Three weeks in a year: a scholarship-in–residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Thanks to visiting scholar Adam Wolfe for submitting the following report.

As one notable New Bedford Whaling scholar noted ‘If you drove a tunnel from New Bedford through the centre of the earth you would most probably come out in the southern hemisphere, somewhere near Albany in Western Australia.’

Albany, where I live, is a long way from New Bedford. Certainly today, to travel the distance, can take in excess of 30 hours.

In 2009 the New Bedford Whaling Museum kindly offered me a scholarship-in-residence to carry out research in the Museum’s archives. I was happy to accept and, in 2010, arrived on a drizzly cool April Friday morning for a three week stay. The journey was worthwhile and the weather did improve.

In 2003 I had completed, courtesy of the University of Western Australia, a masters study of the whaling industry on the Western Australian coast, a study that spanned the years from before European settlement through to the modern age.  Much of my work on the 19th century drew on Western Australian historical records and the comprehensive collection of whaling logs contained in the Pacific Manuscript Collection held at the Alexander Library in Perth. What was missing was an examination of a more detailed record that could better explain the American point of view: personal journals and letters, consular records, whaling logs not copied into the Pacific Manuscript Collection, and the financial records and papers of agents and owners.

In particular, I was looking for evidence that would help answer a number of questions: who were the Americans who discovered the New Holland Ground; what effect or influence, if any, did they have on Western Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and the recently arrived European colonists; what roles did different groups and individuals play in this relationship; how did the pattern of whaling on the New Holland ground change over time; and, what legacy did the Americans leave for future generations, with regard to the region’s natural environment, economic development,  and social and cultural evolution? The scholar-in-residence program provided an opportunity to examine these questions and more.

The seas around Western Australia are remote and isolated. In the 19th century they stood at the very edge of the known world.  A place where, even at the time, Gulliver’s fantasies of strange, Lilliputian lands seemed strangely possible, even probable. Only the far distant and still unknown polar realms could exceed this figurative loneliness and unknowingness.

The seas and coast around Western Australia were also a place of ambiguous sovereignty. Although the shore and land had been claimed for the British Empire much of it remained unoccupied and unexploited by British colonists.  Those areas that had been settled were sparsely populated and vast distances separated the few established communities. In this environment the ability of the Crown to enforce colonial sovereignty was difficult.

For the American whaling industry such places offered undiscovered potential and opportunity: new whaling grounds, with an abundance of previously undisturbed whale species and free of territorial claims and boundaries, provided a bonanza of easy hunting and fast profits. These discoveries would lead to a whaling rush as ships from all ports and, unrestrained by any boundaries or limits, sailed to take advantage of the new discovery.

Success would last as long as whales could be caught or, until a new and more attractive ground was found. In the event of the latter the old would be abandoned within weeks and months.

The New Holland ground offered such success. For a short while in the late 1830s and 1840s it was the focus of many an east coast whaling merchant and captains’ attention. Estimates indicate that at the height of the boom, in the period 1840-1842, possibly in excess of 150 American whaling vessels were cruising on and off the Western Australian coast or, closer inshore, engaged in bay whaling.

The discovery of the New Holland whaling ground occurred in stages and comprised a collection of distinct and separate smaller grounds, spread across a vast body of water extending from the tropical Timor Sea, between Indonesia and Northwest Australia, to the sub-Antarctic seas of the southern ocean.

By the 1820s the Timor Sea was being successfully exploited as a sperm whale ground. Subsequent voyages led to a descent on the Western Australian northwest coast. The Rosemary Islands (the off shore waters near present day Port Hedland), were found to be the winter breeding ground of the humpback whale. Whaling grounds were also found in the south. Reports from the Government Resident at Augusta, near Cape Leeuwin on the southwest tip of Western Australia, indicate that by 1834 American whaling ships were cruising between that port and Bunbury to the north. On the south coast, at Albany, American whaling ships were observed as early as 1835. These latter vessels were mostly engaged in bay whaling for southern right whales to the east of Albany during the southern hemisphere winter.

Other whaling grounds were also discovered. Further south, at latitude 46 and, beyond. Here were found the summer grounds of the southern right whale while, towards the east, deep into the Great Australian Bight, were found sperm whales. They were also found on the west coast off Cape Leeuwin and Shark Bay.

Sperm whales were generally found in the deep waters of off shore canyons and the abyssal depths. Inshore, could be found humpback and southern right whales on their annual winter migrations between their winter breeding grounds off the north west and south coasts, respectively, and their summer breeding grounds in the higher latitudes. Other whale species, both great and small also swam in these seas; minke, killer, finn, blue and others.

The American whaling boom off Western Australia was short lived. The discovery of the rich and more abundant northwest Pacific and Arctic whaling grounds led to a rapid abandonment of the New Holland ground. By 1843 possibly less than a dozen American whalers were on the coast.

The effect of whaling on the southern right population was considerable. By 1845 it was reported that the south coast southern right bay fishery had been fished out and that southern rights, found on their summer grounds, were easily gallied and increasingly difficult to catch. In comparison sperm whales, humpbacks and other species appeared to be still abundant.

By the 1850s increasing numbers of American whalers were returning to the New Holland ground in search of sperm whales. They remained, despite the interruptions caused by the American Civil War, until 1888 when declining sperm oil prices made whaling in Western Australian waters uneconomical.

During this time Albany became a de-facto homeport. Whaling captains, often accompanied by their wives and children, remained for periods of up to three years making alternate cruises along the southern and western coasts and out into the Indian and even, on occasion, the Pacific Oceans. In the 1870s one of the best whaling grounds was described as being southeast of Albany and lying within site of Breaksea Island Lighthouse in King Georges Sound.

The historical record indicates that the Americans were able to exercise considerable economic influence on the small isolated communities along the West Australian coast. They provided a range of commercial services and goods not normally, or easily, available. These included passengers services between ports, maritime employment and training for local boys and men, trade in goods and even luxuries: haberdashery, ironmongery, clothing, tobacco, clocks and other items. In return they provided a source of income for local people, in particular through the provision of victuals, minor ship repair services, medical and later, in the case of Albany and, Fremantle to the north, consular assistance.

The growth in trade benefited the European settlers and to some degree the local Aboriginal peoples. The latter benefited from the trade in curiosities that flourished at the height of the boom in the early 1840s. Its collapse, following the decline in American bay whaling, sparked social disturbance and reignited conflict with European settlers as Aboriginal people attempted to find other sources of income and sustenance. This included spearing and taking the European’s prized livestock.

Trade with Americans enabled European settlers to increase and accumulate capital. While in the 1830s local merchants had some difficulty in financing small shore whaling ventures, by 1873 an Albany syndicate was able to purchase the New Bedford whaling barque Islander, which they operated successfully until 1884.

Perhaps one of the greatest attractions for the Americans was the proximity to the whaling grounds of a ready supply of whaling crew, deserters from previous voyages who, for what ever reason, had sought better prospects ashore and, now disappointed, were prepared to take their chances and return to the sea. Moreover, with advancements in steam ship technology, telegraph services and, the establishment of Albany as a strategic coal port on the steam ship route from Europe, Africa and India to Australia, American captains were able gain ready access to a network of comparatively fast communication services that connected them and, their crews, to agents and owners on the East Coast of the United States.

The evidence from the New Bedford Whaling Museum archives has added other dimensions to this history. It now seems more than probable that whaling captains from Salem were instrumental in the mid 1830s in discovering and opening up the southern right and even the sperm whale fishery off the South Coast. This does not exclude the probability of an earlier unrecorded discovery by Australian colonial whalers and, others, and certainly suggests an area for further research. Whether the Salem captains played a similar role off the west coast is still to be determined.

Important to the discovery was the way in which the New Holland Ground formed part of a system of other whaling grounds around and across the Indian Ocean. These in turn acted as a links or waypoints to whaling grounds in other Oceans and seas. Knowledge of the ground facilitated a truly global extractive industry based on annual seasonal and biological changes in the marine environment.  Ashore, the first Governor of the Swan River colony, Sir James Stirling, promoted the benefits of whaling ships engaging in a seasonal progress, following the prevailing winds and sailing eastward around the northern rim of the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and then, south and east along the sub-Antarctic rim back to ports in Western Australia.  Once arrived, these ships could tranship their cargoes for shipment back to Britain and the United States. They could then resume their anticlockwise progress.

The New Bedford archive has also thrown up evidence of individual experiences and perspectives. Whaling captains appear as amateur anthropologists and collectors; whaling wives as avid business entrepreneurs and social observers. Interesting is the disappointment with the place itself: Albany, the so called ‘city’, but really nothing more than a tiny fishing village; the rapaciousness of the Colonial administration in its pursuit of port and custom dues; a harsh judgement of Aboriginal peoples, possibly influenced by religiosity and previous encounters with what were seen to be more advanced Indigenous peoples from other lands; and the appalling bleakness and perceived emptiness of the western and north west coasts.

On the other hand there was close social intercourse with the European colonists. One whaling captain calling at Augusta near Cape Leeuwin, tried to win the charms of a local belle and was trumped by the more successful ship’s mate. The eventual marriage established a dynasty. At Albany, romance also led to marriage. A young 19 year old girl went to sea with her whaling captain to spend the rest of her days in New Bedford. Further north, at Geographe Bay, a 14 year old girl, ‘…a fair maiden of Australia’, sailed on a whaling voyage as companion to the Captain’s wife.

Also interesting are the copies of bills and accounts submitted by local merchants, which provide details of exact services bought and sold: evidence that can be used to increase understanding of the scale of the American trade. Amongst the accounts are names of local people, details of their employment and indications of their status and role in the community. At Albany men who could build jetties also came aboard to repair tryworks and other parts of the ship as did tin smiths who repaired well worn pots and pans. At the time the income earned from a visiting American whalers was not inconsiderable, especially in the then uncertain economy of colonial Western Australia.

The archives also help confirm that the there was a dynamic, vibrant yet naturally geographically distant relationship between the colonial communities of Western Australia and whaling merchants, captains and families in New Bedford and other whaling ports on the east coast of the United States. American 4th of July celebrations were observed in Albany and the local merchants talked of the possibility of direct trade between their port and New Bedford. The departure of the last American whaling ship from Albany in 1888 marked the end of the relationship, but left the door open for renewal amongst the opportunities of the new century ahead.

This history also provides a shared legacy that resonates with the global village of today. Through the history of whaling the experiences of coastal communities in Western Australia can link to those of communities in New Bedford and others on the eastern American seaboard. These connections have no doubt a potential to provide economic, educational, social and cultural benefits to all.

Many of the questions raised during my research are only partially answered. Further study is required in particular of other archives and collections held by other institutions in the United States. Future visits and research will no doubt fill these gaps and help provide a more complete understanding of the history of the New Holland whaling ground.

In the meantime my notes, copies of letters, journals and accounts await even further examination in the pursuit of a very interesting history.

I would like to express my deep appreciation and thanks to James Russell, President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Dr Stuart Frank, Senior Curator, Laura Pereira Librarian, Michael Dyer, Maritime Curator and Michael Lapides, Curator of Photography, for their kind assistance and support in making my visit to the New Bedford Whaling Museum possible.

I would also like to express my admiration and thanks to Henry Fanning and Jan Keeler, both Museum volunteers, for their support and amazing hospitality, patience and enthusiasm.

Adam Wolfe

26 Grey Street East

Albany, 6330.

Western Australia.


3 responses to “Three weeks in a year: a scholarship-in–residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

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  2. Pingback: Three weeks in a year: a scholarship-in–residence at the New … campus university

  3. Pingback: Weeks in a year | ZwerUs

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