Dipping into weird world of leviathans
A Savage History: Whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans
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.