A History of Commercial Whaling

commercial whaling
Caption: Kendall Collection, Thorshammer, a floating factory ship, c. 1928.

The Basques from the shores of the Bay of Biscay on the border of Spain and France were among the earliest documented commercial whalers. By the end of the first millennium they were regularly hunting migrating right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) and processing them on shore. Whalers were brought to new waters as Dutch and English developed whaling cultures in the 17th century and subsequent European colonial expansion brought whalers to new areas to hunt sperm whales in addition to right whales. Entrepreneurs in New England concentrated on sperm whaling as a means to great wealth. By the early 19th century New Bedford succeeded in whaling so well that its fleet was the largest of any in the world gaining the port the slogan “The City that Lit the World.”

As whaling truly became global throughout the 19th century, the technology also improved. Steam power was adopted by Scottish whaling fleets by the 1860s to maneuver through the dangerous Arctic ice. The Norwegians had already begun using small, light, steam-powered boats carrying bow-mounted harpoon cannons to hunt fin whales in the North Atlantic. As the American fishery declined the Norwegian fishery grew. By the 20th century, modern factory whaling was largely conducted by Norwegians and Norwegian technology permeated the industry. Modern shore whaling took place in many places around the world and many different people were involved including Australians, South Africans, and Japanese.

Raw materials obtained from whaling went into a wide variety of other commercial products in the 20th century. These included lubricants, cosmetics, pencils, bottle caps, typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, anti-corrosion agents, automotive hydraulics and textile production. The whale’s organs, particularly the liver and glands were analyzed for vitamin and hormone supplements and the short, stiff baleen fringes from fin whales were specially prized for bristle brushes.