Dip­ping into weird world of leviathans

A Sav­age His­tory: Whal­ing in the Pa­cific and South­ern Oceans

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ka­t­rina Gul­liver

By John New­ton New South, 310pp, $49.99 (HB)

THIS is a rather odd book, not quite a mis­cel­lany but not a straight nar­ra­tive ei­ther. In a con­ver­sa­tional style, John New­ton be­gins by ask­ing the reader to imag­ine they are on the crew of a whale­boat, about to make their first catch. For this de­scrip­tion, he leans heav­ily on the most fa­mous whal­ing story, Her­man Melville’s Moby-Dick, to which he re­turns through­out.

The an­cient Greeks used whale prod­ucts, prob­a­bly gained from beached whales. But the Basques were the first group to en­gage in or­gan­ised whale-hunt­ing. By the 1300s, the Basques in small boats were chas­ing whales across the At­lantic as far as New­found­land.

Later, Europe’s great age of ex­plo­ration in­cluded dis­cov­er­ing new and use­ful types of whales. The com­pet­ing na­tions learned from each other in terms of whal­ing tech­niques and it was typ­i­cal for a whale­boat to have sev­eral na­tion­al­i­ties rep­re­sented among its crew.

Whal­ing cul­ture also de­vel­oped dis­tinctly from naval and mer­chant ship­ping tra­di­tions. The Dutch had a term for their chief har­pooner, the specksyn­der (lit­er­ally, fat cut­ter), who was es­sen­tially co-cap­tain of the voy­age. This word mi­grated to English as speck­sioneer. (This cu­ri­ous fact we are told twice, the kind of rep­e­ti­tion that makes this more a book for oc­ca­sional dip­ping into than con­sum­ing in one go).

While broadly chrono­log­i­cal, the nar­ra­tive di­gresses into var­i­ous anec­dotes of peo­ple in­volved to some greater or lesser de­gree in the whal­ing in­dus­try, and a few of th­ese sto­ries that New­ton says ‘‘ de­serve to be told’’ or are ‘‘ worth men­tion­ing’’ prob­a­bly aren’t.

The de­sign of the book makes this more an­noy­ing be­cause the main nar­ra­tive is in­ter­rupted by sep­a­rate short pieces run­ning across sev­eral pages, mak­ing it much like try­ing to read a long story in a mag­a­zine where you have to skip through to the back to pick up the con­tin­u­a­tion of your ar­ti­cle. Th­ese short pieces are also printed on a grainy grey back­ground, which makes it dif­fi­cult the read the black text. Some of the pieces in­clude such ir­rel­e­vant asides that I was wish­ing New­ton would hurry up and get back on the boat.

But the im­por­tance of whal­ing to the his­tory of the Pa­cific is rich and worth­while. This book brings home the ex­tent to which the early colony of NSW was bound to the whal­ing busi­ness. Five of the 11 ships of the Third Fleet, which set off in 1791, were owned by a whal­ing busi­ness. Up to this point, whal­ing com­pa­nies had been strug­gling against the claim of the East In­dia Com­pany, which (in the­ory at least) pro­hib­ited oth­ers from whal­ing in the Pa­cific.

But Sam En­derby struck a deal with the crown, whereby his com­pany’s whale ships would de­liver con­victs and sup­plies to Syd­ney, af­ter which they were al­lowed to go whal­ing in the Pa­cific. In­deed, as New­ton de­scribes it, on this voy­age the whale ship cap­tains spot­ted so many prospec­tive quar­ries off the coast of NSW they could barely un­load the con­victs fast enough to get out on the hunt. The whale in­dus­try be­came es­sen­tial to the econ­omy of NSW, un­til the gold rush.

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