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Encounters with the Nantucket Whalers

November 5, 2013

During the mid 18th century, whilst the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and English whalers were expanding their trade routes and fishing grounds, so too were the American whalers.

With the decline of whales off the coasts of Cape Cod and Nantucket, American whalers began to use single-masted sailing vessels called sloops to pursue the whales into deeper water. These voyages led the whalers farther out to sea and northward into the whaling grounds off Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador and into the Davis Straits, west of Greenland.

By the late 1760s, the fishery was becoming a hugely lucrative industry with the colonial fleet numbering around 350+ vessels in 1774. With such a large number of whalers operating at this time, it is not surprising that we find reference to these whalers in the logbooks of the HBC.

The extent of the operation in 1770,  is remarked upon by Joseph Richards, Master of the Prince Rupert III in his log book on the 24th July:

‘Saw something NWbW of us which we took for a boat but as we drew nearer to it found it a dead whale. Saw a sail of sloops and schooners. At 5 the Commodore got the fish alongside and prepared for flinching it. Sent my boats and some hands to assist them, as did Captain Christopher. Handed out sails and made a rope fast to the Commodore. At 7 they began to bring blubber on board which we cut into small pieces and put into casks.’

‘At 7 spoke the schooner Roebuck, Timothy Coleman Master, 1 fish. The sloop Liberty, Joseph Coleman Master, no fish…. and the sloop Enterprize, Nathan Vaughn, two fish, all belonging to Nantucket on the whale fishery, here about being part of 115 sails fitted out from that single place this year.’

Dangers of the whale fishery_1

‘Account of the Arctic Regions’ (1820), by W. Scoresby. © Hull Museums.

Whilst a highly lucrative business, whaling was also a dangerous enterprise. Ships operating in the icy waters of the Davis Straits or in Baffin Bay were at constant risk of being crushed by ice. The process of capturing a whale was also a fraught with danger, with whale boats often upturned or crew injured by the thrashing of the whale when it was harpooned.

Joseph Richards, Master of the Prince Rupert III  tells us of just such an instance in his logbook on 28th July 1769:

Saw the sloop and schooner ahead of us. Sent our boat on board the  schooner being the Duke belonging to Boston, Christopher Kirk, Master had been 11 weeks from Nantucket and 3 weeks in company with the sloop, Mary, between this and 62.30N and much the same longitude they had killed 10 whales. 4 black and 6 Spermaceta. The last was a black. One killed yesterday noon Captain Kirk told us that as the Mary’s boat the other day was fast to the Spermaceta whale it stove them and the fish immediately made at the mate and caught him in her mouth and held him for 2 minutes but on Captain Kirk’s boat coming up it quitted its hold and they saved the man with no other damage than her leaving the mark of her teeth in his shoulder and thigh. They likewise saved all the boats crew and killed the fish, a poor return for its kindness’.

Sadly, very few American whaling logbooks survive for the 18th century and thus these first hand references to individual whaling ships and their masters can be deemed particularly useful in giving us some small insight into the industry at that time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2013 2:45 pm

    As a native Nantucketer I have learned quite a bit about Nantucket’s whalers over the years but this is the first reference I have found to whaling as far north as Davis Strait. Frankly this if the first reference I have seen Davis Strait but I am not a mariner and I know very little about the arctic. Interesting article. Thanks to Google Alerts for linking me here!

    • catharinecb permalink*
      November 7, 2013 9:07 am

      Stephen, many thanks indeed for your interest.

  2. November 6, 2013 2:53 pm

    You may find it interesting to know that the Nantucket Historical Association has in their archives many whaleship logs. A quick search of their online database (nha.org) for “davis strait” turns up references in seven logs. Unfortunately they do not appear to be available for online viewing.

    • catharinecb permalink*
      November 7, 2013 9:11 am

      I shall add these logs to our list! Whilst we are concentrating on UK based sources for this particular project, any information on the location and availability of log books is always useful – particularly for future projects! Many thanks :)

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