Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Potlach the Sea: The Candlemaker's Version

On 12 August, 1819, the whaleship Essex (owner Gideon Folger, 1, 2) departed Nantucket Island for a two-and-a-half year cruise, 29 year-old Captain George Pollard commanding, with 21-year-old first mate, Owen Chase, another veteran of the ship's previous, very lucky voyage.
This one was not to be so lucky. Rounding Cape Horn after a disproportionate five weeks of trying,* Essex entered the Pacific whaling grounds in January of 1820, heading northwards first for the west coast of South America, and then for the "offshore ground," a newly-discovered whaling ground between 5 and 10 degrees South and 105 and 125 degrees West. Before cruising this vast area, Essex headed towards Floreana Island in the Galapagos to water and hunt tortoises. There, a crewman set a fire as a prank that turned into an island-devouring wildfire.  

Difficult whaling suggested that nature might be getting ready for a suitably ironic revenge, but since it was thirty years yet to the publication of Moby Dick, the whalers could have no clue about the Dramatic Literary Symbolism coming their way. (If they had, they might have done things differently, if only to spare generations of their descendants from the agony of writing essays on whether the Great White Whale is an allegory or a metaphor.) On 20 November, 1820, a bull sperm whale rammed Essex twice and left it in a sinking condition.

If my facetious tone suggests that I am taking this with a bit of a grain of salt, it is because I am. The accident, as described, is implausible. There is a raging debate over whether this kind of behaviour is at all typical of bull sperm whales, but that is not the point. It is a sad whaler that is lost to stove-in sides, and the story describes a freak-of-science 85ft bull ramming the 88ft Essex bow-on at "twice" a sperm whale's normal surface speed of 24 knots. (Sperm whales are fast!) That said, it was not unknown for a whaler to return to Nantucket leaking a thousand strokes an hour. It would, eventually, serve all concerned well to present the loss of Essex as a freak episode rather than as an example of poor workplace safety and, as we shall see, poor management.

So the survivors of the crew abandoned the ship on three whale boats. At this point, the crew of Ann Alexander, an old ship in poor condition which was lost to a side-stoving sperm whale in 1861, elected to  head north to pick up the rainy, west-trending tropical winds that would have taken them to Polynesia had they not been picked up three days later. Bligh, under similar conditions and not that far away, took a single launch weighed down by 19 men on a 47 day, 4000 mile voyage to Timor. 

Bligh had the good sense to head downwind. The crew of the Essex, on the other hand, voted to head south towards prevailing winds that might, with luck, take them to South America. The logic was that they preferred to avoid the "cannibal isles" of the Marquesas and Societies.

This they did not do. The boats touched at Henderson Island, today a remote and uninhabited dependency (but with its own website!) of the Pitcairn Islands territory, 120 miles from that island. Three sailors decided to stay on Henderson, in spite of its paucity of water.

They survived just fine. 

The ones who didn't underwent gruesome suffering and, ultimately, cannibalism. (This was unfortunate for the victims, but at least ensured that the memoirs of the survivors would sell well.) It's all either a tragedy in "the heart of the sea," or a Darwin Awards-level performance, and I'm personally inclined to vote the latter after reading the appalling statistics compiled in Custom of the Sea. who would have guessed that the losers in  "cannibal ballots" would turn out to be disproportionately from the bottom ranks of the shipboard social hierarchy?  

Whatever. I'm sure that the self-serving narratives of Captain Pollard and Owen Chase are entirely accurate.

In lieu of pencil sketches of the loss of the Essex, which do not do justice to what was likely not a very visually dramatic episode anyway, due to boats being low in the water and whales even lower, here is a more picturesque Google search item for "wreck of the Essex:" boats moored at the west end of the Langmere Wharf, Essex, England. 
I've a feeling that the ummooring days of the boats on the foreground are over.

Where to start, where to start... Oh! I know, my nephew's birthday. Not the Saito nephew, another one. We visited out on campus, and I dropped into the university bookstore to pick up a card, and one thing led to another. . .

 Jeffrey Bolster's The Mortal Sea has a big publisher (Harvard. That's where the smart people go!), won all the awards, and has been favourably reviewed. 

I dunno, though. I'm not feeling it. The argument that we should never do ocean fishing because we don't know crap about what happens when we take out all that biomass strikes me as perfectly defensible. It also seems unrealistic, and the counterargument, that we should fish, but be prepared to change our ways quickly when there is evidence that we are impacting the fishery, also strikes me as defensible. It greatly increases the risk of a human impact on the ecological web, but we've got to live, too!

Much of Bolster's evidence/thesis actually consists of fishing scares, in which the competent authorities of New England (because that's what the subject actually is. You say "New England," I say "the world," you say "Po-tay-to," I say "poh-tat-oh...") became alarmed at the supposed depletion of fishing resources and attempted to act to restrict fishing. Looking back at our current crisis, the idea that seventeenth century alewive fisheries were damaging the ecosystem seem naive at best. If I were to advance an opinion, cynic that I am, it would be to suggest that these ostensible conservancy laws were actually motivated, at least in part, by a desire to shore up prices. I don't want to push this argument too far, as I'm not keen to be seen as an over-fishing denialist, but a mid-Nineteenth Century concern over mackerel depletion can scarcely be seen any other way. 

The other argument, rather tenuously linked to the first, and very, very important to today's blog post, is that we can see the human impact on the fishery in its earliest phases by comparing the rich ecosystems of the American east coast with the relatively depleted grounds of Europe, half-a-millennium or so after the beginnings of that commmercial fishery there.

This would be as well if we had any actual evidence. It sounds, from the paeans of the early explorers, that the American fisheries were very productive. On the other hand, as we've seen in work on the early correspondence of Spanish immigrants to immediate post-Columbian America, people said things in their letters that weren't necessarily completely accurate, because they were boosting the prospects of the new land to encourage immigration. Taking Hakluyt at face value, as Bolster does, is not a good sign.  I would be more inclined to concede the point, which in itself seems strong, if he actually presented evidence that depletion of the European fisheries was a push factor driving the fishing fleets that crossed the Atlantic. 

It wasn't. We know that. It was that the European fisheries were not meeting growing European demand. Redoubling harvesting efforts in European waters had the potential to greatly increase yield, as we now know. The problem was that this would do nothing for communities excluded from those fisheries --often by the kind of conservation measures Bolster documents in the acts of the legislature of Massachusetts. To get into the business, these communities had to find new fishing grounds. To the extent that these grounds were more productive than the old ones, this was  a good deal --but they didn't have to be. 

Here, finally, my dissatisfaction with the book that Bolster produced, instead of the one I wanted him to write, blows over. For there was another "virgin" fishing ground off the coast of North America, which, by this logic of very early commercial fishing impact, ought to have been similarly productive: the far northwest coast. 

This is not to say that the Northwest Pacific fishery is not very productive. On the other hand, there is a reason why, in its first century, it was exploited mainly by Japanese immigrants. (I would say, "and First Nations," if all those Indians didn't all disappear at the first breath of smallpox, back in the Before Time.) As lucrative as the andromadous fisheries have been on the West Coast, there are not vast shoals of pelagic cod and herring to be taken, much to the disappointment of the Pitt government, which very enthusiastically struck on the idea of a Northwest Pacific pelagic fishery when the Nootka Crisis first blew up.

Not that disappointed, however. As Robert Webb points out,** Pitt's critics thought that it was all an excuse to raise a "naval armaments" and spread the Naval Bills money around like a thick coat of manure on the ready soil of our metaphor. Given that great fleets of cod fishers were not to appear off the Pacific slope until, well, never, 

It also seems as though Pitt's critics might well have been right. Webb turned up a very interesting episode during Vancouver's time at Nootka/Ahousat, the arrival of the three-ship "Butterworth Squadron," (Jackal and Prince Lee Boo, and Butterworth, Captain William Brown, Commodore). The squadron was financed by three prominent London whaling merchants (including an alderman of the City), and sent to establish whaling plantations in the Pacific, but the thing that makes it interesting is that Vancouver, otherwise a meticulous diarist, makes no mention what would seem to be a fairly important event, especially as Galiano understood Brown's license to establish plantations as extending to a trading post at Nootka. William Brown next broke his cover by accidentally ("accidentally"?) killed Robert Gray's partner, John Kendrick, at Hawaii on his return voyage, but when Butterworth anchored at Gravesend on 3 February 1795 width a cargo of 17,500 seal skins and 20,000 gallons of whale oil, enough to come from 8—12 right whales of average yield, and avowedly taken somewhere on the west coast, all was swept under the rug. The whales were more likely taken off Chile than the Oregon Country, and the sea otter pelts taken at Nootka and Clayoquot Sound were taken to Guangzhou/Canton by a detached Jackal, sailing slyly and askew out of history and the comfortable obscurity of private fortune. Exactly how Vancouver might have benefitted from his discretion we do not know, and it is a pity that his biographers do not seem to be au courant with the Butterworth episode.

Never mind cod, though, or, for the moment, salmon. As I have already made clear, this is about the "whale fishery." Talk about your "Mortal Sea!" 

More specificaclly, it is about the sperm whale fishery. Per Wikipedia, the largest males measured at 22m (67ft) long, and 57 long English tons weight, and can easily render a third of that as whale blubber, with an additional 1900 litres or so of an unusual ear wax with highly desireable burning qualities that made it idea for candles. (Early naturalists, unfortunately, dubbed it "spermaceti,"  because early naturalists were perverts.

This kind of bounty is not always available. The species is highly dimorphic, with males 30--50% larger than females, and are also solitary, so that more easily taken pods include only the smaller females, with their calves. Still, spermaceti, ambergris and whale blubber were all valuable commodities in the age of sail, well justifying a sperm whale fishery. Even better, the species is highly prolific the inshore North Pacific right whale, first taken by the traditional inshore whaling on the West Coast, might have had a pre-hunting population of 20,000 animals in the Pacific Basin

Mr. Elliott doesn't seem to have been much inclined to talk about himself, but he sure could fill the pages about Alaska!
The sperm whale's pre-hunt population was probably over a million, and was surprisingly robust against whaling, even in the heyday of the industry. It is only listed as "vulnerable," and populations may even have rebounded almost to the pre-whaling levels. This is admittedly a global population, but that raises the further point that the sperm whale is a pelagic fish with a global range, and so was the industry, in its glory days. Nantucket whaling voyages could last five years or more, and took the ships around the world, and to waters so remote that it is almost impossible to imagine that this all began less than fifty years after Anson's agonising voyage. Emelia, under Nantucketer James Shield, with Archileus Hammond as first mate, also of Nantucket, took the first sperm whale in the Pacific, on 3 March 1789, and returned to London with 35,000 gallons of spermaceti oil.

This was, in turn, precociously early --we think. The early history of sperm whaling is shrouded with mystery. Per Wikipedia, and also the shelf of books about the economics and history of the industry, there is a legend that has it that, "not far from 1712," Captain Christopher Husssey of Nantucket, while cruising offshore for right whales, was blown out to sea, encountered a school of sperm whales, and killed one. Per the consensus of the literature, this story may or may not be apocryphal, because no Christopher Hussey was in command of a whaling ship at this time. No matter, though. It might be another Hussey cousin, either Sylvanus or Bachelor.

Again, it may be because I'm contrarian and cynical, but it seems a little odd that the story of the first taking of a sperm whale cannot even be pinned to a year, but the same historians who cannot establish this know the biographies of three early Eighteenth Century Nantucket whaling captains of the Hussey clan. This "seems" turns out to be more apparent than real, as, it turns out, whaling captains often retired from the sea at still-comparatively vigorous ages. Some explored the history of the whaling industry, very, very thoroughly. This is why we know the names of all the Hussey captains --and, indeed, inadvertent editorial errors aside, the detals of every whaling ship to have left or returned to Nantucket. (Althoug as for Norwegian or Basque whalers, they might as well have been sailing from the Moon.) 

This spectacular accuracy of detail seems oddly missing in the case of the prey. One might think that the fact that its prized product is called "spermaceti," or that it has a traditional Basque name ("catchalot") might be a clue that the first people to encounter it were not English-speakers. 

Or you can just check out the 1665 Transactions of the Royal Society. Nineteenth Century retired whaling captains admittedly did not have access to Google Books, so it would have been a great deal harder for them to do a word search and turn up a reference to spermaceti candles in a 1719 French publication, but I'm not clear as to what modern marine scientists' excuse might be. It's especially noticeable by comparison with the article on the Blue Whale, which quite reasonably starts with its first description in the scientific literature. This might not be comparable with the War Department for licensing out your buddy's patent for  the tipi, or managing to claim credit for the invention of the ice house, but it's pretty credulous stuff, all the same.

So, anyway, sperm whales. Thanks to our Nantucket antiquarians, we have a reasonably clear picture of the early days of the industry, whichreally did take off in the middle of the Eighteenth Century with the opening of the "Southern Whale Fishery," perhaps in the 1730s, insofar as random explorations of the family records of the House of Rotch can tell us anything.

“It is so written," Robert Webb writes, that Captain Barzillai Folger in the ship Ganges of Nantucket took the first whales on the Northwest Coast of America in the year 1835.” Webb doesn’t find this remotely plausible. The enigma of the Butterworth squadron apart, there is the Eleanora, out of Providence, Rhode Island, whose master told customs officials in Rio that he was on his way to the Pacific Northwest to take whales in 1802, as did the captain of the brig Minerva in 1805; of which we know rather less, since this ship ignored the Nantucket paradigm and sailed from Norfolk, Virginia to Nantes to London before making for the Horn. Certainly, Folger was not first, Webb notes, because a British ship (Tuscan, Thomas Richard Stavers commanding) cruised up to 55 north the previous year, albeit without result, while a French ship made 49 north earlier in that same year of 1835. Both the French and British were underweight in the whale fishery in general, probably due to the American advantage of low wages, but they were not absent from the trade, which was also plied by people who have been barely noticed by antquarians at all. (Aland Islanders come to mind.) 

Bound and determined to push the whaling horizon back, Webb notices that George Pelley, HBC agent in Hawaii, reported being told in 1837 by French warship Nereid about the American Vineyard, spotted on the NW coast and headed northward. Gratitude, which returned to New Bedford in 1839 with a staggering 2500 barrels of oil, 300 barrels of spermaceti, and 34,000lbs of baleen, probably took it from a virgin field, but where is unknown. Since the inward manifesto lists a cargo of 763 hides, it might be thought to have run into the then-flourishing California hide trade. A New Bedford vessel, Timoleon, has been positively identified making a PNW cruise in 1839, with the rapidly-rising price of baleen as inspiration for a new era of effort. Alexander Starbuck, on the other hand, says that the first declared voyages for the PNW cleared in 1841.

Coming back to Pelley, it is worth undermining his credibility as an authority on the early beginningn of the Pacific Northwest whaling trade to notice that he was campaigning for the Hudson's Bay Company to ship more provisions to Hawaii, on the argument that the Company could make a vast profit resupplying whaling ships. The whalers who called at Honolulu might have been more interested in the “depravity” of the place (equally concerned Hawaiian authorities did their best to limit contact between locals and libertying whalermen), but fresh water and flour to fry up into "doughnuts" in the tried whale oil --this was a thing, apparently-- was more important to the industry. (There was also McLoughlin's dream of establishing an export trade in salted salmon as a Pacific staple.) 

In the end, of course, Pelley was approximately right. It all just hung on finding the right northwestern base for the Company, which turned out to be Victoria, so that the later history of the whaling industry on the coast slots, more-or-less neatly, into the grand story of the Rise of the Canadian State. 

This is the point where I want to draw back and reach for a conclusion. The reason that I am posting about West Coast whaling and not OPERATION PLUNDER/VARSITY this week is that thanks to Daniel Davies and Crooked Timber, Internet bien pesants should be thinking of New Zealand this week, and not least, "blond, blue-eyed" South Island Maoris, thanks to "contact with Norwegian whalers." Davies intends his post to be an inquiry into the reason that New Zealand ended up with the Treaty of Waitangi, and not genocide.  And that is certainly an interesting question. 

All that I am asking for is a non-state-ordered history of the development of state order in the so-called "settler" Pacific.

As I've mentioned before, in 1843, Captain Duncan of Beaver found two American whalers at Winter Harbour/Newhitty,*** the Canada of New Bedford and its “supposed” tender, Maine of Fairhaven. With, unusually, a doctor on board Canada, unusually, Fort Vancouver jumped to the reasonable conclusion that this expedition's intention of trying out an inshore whale fishery would be a threat to the HBC fur trade. It didn't happen, of course, and if I haven't already communicated my personal sense of wonder that the Winter Harbour of my youth was once one of the great plantations of the Pacific, I'm probably not going to find the words now

But, we know this about the sperm whale fishery: that it brought the whalers to every corner of the Pacific, that it brought disorder, violence, and illicit sexuality, At Kangaroo Island, South Australia, the story Isaac Pendleton is worth clicking on, let's put it that way. That it brought blond Maoris, and probably in the 1790s, not the 1890s. 

I could talk about the demographics of the whale and seal fishery that planted the Pacific. I have the material. It's just that I also know what Winter Harbour was --and this, surprisingly, is controversial.  The author of the Wikipedia post on the Maritime Fur Trade (Richard Mackie?) seems to think that Newhitty was at Holberg, which is unlikely. Generations of North Island school children have walked the Cape Scott Trail, seen the gardens in back of Winter Harbour, been exposed to what used to be a living history. It is a folk history that does not seem to be percolating upwards. Perhaps no more than a matter of there being too much history, too few memories to hold it.

Or, and this is how I want to end: as with the beginnings of the sperm whale industry, the real question is how these beginnings all come to be wrapped in mystery. Accident? Intention? I do not know much about the history of New Zealand, but I am going to suggest that the reason for the success of the Treaty of Waitangi is precisely that its origins are shrouded in mystery. 

"Shrouded," here, is a verb. People did that. When they took the gift of the sea and made their homes on it in the plantation of the Pacific, they wore masks, as polite people do. 

(145) Hydrogenation, the 1890s, the Norwegians.  
*Cape Horn isn't the Cape of Good Hope, but even so.
**Robert Lloyd Webb, On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest, 1790—1967 (Vancouver: UBCP, 1988).
***Note that this indentification seems to be controversial. The author of the Wikipedia post on the Maritime Fur Trade (Richard Mackie?) seems to think that Newhitty was at Holberg. This is unlikely.

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