Whaling In America:

A Brief History

The Beginnings

Long before the Mayflower reached the shores of Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Native Americans were using whales for their multiple uses from the carcasses that had washed up on the beach. It wasn't soon after that the natives sent canoes after the whales in order to attain the food, oil, and bone that could be harvested from the massive creatures. The settlers also had these objectives in mind as they spotted the titans rolling through the waves as they reached the shores of their new home. It was due to the fishing and whaling that the settlers established much of their early settlements on the coast.

The first organized whaling in America began on Long Island, New York in 1640. By the end of the century there were already whale-fisheries active in New England and New Jersey. The whaling industry proved to be quite profitable to the settlers and the expended mnay hours and much manpower to the effort of obtaining more whales. The colonial whalers launched small boats from beaches, towed captured whales to shore, cut up blubber and bone, then extracted the oil by boiling the blubber in large cast iron kettles called trypots.

Whaling Increases

As the profit for the whaling industry increased the whales in which to attain the profit from steadily decreased. As the number of whales near shore inevitably declined, the colonists had to change their approach to whaling. Now, the colonial whaler had to chase whales in single-masted sloops, tow whaleboats for the hunt, store whale blubber in casks, which they brought home to be tried out (oil extracted from blubber), carry provisions for several weeks, and hunt whales by day while sleeping on shore at night. By setting the hunt deeper into the sea, the whalers now had to take longer journeys to meet the demands of the colonists.

During the first years of deep sea whaling, it was the custom to cruise eastward in spring as far as the Azores, then south along the Guinea coast of Africa, and then east to the coast of Brazil, return home, take on supplies, then head north to Davis Straits, between Greenland and North America, for the summer. As whales became scarcer on these hunting grounds, American whalemen began to fan out into the major oceans of the world, by building vessels that were large enough to make voyages lasting several years, carry four or five whaleboats, extract oil by boiling blubber in tryworks - big iron pots set in a brick stove - on deck.

A Shaky Peak

In 1774, at least 350 vessels sailed from ports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Shore whaling, carried out on ocean shores, was not possible from New Bedford's deep harbor. Residents engaged in deep sea whaling at least as early as 1746. However, the industry would receive a devastating blow from a rising political tension between America and Great Britain during the Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1815. First, the British blockaded of colonial ports during the Revolutionary War prevented whaling activity. Then whaleships had lay idle because of the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. Ingenious shipowners, like the Rotches of New Bedford, went to France and conducted whaling from foreign shores.

When peace came in 1815, thirty years of expansion of the whaling fleet began. More than 700 whaleships set sail from 23 ports along the coast from Maine to New Jersey. Although many ports gave up whaling after 1847, the New Bedford area fleet continued to grow, reaching a peak in 1857 when 329 New Bedford whaleships, valued at more than $12,000,000, employed 10,000 men and 95 more vessels sailed from nearby towns of Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Marion, Mattapoisett, and Westport.


The American whaling industry might have died after the Civil War, had it not been for an increasing demand for baleen, which is found in the mouths of baleen whales instead of teeth. Made of keratin, a substance that is also part of finger nails, baleen was used for making carriage springs, corset stays, fishing rods, frames for traveling bags, trunks, and women's hats, hoops for women's skirts, horse whips, and umbrella and parasol ribs. The Arctic fleet increased greatly, as whalemen pursued bowhead whales, which supplied the best baleen. For ships from New Bedford, it was a long journey around Cape Horn (at the southern tip of South America) and then north through the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic.

In 1869, completion of the transcontinental railroad made it possible to ship whale products from coast to coast over land. This led some New Bedford whalemen to make San Francisco home port for journeys to the Arctic. Auxiliary-powered steam vessels were introduced in the 1880s and 1890s. They were used only as part of the San Francisco-Arctic whaling fleet.

Down Hill From Here

Slowly, whaling began to decline. One of the many factors was the discovery of petroleum in 1859. Its by-product, Kerosene, proved to be superior to the whaling oil that had once fueled so many colonial homes. The rise of the Civil War also lay waste to many whaling ships by Confederate cruisers from 1861 to 1865. The sinking of the "Stone Fleet", which included 37 New Bedford vessels, outside Confederate harbors to prevent blockade running during the Civil War was also a contributing factor. Not all of these factors were causes of war. The Arctic disasters of 1871 and 1876 in which 45 ships from New Bedford also placed a large morale decline in the whaling population. Declining number of whales in nearby accessible waters made it more and more necessary to place deep sea boats for expedition. However, with the lack of interest and funding these boats slowly dissipated. The invention of the first commercially available electric lamp in 1879 made it unnecessary for the whale oil to be harvested decreasing demand. The development of spring steel in 1906, which eventually ended the market for baleen, also lessened the demand for whale products.

The Death of an Era

Throughout its history, the American whale-fishery depended primarily upon sailing vessels and entirely upon whaleboats until its demise in the 1920s. The last square-rigger, the Bark Wanderer of New Bedford was wrecked in the summer of 1924 and the Schooner John R. Manta completed the last whaling voyage made from New Bedford in 1925. The last American vessel to use whaleboats, the Motor Ship Patterson, made final port in San Francisco on October 28, 1928. As a result, few whaling voyages under the American flag continued from foreign ports until around 1938. Since 1986 commercial whaling has not been permitted by the International Whaling Commission, the international body set up in 1946 to regulate whaling.

my writeup sort of expands on the final paragraph of the previous writeup in this node...

the continuing death of an era

In terms of the environmentalism side of things, the whaling issue has undergone various changes and a progression through history. In the 1940's, as with other environmental issues at the time, the goal was conservation of economically useful resources. As the whale populations declined, the whaling industry feared that there would one day not be enough whales to hunt and kill.

It was only decades later that people began to grasp the concept that whales had any inherent value as a species, apart from the economic benefit of selling whale products, and deserved protection on their own. Another idea that some subscribed to -- that just as humans do, whales also have a right to life.

There had not really been any more commercial whaling in the United States since the 1960's, so the country no longer had an economic stake in the whaling issue, other than the whale-watching industry. The lengthy period of overexploitation of whales, however, had significantly dented whale populations and threatened certain species. This led to the establishment of the International Whaling Commission by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946. The convention prohibited killing of certain species which neared extinction and set quotas on the number of whales each country could kill per year.

Nevertheless, the IWC was a club of whaling nations. The organization had no power to enforce its regulations with regards to quotas or even the bans on killing endangered species. The quotas were also set too high. Thus, although it was not difficult to comply, there was little change in behavior from pre-IWC times. There was also no international organization to facilitate consensus building on the scientific facts on whaling. The IWC's scientific committee, under the political and economic interests of whaling nations, continued to produce data and analysis supporting continued commercial exploitation.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Americans who began to learn more about the intelligence of marine mammals like whales and dolphins became sympathetic to the plight of the whales. Domestically, there was increasing pressure for serious international protection for whales. The United States, driven by the Endangered Species Act of 1969, declared eight whale species endangered in 1970 and then took the lead in defining the whaling issue internationally, creating a three-fourths majority needed under the treaty for a whaling ban. Because the charter of the IWC did not limit membership to whaling states, non-whaling states could be recruited to the Whaling Commission to overcome the veto coalition (which had consisted of the whaling states Norway, Japan, the Soviet Union, Iceland, Chile, and Peru). The United States also utilized the threat of economic sanctions to weaken the veto coalition.

By 1986, a moratorium had been placed on all commercial whaling.

Today, the only whaling permissible is whaling for scientific study and aboriginal whaling practices. However, this is not been without controversy. Whaling for scientific purposes in Japan has often been viewed as meaning 1) catch, 2) kill, 3) study, and then 4) eat. Whale meat, a delicacy of Japanese cuisine, continues to appear on menus despite the end of commercial whaling. The argument for aboriginal whaling practices is the five to ten thousand year history of whaling by arctic natives. It is not believed that their subsistance whaling of at most give to six whales per year contributed to significant population declines. The arctic climate also leaves few options and whale meat is a large part of their diet as well as culture. Still, others argue against the aboriginal whale hunts, believing in the whales' right to life.

Porter, Brown, and Chasek. Global Environmental Politics. Westview Press. 2000.
"Japan, Feasting on Whale, Sniffs at 'Culinary Impreialism' of U.S." New York Times International. August 10, 2000.
Professor Kal Raustiala, Environment 161/Political Science 122B lectures, UCLA.

Whal"ing, n.

The hunting of whales.


© Webster 1913.

Whal"ing, a.

Pertaining to, or employed in, the pursuit of whales; as, a whaling voyage; a whaling vessel.


© Webster 1913.

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