Commercial Whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador
Less than 40 years after Cabot's discovery of North America,
seasonal whaling stations were established on the Labrador side
of the Strait of Belle Isle. The coastal waters of Newfoundland
and Labrador are among the best suited places in the world for
cetacea, the family to which whales belong. Of the approximately
80 species of cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises,
about 20 can be found in the North-west Atlantic.
16th Century Basque Whaling Stations.
Courtesy of C. W. Sanger. Image adapted by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998.
with more information (49 kb)
Whales hunted in Newfoundland and Labrador prior to 1972 include
the blue, fin, southern and Greenland right whales, humpback and
minke, also known locally as "herring hog" and "grampus". These
are baleen whales which feed by filtering small prey through modified
plates which have hair-like fringes called "whalebone" and
"baleen". Pilot whales or "potheads", the most common inshore
species in Newfoundland and the only toothed whale hunted
commercially, were killed by driving pods (herds) ashore.
Commercial whaling began in North America during the second quarter
of the 16th century, when the Basques began to hunt Greenland and
black right whales from at least a dozen harbours along the Labrador
coast in strategic proximity to migration routes.
Using small open boats and hand thrown harpoons, the industry
expanded significantly during the 1560s and 1570s, when more
than 20 ships participated annually. The subsequent decline
of the industry was influenced by the reduction of stocks by
possible over-hunting and migration changes, the development
of a more lucrative whale fishery at Spitsbergen, growing competition
from Dutch and English whalers, and domestic strife in Spain.
Early 17th Century Whaling Methods at Spitsbergen.
Courtesy of C.W. Sanger. From John Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels, Volume IV (London: Awnsham and John Churchill, 1704) 808.
|Early 17th Century Whaling Methods at Spitsbergen.
Courtesy of C.W. Sanger. From Antonio Sanez Reguart, Diccionario historico de los artes de la pesca nacional, Volume V (Madrid, Spain: Impr. de la viuda de Don J. Ibarra, 1795)
By the early 1580s, the overseas Basque whale fishery had virtually
ended, although records exist of individual voyages being fitted out
simultaneously to prosecute the Labrador whale and cod fisheries as
late as the summer of 1632.
Although the growing 18th and early 19th century resident population
of Newfoundland depended primarily upon the cod and seal fisheries,
whale carcasses washed ashore or chanced upon at sea were rich prizes
for their oil, baleen and meat. On 8 July 1768, for example, a whale
towed into Trinity by Thomas Keen "made 11 tons of oil" (Lester Diaries),
and in 1897 James and John Rourke of Mall Bay sold a carcass to M. Tobin
of St. Mary's who then had it rendered into oil. The whale had been found
"dead between Crapaud Point and [Cape] St. Mary's Bank"
(Evening Herald: 9 July 1897).
There is additional evidence that some of the larger 19th century merchant
houses were also active in small-scale commercial whaling. A whaling company,
for example, was established at Gaultois by Newman and Company. At the
height of this operation in the late 1870s, 40 to 50 whales were captured
annually. It is therefore clear that some Newfoundlanders were engaged in
small-scale seasonal inshore whaling during the late 19th century. Their
limited whaling activity, in turn, was fostered by two Scottish sealing and
whaling companies involved in the Newfoundland seal fishery between 1874
and 1900. They sometimes used Newfoundlanders on whaling voyages to the
Davis Strait and Baffin Bay hunting grounds, and their St. John's factories
often processed those occasional carcasses obtained by indigenous "whalers".
These relatively small-scale traditional whaling operations were superseded
and dramatically enhanced following the results of experiments in Norway.
Svend Foyn, a Norwegian sealing master, introduced fast steam-powered
catchers fitted with grenade-firing harpoon guns, a new hunting technology
which allowed for the exploitation of heretofore ignored fast-swimming species
such as blue and fin whales.
Modern Whaling Ship.
Courtesy of Howard White. From W.A. Hagelund, Whalers No More
(Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.,©1987) 13.
Harpoon Gun and Exploded Harpoon.
Courtesy of Howard White. From W.A.
Hagelund, Whalers No More
(Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.,©1987) 26.
Subsequent over-hunting off Norway caused whaling entrepreneurs to
look elsewhere for unexploited stocks. As a result they constructed
whaling stations in Iceland in 1883, and in the Faeroes in 1894, before
turning to Newfoundland. With the arrival of the Norwegians, the modern
era of commercial shore-station whaling began.
S.S. Silva by Ted Drover.
Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, Newfoundland, Catalogue No. 974.62.2.