Tuesday, February 23, 2010

a story about love and desperation

In the 19th Century, whiling away their quiet hours on 12 month voyages, whalers carved illustrations of the women they left behind into whale teeth and bones. The artwork, called scrimshaw, captures the leisure time of sailors away from home and families, who pursued their fortunes in the blood and fat of sperm whales.

Ships carried up to 36 men, sailing sometimes two years away from home, away from wives and children and lovers. Ships of men scoured the sea for signs of whales, men who at the sighting of a whale were lowered in small boats and gave chase with oarstrokes, judging where the whale would next surface they hove to, a harpooner prepared to throw his weapon into the animal's flank. Harpoons were attached by rope to the boats which were dragged after the whale as it bucked and dove and finally died. The whale was towed back to the ship, lifted by it's flukes, stripped of its blubber, and the blubber shoveled into kettles where it was melted down into oil. A sperm whale could deliver over 100 barrels of oil. Whale products were sold and the wealth divided amongst the crew. From the early 1700s until the 1850s whaling was a major industry; whale oil lubricated the machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution.

Whaling ships carried weather beaten men watching the sea to war against an animal, to open it up, to unpack its harvest of oil which offered a glossy sheen to cosmetics, was used for face and hand creams and created the finest soap. Candles made from spermaceti from the sperm whale illuminated intimate dinners and neither smoked nor smelled. Baleen, tooth and bone were used in corset stays, in the hoops for skirts, hairbrushes and jewellery. Ambergris became perfume and love potions. The wild whale was transformed into delicate articles of femininity. Scrimshaw captured images of lost sweethearts and filled hours which held nothing else but the smell of whale flesh.

In beards and sweat, isolated, having seen no women since their last stop at port, men clung to sails for a sight of an animal to fight until it would forfeit its treasure of undergarments and ladies' scent.

The whale gives himself up, thrashing, to the power of desire.

"Geese are monogamous, whales are essentially unfaithful" -The World Council of Whalers. (
http://www.worldwhalers.com/ A website that includes whale recipes).


  1. Lovely. Whaling ships were at the bottom of the list as far a sailors were concerned. You would have to be deperate to sign on for a whaling voyage - or be tricked into it. Recruiters would trawl the wharves, picking up drunk sailors who had spent all their money, telling them only that they needed hands for their ship. They would sign them up, ferry them out to the ship, and head for the open ocean so that by the time the men sobered up and realised they were on a whaler it was too late. It was so easy to get killed hunting whales - the boats were flimsy, the whales were strong and maddened by pain, and to kill the whale you had to pull up beside it (after exhausting it through a long battle) and spear it through the heart. Often the officer in the whaleboat would think the whale was exhausted, pull in close, and have the boat smashed by the whale's tail. Most sailors couldn't swim. No wonder they spent their down time dreaming of far-off women.

  2. Reading over this post again, I was struck by how boring it is, and by how little of what I wanted to say is actually included. Perhaps I'll come back to this idea later. Thanks though Jon, for your encouragement.