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Boats approaching a whale

Date: 1813
Overall: 220 x 326 mm, 10 g
Medium: Print on paper.
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Print
Object No: 00019642
Place Manufactured:United Kingdom

User Terms

    This coloured print depicts five crowded British whaling boats with harpooners at the ready surrounding a surfacing whale. Four three-masted sailing ships are in the background and far distance.
    SignificanceThis print illustrates the methods and equipment used by British whalers in the 19th century - many of which were adopted by whalers in the Australian colonies - which remained virtually unchanged until the development of explosive harpoons and steam whaling vessels in the 1860s.
    HistoryWhaling played an essential part in 19th century life. Industry and households depended on whale products for which there was little substitute. Whale oil was used for lighting and lubrication until 1860 when kerosene and petroleum started to gain popularity. The pure clean oil from sperm whales was a superior source of lighting and the finest candles were made from the whale's wax-like spermaceti. Sperm oil was the first cargo export of New South Wales, and it was not until 1833 that whale oil was surpassed in export value by the land based wool industry. Whale oil was also used in soaps, medicines and the manufacture of paints. Light and flexible, baleen - the bristle-fringed plates found in the jaws of baleen whales - had many uses in objects which today would be made out of plastic, including brushes, handles, and corsets.

    From the 18th century, the ports of the Australian colonies were frequented by British and American whaling vessels where they outfitted their ships and recruited whalers on the doorstep of the fruitful whaling grounds of the Pacific. By the mid 19th century all of the cities of the Australian colonies were seaports, and Sydney and Hobart had developed into important whaling ports, with large populations of sperm whales off the coast.

    British whalers greatly influenced the methods and technology used by local colonial whalers. The first British whaling vessel to enter the Pacific Ocean was EMELIA - the same year the colony of New South Wales was established in 1788. Due to colonial and British restrictions it was not until 1805, however, that the first colonial owned whaler was built in the colonies, and by 1835 Australian whale ships finally outnumbered the British in the southern whaling grounds.

    Until the production and widespread use of harpoon guns, explosive harpoons and steam whaling vessels in the 1860s, whaling was an extraordinarily dangerous occupation which had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Whales were hunted from long open boats rowed by men who were armed with hand-held harpoons and killing lances. The hand-thrown harpoon attached a rope to the whale which was fastened to the boat. The wounded whale would tow the boat and crew in an effort to rid itself of the painful harpoon. Each time the whale surfaced to breath it would be lanced by the headsman. Killing the whale was a dangerous and lengthy process, and once the whale was dead, the crew had to tow the whale to the ship or station for processing. The whaling barque HELEN was still using this method as late as 1899 operating out of Hobart.

    Although the colonies were capable of manufacturing some whaling equipment in the 19th century, it was much cheaper to import. A significant proportion of the equipment used by Australian whalers at this time was imported from Britain - whale craft including harpoons, lances, lines, boat spades, explosives and guns; as well as processing equipment such as cutting implements, try works, try pots and tanks. Despite the development of harpoon firing guns and explosive harpoons by American whalers throughout the 19th century, Australian whalers appear to have made very little use of them at the time.

    Without local manufacture, there was little variation in most 19th century equipment used by Australian whalers. The exception was the manufacture of whale ships and whale boats - produced in both Sydney and Hobart at this time - the designs of which were significantly influenced by American whalers, and varied between the colonies.

    Additional Titles


    Web title: Boats approaching a whale

    Related People
    Publisher: Edward Orme

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