Whalemen Adventurers

by W. J. Dakin


Of all human occupations, few have aroused more interest in a story-loving public than whaling. The emotional effect of adventure must be writ large amidst that obscure and complex assemblage of human traits which is incorporated in our constitution, and inherited from remote ancestors of more dangerous times. And if the comfort of sitting well back into a corner of some large restaurant, or the terrible falling sensation experienced in dreams, are to be explained as subconscious relics of a primitive but perilous past, then so is the pleasant emotional response to the thrill of dangerous pursuits. I will affirm indeed that this is so even though the thrill be produced by printed words only, and their reader be the most gentle of London drapers.

There already exists books and books on whaling. Some deal with a bygone day, when man in cockleshells of boats measured his skill in hand contest against leviathan. Others tell of the mass slaughter of thousands by bomb harpoons fired from steam chasers working in icy waters of the Antarctic. But all these books pale into insignificance when measured against that classic tale of whaling, Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville in 1851.

Faced with Moby Dick and the lesser representatives of "romantic" whaling. I feel the need for an apologia, as well as for some explanation of my temerity in trespassing on this domain. An explanation is not difficult to find, for, strange as it may seem, the story of whaling in Australasian waters is scarcely touched upon by modern writers, and published details seem unknown except to a few persons in the distant lands concerned. Yet this southern Pacific whaling became an important enough industry in itself. What is more provocative, however, is the fact that it was this calling which first brought white men to many coral islets of the South Seas, and Englishmen to unexplored coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

My story begins with localities where, at the date in question, the Whalemen faced the hazards of intercourse with unknown native tribes and cannibals, in addition to the usual perils of the sea and the risks of the whale-hunts. It ends with a situation in which danger from the whale itself is almost eliminated. But the icy seas where the Blue whale is now harassed, have their own perils and an accident may jeopardize more lives than ever in the old sailing-ship days.

One might have expected that in Australia, at least, the early whaling days would have been dealt with in school histories. That is not so, and it is necessary to turn to special works, to articles in journals, but above all to old manuscripts, letters, log-books, and century-old newspapers to obtain information.

My own interest in whaling was naturally aroused by my profession of a zoologist, but it was made alive by direct contact with the Norwegian whalers in southern seas twenty years ago, when I lived for a time with them and went out on their "chasers". More recently, in 1930, the Commonwealth Government of Australia asked me to report on whaling in connection with meetings of a committee of the League of Nations at Geneva. The protection of the whale had at last become a matter of international concern. The writing of a report on the subject necessitated research into documents of the past, some of them obtainable only with difficulty. This, in turn, whetted my appetite for more. Further delving into historical manuscripts followed. The present book is the result.

The story could not have been written without the unselfish and cheery help of friends, who range from weatherbeaten old whalers to librarians and custodians of old log-books. I thank them all again. In particular, I should mention the Mitchell Library of Sydney, a treasure house of old letters and manuscripts dealing with the subject . With the permission of the trustees, many extracts are now published for the first time. Next I must mention Dr W. L. Crowther, physician of Hobart, and grandson of a surgeon who ran a whaling fleet in the sixties. His loan of log-books and other documents proved invaluable. Mr J. E. Philp, of Tasmania, also told me of Tasmanian ships and men. His knowledge of Hobart Town sea-life and Tasmanian was of the greatest service. Miss Burns, of the Zoology Department, University of Sydney, gave me much assistance with photographic work; Professor Charteris helped me most usefully on points of International Law; H. Fay, Esq., the Norwegian Consul-general at Sydney, translated Norwegian documents. Mr Green, of the University Library, and Mrs J. Clunies Ross read through the manuscript. J. R. Logan, Esq., of Twofold Bay, guided me in my explorations of that part of eastern Australia and supplied me with many details of the history of the Killer whales.

I am indebted to many sources for the loan of certain valuable illustrations; acknowledgment is gratefully made on the illustrations themselves. Those lent by the Whaling Film Corporation of New Bedford are from Elmer Clifton's film 'Down to the Sea in Ships'. In conclusion, I should add that, whilst most of the information has been obtained from original sources, I have been specially helped by the storehouse of facts collected together by the historian, Robert McNab, by the 'Historical Records of New South Wales', and also by various articles by T. Dunbabin, Esq.

William J. Dakin.
December 1933.

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