PortCities London

The London whaling trade

Early Arctic whaling

Origins of European whaling

Commercial whale fishing began with the hunting of whales in the Bay of Biscay by Basque fishermen during the Middle Ages. Because the hunters were so efficient, there was soon a shortage of whales in that area.

By the beginning of the 17th century new fisheries were being sought in the Arctic by the English and the Dutch, exploiting new geographical discoveries in the north. The English whalers were working on behalf of the Muscovy Company. This was an early joint stock enterprise that had added Arctic whaling to its original objective of trade with Russia.

Rivalry from home and abroad

Dangers of the whale fishery.
View full size imageDangers of the whale fishery. © NMM
The whaling side of the Muscovy Company was eventually hived off to a semi-independent subsidiary known as the Greenland Company. (Confusingly, the English referred to Spitsbergen as Greenland.) Its monopoly rights, granted by government, tied it politically to London. However, this monopoly was challenged by rival whaling vessels from Hull, York and Yarmouth.

There was a period of violent rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the archipelago of Spitsbergen. This ended with the Dutch emerging as the dominant European whaling nation by the middle of the 17th century.

Decline of British Arctic whaling

Model of a six-oared whaleboat with its equipment.
View full size imageModel of a six-oared whaleboat, with its equipment. © NMM

By the end of the century, English whaling was in decline and the Dutch had moved their operations to Greenland.

They changed their techniques from bay whaling to ice whaling.

Coat of Arms of the South Sea Company.
View full size imageCoat of Arms of the South Sea Company. © NMM
Ice whaling meant having to hunt the whales further out to sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields. This required strengthened ships and skilled commanders. The less experienced British found it difficult to compete.

The last attempt by the London joint stock companies to break into Arctic whaling was an expensive and ultimately unsuccessful venture by the South Sea Company during the 1720s and early 1730s.


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