By Michael P. Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum
By the early 20th century, black whales, Eubalaena spp, had come to be uniformly called “right whales” due to centuries of confusion between the English, American and French languages, the laziness of whalers, the assumptions of historians, and a severe shortage of animals in the North Atlantic useful for comparative anatomical study at the height of the age of taxonomic nomenclature in the mid-nineteenth-century. It came about in this way.
Long plates of baleen and no dorsal fin are the principal defining anatomical characteristic of the sub-order of Cetaceans, the Mysticeti, those whales commonly described as “right whales.” From the traditional American viewpoint, right whales are not a species but a group. American whalers’ terming animals right whales, were simply referring to “right whaling,” the process of hunting an animal with quality, marketable baleen and often a large quantity of oil in their thick blubber. American whalers differentiated between right whales and bowheads, but called the process of hunting either “right whaling,” and took shortcuts in their logbook and journal entries terming any animal not a bowhead a right whale. American whalers sometimes called right whales “black whales” in these entries. The British completely distinguished between the two as early as the 1790s when they began their whale fishery on the coast of Australia.
To the British and the French the “right whale” was generally the animal that we know today as the bowhead. For much of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries this animal was commonly called the Greenland whale, the Mysticete, the Arctic whale, Balaena mysticetus; and also the term Baleine franche.
This latter term, French in its origin, meant the true whale or even “baleine vertitable,” the real whale, and was applied equally to both species in natural history illustrations of the period. This is the whale appearing in book illustrations and natural histories as far back as the 1670s. Eubalaena spp. does not begin to regularly appear in natural history illustrations as a distinct species until 1874 when Charles Melville Scammon included a chapter on the “The Right Whale of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” in The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874).
When 19th century taxonomists began described these animals the array of names and descriptive terminology was bewildering. Documentation was weak, reliable description was almost exclusively confined to whalers, and the various species of right whales were not distinctly separated as species until the 1860s. When whalers wanted to be specific about which right whale they were hunting, then the terminology and naming got even more complex. Some names stuck and some fell away. Greenland whales, Balaena mysticetus, the European preferred whale of commerce for centuries, were a “right whale” and were commonly called Greenland right whales or Arctic right whales, or even just “the whale.” French naturalists including P.J. van Beneden recognized that Americans later came to call them bowheads, a name that stuck probably because it described a distinct characteristic of the animal, much like the hump of a humpback or the contents of the nose of a spermaceti whale.
Eubalaena glacialis, the “black whale of the Americans” was another right whale, but not preferred for European commerce at any time since the 15th century Basques. This was a little-known animal uncommonly encountered by whalers until the era of colonial American settlement put mariners directly into their migratory habitat around Cape Cod and New England. This animal was hunted by Americans for a relatively short time, less than one hundred years, but certainly not to the exclusion of other whales, as the commonly held definition of the name implies. If their behavior today is any guide, these animals rarely stranded or drifted ashore unless sick or injured. These were often called “black whales” by the British and “seven-foot bone” whales by Americans. To refer to these animals as black whales today is to employ a distinct descriptive characteristic with plenty of historical precedent that enables them to be identified and thought of as a species, separate from the group.
A “right whale” is any whale species with long slabs of marketable baleen. Known historically to American commerce as “whalebone” and to the English of the seventeenth and eighteenth- centuries as “fins,” baleen is a keratin-based adaptation consisting of long, overlapping plates growing from the roof of the whales’ mouths, finely fringed along the inside edge, enabling the animals to feed by filtering organisms from sea water. Baleen plates vary in size from species to species growing to between six and thirteen feet long in mature animals. When feeding these whales sometimes cruise steadily along the surface of the sea and along the edges of ice fields grazing on immense blooms of plankton known historically as “brit” or “whale feed.” After filling their mouths with water and plankton they use their immense lips and tongues to dispel the water and then lick the food off the inside edges of the baleen. This behavior made the animals conspicuous to mariners, and their migratory patterns and general habitats were often close to shore where they were both observed and hunted. The family Balaeinidae, these oft-named “right whales,” includes four species, the bowhead, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica). Each possesses these long plates of baleen although the longest and most valuable baleen plates to commerce came from the bowhead whale.
Modern authors who describe the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, in nature guide books, web sites, history books and even scientific papers commonly assert that because right whales floated when dead, lived close to shore, were slow and easily approached and provided large quantities of oil, meat and baleen that whalers called them “right whales” as they were the “right whale to catch.” This definition has persisted, in the U.S.A. particularly, throughout most of the 20th century.
Sir William Henry Flower (1831-1899), director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, first used the phrase “the right whale to catch” in 1898. The full quotation is:
… long distinguished by practical whalers as right whales, as they are, compared to all others, the right whales to catch being of far greater value.
Significantly, Flower did not at the time of his writing acknowledge E. glacialis as a distinct species. The right whales to which he is referring are Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead and Eubalaena australis, the Southern right whale:
Of the right whales there are two perfectly distinct forms,
though whether each of these represents a single species, or
can be subdivided into several, is still a matter of uncertainty,
and for our present purpose of little importance, as if minute
investigation can prove that they are separable, they are most
closely allied and perfectly similar to all ordinary observation.
The two forms, which I shall speak of as species or kinds, are
the Greenland or rather Arctic right whale (Balaena mysticetus)
and the southern right whale (Balaena australis).
As Flower’s language indicates, the English usage of “right whale” referring to the bowhead is incontrovertible. Although most English sources simply refer to the bowhead as “the whale,” the “Greenland whale” or the “common whale,” Flower’s differentiating the “Arctic right whale” underscores his perception that whalebone whales as a group were considered “right whales.”
Attempting to explain and describe the reasons behind why the whale is called the “right whale” without the systematic parsing of old texts has contributed to assumptions made about the commercial exploitation of one species of animal (Eubalaena glacialis) in particular to the exclusion of others. Unwittingly, E. glacialis (as well as the southern and North Pacific species) become entwined with a separate species (Balaena mysticetus) blurring the ability of historians, scientists, ocean resource managers and the public to understand the full extent of potential issues surrounding their management.
The bowhead whale itself has a long history of exploitation but also of study by English whalers and naturalists. Most famous of these was whaling master and author William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857), who wrote a precise description of the bowhead whale in his two volume work An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (Edinburgh, 1820), after his experiences hunting them in the waters of the Greenland Sea between eastern Greenland and Spitzbergen Island in the early nineteenth century:
“Balaena mysticetus: – The Common Whale, or Greenland Whale. This valuable and interesting animal, generally called The Whale by way of eminence, is the object of our most important commerce to the Polar Seas – is productive of more oil than any other of the Cetacea, and, being less active, slower in its motion, and more timid than any other of the kind… is more easily captured.”
Scoresby’s quote was repeated often – indeed, for decades his observations on the fauna of the Arctic regions were the last word in Arctic reference. Books like the popular and influential On the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales by Robert Hamilton, published as part of Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library (Edinburgh, 1837), and John Godman’s American Natural History (Philadelphia, 1828), among others relied upon Scoresby often reprinting whole passages of his writing.
His work was truly respected by his peers and remains so today. In addition to commanding several commercial whaling voyages from Hull, U.K. he studied briefly under naturalist Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University, corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks and John Hunter, and contributed information to other Arctic marine mammal naturalists including Everard Home, based largely on his observations compiled on his whaling voyages. Scoresby uses other names for the bowhead whale including the “Common Black Whale” and the “Great Northern Whale.” Even Scoresby, however, struggles with the separate identities of the bowhead and the North Atlantic right whale:
The Balaena mysticetus and the Balaena nordkaper, for instance, are considered by Linné as varieties only of the same animal. La Cepède makes them two species. No, La Cepède’s figure of Balaeine franche (mysticetus), has not its counterpart in nature; but his Balaeine nordcaper is a fair representation of the mysticetus.
In this particular incidence La Cepède was right and Scoresby was wrong. The Nordcaper and the bowhead are two separate species. The Nordcaper, or North Cape whale was for years synonymous with today’s Eubalaena glacialis. It was so-named as being encountered off the North Cape of Norway although Scoresby claims never to have seen one. By the time of Scoresby’s writing in the 1820s E. glacialis was very seldom seen and the likelihood of his even being familiar with it was small.
Numerous sources, however, including those devoted entirely to the subject such as William Dewhurst’s Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834), use the term “Greenland right whale” to describe the bowhead, although other natural histories like Thomas Bell’s A History of British Quadrupeds (London 1837) refer to Balaena mysticetus as the “true whale,” the “common whale” and the “Greenland whale.” Scoresby’s influential description comes very close to Flower’s common “right whale to catch” scenario, and it seems to provide convenient answers to the evidently perplexing question of “why is it called the right whale?” Between the two of them, Scoresby and Flower, the originations of the idea “the right whale to catch” seem definitive. Understanding then, how and why the phrase came about, is simply the culmination of hundreds of years of confusion over the precise identification of E. glacialis as a species in comparison to a well-known and well-described commercially significant animal.
In the literature of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries scientists and natural historians strove to document whale species taxonomically and were analyzing all of the various derivations of the names of these animals. The American zoologist Joseph Bassett Holder (1824-1888) compiled one particularly excellent synopsis where he makes the distinction between “right whales” generally as a group (“this Right Whale”) and the black whale specifically, as Eubalaena glacialis:
This, the Black Whale so called of the temperate Atlantic, was lately introduced to science as a re-discovery. After a lengthy period of well nigh total extinction, the species is now manifestly increasing in numbers As is now well known after a long continued confusion of specific characters and consequent misunderstanding, this Right Whale is the one which our forefathers found abundant along the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to Florida. It is the one first hunted by the Cape Cod and Nantucket whalers and is not the one now and latterly captured in the Arctic seas. At the commencement of the American Revolution the Black Whale had been so persistently pursued that there remained in our waters seemingly no more to capture. Indeed the species was near extinction. It was now that the New England and New Jersey whalers pushed northward and discovered the great Arctic Right Whale As they found a prey affording them more oil and larger baleen, they were content; leaving others to settle the question of identity. The science of cetology was not then greatly advanced; it remained therefore for naturalists of a later period to fairly establish the characteristics and relative position of each species.
Quite in opposition to Holder’s synopsis (and almost uniquely in this study), U.S. Fish Commission agent Alonzo Howard Clark (1850-1918) completely distinguished right whales from bowhead whales in his 1887 analysis of the American whaling industry:
The right whale (Eubalaena) is found in various parts of the world… This whale, of which there are several species in the different oceans, must not be confounded with the bow-head, inhabiting much colder waters, the bow-head being an ice whale and the right a temperate whale…
Clark’s report is among the most frequently accessed documents relative to American whaling history, having been widely disseminated as a government document and subsequently reprinted. In this instance, Clark mistakenly segregates the species involved in “right whaling” adopting the more generic terminology common to the fishery but less useful for specific identification.
Biologists Randall R. Reeves and Robert D. Kenney finally broke with the commonality of describing the “right whale to catch” in 2003 writing in a major marine mammal encyclopedia: “many early writers considered “right” to connote “true” or “proper.” Reeves and Kenney’s new definition helps to refine not only the question of naming but also elevates the place of the Mysticetes historically as these were long considered the whales of commerce and people paid attention to them. One may well ask what characteristics a “true” or “proper” whale may possess, which in this case may be answered in a word, baleen. True whales or right whales were those animals with long slabs of marketable baleen.
Yet even while this characteristic was accepted as a commercial criterion for classing the animals, their actual naming and identity has long remained a challenge to virtually everyone who has attempted it. As late as 1932, the whaling historian James Travis Jenkins opened “Chapter 2 – The Nordcaper,” of his book Whales & Modern Whaling with a nomenclature-rich synopsis: “The Nordcaper, Sarda, or Atlantic Right Whale (Balaena australis) was the first to be the subject of a regular fishery, that of the Basques.” Jenkins’ chapter, which starts off confusing Eubalaena glacialis with Balaena australis, nonetheless serves as a solid synopsis of the accepted perceptions of the animal and its history at the mid- twentieth century. In it he covers Basque whaling for bowhead whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Norwegian whaling records for E. glacialis around Iceland in the late nineteenth- century, and Scottish whaling records from the early twentieth- century, all good information. His chapter is particularly useful as a yardstick for gauging the degree of understanding that fisheries managers had in the mid-twentieth century.
At the time of Flower’s writing in 1898, however, the populations of E. glacialis had been stultified over tens of thousands of years through habitat degradation brought about by ice-age glacial recurrences, predation by orcas, competition from bowhead whales for preferred habitat and, ultimately, over- hunting of populations already stressed by natural habitat challenges. Flower’s exclusive descriptions of the bowhead whale and the southern right whale reflected the serious nature of how small the North Atlantic right whale populations had actually become at the turn of the twentieth- century. Fifty years earlier the New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling master Daniel McKenzie confirms this scarcity categorically in a letter to the Director of the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1849, indicating that “throughout my whaling history I never did – nor never expected to find right whales on the outward passage till I reached Latitude 30° South.”
So what really happened to E. glacialis? Is it possible that between circa 1640 and the mid-18th century American colonists killed so many animals that they were erased from the North Atlantic entirely, or were so reduced in their numbers that they were seldom even seen? American biologists William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill certainly believed so, writing in 1982: “Right whales were found in large numbers in the Cape Cod area until about 1730 (Allen 1916), but this stock was systematically reduced by shore whaling that took all that could be caught, including cows and calves.”
The modern wholesale and exclusive adoption of “right whale” as the common name for Eubalaena glacialis underscores the implication that our oft-repeated definition that the name fosters. Because these were the “right whale to catch,” catch them they did and thus the population was radically reduced. As we have seen, however, this assumption shortcuts the facts of many historical sources and takes a giant leap across an entire ocean and the entire species of Balaena mysticetus to which the term was originally applied. Further, it implies an overt concentration by hunters on one species when several were both available and exploited. It likewise demands a simple association for why there seems not to be a robust population of Eubalaena glacialis in the world today – American colonists killed them all. Curiously, and in parallel to the American experience, British colonists in New South Wales, Australia did not call the similar animal that they encountered there and hunted extensively the “right whale.” They called it the “black whale” and also exploited them thoroughly.
One significant difference between the black whale of the North Atlantic and that of the south (Eubalaena australis) is that the southern stock had a much larger population (some estimates place it as high as 90,000 animals) that managed to survive heavy, sustained, sophisticated hunting pressure for well over one hundred years. E. australis was hunted from the coasts of Brazil and Argentina to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the entire Southern Ocean by Americans, French, Australians, British and others. These were a targeted species by whaling agents intent on keeping quantities of oil and bone on their wharves and ready for the market. Whaling badly damaged this population as well as E. glacialis but the pressure was enormous in comparison.
American colonists did undoubtedly kill a lot of E. glacialis. One commonly cited source indicates that in January of 1700 “the boates round Cape Cod Bay killed twenty-nine whales in one day.” Even such concentrated efforts on a stock of animals locally concentrated in the bay, however, could only have damaged the population permanently if they were limited in their population numbers to start with, but, as Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Glover M. Allen, observed in 1916: “The accounts of this important industry that have come down to us are barely sufficient to reconstruct an outline of it.” The historical documentation upon which Allen’s observation was made has hardly changed since his writing in 1916.
The same sources that Glover Allen, Frederick True and Joel Asaph Allen reference in their works have only been augmented sparsely by primary whalemen’s accounts, and these only serve to underscore the high quality of the research in the first place. Yet despite accounts “barely sufficient” to outline the early history of colonial whaling assumptions have persisted that these were the “right whales to catch.”
The main points of this history to which Glover Allen refers, are that American colonists began processing “drift” whales that washed ashore dead or stranded themselves on the beaches of Long Island and Cape Cod in the mid-seventeenthth century shortly after colonial settlement. Today such “drift whales” occasionally turn up in the traditional regions, like Cape Cod, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket and Long Island. These consist mostly of fin whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins. The only right whales that wash ashore dead are those that have succumbed to ship strikes (hit or run over by a large vessel) or those that have become entangled in fishing gear and died. As few right whales drift ashore today, and other whales species do, this begs the question of what type of whales drifted ashore in the colonial era? Does the negligible number of drift right whales today simply reflect the fact that there are not that many of them and that the population is mostly healthy, or, does it suggest that there were once many more right whales and they were often unhealthy or, that few right whales ever washed ashore or stranded in comparison to other species?
The species of drift whale are not always identified in the historical sources being commonly called simply “whales,” or “a whale.” By the end of the seventeenth- century actual shore whaling was common from the coasts of New Jersey to Cape Cod Bay. In this fishery whales were spotted from lookouts posted along the beaches, and boats were launched to hunt the animals. Again, however, the problem plaguing so many definitive conclusions about these animals and their pre-exploited population levels is that the targeted species are not always positively identified, although records of baleen being harvested suggest that these were E. glacialis.
Off-shore voyages commenced by the early eighteenth- century and these voyages included sperm whaling. By the mid-eighteenth- century fleets of off-shore whaling vessels from a host of small ports were hunting in the Atlantic between the Azores and the Davis Straits as well as into the Caribbean. Joel Asaph Allen, Curator of Birds and Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, summed up this history writing in 1883 that E. glacialis “was lost sight of [by the British] as a commercial animal, except on this side of the Atlantic… it was practically unknown to science , till the researches of Eschricht and Reinhadt, published in 1861, led to its rediscovery.” He noted that until 1861 the species had been generally confounded with B. mysticetus.”
American adoption of the “right whale” in relationship to Eubalaena glacialis stems from the writing of the Massachusetts jurist Paul Dudley (1675-1751), who penned an essay for the Royal Society in 1724-1725 entitled “An Essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the spermaceti whale.” In it he describes “only such whales as are found on the coasts of New England,” including “the Right, or Whalebone Whale.” That Dudley is referring to E. glacialis and not some other species is confirmed by his description: “their scalps are sometimes found covered with thousands of Sea-lice.” These creatures also known as the whale louse, Cyamus ovalis, are a particular type of parasitic crustacean best known to inhabit the barnacle-like callosities distinctive of the Eubalaena species.
Throughout (and importantly to this discussion), Dudley refers to these whales as “right or whale-bone whales.” Dudley’s identification of E. glacialis as the right whale appears to be the origin of the American identification of E. glacialis as the right whale, yet Dudley himself seems to have derived his knowledge of whales from others. His informants included the Reverend Mr. Greenleaf of Yarmouth on Cape Cod and Mr. J. Coffin from the island of Nantucket. The Reverend Greenleaf could certainly have had solid knowledge of whales as the region of Cape Cod Bay in his immediate vicinity was the location of some of the earliest American whaling and also where, starting around 1662, portions of every whale “as by God’s providence shall be cast upon any of the shores of this Township” were allotted by law for the financial support of the clergy. One would imagine that he had firsthand knowledge as being a clergyman it was in his vested interest to do so.
Curiously, there was no guarantee that the whales encountered in Cape Cod Bay would be E. glacialis however. Humpbacks, minke whales and even fin whales were also hunted if they made an appearance. Dudley’s examination and description of the sperm whale is far more detailed than that of E. glacialis, and significantly he references that these are “more gentle fish” that “seldom fight with their tales.” He then goes on to describe the destruction and danger common to hunting “the whalebone whale.”
The wonderful, and even prodigious Strength of this Creature, which lies principally in their tails, that being both their offensive and defensive weapon. Many Instances of this Kind I have had from credible Persons, who were eye-witnesses; I will mention but a few. A boat has been cut down from top to bottom with the Tail of a Whale, as if cut with a Saw, the Clap-boards scarce splintered, tho’ the Gunnel upon the Top is of tough Wood. Another has had the Stem, or Stern-post of about three Inches through, and of the toughest Wood that can e found… cut off smooth above the Cuddee, without so much as shattering the boat, or drawing the nails of the Clap-boards. An Oar has been cut off with a Stroke upwards, and yet not so much as lifted up out of the Thole-Pin…
The baleen from these animals had been of commercial importance for over six hundred years, even being illustrated by the natural philosopher Ulyssis Aldrovandi (1522-1605) as a discrete product of commerce in his work De Piscibus Libri V, et de Cetis Lib. Unus (Bologna, 1638). Known since the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) who first described it in his Historia Animalium, “mysticeti” was construed by scholars to mean “mustache,” a direct, if apocryphal allusion to the long, hair-like fringes of these baleen plates which are visible as the whales feed. Thus, Western European knowledge of baleen-bearing whales is ancient indeed and naturally that knowledge was carried over to the settlements in the New World. The exploration and ultimate settlement of the coast of New England by Europeans coincided with the advent of European commercial whaling ventures to the Arctic. 1602, the year that Bartholomew Gosnold (1572-1607) visited Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Buzzards Bay was the same year that the English Muscovy Company began whaling around Spitzbergen Island. Over the next two hundred years English, Dutch and other European nations would greatly expand their whaling adventures around Greenland and by the mid-eighteenth- century Americans would be cruising the waters of the Davis Straits as well.
Extensive documentation and description of American whaling is available for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries. In this documentation are hundreds of accounts written by whalemen confirming that right whales of the genus Eubalaena do not float after being killed any more or less than other commonly hunted species like bowhead or sperm whales. In point of fact, they were well known by whalemen to be more likely to sink than other species. In Nimrod of the Sea (New York, 1874), whaleman William Morris Davis wrote: “A peculiar feature in right-whaling is the considerable number which sink upon being killed. This rarely occurs with the sperm whale.” In a classic demonstration of how far removed American whalers had become from the origins of the language that they commonly used, Davis goes on to describe how American right-whalers in the Sea of Okhotsk failed to even recognize the bowhead whale as a species worth hunting. They had forgotten where the term “right whale” had come from and used it solely to describe Eubalaena spp.
Further, these “black whales” were frightfully dangerous to hunt, especially females with calves, and provided less oil of a poorer quality and shorter baleen than bowhead whales, the preferred whale of commerce for European nations from the seventeenth- century and earlier. By the 1830s Americans began targeting black whales on the Northwest Coast and these North Pacific whales were accounted particularly dangerous. Author and whaling master Charles Melville Scammon (1825-1911) called the right whale of the Pacific North-western Coast “the most vicious of their kind.” He was, of course, referring to the animals’ behavior when attacked as, like most whales, these are normally quite placid and inoffensive creatures. He does clearly differentiate between the Bowhead, or Great Polar Whale and the Right Whale of the Northwestern Coast.
Some instances from whalemen’s descriptions where events are completely at odds with the accepted “right whale to catch” definition emphasize the danger of the hunt as well as the unpredictable nature of whether the carcasses will float or not.
The bark Vermont of Mystic, Connecticut, for instance, while right whaling on the Northwest Coast lowered boats for whales forty-eight times between May 13 and July 10, 1844. They only managed to kill seven whales, two of which sank, the remainder of which fought back destroying whale boats and gear, smashing up crew members and ultimately escaping. Another whaleman’s account of right whaling on the Northwest Coast is even more specific: “This day raised a whale ¼ of a mile from the ship. Lowered down and struck him. After a 4 hour tow succeeded in killing him, but he sunk like a stone, lost 50 fathoms of tow line and 5 irons.” The Reverend Henry T. Cheever (1814-1897), writing for the newspaper The Friend in 1849, observed: “These huge Northwest whales are more vicious and less easily approached after they are struck than the whales of other latitudes. It is considered no disgrace to be run away with by one of these jet black fellows.”
By the 1870s, the term “right whaling” was terminology ubiquitous in the fishery for voyages targeting whalebone whales. It was applied equally to bowhead whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Western Arctic as it was to right whaling on the Northwest Coast of North America or to the Brazil Banks. From a commercial or voyage management point of view large slabs of baleen were the target regardless of the species that supplied it. Additionally, while American whalers and whaling agents recognized a difference between the bowhead and the black whale, one having very high quality baleen and one shorter, poorer quality baleen, the species were not completely identified as separate in natural history texts until the middle of the nineteenth-century.
As late as 1880, taxonomists were struggling with what to call these animals. Gabriel E. Manigault, curator of the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, described a whale that entered the harbor at Charleston in his paper “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880,” concluding that “the Black Whale of this coast is now considered to be the same animal as the Biscay Whale.” He goes on to determine that “there can be no doubt that the four specimens of the Black Whale already specified are entirely distinct from B mysticetus and B. australis…” and that these were the animals described by Dudley that were pursued by new England whalers for oil and baleen.
Whaling agents did, however, distinguish carefully between the quality of the oil (commonly termed “train oil,” or “common whale oil”) and baleen of bowhead and right whales in the marketplace further adding weight to the argument that “right” connotes whalebone gained from true and proper whales and nothing more. In an 1855 business letter relating to the sale of two lots of whalebone New Bedford whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr. noted that “Polar” baleen taken from bowhead whales was worth more in the market than “South Seas” baleen taken from black whales: “Sperm Oil is now selling here for 180 cents pr Gall, North West Whale Oil 72 cents, Polar bone 45 cents, So. Sea do. [ditto] about 40 cents.”
In 1908, Joel Asaph Allen (1838-1921) wrote an article for the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History entitled “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies.” It is a thorough summary of the history of right whale systematics, an immensely convoluted subject, but one in which he clearly describes the process of identifying and describing Eubalaena glacialis scientifically. His work established a strong platform from which to think about these problematic animals and his fine synopsis, “Recognized as different from the Greenland whale by whalers of the 17th and 18th centuries,” outlines many of the most important sources in English that serve as the basis of the scientific understanding of Eubalaena spp.
He quotes the earliest printed references including those of Thomas Edge (English Muscovy Company factor, fl. 1611-1622) whose “Description of seuerall [sic] sorts of Whales and the manner of killing them” includes the Sarda which is characterized as being smaller than the Greenland whale having shorter baleen and producing much less oil. This is explained much later by Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809-1894), a Belgian zoologist and paleontologist who, along with the French paleontiologist Paul Gervais (1816-1879), wrote the major work of whale anatomy, Ostéographie des cétacés vivants et fossiles (Paris, 1880). Van Beneden noted: “There exist two species of true whales (Right Whales) in the North Atlantic and on the coasts of Greenland, – one the common whale, called also the Greenland whale, and the other the Sarde or Nordcaper.” He noted also that the latter “is the same species which visits the coasts of Europe in winter and the coasts of America in summer.” Hans Egede (1686-1758), the eighteenth-century Danish missionary to Greenland, is also quoted but he underscores that European whalers did not purposefully pursue E. glacialis: “His fat is tougher and harder than that of the Great-bay Whale (bowhead); neither are his barders or bones (baleen) so long and valuable, for which reason he is neglected.” Egede makes another significant observation, being “informed on good authority” that the Greenland whale is “de store Havle af den rette sort, som har store barder,” (the large whales of the right sort, having large whalebone). Perhaps most significant of all is a passage “traced back to the celebrated Kongespeil (Mirror of Royalty) of the 12th century where we learn that this “sletbag” of the old Icelanders was really a whalebone whale (and therefore as a whalebone whale with a finless back, a right-whale).”
The scientific nomenclature and systematics, while useful, are of lesser importance to the analysis of why the animal today known as the “right whale” came to be known thus. More important is an analysis of the language of the literature written about the animal, and the language of whalemen and Allen gives a good background. For instance, he quotes the eighteenth-century chroniclers of the American colonies, William Douglass (ca. 1700-1752), and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813). Douglas in particular gave an early account of the New England whale fishery that seems completely at odds with most modern descriptive attributes of E. glacialis:
The New England true whale is the same with the European North-cape whales, are not easily killed being agile and very wild: the Dutch do not fish them… the whale-bone whales killed upon the coast of New England, Labrador, and the entrance to Davis-straits, are smaller; do not yield exceeding 120 to 130 barrels of oil, and of nine feet bone 140 lb. wt. they are wilder more agile and do fight.
Douglass clearly differentiates the right whales by geographical locale and emphasizes the commercial value of the bowhead whale significantly calling it the “true whale”:
The most beneficial is the black whale, whale-bone whale or true whale, as they call it, in Davis’s-straits, in N. lat. 70º and upwards. They are very large, some yield 150 puncheons, being 400 or 500 barrels of oil, and bone of eighteen feet and upwards; they are a heavy loggy fish, and so do not fight.
By interpreting this definition or description of right whales generally as best represented by authors of the period as bowhead whales, the idea is upheld that the whales are slow and easily captured as well as being a preferred commercial prey species.
To in turn apply that definition to Eubalaena glacialis and ascribe the current plight of the imperiled population of animals to overhunting for the reasons described seems misleading. As the above passages suggest, to many commercial whaling nations, Eubalaena glacialis was, in fact, the wrong whale to hunt. If American colonists hunted these animals, which they undoubtedly did, their endangered status and lack of recovery after two hundred years of not being hunted at all can only be explained and understood by means other than researching historical records to determine the number of whales taken. The historical records while unequivocal on several points of geography and species targeted, ultimately seem insufficient to explain the suppressed and slow recovery of the species. Hence the significance of current research into the DNA of E. glacialis. The plight of Eubalaena glacialis is perhaps best understood by looking much further back in time, specifically ten thousand years ago when a major mega-fauna collapse in North America saw the elimination of many terrestrial species of large mammals. Perhaps there is an analog in this whale species that lives so close to the coast.
The language of American whalemen is revealing and lends itself to adoption by convenience as opposed to any specific intent as far as hunting is concerned. On May 21, 1769, Captain Peter Pease set sail onboard the schooner Squirrel from Bedford Village in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on a whaling cruise to the Davis Straits. On the 24 of June around latitude 63º north he recorded that he “saw three right whales.” On June 27 he recorded “at four past meridian spoke with [Captain] Nathaniel Coleman, “a cutting a seven foot bone whail.” Throughout this cruise Pease specifically records seeing finbacks, humpbacks, spermaceti and right whales. That he made a distinction between “right whales” and “seven-foot bone whales” suggests that he was describing two different kinds of animals yet in later entries he refers to right whales and “seven foot four inch bone whails” in the same entries (ODHS #458B) Significantly, Pease mentions seeing several other vessels and he cruised in company with one or another colonial American vessel throughout his voyage. It must have been a good whaling ground.
Likewise, Peleg Folger of Nantucket in 1754 described three separate species of whales commonly hunted on the coast of Labrador. These included the right whale, the spermaceti whale and the humpback whale. It is unclear whether he is describing the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) or the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), or whether he even distinguishes the two.
1. A Right whale is a very Large fish (for the most part); they are somewhat hollowing on their back, being all Slick and Smooth and having no hump at all as other whales; their bone (of which is made Stays and hoop’d petticoats) doth grow in their mouth, the upper end or Butt growing in the Gum of the upper jaw. Their tongue is monstrous Large and will commonly make a Tun of Oyl; their bone is from 3 to 12 feet long according to the bigness of the whale and is all the teeth they have. They have two Spoutholes and make a forked Spout whereby they are distinguished from other whales at a Distance.
In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s Ishmael calls right whales “inferior creatures,” and “commonly disdained” by sperm whalers. Indeed, his character Stubb describes the right whale as a “foul lump of lard,” hardly attributes consistent with “the right whale to catch.” That right whales were a major target species of 18th and 19th century American whalers is obvious. That they were the preferred species for anything other than cheap oil and generally marketable baleen remains doubtful. When Thomas Welcome Roys finally penetrated the Behring Straits in 1848 he ushered in the great era of American whaling in the Western Arctic. This fishery was universally described as “right whaling” despite that fact that it was a bowhead fishery almost exclusively.
In the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript (June 13, 1854) an article appeared that “the Nantucket Inquirer announces that a large right whale was seen near that island Friday spouting lustily. Preparations were made to attack him on Saturday morning, but at that time he was nowhere to be seen. Our Nantucket friends were never very successful at capturing right whales. If the animal wanted to be caught and cut up, he should have come to New Bedford.” The great fortunes of New Bedford whaling agents were made hunting Eubalaena species. These, however, were not the North Atlantic right whales that 19th century whalemen were hunting, they were southern right whales and North Pacific right whales, two entirely different species. By cruising in the South Atlantic along the coasts of South America and Africa masters could fill up their vessels and return to New Bedford within two years, often sooner. This exploitation of a large population resource allowed New Bedford to market a great deal of cheap oil and keep the markets trading while their longer sperm whaling voyages were at sea.
By the time most of the important New England whaling ports came to their height North Atlantic right whales were hardly to be seen. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792 that Americans were led into whaling by “the whales which presented themselves on their coasts…” and that these whales, “being infested, retired from the coast.” By “infested” Jefferson is referring to being harassed by hunters. Paradoxically he goes on to describe sperm whales “of a different species from that of Greenland, which alone had hitherto been known in commerce.” Greenland whales have always been synonymous with Balaena mysticetus and it would be extraordinary indeed if bowhead whales were encountered on the coasts of New England. Importantly, however, Jefferson then makes the distinction that Yankee whalers “found a third species of whale” on the Coast of Brazil which they called the “black or Brazil whale.” This is Eubalaena australis, the southern right whale. Whether Thomas Jefferson was truly well informed about the details of the Yankee whale fishery is doubtful as other 18th century sources indicate that local Cape Cod whalers did call these animals right whales, but they also called them true whales, bone whales, black whales and North-capers.
Frederick W. True (1858-1914), Head Curator of the Department of Biology at the Smithsonian Museum, for instance, wrote in 1904, “The Atlantic right whale known to American whalers was called by them the black whale in allusion to its color.” He includes in his “Chapter III-A Review of Cope’s and Scammon’s Species” the following synopsis of nomenclature: “Genus BALÆNA Linnæus. 1. Balæna cisarctica Cope. 1865. “The Black Whale of the Whalers of our Coast.” which Cope believed “was an animal distinguishable from the species frequenting the coasts of Europe, and not because it was a rare American form unknown to whalers and others whose business was with the sea.” Cope believed that this species (late identified as E. glacialis) “may readily occur on the European coast ; and is no doubt allied to or the same as the species pursued by the Biscayan whalers.” Cope’s observations helped to solidify the idea that one distinct species of black whale was endemic to the North Atlantic.
Cope’s theory of the range and distinction of species as far as E. glacialis is concerned remains debatable today. As the population of E glacialis is small (currently about 450 animals) estimates of its possible pre-hunted range are currently being researched one American whaleman was unequivocal in his ideas about the animal:
“The Black, or Right Whale is generally found in high latitudes from 30 degrees to 55 degrees both north and south. They are scarcely ever found any great distance from the land; and in the calving season the females seek out some sandy bay where the water is shoal, smooth and clear. Here they keep their young until able to face the rough weather outside. They generally go in pairs & are very vicious, especially when protecting their young, they will fight while life remains in them, & a great many lives are lost in capturing them… they disappear in the winter seasons.”
In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence indicates that “right whale” is a generic term for the Mysticeti collectively. Further, the description of these as being “the right whales to catch” appears to have been derived from English sources and applies solely to Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead whale. The genera Eubalaena and its three species have long been known as the “black whale” having very different commercial properties from the bowhead. By applying the definition of “the right whale to catch” to Eubalaena glacialis historians, scientists and the public have been led to believe that the wholesale targeting of this species is the reason for its currently small, almost stagnant population. Not only does the historical record not definitively support this, but current research into the DNA of this species points in a very different direction as well. These animals were not particularly targeted by early Basque whalers, Dutch commercial whalers, or by the English, who each sustained very large and successful commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic for well over one hundred years. The American whalers, who targeted humpbacks, sperm whales and bowhead whales as well as black whales, are thus credited with the near extirpation of an entire species in less than 100 years, a scenario that seems unlikely for the short period that organized, sophisticated whaling was taking place in the coastal waters of the colonies. For all of these reasons, it remains vital to preserve whatever populations of Eubalaena glacialis exist. Renaming them “black whales” may help to pare down the connotations of language further enabling our understanding of the creatures and freeing us to seek new answers to their complex population predicament.
P.J. van Beneden, Histoire Naturelle de la baleine des Basques (Balaena biscayensis),
(Mémoire présenté à la Classe des sciences dans la séance du 11 May 1886, p. 27.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, eleventh edition (1911), distinguishes between bowhead whales and right whales calling the former “right whales,” and the latter “black whales.”
See: Richard Ellis, The Book of Whales (New York, 1980); Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995); “Right Whales: Worldwide Status,” The Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Cambridge, 2001), etc.
William E. Schevill and Karen E. Moore specify the right whale as peculiarly American, “the nordkaper, or right whale of American usage.” Schevill and Moore, “Townsend’s unmapped North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). In: Breviora: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Number 476 (29 April 1983), p. 4.
Flower, Sir William Henry, Essays on Museums and other Subjects Connected with Natural History (New York, 1898), p. 194.
Ibid. p. 194.
See: Elizabeth Ingalls, Whaling Prints in the Francis B. Lothrop Collections (Salem, MA: 1987), pp. 21-66 for a large selection of pictorial works of English whales and whaling. Many of these historical prints have captions many of which differentiate the spermaceti whale from other whales but do not separate right whales into species. Eubalaena glacialis does not appear in Englaish pictorial sources as a hunted species.
William Scoresby, Jr. An Account of the Arctic Regions, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1820), pp. 449-450.
See also: William Scoresby “Account of the Balaena Mysticetus, or Great Northern or Greenland Whale.” In: Memoirs of the Wernerian Society, Vol. 1 (1813), p. 578. Scoresby’s description of baleen is exceptionally detailed: “To the upper jaw is attached the substance called whalebone, which is straight in some individuals, and in others convex. The laminae or blades are not all of equal length : neither are the largest exactly in the middle of the series, but somewhat nearer the throat ; from this point they become gradually shorter each way. In each side of the mouth are about 200 lamina? of whalebone. They are not perfectly flat; for besides the longi tudinal curvature already mentioned, they are curved trans versely. The largest laminae are from 10 to 14 feet in length, very rarely 15 feet in length. The breadth of the largest at the thick ends, or where they are attached to the jaw, is about a foot. The Greenland fishers estimate the size of the whale by the length of the whalebone : where the whalebone is six feet long, then the whale is said to be a size fish. In suckers, or young whales still under the protection of the mother, the whalebone is only a few inches long. The whalebone is immediately covered by the two under lips, the edges of which, when the mouth is shut, overlap the upper part in a squamous manner.”
Henry William Dewhurst, The Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834).
Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales.” In: Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May 1, 1883).
A. Howard Clark, “The Whale Fishery. 1. – History and Present Condition of the Fishery.” In: The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Prepared by George Brown Goode, Section V, History and Methods of the Fisheries, (Washington, 1887), p. 15.
Reeves, Randall R., and Robert D. Kenney, “Baleen Whales: Right Whales and Allies.” In: Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation, edited by George A. Feldhamer., Bruce C. Thompson and Joseph A. Chapman. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 425.
William Henry Flower, surgeon and zoologist with a special interest in comparative anatomy, created a hierarchy of commercial value as far as “whalebone” or baleen was concerned putting rorqual baleen at the lowest value and bowhead baleen at the highest: “there is a gradual transition, through the rorquals or finners, the humpbacks, the southern right whales, up to the Greenland whale, which exhibits this structure in its greatest perfection, both for the purposes it serves in the animal economy, and for the uses to which it has been applied by man.” Essays on museums and other subjects connected with natural history (New York and London, 1898).
James Travis Jenkins (1876- ) was Superintendent of the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries Committee, regulating the fisheries on the Welsh and English coasts until 1943.
Toolika Rastogi, et al. “Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic.” In: Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 82, No. 10 (October 2004), pp. 1647–1654.
“An 1849 statement on the habits of right whales by Captain Daniel McKenzie of New Bedford.” In The American Neptune, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April, 1954), p. 139-141. The letter was in preparation for Maury’s important “Whale Chart of the World,” published in 1852.
, William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill, “Observations of right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, in Cape Cod waters.” In: Fishery Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1982), p. 875.
Robert Montgomery Martin, History of the British Colonies: Possessions in Africa and Austral-Asia Vol. 4 (London, 1835), p. 363, “the black whale is found in abundance along the coast of New South Wales.”
Rhys Richards, “Southern Right Whales: Original Global Stocks.” IWC Workshop on Right Whale Stocks. Capetown, March 1998.
Glover M. Allen, Monographs of the Natural History of New England: The Whalebone Whales of New England, Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (September, 1916), p. 145.
Joel Asaph Allen, “The Right Whale of the North Atlantic,” in Science , Vol. 1, No. 21 (June 29, 1883), p. 598.
Paul Dudley, “An essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the sperma ceti whale,” in: Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 33 (1724-1725, pp. 256-257.
John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver, Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America’s First Whalemen (Yarmouthport, MA 2004), pp. 77-78.
Ibid, p. 136
Dudley, pp. 263-264.
The dearth of descriptive accounts of Eubalaena glacialis from the American whaler’s viewpoint is because little descriptive writing survives from the greatest period of their exploitation, the late 17th and 18th centuries. The best accounts of the behavior of hunted right whales come from whalemen who were hunting the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) although some 17th century European sources give important insights into right whale behavior.
Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874), p. 69.
For a complete analysis of the evolution of the nomenclature identifying Eubalaena glacialis as distinct from Balaena mysticetus see: Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales…” in American Museum of Natural History Bulletin No. 4 (May 1, 1883). For a more up to date synopsis of cetacean nomenclature see: Philip Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966).
G.E. Manicault, “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880.” In: Proceedings of the Elliot Society (September 1885), p. 100-101.
Old Dartmouth Historical Society Mss 18, Bourne Letter book, 1854-1856
William Henry Flower, ed. Recent Memoirs on the Cetacea by Professors Eschricht, Reinhardt and Lilljeborg (London, 1866), p. 13.
Joel Asaph Allen, “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies,” from Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XXIV, Art. XVIII (April 8, 1908), pp. 281-284.
William Douglass in his book A summary, historical and political, of the first planting, progressive improvements, and present state of the British settlements in North-America (Boston, 1755)
“Our genetic data from the single historic right whale bone that we have identified (from about 1565) suggests that even before commercial whaling began on this species in the WN Atlantic they had very low genetic variation. Our current theory has been that they must have suffered (like you suggest) during previous ice ages, which might have eliminated critical feeding or calving areas.” Private correspondence from Brenna McLeod, Ph.D of Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. See also: Brenna Mcleod, et al. “DNA profile of a sixteenth century western North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).” In: Conservation Genetics, Vol. 11 (2010), p. 339.
Remarkable Observations: The Whaling Journal of Peleg Folger, 1751-54. Edited by Thomas Philbrick. Nantucket, MA: Mill Hill Press, 2006, p. 44.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (New York, 1851), chapter 73.
American whalers in the Western Arctic also targeted gray whales.
A comparative survey in Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery (Waltham, 1876) of the returns of Nantucket and New Bedford between 1823 and 1855 clearly indicates that New Bedford vessels returned vastly more whale oil and whale bone than Nantucket vessels, even at the height of the Nantucket sperm whale fishery. Whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr., among the most successful American whaling agents ever suggested that Nantucketers were nto as interested in right whaling as they were in sperm whaling. “We don’t think much of Sperm whalemen from Nantucket for the North whaling…” (Jonathan Bourne, Old Dartmouth Historical Society MSS 18, Letter book, 1858-1859, July 1, 1858).
Frederick W. True, The Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic…(Washington, 1904), p. 249.
Ibid., p. 78-79
Daniel C. Whitfield, journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Massachusetts, 1856-1859. KWM #1033. Held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.