Andrew’s work with the North Atlantic Humpbacks

History of Whaling in Bermuda Print E-mail

The history of Bermuda is inextricably linked with whales.  The first Englishmen to arrive in Bermuda, wrecked during a hurricane as they travelled on the Sea Venture, en route to Virginia, reported finding ambergris on the shore in 1611. The ambergris was worth several thousand pounds, a huge sum in those days. This vaulable substance is produced in the stomach and intestines of sperm whales, and was prized for its medicinal properites and for making perfume.  Their findings were claimed as property of the Virginia Company, and encouraged investment in the Bermuda Company that superceded the Virginia Company.  After the big find of of ambergris by the fist settlers subsequent findings were small. Without the riches that the initial finds of ambergris promised, Bermuda may not have been colonised at that time. However, the expectations of the Bermuda Companuy regarding the profits from its whaling monopoly were not to be realized despite the fact that whales were plenty in spring and autumn, so many that 'in their gambols they disturbed the settlers in their beds at night', but few were captured in the days of plenty, and shipments of oil were small.

Offhsore whaling, one of the plantation’s earliest industries, started on Smith’s Island and soon spread to Smith’s, Southampton and Sandy’s Parishes. The whaling industry probably began in Bermuda in 1616 when the Bermuda Company sent a ‘Harpooneere…his mate and others of his gang’ to assist in the enterprise. For many years Bermudians were largely unsuccessful at capturing humpbacks although it wasn’t for a shortage of whales as they were reported to have been captured withing the Great Sound by Warwick.

The early method of whaling was described in a letter written by Richard Norwood, the surveyor of the colony who wrote home in 1667:


"For killing of Whales, it hath been formerly attempted in vain, but within these 2 or 3 years, in the spring-time and fair weather, they take sometimes one, or two, or three in a day. They are less, I hear, than those of Greenland, but more quick and lively, so that if they be struck in deep water, they presently make into the deep with much violence, that the Boat is in danger to be haled down after them, if they cut not the rope in time. Therefore they usually strike in shoal-water. They have very good Boats for that purpose, mann'd with six oars, such as can row forwards or backwards, as occasion requireth. They row gently up to the Whale, and so he will scarcely shun them; and when the Harpineer, standing rady fitted, sees his opportunity, he strikes his Harping-Iron into the Whale, about or before the Fins rather than towards the Tayl. Now the Harping-Irons are like those usual in England in striking Porpoises, but singular good metel, that will not break, but wind, as they say, about a mans hand. To the Harping-Iron is made fast a strong lythe rope, and into the Socket of that Iron is put a Staffe, which when the Whale is struck, comes out of the Socket, so when the Whale is something quiet they hale up to him by rope, and, it may be strike into him another Harping-Iron, or lance him with lances in staves, till they have kill'd him."

Having killed the whale, the carcass was towed by capstan or other means was hauled into shallow water. The blubber was cut into blanket pieces, about as much as a man could carry; cut into smaller pieces it was then fed into the mincer and from it into the trying pots. Oil which did not run from the blubber was to be tryed by fire, and care taken not to burn it. Strained from the pots, the oil was poured into the pit or cooler, and left there until barrelled. Getting the blubber off frequently took several days, and in early times, after the whaling gang had finished with the carcass, it was gleaned by the poor, who got from it a small quantity of low-grade oil for their lamps. In the early days Bermudians needed whales not only for lamp oil, but also for 'sea beef', the skin for leather.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century several whale-houses were in existence, although all were not all the same as each other. Most were at the eastern end of the island, such as the 'Old Whale-House' at Richardson's Bay, Ferry Reach., the whale-house at Green Bay, Castle Harbour. The one on Smith's Island is still in existence today, but altered as a private residence. Ruins of whale houses exist at East Whale Bay, Tucker's Town, Devonshire, on Castle Harbour, and Whale Island in Sandy's Parish.


The proceeds of the whaling venture were usually shared as follows: The owners of the whale-house received one or two barrels of oil, depending on the size of the catch. Of the remainder, the owner of the boat, the steersman and the harpooner 1/9th each, the oarsmen equal shares of the remainder.


An 1827 newspaper report describes the cutting-in scene as follows:


'When a whale is killed the boats tow it as close to shore as possible; the shore is lined by black people of both sexes and all ages; the men assist in cutting off the blubber, taking care to help themselves and friends to all the fleshy parts- called 'sea beef'- the noise and confusion is beyond description, women and children calling to the operators, who from time to time throw large pieces of flesh on shore. In a few hours a whale approaching 60 feet in length is reduced to a skeleton and scarcely a house, whether occupied by whites or blacks, where a treat of whale beef does not take place that day or the next. The English have a strong prejudice agaisnt this food, but Bermudians have a method of cleansing it, which leaves no fishy flavour,and it is tender as veal.'



While it is known there were shore-based lookoutsm, stationed to keep watch for whales- the blowing of a conch horn beign the signal for a sighting- the boats were apparently kept on the whaling grounds for considerable periods of time. In 1819  the following advertisement appeared:



Paget Whale Fishery: The Proprietors having agreed to try fishing on New Ledge the Brig.-Dragon is to be kept on the Bank, for the accommodation and security of the Men and Boats. As it is thought that this will prove advantageous, persons accustomed to the employment will probably be desirous of engaging in it on shares; and if active and industrious they will be allowed to do so. As an encouragement, Provisions will be found- for which, unless whales be taken, no charge will be made. Apply to:

James Tatem, Thos. B. Middleton, Nathaniel Lightbourne'


While whales were plentiful in the spring and autumn, few were caught and oil shipments were small. The size of the whales caught must also have been small or the methods of extracting oil inefficient. This observation supports the fact that Bermudians became more succesful at killing whales when they deliberately targeted the calves who were less able to escape once harpooned. The mother would not leave the calf and would then be harpooned as well.


Records indicate that many species of whales remained around Bermuda for much of the winter and that they were within the great barrier of reefs surrounding Bermuda and often in the Great Sound where they were hunted. Whales were once essential to human survival. Whalers forged many of New World's outer frontiers and the first settlements in the New World, including Bermuda were dependent on whaling for survival.


The equipment of the whale boats varied little over the entire period of Bermuda whaling. The biggest innovation was the introduction of the whale-gun. On 17 April, 1817 a whale was shot from a boat belonging to F.F. Hinson, out of Paget Island. Whale-guns were offered for sale by the executors of Mr Hinson's estate in 1832. These guns are not to be confused with the shot-harpoon invented in 1830. In 1856 an army officer wrote:


'Mr Todd, the Spanish Vice-Consul at St George's, still has in his possesion a piece of ordnance (half musket/half cannon) imported from England some fifty years ago, wiht which he used to shoot whales with powder and a harpoon made for that purpose; the latter attached to the gun by a coil of rope- a most ingenious affair.'


The line used seems to have been quite a handicap to the whalers. Norwood's report that the whale had to be struck in shallow water to prevent it sounding argues for quite a short length of line. In 1846 the local press listed the American whalers then cruising off Bermuda and commented further:


'Bermuda Whalers ought to look at the tackle employed by these Americans and observe in what we are less efficient than they are. Strangers have frequently remarked that the Bermudians use line which is unnecessarily thick, whilst the length is too short.'


In the period about 1880 the whale boats still working in Bermuda were H.M. Fox's Shamrock, Thomas Seon Hayward's Molly, Henry William Lightbourne's Three Sisters, and Joseph Minor's Rebecca. They were 28 feet long, with a 6 foot beam and 2 1/2 feet deep. The American-built Shamrock listed among her equipment 'a harpoon bent on a hundred feet of line'. This short line is almost incredible in view of the fact that an adult humpback, the most prevalent type found in the Bermuda waters, can sound to a depth of 500 feet.


This would confine whaling to those areas offshore where the depth of water was sufficiently shallow to permit the use of a line of this length. It is undoubtedly this short length of line that accounted for the numerous reports of boats that returned with their bow planks sprung from the stem. A ride of any distance that close to a wounded whale with no line with which to play him must have put a tremendous strain on the boat to say nothing of the crew and yet no mention is made of buoying the line to slow the whale down.


Additional gear in the boats included two spare harpoons, three lances and, in the case of the Shamrock a whale gun. Each boat carried a crew of steersman, harpooner and five or six oarsmen. The opportunities to learn from American whalers must have been limited at best, as most fo the american captains preferred to re-supply in the Caribbean rather than pay the port charges levied in Bermuda.


The extent to which whaling was engaged varied with the fortunes of the Islands, generally. When other marine ventures from trade and fishing to piracy and smuggling were on the decline, then whaling would be engaged in to a larger degree.


In 1850 Charles Dickens wrote:


'Then whales abounded in the neighbouring seas, and every 'Mudian took to handling the oar, the lance or the harpoon, at a time of life when other children were driving hoops, or riding rocking horses.

It was the natural result of these handy occupations in so limited a space, that the whole population, with the exception of that supported by the expenditures of the garrison, was occupied in building, or rigging, or manning, or loading vessels of some kind, if not whaling or fishing.'


The last brief appearance of whaling on the Bermuda scene occurred after the American Civil War, but soon declined to a few boats, occasionally operating out of St George's. During the end of the nineteenth century whales became relatively scarce. This, according to local belief, was due to the decision of the Royal Navy to hold target practice in the water south of Bermuda that were frequented by whales.


The last two humpback were hunted and killed in Bermuda in 1940 and 1942.



By the Second World War indiscriminate whaling had decimated the whale populations and the advent of the grenade tipped harpoon along with steam engines spelled the end of the great whales. The only reason they survived was the fact that it was no longer economical to send ships and crews to hunt the remnant populations of whales.


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which was signed in Washington DC on 2 December 1946. The purpose of the Convention is to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry. The main duty of the IWC is to keep under review and revise as necessary the measures laid down in the Schedule to the Convention which govern the conduct of whaling throughout the world.


When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946, its preamble noted that 'the history of whaling has seen overfishing of one area after another and of one species of whale after another to such a degree that it is essential to protect all species of whales from further overfishing'. But despite this clear recognition of the problem the IWC was unable to stop it, instead presiding over the decimation of species after species. It is still not known if some species will ever recover, even after decades of protection.




Last Updated ( Wednesday, 22 October 2008 17:34 )
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