Friday, 15 April 2011

Whales and Dolphins, 1800-1979

Thomas Brooke writing in 1808:
The situation of St. Helena suggested to Robert Brooke, Governor from 1788-1800, the plan of forming an establishment connected with the South Whale-fishery.  He proposed that there should be a depot on the island, where the ships employed in the fishery should bring their cargoes, and unload them there, which would relieve them from the necessity of returning so frequently to Europe.  The cargoes thus deposited were to be carried home in the ships employed to bring out the annual supplies.
The Court of Directors of the EIC declined any active co-operation in the execution of this proposal, but willingly consented to grant to any individual who chose to embark in the trade, whatever advantages the island could supply.  The subject has, in consequence, been under the contemplation of some respectable merchants; and it is only the expense which must be incurred in constructing the necessary buildings that has as yet suspended the execution of the project.  It is common, however, for the vessels employed in the whale-fishery to touch at the island for refreshment and health; and, of late, when all the other ports in these latitudes have been closed against them, the number of these visitors has, of course, much increased.  The attentions which they received from Governor Brooke induced the principal merchants employed in this trade to present him with a handsome piece of plate, in testimony of their respect.
Thomas Brooke was Governor Brooke’s nephew and was Acting Governor in 1821 and again in 1828.

Alexander Beatson: 1816
Whales in great numbers generally appear in August, and remain about three months. If, during the period of their stay, a few expert fishermen were employed, a considerable number might be killed every year. The species which frequents St. Helena is, by the South Sea whalers, called the “Race-horse." They yield about five tons of oil.
The blubber was rendered in cast-iron tri-pots, or trypots, heated by firewood and blubber scraps, the oil collected and exported in barrels.

Boer Prisoners 1900-1902 in Rupert's Valley with traankookpotte - walvistraan (whale oil cooking pots)

John Mellis, 1875
At St. Helena, the neighbourhood of which affords a good whaling ground, there are five kinds of cetaceous animals commonly known.  The exciting, and in many instances highly remunerative, occupation of whaling is, however, exclusively carried on in the South Atlantic by American vessels, at least sixty or seventy of which call at the Island every year.  They are ships averaging from 80 to 200 tons burthen, and rendezvous at the Island for refitting, re-provisioning, and transhipping their oil to those vessels which may be homeward bound, about the month of October, previous to their cruising southward towards Tristan da Cunha.  The local whaling ground extends from 30 to 180 miles off the Island, but the vessels are constantly seen cruising close to the land during that portion of the year from April to July, and whales have even been taken within a few miles of the roadstead.  Beyond the circulation of money which these vessels calling at the Island necessarily occasion, the St. Helenians derive no profit whatever from this source of wealth, which lies at their very doors. One or more whaling ships have been fitted out from the Island, but the spirit of enterprise which originated the expeditions succumbed to the misfortunes which befell each attempt.

Trypot, Outside the Hospital of the Liberated Slaves Depot, Rupert's Bay, May 2010

Trypot, Outside the Museum Grytviken, South Georgia, April 2010
Grytviken means Pot Cove in Norwegian

The Merchants Magazine and Commercial Review, 1843 quotes the “Commercial Regulations of the Island of St Helena” which, in part, refers to American vessels and explicitly to American whalers:

This island is of great importance to the commercial world, situated as it is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as a refuge in case of distress, and as affording needful supplies of provisions.  Vessels of the United States are allowed to touch at this island only for refreshments, and not for commerce.  By the terms of the treaty between the two nations, ratified December 22, 1815, and an order in council of July 11, 1839, no goods shall be imported into, nor shall any goods be exported from, the island of St. Helena, from or to any place other than the United Kingdom, or some other British possessions.
However, vessels of the United States are permitted, by authority of the Commissioners of Customs in England, to import goods, only of the growth, produce, or manufacture of the United States, at a duty of six per cent ad valorem.  Vessels of the United States being disallowed the entry of goods not of the growth, produce, or manufacture of the United States, the prohibition operates with peculiar rigor against whaling vessels calling for provisions, water, etc., after long and tedious voyages, their crews oftentimes suffering from privations and disease.
These vessels would, in payment, prefer to part with oil, the produce of the seas, to drawing bills at a discount, this being the only commodity they have to sell, and one which the inhabitants would most gladly buy, since British whalers are forbid by their owners from disposing of oil on any account, and the island in consequence suffers much from the want of the article.
Goods can be landed and reshipped on payment of wharfage, etc. if from United States vessels, such goods must be bona fide the growth, produce, or manufacture of the United States.

At least three times between 1830 and 1875 St Helena attempted to develop its own local industry to take the seasonally occurring humpback whales; all of these ventures came to naught. 

June 1833.  Subscription offer for the setting up of a whale fishery attracts £1,000 of investment.

January 1884.  An attempt to establish the St. Helena Whaling Company fails as only three subscribers are attracted to the idea.

October 1875.  Another of the periodic attempts to utilise the seas around St. Helena was begun this year, when the barque Elizabeth was fitted out as a whale ship and manned by islanders, some of whom had crewed the American whalers which used the Island as a base.  However, by this time, the South Atlantic whale fishery was in decline, and the venture failed.

Dolphins off St. Helena, April 2010

William Perrin in his 1985 paper “The Former Dolphin Fishery at St. Helena” suggests that several lines of evidence point to the 19th-century Yankee sperm whale fishery as the origin of the St Helena dolphin fishery. There is no evidence to suggest that a dolphin fishery existed at St Helena before the mid-19th century.

The sperm whalers took ‘porpoise’ (dolphins) for two reasons: to provide practice for the harpooners and to obtain fresh meat for the crew and as early as 1805, St Helena was a major way station for Yankee whalers fishing the Indian and Pacific oceans.  In 1855, for example, at least 43 whalers, mostly US-registered, called at St Helena; at least 6 called twice and Saint Helenians served as crewmen on some of these whalers and there was extensive exposure of St Helenian seagoing men to the Yankee practice of harpooning dolphins.
There were at least three sources of sperm-whaling gear for dolphins at St Helena:
St Helenians who had returned after shipping on whalers may have brought harpoons or the technology to make them.
Auctions of the equipment of the failed St Helenian whaling operations, e.g. in 1856. 
Sales of equipment of the many whaling vessels condemned at St Helena, e.g. in 1856 a list of items to be auctioned from the condemned barque George (Newport, Rhode Island) included ‘masts, spars, sails, stanching and running rigging; also the whale boats, and all other whaling gear, viz-trypots, casks and shooks, hooping &c., harpoons, lances, whale lines, and various other articles’.

Another piece of evidence pointing to a whaling origin of the dolphin fishery is the islanders’ use of Yankee whaling terms such as ‘bottlenose porpoise’ (applied to small dolphins), ‘blackfish’, ‘cowfish’, ‘angerine’ and ‘iron’ (used both as a noun and a verb).

The dolphin fishery was officially terminated in 1979.  A condition of the required fishing license issued by the Fisheries Corporation is that ‘no porpoise . . . be taken’; and violation carries a fine of up to £1000.  The Former Dolphin Fishery at St. Helena, 1985

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