WHALING IN THE ARCTIC

In the 15th century Europe begin to prosper and the countries grow strong. Gone are the internal strife, wars, crises, plagues and epidemics. The population increase and begin to migrate to the towns from the countryside. In the 16th century Europe casts its glance towards other lands and continents, over trading possibilities and new items to sell. 200 years later Europe is a world power.Europe’s political and economic growth forms the backdrop for whaling inSvalbard.

THE FIRST ‘OIL ADVENTURE’

Whaling in the 17th. century. (Fotherby 1613)
It all began with Spain and Portugal as the leading seafaring nations in Europe. They found the sea route to The East and they reached The Americas. They had a monopoly on trade with these enormous and rich landmasses. In northwest Europe new seafaring nations were growing, such as England, Franceand The Netherlands. They wanted to get in onSpain and Portugal’s monopoly. The young seafaring nations competed for trade and markets. A northern sea route to the Orient would, perhaps, get them on track. A systematic exploration of the northern seas was set in motion.

Svalbard was discovered by the Dutchman Barentsz in 1596. In the years afterwards there were reports of large numbers of whales, seals and walrus in the waters around the archipelago. At the same time the demand for whale and seal products increased in Europe. Europe needed oil. The seafaring nations had their eyes on the rich resources in the north and began to learn the art of whaling. The year 1612 marked the beginning of systematic whaling in Svalbard. Sailors from many nations came to the archipelago to investigate and harvest the natural resources. The dream of finding a sea passage to the Orient was still there but it was no longer the primary objective. Now it was Svalbard and whaling that counted.

LAND-BASED OIL EXTRACTION

Whaling station in the Arctic. (Fotherby 1613)

Sykdommen var fryktet av sjøfarende og var i flere hundre år beskrevet som en sykdom med dødelig utgang. Johan Hagerup skrev i dagboka i 1900-01: ” Vi er liksom redd for at hvis det blir for meget rolighet, kan snart han skjørbukfaen gjøre visitt og vil liksom se innom til oss også. Vi har utenom oss flere russere i den gamle tid som skjørbuken har besøkt. Det ligger nok av skjeletter utenfor døren hos oss.”

Sykdommen fører til slapphet, tannkjøttet hovner opp og har lett for å blø og tennene faller etter hvert ut. Sykdommen angriper bindevevet. Blødningene og hevelsene sprer seg til resten av kroppen og fører til slutt til døden. I 1923 ble det klart at årsaken til sykdommen var C-vitaminmangel. Erfaringer hadde tidligere vist at dersom man benyttet en liten grønn strandplante; skjørbuksurten (Cochlearia officinalis) eller hadde med seg multer oppbevart i krukker med vann kunne man styre unna sykdommen.

Skjørbuksurten vokser langs hele norskekysten og også på Svalbard. Planten tilhører korsblomstfamilien og er 10- 35 cm høy. Den er rik på C-vitaminer.

HUNTING AT SEA AND IN THE ICE

Oven for cooking the whale blubber. Photo: Arild Lyssand

From the middle of the 17th century the whales withdrew from the fjords and waters in the vicinity ofSvalbard. Whaling became concentrated on whaling ships out at sea and along the edge of the drift ice.

The hunts in the open waters lead to changes and adaptations of equipment, boats and crew. The method of hunting the whales was the same as during the land-based hunt, but now the whales were killed in the open sea and were flensed alongside the ship. The blubber was either boiled into oil on board the ships or stored in barrels and taken back to the home port to be cooked into oil there.

Whaling increased dramatically. Gradually it came to cover large parts of the Arctic waters and ships from most of the European seafaring nations. Many more took part than before. By the end of the 17th century there are probably 2-300 whaling ships and sealers out in the ice east of Greenland during the summer.

Svalbard as tracts of land lost its importance. The old whaling stations went out of use and started its way towards ruins. The blubber cookers were torn down, the usable materials taken home and the tools removed. The tracts of land now functioned as harbour of refuge, rendezvous for the whaling ships on arrival and departure and as burial grounds. The burials of the men who lost their lives in the whaling during the 17th and 18th centuries are found many places in Svalbard.

THE END OF AN ERA

“So little by little they wipe out the whale until they are all gone – and the winter take back its undisturbed control of the land” (Nansen 1920).

At the beginning of the 17th century large numbers of whales were reported in the waters aroundSvalbard. Captain Pool describes on his voyage to Svalbard in 1612 that the sea was so full of whales that it was almost necessary for the ship to break its way through. By the end of the 18th century it was all over. The stocks of Greenland right whale east and west of Greenland suffered a sad and fateful breakdown. Years of intense whaling had almost caused the extinction of the whale. The ships that travelled north for the hunt were returning home almost empty. The western European whaling adventure in the Arctic waters is over.

By Kristin Prestvold