NEFA - The North East Folklore Archive

The Sea

The Rise and Fall of the Whale and Seal Fishery
From J T Findlay’s “A History of Peterhead” Scrogie 1933.

Hunting a Bowhead Whale, Dianne Sutherland 1993

     

Hunting a Bowhead Whale, Dianne Sutherland 1993

listen hereBedlam Howe sing the Whalers' Song

In our commercial annals no industry rouses our imagination or appeals to our romantic feelings so much as the whale and seal fishing. In time past the glamour surrounding it inspired the poet, and bred the speculator and adventurer. In no industry did physical nature so predominate as in the whale and seal fishing. This is what made its pursuit at once dangerous and uncertain; and although its great and unknown rewards were often the result of pluck and enterprise, much depended on the element of luck or chance, so that in it fortunes were suddenly acquired and as suddenly squandered. A well-known civic dignitary of our town used to say: “If you have any more money and don’t know what to do with it, buy a Greenland ship; if you have any more left, buy another.” He spoke from experience - from the bottom of his heart and his purse.

This fishing, which had its origin in the Norsemen’s inherent love for sport, in course of time became one of their principal avocations. It was not for its precious bone and oil that they pursued the whale from the Bay of Biscay to the Arctic Ocean, but for its greasy flesh, which seemed to tickle their unrefined palates. Yet early in the seventeenth century whales were still to be seen lolling on the face of the deep without any dread.

Consequently the number of whalers became so great that the whales, being pursued and killed in vast numbers, soon deserted their native seas. They were followed northward by their relentless pursuers, into the heart of the frozen fields, where fishing became so hazardous an undertaking that the number of ships rapidly began to decrease. In 1730, 25 British vessels went out, and returned with only twelve fish; in 1775, 105 were sent out, but met with ill success. Notwithstanding the government bounty, in 1781 the number fell to 39, and the lowest depression in this early industry was touched. From that date through the introduction of larger and more modern vessels and co-operative action, it again prospered and was on the ascendancy when Peterhead first entered the lists as a whaling port.

It was not, however, as a whaling station that Peterhead became known to the mercantile world. By the time whalers had begun to winter in Peterhead, the whale had long deserted British shores, and was chiefly to be found within the Arctic Circle. Only in antiquarian documents do we find reference made to the appearance of whales off the Buchan coast. A writer in 1680 says: - “As there are much fish in this coast, so whales are seen in it. This year one was taken at Peterhead, which had run between the rocks, of seventy foots; and the fishers reported to have seen them in great numbers.” One Sunday forenoon in the end of December 1806, a Greenland whale, and its young one, made their appearance in the South Bay of Peterhead. The alarm was immediately raised, and the churches were quickly emptied. The Greenland boats were manned and went in pursuit. “They caught the young one, the old one went away with an empty boat at her tail, and several harpoons sticking in her.” Some time afterwards its body was driven ashore on the English coast. But the appearance of whales off our coast at that date was as exceptional as it is to day.

During the latter half of the seventeenth century the Dutch carried on whale fishing with great vigour and success, and furnished almost all Europe with oil. In course of time the English took their place and carried on the industry with almost as much success. The Dutch and French whale fishing rapidly declined owing to the national calamities consequent on the French Revolution, and the southern whaling ports becoming extinct one after the other, gave way to new northern seaports which in turn were the rendezvous of the whaling fleet. Hull and Whitby gave place to Dundee and Peterhead. The latter ports are nearer the north and their sailors, having northern blood in their veins, were better adapted for this dangerous calling. The shipping of Shetland seamen on board our Greenland ships was further recognition of this fact.

The Peterhead Greenland whale fishing commenced in 1788 and for fourteen years the Robert of 169 tons, with a crew of 35 men, was the only vessel employed. The first ten years were very unsuccessful owing, it is supposed, to the master and greater part of the crew, who were Englishmen, being bribed not to exert themselves in case Peterhead should enter further into the fisheries, which English ports had all along attempted to monopolise. The first year the Robert returned with only one whale, yielding but one ton of oil; the two succeeding years it returned practically blank; and indeed, up to and including the year 1797 its greatest success was three small whales.

Such was the unsuccessful nature of the fishing that it was on the point of being given up entirely, when two gentlemen, Mr James Arbuthnot and Mr John Hutchison, two of the partners of the company which owned the Robert, suggested the propriety of manning the vessel with seamen and fishermen belonging to the town, which was accordingly done, and Captain A. Geary, a native of Peterhead, received the command. The experiment more than exceeded the most sanguine expectations of the company, and every succeeding year proved more successful than the former; the number of vessels rapidly increased; and within a quarter of a century from that date no whaling port was so successful as Peterhead.

In 1802 the Robert was replaced by the Hope, a vessel of 240 tons, under the same commander. The reasons for this change require a little explanation. In 1732 Great Britain attempted to encourage the whale fishery by a bounty of 30s. a ton to every ship of 200 tons engaged in it, which was raised in 1749 to 40s., reduced to 30s. in 1777, and again raised to 40s. in 1781. The object of the bounty was not only to encourage the trade, but also to make it a nursery for seamen. Ships, however, were sometimes fitted out rather for the bounty than for the capture of whales, and so the bounty was again reduced, and finally altogether withdrawn in 1824. The Robert, being under 200 tons, was ineligible for this bounty, but the Hope received it. It was guaranteed by Government, and amounted to £480 for every voyage it made - that is, at 40s. per ton - no mean relief, to say nothing of the vessel being larger and more suited to the industry. This money from Government was a consideration, and those vessels which could not lay claim to it were heavily handicapped in their efforts. In 1801 the Active, 308 tons, under Captain J. Sutter, joined the pursuit of the whale from Peterhead, and in the following year, the Perseverance, 240 tons, under Captain D. Gray, was added to the little fleet. In 1804 the Enterprise, 290 tons, under Captain W. Volum, also joined up. In 1811, 122 whales were caught, yielding 752 tuns of oil, this being an average for the four vessels of 188 tuns. In 1813 the Resolution and the Union joined the Peterhead whaling fleet, and the following year the Dexterity. The year 1814 is ever to be remembered in the annals of the Peterhead whale fishing. The following are the statistics of that most successful year:-

 

1814

 

Tonnage

Ships

Captains

Seals

Whales

Tuns Oil

1.

240

Hope

T. Philips

-

14

157

2.

290

Enterprise

A. Geary

-

24

183

3.

308

Active

D. Gray

-

22

232

4.

240

Perseverance

W. Penny

-

17

151

5.

400

Resolution

J. Suttar

-

44

299

6.

225

Union

W. Hutchison

-

17

172

7.

321

Dexterity

G. Sangster

-

25

196

 

 

 

 

 


163


1390

 

 

 

 

Average, 198 tuns oil

 

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Finally altogether withdrawn in 1824, the Robert, being under 200 tons, was ineligible for this bounty, but the Hope received it. It was guaranteed by Government, and amounted to £480 for every voyage it made - that is, at 40s. per ton - no mean relief, to say nothing of the vessel being larger and more suited to the industry. This money from Government was a consideration, and those vessels which could not lay claim to it were heavily handicapped in their efforts. In 1801 the Active, 308 tons, under Captain J. Sutter, joined the pursuit of the whale from Peterhead, and in the following year, the Perseverance, 240 tons, under Captain D. Gray, was added to the little fleet. In 1804 the Enterprise, 290 tons, under Captain W. Volum, also joined up. In 1811, 122 whales were caught, yielding 752 tuns of oil, this being an average for the four vessels of 188 tuns. In 1813 the Resolution and the Union joined the Peterhead whaling fleet, and the following year the Dexterity. The year 1814 is ever to be remembered in the annals of the Peterhead whale fishing. The following are the statistics of that most successful year:- 1814 Tuns Tonnage. Ships. Captains. Seals. Whales. Oil. 1. 240 Hope T. Philips - 14 157 2. 290 Enterprise A. Geary - 24 183 3. 308 Active D. Gray - 22 232 4. 240 Perseverance W. Penny - 17 151 5. 400 Resolution J. Suttar - 44 299 6. 225 Union W. Hutchison - 17 172 7. 321 Dexterity G. Sangster - 25 196 163 1390 Average, 198½ tuns oil. Although more whales were brought into port in after years the average catch of 1814 has never been equalled or surpassed. More money has been received for the catches in less successful years, for there is a constant fluctuation in the vale of bone and oil. The Resolution’s voyage in 1814 was a record one; in the whole history of the whale fishery no single vessel had captured so great a number of whales in one season. The catch was 44 whales, yielding 299 tuns of oil, at 252 gallons per tun. In Peterhead the catch was popularly supposed to be worth £15,000. This may be an exaggeration, but the oil alone, according to the price of that year - £32 per tun, was worth £9,568. The total catch of the season in oil was worth $44,480. With these figures before us we can readily understand what was meant by “the palmy days of Peterhead.” The whalers gradually increased, and the fishing continued to be fairly prosperous. In 1820 fifteen whalers sailed from Peterhead, bringing home 103 whales.

From 1821 the Peterhead fishing entered a new phase in its history. In that year, finding the whales scarce in the usual fishing grounds, four of the vessels tried their luck at Davis’ Strait, and were successful in bringing home 68 whales. From that time a number of the Greenland vessels fished in the Straits - where they were uniformly more successful than at the former grounds - until 1830, however, was not very good, only 27 whales being brought home by thirteen vessels, so Greenland was again resorted to by one or two, the numbers gradually increasing till 1841 and 1842, when none went to the Straits. From that time the numbers of the vessels going to the Davis’ Straits and Greenland fluctuated. The total number of vessels also decreased from sixteen in 1821 to eleven in 1841; but it again increased and in 1857 as many as thirty-two whalers sailed from our port. From that date their number steadily decreased till ultimately vanishing point was reached, and the industry became a thing of the past. Sometimes vessels made two voyages in the course of the year; the first Peterhead whaler to do this was the Ranger, which in 1843 went to Greenland and then to Davis’ Straits, where she was lost. In the following year the Gleaner and the Commerce both made two voyages, but such enterprise continued to be the exception. Occasionally the ships wintered for a season or two in the north.

Seal fishing was at first but indifferently prosecuted. In 1803 Captain Geary of the Hope came home with 180 seals which had most likely been killed for sport. In 1806 the Enterprise brought home 760 seals, in 1812 the Perseverance, 715; in 1819 and Active, 2500; and three other vessels, small quantities, 12,80 and 240. The following year - 1820 - 6892 seals were captured. In pursuit of the seal Captain D. Gray of the Active early took a leading part, but it was not till 1837 that seal fishing was carried on with the same energy as whale fishing, and some of the vessels went for seals only. A quick voyage was that of the Victor, of 396 tons, under Captain R. Martin, which sailed from Peterhead for Greenland on the 25th February 1849, captured there 12,494 seals, yielding 158 tuns of oil, and returned to our port on the 31st May, In 1851, 82,584 seals were brought home by fourteen vessels. In 1850 the Victor alone brought to port 16,135 seals, yielding 185 tuns of oil. For several years seal fishing was very successful, but like the whale fishing it too declined.

The whale and seal fishing here recounted was possibly the most dangerous of the sea- faring industries. In its early stage it was even more hazardous than later when vessels were stronger and larger. The introduction of steam also insured to a greater extent the safety of the whalers, but it is questionable whether it made their work more profitable. It was not to be expected that the Peterhead whaling fleet escaped without losses - grievous ones too. They were mostly confined to the first half of the nineteenth century. Within that period as many as fifteen vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of 4418, were lost. The first was in 1822, the Invincible, under Captain J. Hogg, when only on its fourth voyage. In 1826 the Jean and the Dexterity were lost, in 1828 the Active, Alpheus and Enterprise shared a like fate; followed in 1830 by the Hope and the Resolution. And so on. Captain J. Hogg lost in all three vessels - the Invincible, the Enterprise, and lastly the James, in 1831.

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capt. John Gray

Captain John Gray, 1806 - 1856
Master of the Peterhead whaler "Eclipse"

In 1825 Captain D. Gray abandoned the Active at Davis’ Straits, but it was brilliantly recovered the following year by his son, John Gray, who became a whaler captain by taking it home with seven whales, yielding 87 tuns of oil. The two most memorable shipwrecks of Peterhead whalers are undoubtedly the Jean in 1826, and the Hannibal in 1848. This latter vessel joined the Peterhead fleet as early as 1819, under the command of Captain W. Robertson. Captain J. Lowrie received command of it in 1844, and in 1848, while returning across the Atlantic with the crew of a derelict vessel on board, rough weather set in. Captain Lowrie, instead of making the Shetland Islands, resolved to steer for Peterhead, but a gale came on, the ship was driven on to the coast of Norway. Every life was lost save one, a seaman named Watt, an inhabitant of Peterhead, who in after life was known as "Piper George Watt."

The Jean, under the same command of Captain J. Minto, left Peterhead for Lerwick on 15th March 1826, with a crew of 28 men, and after engaging 23 Shetlanders and taking in water, shaped a course for Greenland. For five days a perfect hurricane blew and on 11th April ice was encountered. Some seals were caught, but on the 18th there was a dense fog and bad weather again set in, and the ship was so buffeted by the ice that she sprang a leak and soon filled with water.

The crew sheltered as best they could, but for nine days were exposed to the elements while huddled together on deck of their vessel. During this time one Shetlander was killed by falling off the mainmast and three others perished through cold and despair. At last they took to the boats and 26 hours afterwards effected a landing on the inland of Grimsey, off Iceland. The inhabitants received them kindly, and on 2nd May a passage to the main island was successfully made. Of the 47 survivors only 17 were sound in health. Many suffered from mortification of toes and feet and within a fortnight two more of the Shetlanders died. It was not until the 18th July that the survivors were able to charter a Danish brig to take them to Shetland, for £300; and it was August before the Peterhead crew got back to their own port, where they long remembered the friendly and benevolent inhabitants of that wonderful island of Iceland upon which they had sojourned for nearly three months.

It is with feelings of regret that the gradual decadence and ultimate demise of the Peterhead whale and seal fishing industry are recorded. At one time it was the principal industry of the town; now it is remembered only by name. Its death came only after a gallant fight for life, but even when it seemed to be in the heyday of success it was undermining itself. The industry lasted little over a hundred years and its palmy days were mostly before 1850, and although after that date princely fortunes were made, they were the exception, not the rule. More vessels were employed after 1850 than before, but the fishing was overdone. It strangled itself. Also the working and outfit of the vessels became gradually more expensive. Wages were raised, and steam introduced. In 1865 the Windward - sold later away from Peterhead and wrecked in 1907 in Davis’ Straits - and the Mazenthien - wrecked in the South Bay on March 17th, 1883 - were fitted up with steam, the first of the Peterhead whalers to effect this questionable improvement.

      Scraping walrus skins aboard s.s. Eclipse

Scraping walrus skins aboard s.s. Eclipse, under Captain David Gray, 1888
This photograph was taken by Captain's guest, Walter Livingston-Learmonth (courtesy Arbuthnot Museum)

Feeling it necessary to keep pace with the times, although strongly disapproving of the innovation, Captain D. Gray had in 1866 the steam Eclipse specially built for him. That vessel, long and familiarly known among whalers of all nationalities as "The Black Prince," was indeed successful, but it owed its wonderful success more to its able commander than to steam or any other improvements. Notwithstanding the introduction of steam the Peterhead whaling fleet from 1857 gradually but surely diminished. A fleet of 32 vessels in ten years had sunk to 9. Another ten years and the vessels could almost be counted on one hand. It was well that the herring fishing stepped opportunely in to take its place.

Three generations only plied the industry. Captain Alexander Geary commanded the first Peterhead whaler; his grandson, Captain David Gray, the last. This old family represented all that was best in the history of the Peterhead whale fishery. Their success in it is beyond comparison. The grandfathers and father of Captain David Gray were great and successful whalers, but he eclipsed them all; he was "The Prince of Whalers."

The same Captain Gray also brought home a large number of bottle-nosed whales, which hardly come under the category of the regular Greenland whale. Captain Gray, while proving himself a seaman of the best type, was much more than a seaman. He was recognised as the leading authority not only on Arctic navigation and in whale-hunting, but on the natural history of the whale, his contribution to the knowledge of the scientific world on that particular subject having been eagerly sought and highly valued. The continued falling-off in the catch of Greenland whales in those years led Captain Gray to give his attention to the question of prosecuting whale hunting in the Antarctic Seas. He pursued a long series of investigations, the results of which were published in 1877 and 1891, and in the latter year printed in Peterhead for private circulation a Report on New Whaling Grounds in the Southern Seas. Great interest was excited by these reports both at home and abroad. It was not, however, till he had made considerable progress in organising an expedition, in which the famous Eclipse was to be one of the vessels, that it was found that another company, profiting by his researches, fortified by his opinions, and carrying his report as a guide-book, was about to sail from Dundee. So the history of South seas whaling does not affect Peterhead. The Eclipse was sold in January 1893, and in the spring Captain Gray sailed his last voyage to the northern regions in the Windward. It was the last voyage from Peterhead of a Peterhead whaler. In April, 1894, the Windward was sold to Captain Wiggins of Siberian fame; it afterwards became the vessel of the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to the North Pole, and in August, 1896, under Captain James Brown, a native of Peterhead, had the honour of bringing home Dr Nansen of the Fram. But the Windward is not the only Peterhead whaler whose voyages will live in history. In 1845, on a Saturday in May, Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition, the Terror and Erebus, passed Peterhead on its way northward; and on the Monday following the Enterprise was the last to see the expedition in Melville Bay. In the late Captain John Gray’s Hope, the afterwards famous novelist, A. Conan Doyle, went a voyage to Greenland as a doctor of the vessel, and the influence of this visit to the Arctic Seas may be traced in several of his novels - The Firm of Girdlestone, The Captain of the "Pole- Star," and The Gully of Bluemansdyke.

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