Thursday, June 22, 2006

Whalers in the South Pacific, early 19th century

From Wendy

When we make judgments about Japan's concern to increase whaling, we ought to remember the past stories as some of our kin have not been blameless and righteous in caring for animals and our environment.

I was searching for information about whaling in the Pacific but could not find any direct references to whaling in the Fiji area, though no doubt this was part of the story, together with the foreigners coming to Fiji to exploit the resources of sandalwood and beche-de-mer. Some of the crew of whalers most certainly found themselves shipwrecked in Fiji waters and were the ancestors of many Fiji nationals today.

Alan Moorehead's book The Fatal Impact, an account of the invasion of the South Pacific 1767-1840, was published in 1966 and has some stories about whaling.

Whalers came from Le Havre in France, Hull in England, New Bedford and Nantucket in America and the main whaling stations were in Hawaii, Tahiti, Bay of Islands in New Zealand, eastern coast of Australia at Sydney and the Derwent Estuary in Hobart. It is hard to believe that the whaling ships from Nantucket were owned by Quakers! Why? It was for the money as whale-oil was worth a lot. They could hardly justify their passion for whaling just to get corset -bones or umbrella spikes!

Conditions on board were appalling with minimal pay, rotten food, rats, cockroaches, continual dampness, sickness, danger and death. Perhaps a lad wanting adventure so signed up. Others wanted to escape a situation, even from the penal colonies in Australia. Melville referred to Australia when he wrote 'The whaleship is the true mother of that now mighty colony' saving settlers from starvation with the gift of ships biscuits! Omoo and of course Moby Dick reveal the sordidness of life on whaling ships.

Once the South Pacific was decimated of whales through the indiscriminate harpooning of males, females and young, the fisheries collapsed until about fifty years later when steam-driven whalers broke through the ice of Antarctica and the slaughter continued. By the 1930s up to 37,000 whales were killed every year.

It is only in very recent years that people have been concerned about a whale sanctuary and a moratorium on killing these beautiful creatures.


Pandabonium said...

It was the commercial application of "rock oil" (petroleum) that saved most of the whales from total extinction in the 19th century. Now it appears that petroleum will be in decline soon as well.

6 billion people and growing. No matter how technically advanced we become, it seems our wisdom never keeps pace. Kind of scary.

laminar_flow said...

Hey Wendy,

I'm working on a project (work-in-progress) to determine an accurate chronology of all Foreign ships to Fiji from 1770-1870.

I have emmassed many books on the subject. Still need to get my hands on the New England Micro-Film Project by Peabody Mueseum.

I understand that Australian National University has paid to make copies, under the jurisdiction of PANU.

All in all I have 20 pages of various ships including whalers, Sandalwood hunters, castaways etc.

Russell Foreman's book "LONG PIG" is the only publication that I found that focusses on the mysterious vessel ARGO(carrying the first white man to step on Fiji). The vessel was wrecked on Bukatatanoa reef, Oneata in 1799 (the exact date is still unclear). It is believed that the vessel survivors went to Tonga and relayed the location of the Sandalwood plantation.
By acting as a guide, the survivors managed to parlay a fortune to ship captains. That marked the end of whaling industry; whose price had fallen after the invention of electricity.

I also want to ascertain's Irish mariner's Peter Dillon "Last Stand tale" in Bua.

Dillon was also credited in finding French Explorer La Perouse's vessel L'Astrolabe in New Caledonia.

The reef of Kadavu was named that because it is believed the ship first capasized there.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Okay, Dumb Me never thought about petroleum causing the decline in the need for whale oil.
Laminar, re resources in Australia. The National Library in Canberra holds a lot of information, the Australian National University also in Canberra, and the Mitchell library, part of the library in Sydney, and the Tippett Collection at St. Mark's library in Canberra might have something. I don't know if there is much at the Pacific collection, at the USP.
Ethically, any researcher on Fiji ought to donate their material to the USP. Maybe some do, some don't.