Whalemen Adventurers

by W. J. Dakin


To unfold the story of the beginning of Australian whaling is to reveal some of the most potent forces which helped in the foundation of the great dominions of Australia and New Zealand. Few Australians realize this; and still fewer Englishmen. Most of the romantic stories of olden whaling all but omit mention of Australasia - yet not always. In Melville's great sea-classic, Moby Dick, written at the height of the "golden" era of the Pacific industry, the narrator delivers himself of the following significant hymn of praise in honour of the old Whalemen:

That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the Whalemen. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale ship touched there. The whale ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters, . . . Often, adventures which Vancouver dedicates three chapters to, these men accounted unworthy of being set down in the ship's common log . . . if, in the face of all this, you still declare that whaling has no aesthetically noble associations connected with it, then am I ready to shiver fifty lances with you there, and unhorse you with a split helmet every time.

Well, we shall see how much of this is true.

I cannot go back to the beginning of whaling - it's a long and wonderful history - let me just go back, then, to 1712, to Nantucket, an islet off the Atlantic coast of United States of America, Nantucket still is a unique spot, but as this is not a travel book I must restrain myself. Imagine an island fifteen miles long and four miles wide, situated one hundred miles off Long Island, Massachusetts. Although not far away from the greatest commercial centres of the United States - a pleasure resort for those New Yorkers who can appreciate it - it still seems a little bit of old England with quaint cobbled streets, glorious elm-trees, and houses that were built by the old whaling captains and ship owners and would not be out of place in Tewkesbury or Bristol.

Whales were once as abundant close to its shores as they were in Australian harbours 150 years ago and the Nantucketers of 1700 caught them from the shore. Somewhere about 1712 one of these whalers, Christopher Hussey, was blown out to sea, where he chanced to sight and capture a Sperm whale. It was the first of the deep-sea whales to be taken by American whalers, who had so far merely continued the inshore fishery started by the Red Indians. This chance capture played the most important part in the development of the great American whaling industry of the high seas. It was also the beginning of Sperm whaling, for, until that time, this valuable ocean species had not been the aim of sea adventurers. All this happened of course when America was still a British colony.

The Nantucket men now commenced building ships suitable for deep-sea whaling, and, as the size of these ships gradually increased, so did the length of their voyages in the Atlantic Ocean. The old shore fisheries just as steadily diminished, for sperm oil was discovered to be superior to the oil of all other species. English seafarers at home were also roused to action, and, favoured by a government bounty (which did not increase the love of the American colonists), a small fleet was slowly brought into being, which sailed from London, Liverpool, Peterhead, Leith, Dundee, Whitby, and other famous old ports, but particularly from Hull. Whilst Greenland was most favoured by all these Whalemen and the Right whale was their prey, a gradual invasion of more southern seas (meaning the Atlantic), was just beginning.

Amongst the groups of adventurers a famous English company, Sam Enderby & Sons, of London, ship owners and whalers, owned vessels which brought hack whale-oil from America to England-oil which the Nantucket men had taken in the South Atlantic as well as elsewhere. These ships returned to America with cargoes for the colonists; and so it chanced that they were whale-ships which took part in the "Boston tea party" of 1773, after carrying to America those famous chests of tea which were thrown into the harbour by the irate colonists.

Actually three ships were concerned, the Dartmouth, the Beaver, and the Bedford. The Nantucketers claim that they belonged to Nantucket because one or two were owned by Rotch & Sons who had offices there. But the New Bedford historians can more rightly claim them since the Rotch family was New Bedford and the Dartmouth and Bedford were built in the Rotch yards at that port. The ships were chartered in England by the East India Company; it is possible that the Enderby Company was the charterer for the voyage to England with the whale-oil. Anyway it is quite certain that the ships concerned in the "Boston tea party" were whaleships.

This historic incident precipitated the war that cost Great Britain her North American colonies and led to the foundation of the United States. Naturally, the war put an end, for a time, to American whaling; in fact, the whalers were for the most part ruined and their ships captured or destroyed. The Enderby firm found itself cut off from its usual sources of whale-oil with no probability of their renewal in the immediate future. In this impasse these old London adventurers went into the game in thorough earnest with their own ships. The number of British ships engaged in the trade steadily increased; indeed, former American Whalemen were attracted to England and began to sail out of British ports since the English market was effectively closed to the American vessels by the heavy duties levied on oil out of foreign ships. Thus it came about that in the years following the War of Independence (1783) the British whale-ships, exploring and exploiting newer and richer fields, established the "southern" fishery, meaning at first that of the South Atlantic.

All this and more appears in a letter, probably written in 1874, by one George Enderby, to his nephews and nieces, telling them of the part his ancestors had played in the settlement of Australia and New Zealand. It was one of the first of the old manuscripts I touched; and the handling of it, and still more the reading of old log-books smelling of age, came to be almost as exciting as a thrill of real adventure at sea.

The southern whalers from Britain fished in the latitudes from Cape Verde to Brazil, where they found the Sperm whale most abundant about forty leagues from the coast. Then they hankered after new seas-they were true adventurers (actually the heads of the firms owning whale-ships were known by this term). They wanted to taste forbidden fruit by going east of the Cape of Good Hope, but the seven seas were not then free to all British seamen.

In the year 1786, in the Council Chamber at Whitehall, Sam. Enderby, with a certain Alexander Champion and others, were examined regarding the southern whale-fishery. They were asked whether they had any reason to believe that great quantities of Spermaceti whales might be found east of the Cape, and they replied: 'Yes, we have very good information from captains and mates of East Indiamen." In proof of it they produced "quantities of ambergris which is part of the dung of the whales." This is a quaint way of expressing the nature of ambergris-worth more than its weight in gold. But let that pass; it is to the East India Company that I draw attention. This famous company, which was founded in the time of Queen Elizabeth, had extraordinary privileges over the world's seas. The Directors held a Charter which gave them a monopoly of trade in the seas east of the Cape; the whalers were obstructed by this Charter, which was soon to prove very irksome in unexpected quarters.

In the meantime, another page destined to lead to remarkable developments was being turned. One result of the American War of Independence was that some new place had to be found for the transportation of Great Britain's convicts. Influenced by the discoveries of Captain Cook, the British Government decided to try Australia for the purpose; and the famous first expedition, with over 1800 souls (some free, some tortured) was sent out under Captain Phillip and arrived at Botany Bay on 18, 19 and 20 January 1788. The first settlement of Australia was thus achieved about the same time as the whale-ships of two nations were ready to invade the Pacific.

It was scarcely a year later that Sam. Enderby, burning with the desire to try new and untested seas and knowing full well that the Americans were equally curious regarding the Pacific, addressed an interesting letter to a British Government official, urging once again that permission be given to whalers to explore, without hindrance from the East India Company, the most distant ocean.

I give the whole text of this Enderby letter here because it was written just when the firm was ready to make its famous voyage of whaling exploration round Cape Horn, thereby gaining for a British ship the honour of being first in the exploitation of the southern Pacific.

Geo. Chalmers, Esq.,
Jan.17, 1789.


Enclosed you will receive every particular I believe you wish for which I am sorry I have not been able to send before, my brothers having been so much engaged that they could not give me the Prices of Oils, etc., sooner. I have enclosed Lord Hawkesbury the same accounts. I think it must give his Lordship pleasure to see the Fishery he has patronised succeed so well under his Direction. His Lordship first took the Fishery under his Protection in 1785, the year prior to which sixteen Sail of Vessels had been employed in the South Whale Fishery, the value of the oil, etc. they brought have amounted to between 27 and 28,000 £ for which Govt. paid 18% although the premiums were but £1500 per annum. The number of vessels which returned from that fishery last year were 45 sail; the value of the oil, etc., amounted to 90,599 £ for which Govt. have and will pay £6,300 which is not 7% on the whole amount of the cargoes of oil, etc. In my opinion nothing is wanting to make this Fishery complete but an unlimited right of fishing in all seas: the British Adventurers would soon explore the most distant parts and the settlements of New Holland would be often visited as there are many whales in those seas.

Our house received a letter from America a few days ago, the purport was to inform us one of the whaling Captains had been a trading voyage to China and had seen more Spermaceti Whales about the Straights of Sunda and the Island of Java than he had ever seen before, so much so that he could have filled a ship of 300 tons in 3 months and offer is made in the same letter to be concerned in a ship under American colours and to send that Capt. awhaling in those seas which we shall decline. We are since informed that some merchants in Boston have engaged him and are going to send him to the Straights of Sunda. It is hard on us we cannot send a ship there, we have 2 ships of 300 tons each of which we are beginning to fit for the Southern Whale Fishery, to sail in March and are undetermined which branch of the Fishery to send them on, we should like to send them to the Straights of Sunda but dare not without permission... etc. etc.

Your obedient Servants,

Favourable arrangements were evidently made because a few months later we find Sam. Enderby & Sons writing to George Chalmers again, this time with the information that the first vessel was ready to sail into the Pacific Ocean for the express purpose of whaling. Note the ending of the letter. I commend the last line to all those company promoters who have kissed the feet of their pet politicians during the last few years.

To Geo. Chalmers, Esq.
[Date probably early in 1789.]


We have purchased and fitted out a very fine ship at a great expense to go round Cape Horn, she is now ready to sail, we are the only Owners intending to send a ship on that Branch of the Fishery - It appears to be the general idea of most persons acquainted with those seas that the Sperm Coeti Whales are to the Northward of our limits - As we appear to be the only adventurers willing to risk their property at such a great distance for the exploring of a Fishery, we humbly request their Lordships (if there is no impropriety in the request) that in case our ship should not meet with Sperm Coeti Whales to the Southward of the Line in the South Pacific Ocean, that she, or any other vessel employed in the Fishery may have permission to sail as far as 24 degrees of North latitude as it is generally allowed that there are Sperm Coeti Whales on the Spanish Coast hut uncertain whether to the Southward or Northward of the Line. On the success of our ship depends the Establishment of the Fishery in the South Pacific Ocean, as many owners have declared they shall wait till they hear whether our ship is likely to succeed there, if she is successful a large Branch of the Fishery will be carried on in those seas, [if unsuccessful we shall pay for the knowledge.-author]

Your obedient Servants,

The sailing of this ship from England marks the real starting-point of this story.

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