Transcript

The Australian whaling industry

Susan Lawrence
s.lawrence@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today we'll be hearing from Susan Lawrence, an Associate Professor in Archaeology at La Trobe University. She's excavated a number of dig sites around the country, many relating to whaling, which was once a crucial industry.

Susan Lawrence:

Whaling is something that people these days think about in a very negative sense, understandably, but in Australian colonial history it was really important for the economy in the development of much of southern Australia. There were whaling ships that carried the convicts in the Third Fleet and they were coming out here because they were interested in the potential that whaling had in the Pacific, and so the businessmen in London who owned the ships were very keen to come over to Australia and use Sydney as a base for their whaling activities, and it spread throughout the southern ocean around the Australian coast down to Tasmania, across to New Zealand, and industry grew in Sydney and in Hobart that was a very, very important industry for the early colony, it was the biggest export earner for the first thirty or forty years of the colony at a time when it desperately needed an income. It was before pastoralism had really got its feet and certainly before the gold rushes or anything like that. But they were able to exploit these vast whale herds that were off the Australian coast. So people came from the United States, from France, from Britain, in massive ships to exploit these herds. They provided income in Sydney and Hobart, they funded huge fortunes that people made there, and they employed local colonial youth, so it was important economically and also in terms of the exploration and settlement by Europeans of the Australian coastline. Most of the first voyages around southern Australia were the whale ships that were following the whales. And they learned about the currents and the landfalls and the geography and where the good harbours were and all of those things, well before anyone else was interested in starting white settlement in those areas.

Matt Smith:

You've got to be pretty serious if you want to set up an export industry out of Australia at that point, so what was so valuable about the whales that it was so valued in Europe and America.

Susan Lawrence:

The thing that they were mainly after was the oil which they made by boiling down the blubber from the whales. There were different species of whales – the southern right whale and the sperm whales were both hunted a great deal for their very thick layers of blubber that they had and then they would melt it down in great big iron pots and use it in industry. In those days it was before the petroleum industry, so they didn't have oil from other sources very readily, so they used the oil for lighting purposes, domestic lighting, street lighting in the big cities like London, and they used the oil in industrial applications as a lubricant as well. They also used the baleen which are the plates from the mouths because it was a similar material to plastic – it was very springy and very workable and so they used that in things like umbrellas and women's clothing – corsets and those big hooped skirts that they had and so on. Different parts of the whale for different purposes, but things that now we would use petroleum products for or plastics and rubber – they didn't have those available so the whales were really an important material for them to use.

Matt Smith:

So what was the process of hunting down a whale? What did it entail?

Susan Lawrence:

There were two main branches of the industry. One was based on ships and they pursued the sperm whale out into the deep waters of the Pacific and the other was shore-based and they pursued the right whale around the shallower coastal waters, but they both operated in much the same way. Whether it was on ship or on shore station, there would be somebody whose job was to watch for the whales, the spotters, they would be up on a high point, either on the crow's nest of the ship's rigging or on a hill near a shore station where they had a good view of the surrounding waters, and they would watch for whales. When they saw them, they would give the signal and the men would put to sea in rowboats, effectively, that would have a small mast and single sail and would have oars, and they would chase the whales and when they got close enough, they would harpoon it. The harpoon didn't kill the whale. It would allow them to attach a line, and then the whale would try to get away and would pull the boat along behind it and that would tire it out and when it eventually got tired and exhausted, they would be able to get close enough to deliver the final blow, and they would have to tow it back to either their shore station or to the base ship. They would row sometimes for a day or two, depending on how far the whale had gone, in order to get back to their base. So it was a very long, exhausting and dangerous process.

Matt Smith:

It does sound very dangerous…

Susan Lawrence:

Extremely dangerous. Lots of men were killed or injured when the whales would flip the boats, so very dangerous. And they were out in exposed conditions in all weather, and often in the winter, which is when the right whales were around when it was cold and horrible anyway. They would bring the whales back to their base using long-handled tools that were very sharp bladed, and peel the blubber off in layers and cut it into chunks and melt it down in these big iron pots called tripots. They would either have them set up on the ships or in special fireplaces that they built on shore. And they would melt all the blubber down into the oil and then they would store it in wooden casks until they could take it to market at the end of the season.

Matt Smith:

Did it expire at all?

Susan Lawrence:

It would go off and if the whale was an old whale, or in poor condition, the whale would be poor quality as well, so there were issues of preservation. And some of the archaeological sites have evidence of places where they tried to dig into the hillside a bit to provide a cooler area for storage.

Matt Smith:

I've heard that whales actually helped out in whaling at the Davidson Whaling Station.

Susan Lawrence:

That's very well documented, even into the early twentieth century at the Davidson Whaling Station which is on Twofold Bay in southern New South Wales. The Davidsons had a family-run whaling station there for many years and there were local pods of killer whales who assisted with the hunt – they would actually go out and help drive the whales to where the men could get them, and once the whales had been caught and the blubber had been taken off, then the killer whales would get the carcass of the other whales. So that's what they got out of it, and that's why they participated in this, though it seems amazing to us. But they're not the same species – the killer whales were a different species to the right whales that were being hunted. Killer whales as their names suggests are very fierce hunters, they eat flesh and this was a legitimate way for them to get a meal. There's photographs, there's all the oral histories from the Davidson family. There were some whales in particular that were so well known they gave them names. There was one called Old Tom who helped regularly for many, many years with the hunt and when he did eventually die himself, they kept his body and rendered him down and his skeleton is still on display at the killer whale museum at Eden. You can see it.

Matt Smith:

So what sort of people took up whaling, and what was their life like?

Susan Lawrence:

Whaling was one of the few areas where they were forbidden by law to employ convicts, because they were afraid the convicts would escape of course if you gave them a ship. And in so many other areas the convicts were the main labour source so there wasn't a lot of employment, so this was an area where the free born local boys could get employment and if they were good at it, and were fortunate in their catch, they could really progress through the industry and end up making a lot of money themselves and even becoming whaling captains. The way the payment worked was that you got a share of the total catch at the end of the season, based on your rank and the owner would obviously get a bigger share than everyone else, but right down to the lowest people. So the better that you did, and the more whales that you caught, the more you would earn and people whose skill was recognised would be promoted and the higher up they went in the hierarchy, then the bigger share they would get, so you got all kinds of characters and people from all over the world as well. Because it recognised and rewarded skill, people of different kinds of ethnic backgrounds were drawn to whaling as well, because it was very egalitarian. I'm sure there was racism involved in their daily lives, but in terms of a place where people from those backgrounds could actually get ahead, it was very successful.

Matt Smith:

It sounds good in principle but I also understand it didn't really pay a lot.

Susan Lawrence:

It's very much dependant on the catch, and some years it could be really good and other years it could be just awful. I've looked at some of the records of some of the men who worked for a famous whaling captain in Hobart, named James Kelly. Some of the payslips have survived from some of the whale ships that he had, and there were men on his ships on the lower ranks who were just the oarsmen, the crewmen, and by the time they deducted any clothing that they had purchased during the voyage and the cost of their tobacco and things like that, they actually ended up in debt at the end of the season, because they just didn't earn that much. So it definitely depended on the season and by the end of the shore whaling season there wasn't anything in it at all.

Matt Smith:

The whaling harbours in Australia I imagine would be quite isolated, especially in the early years. So how did they deal with it themselves? They would have to be very self-sufficient when it came to food and to clothing and to stores and things like that.

Susan Lawrence:

They were very isolated. The whalers were explorers. They went out to places where white people hadn't been yet. The main criteria that they had was that it was accessible to the whales and that it had a good harbour with a good anchorage, and a good beach that they could draw their open boats up and bring the whales in for the processing. Being close to sources of supply was not part of the story at all. They were mainly interested in its natural characteristics, so they did end up in very isolated places. The captains that had the stations would usually have a few ships that they would use to supply a number of different stations in a season, and they would set them up like a maritime voyage really. They would send them out with their supplies of food which would be usually salt meat, preserved in brine in big wooden barrels, and barrels of flour. They would give them a few vegetables like onions, and that was pretty much it. And then they'd have to look after themselves over the winter months. They would build some huts for accommodation, and they would build the tri-works where they did the processing of the whale blubber, and then they would just be there for the next six months or so. The whales were around between about April and October, over the winter, so they weren't growing vegetables or food or anything while they were there. They were hunting whales. From some of the archaeological sites that I've excavated, we've found evidence that they were hunting some of the local wildlife – wallaby and kangaroos and things like that – doing a little bit of fishing, but they didn't have a lot of time to be doing the hunting. That wasn't their job. And the salt meat was their familiar diet – that's what they were used to. It doesn't sound very appetising to us, but many people in the nineteenth century ate salt meat on a fairly regular basis.

Matt Smith:

So why did whaling stop?

Susan Lawrence:

Shore whaling, where they had the stations on shore, that they went after the right whales, collapsed in a heap in the early 1840s. That industry was mainly out of Hobart, a bit out of Launceston, around the Van Diemen's Land coast across to New Zealand, around Victoria and South Australia. And it collapsed because they killed all the whales, basically. They hunted them during the time when the baby whales were being born and were with their mothers, were nursing. The last thing you want to do for a sustainable industry is to kill the young and the nursing mothers, because that's where your future stocks come from. But they didn't realise that. There were just such an abundance of whales. The herds were huge. Some of the first British settlers in Hobart talk about there being so many whales in the Derwent, right around Hobart there, that you couldn't row a boat from one side to the other. It was just packed with whales. So they thought that the whales would be there forever, and they just went out and slaughtered them in huge numbers. And all of a sudden, over the course of about two years, the whales just weren't there any more – they stopped coming entirely, because they had all been killed.

Matt Smith:

Even though the whaling industry collapsed, was there still a need and a demand for whale blubber?

Susan Lawrence:

There was still a demand for the oil. It wasn't until the 1850s and 1860s that petroleum was being discovered and extracted and made available commercially, and even then not in large quantities for a long time after that. So there was still absolutely a need for oil and they went further and further afield to get it. They went down into the Antarctic, and they went up into the high Arctic in the north. That continued right up into the twentieth century. They were whaling in New South Wales and in Albany in Western Australia in the 1960s.

Matt Smith:

So what archaeological digs have you participated in on whaling stations?

Susan Lawrence:

I've done research on whaling stations in Tasmania and Victoria, looking at some of the shore whaling industry, because the deep sea whalers went off in their ships and didn't leave very much archaeological evidence. But there are still ruins from many of the stations around the coast of Van Diemen's Land and Victoria, places like Wilsons Prom and Portland and Port Fairy in Victoria and many, many places on the east coast of Tasmania still have ruins. So I've worked on Bruny Island in Tasmania at a place called Adventure Bay, where there was a whaling station. That's part of a national park where you can still go and visit it and see the ruins that are there.

Matt Smith:

So what sort of things did you find?

Susan Lawrence:

We found evidence of where the men were living mostly. They built huts for them to live in over with winter. At Adventure Bay especially, they were really good quality stone cottages that they built for the men in charge of the station. The boat crews lived in smaller wooden slab huts with a big fireplace at the end. The headman, who was in charge, had a two roomed stone cottage with a big fireplace in it, so they would have been quite snug when they were there. We found evidence of the food that they'd been eating, all the salt meat, the salt beef, also evidence of some locally supplied fresh meat. James Kelly, who owned that station, also had a couple of farms not too far away, and he used his ships to bring mutton and lamb to the stations as well, so that the men could have fresh meat. Also some interesting things that we don't see so much in the documentary record – lots of pickle jars, condiments to go with all the salt meat to make it taste a bit better. And the dishes and the tea cups and the decorated china and things that they had too. So that was kind of a surprise because the records about whaling – all the stories about whaling are that it is a really tough, difficult, violent business, which it certainly was, and we expected that the men would have been having quite basic stuff with them, things like tin plates and so on. We found some alcohol bottles, but not as much as we might have expected, I suppose, because it has, again, that kind of hard living aura to the industry. But I think that the alcohol that they might have had was probably in bulk. James Kelly had some records in his financial files of getting casks of wine and brandy and things that he was providing. So those are the kinds of things that we mainly found on the stations.

Matt Smith:

Associate Professor Susan Lawrence there, and she recently wrote a book with Dr Peter Davies from La Trobe University called An Archaeology of Australia Since 1788. If you have any questions, comments of feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.