A Brief History of Whaling

Lithograph of the capture of a sperm whale

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The 19th-century whaling industry was one of the most prominent businesses in America. Hundreds of ships setting out from ports, mostly in New England, roamed the globe, bringing back whale oil and other products made from whales.

While American ships created a highly organized industry, the hunting of whales had ancient roots. It is believed that men began hunting whales as far back as the Neolithic Period, thousands of years ago. And throughout recorded history, the enormous mammals have been highly prized for the products they can provide.

Oil obtained from a whale’s blubber has been used for both lighting and lubricating purposes, and the bones of the whale were used to make a variety of useful products. In the early 19th century, a typical American household might contain several items manufactured from whale products, such as candles or corsets made with whalebone stays. Common items which today might be made of plastic were fashioned of whalebone throughout the 1800s.

Origins of Whaling Fleets

The Basques, from present-day Spain, were going to sea to hunt and kill whales about a thousand years ago, and that appears to be the beginning of organized whaling.

Whaling in the Arctic regions began about 1600 following the discovery of Spitzbergen, an island off the coast of Norway, by the Dutch explorer William Barents. Before long the British and Dutch were dispatching whaling fleets to the frozen waters, at times coming close to violent conflict over which country would control the valuable whaling grounds.

The technique used by the British and Dutch fleets was to hunt by having the ships dispatch small boats rowed by teams of men. A harpoon attached to a heavy rope would be thrown into a whale, and when the whale was killed it would be towed to the ship and tied alongside. A grisly process, called "cutting in," would then begin. The whale’s skin and blubber would be peeled off in long strips and boiled down to make whale oil.

Whaling in America

In the 1700s, American colonists began developing their own whale fishery (note: the term “fishery” was commonly used, though the whale, of course, is a mammal, not a fish).

Islanders from Nantucket, who had taken to whaling because their soil was too poor for farming, killed their first sperm whale in 1712. That particular species of whale was highly prized. Not only did it have the blubber and bone found in other whales, but it possessed a unique substance called spermaceti, a waxy oil found in a mysterious organ in the massive head of the sperm whale.

It is believed that the organ containing the spermaceti either aids in buoyancy or is somehow related to the acoustic signals whales send and receive. Whatever its purpose to the whale, spermaceti became greatly coveted by man. 

By the late 1700s, this unusual oil was being used to make candles which were smokeless and odorless. Spermaceti candles were a vast improvement over the candles in use before that time, and they have been considered the best candles ever made, before or since.

Spermaceti, as well as whale oil obtained from rendering the blubber of a whale, was also used to lubricate precision machine parts. In a sense, a 19th-century whaler regarded a whale as a swimming oil well. And the oil from whales, when used to lubricate machinery, made the industrial revolution possible.

Rise of an Industry

By the early 1800s, whaling ships from New England were setting out on very long voyages to the Pacific Ocean in search of sperm whales. Some of these voyages could last for years.

A number of seaports in New England supported the whaling industry, but one town, New Bedford, Massachusetts, became known as the world’s center of whaling. Of the more than 700 whaling ships on the world’s oceans in the 1840s, more than 400 called New Bedford their home port. Wealthy whaling captains built large houses in the best neighborhoods, and New Bedford was known as "The City that Lit the World."

Life aboard a whaling ship was difficult and dangerous, yet the perilous work inspired thousands of men to leave their homes and risk their lives. Part of the attraction was the call of adventure. But there were also financial rewards. It was typical for a crew of a whaler to split the proceeds, with even the lowliest seaman getting a share of the profits.

The world of whaling seemed to possess its own self-contained society, and one feature which is sometimes overlooked is that whaling captains were known to welcome men of diverse races. There were a number of Black men who served on whaling ships, and even a Black whaling captain, Absalom Boston of Nantucket.

Whaling Lives On in Literature

The Golden Age of American whaling extended into the 1850s, and what brought its demise was the invention of the oil well. With oil extracted from the ground being refined into kerosene for lamps, the demand for whale oil plummeted. And while whaling continued, as whalebone could still be used for a number of household products, the era of the great whaling ships faded into history.

Whaling, with all its hardships and peculiar customs, was immortalized in the pages of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. Melville himself had sailed on a whaling ship, the Acushnet, which left New Bedford in January 1841.

While at sea Melville would have heard many tales of whaling, including reports of whales that attacked men. He would even have heard famous yarns of a malicious white whale known to cruise the waters of the South Pacific. And an immense amount of whaling knowledge, much of it quite accurate, some of it exaggerated, found its way into the pages of his masterpiece.

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McNamara, Robert. "A Brief History of Whaling." ThoughtCo, Jan. 11, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-of-whaling-1774068. McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 11). A Brief History of Whaling. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-of-whaling-1774068 McNamara, Robert. "A Brief History of Whaling." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-of-whaling-1774068 (accessed March 27, 2023).