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The London whaling trade

Introduction
Early Arctic whaling
Things to do with a dead whale
The southern whale fishery
London declines as a whaling port
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The Southern Whale Fishery

Sperm whaling

By the early 18th century a successful whaling industry was growing up off the coast of the New England colonies. The hunters pursued sperm whales.

These animals, immortalized as ‘Moby Dick’ in Melville’s novel, have teeth and live on squid and cuttlefish in temperate or tropical waters. Sperm whale blubber produces less oil than the right whale. However, spermaceti - a waxy substance found in the head - could also be extracted. It became the basis for a candle-making industry.

Growth of the whaling industry

Sperm whale's tooth engraved with a sailor boy climbing the rigging and a portrait of a lady in a low cut dress.
View full size imageSperm whale's tooth engraved with a sailor boy climbing the rigging and a portrait of a lady in a low cut dress. © NMM
After 1750, the industrial uses of whale products expanded while the Dutch industry declined. Whale oil was now used for:

  • street lighting
  • lubricating machinery
  • in paint and putty.

The British whaling industry entered a period of expansion encouraged by government bounties.

The loss of the American colonies and the heavy duty imposed on their whale products temporarily removed competition from New England. London was still the leading whaling port, followed by Hull, although many other British ports were now involved in the trade. London’s heyday lasted until about 1812.

Whales tooth engraved with a view of Reculver Church, Kent.
View full size imageWhale's tooth engraved with a view of Reculver Church, Kent. © NMM

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars there was a thriving demand for coarse wool cloth for uniforms. And though ladies' corsets were out of fashion, new uses were found for whalebone, notably in making umbrellas.

 

Expansion into the Pacific

Whaling trypot.
View full size imageWhaling trypot. © NMM
The Arctic whalers were now operating in the Davis Straits region. This contrasted with a developing 'Southern Whale Fishery', hunting sperm and right whales, in the Pacific. This involved breaking the monopoly of the East India Company in those waters and sorting out potential territorial disputes with Spain.

Ships in the Southern Whale Fishery might be away for years rather than months. The whale blubber was rendered down in 'tryworks' erected on board ship. 

However, the new British colonies in Australia provided useful shore bases for the whalers and more were set up on the coast of New Zealand. The leading entrepreneurs in the industry tended to be of American origin, most notably the Enderby family who originally came from Boston, Massachusetts.


 


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Glossary
Monopoly
Napoleonic Wars
Port
Rigging

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StoriesGoing for growth: The West India and the Greenland Docks
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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