Scoresby’s affection for the city. Many of these names did not make it onto the official Admiralty maps or were replaced by later navigators.