fbpx skip to Main Content

Guest Blog: South Georgia Whaling Part 3 – The Whaling Industry

 

Whale catcher alongside in an unknown mainland port
Whale catcher alongside in an unknown mainland port

The story of modern whaling – why it grew so prolifically – is a controversial and important narrative to tell as the world today continues to struggle with exploiting its dwindling resources. Whale oil was a global commodity that grew in demand in the 18th century. Modern whaling in the 20th century, fuelled by the rise of hydrogenated fat use in Europe after World War II, increased demand until the early 1960s. Often a hidden history, Britain played a key role in this industrial story and today there is still a strong connection between where the whaling happened (South Georgia), and where most of the whalers came from (Scotland). At a local level, the whale oil industry brought jobs and money into small, Scottish coastal fishing communities. At a global level, human industrialisation exploited the natural world. Along with cotton/slavery, textiles and other products, whaling competed for the claim of being the world’s first global industry.

Whale on the end of a line.
Whale on the end of a line.

Industrial whaling on South Georgia was brief, elapsing between two technical innovations. In 1864 the invention of the deck mounted explosive harpoon and later, the development of pelagic whaling. Huge floating whale factories – freeing the process of the catch from land stations, government quotas and taxes. On South Georgia over 175,000 whales were processed between 1904 and 1964, producing 9 million barrels of oil. These figures are shocking to us today, but it is important to remember that production of such fine oil from other means did not exist.

Before the advent of plastic, whalebone was used for making brushes, corsets, umbrellas, whips, and walking canes. Later, whale oil was the prized commodity. Originally used to illuminate lamps, it was then used in the production of soap.  Blubber yielded 50-80% oil by weight, bones 10–70%, and meat 2-8%. With the development of new technologies, whale oil became crucial in the manufacture of leather, varnish, jute, and linoleum. It was also a key component of glycerine, used to make weapons in the First and Second World Wars.

Oil storage tanks on the edge of Leith Harbour.
Oil storage tanks on the edge of Leith Harbour.

With the development of the hydrogenation process, turning liquid oil into a solid, its use in food products increased after World War II. Hydrogenated fats in margarine, biscuits and cakes where widely eaten across Europe and the USA. A large profit was also made from a by-product called guano, a residue left from processing meat and bone for oil. Dried whale meat-meal and bone-meal were stored and transported in sacks across the globe, used as cattle feed and fertiliser.

By the end of whaling in South Georgia, the petrochemical industry took over. As more efficient alternatives to whale oil were found, whaling was in decline. Severe pressure had also built up on Antarctic whale stocks. By the 1950s blue whales were very rare, forcing catchers to sail ever further in search of Antarctic whales. Kerosene and petroleum replaced the need for whale oil in fuel and illumination, and vegetable oils replaced the need for hydrogenated fats in foods.

Attitudes towards whale oil were also changing. Organisations such as Greenpeace began confronting whaling ships in the North Pacific, raising awareness among the public of whaling practises. In 1964, Grytviken whaling station closed for good. When whaling ended, the whalers thought they could go home for a couple of years and whale populations would recover. Obviously, we now know that is not the case.

The South Georgia Museum is full of unusual objects. Being located in the centre of a whaling station is not something people are familiar with. At first glance some objects and images jump out as being barbaric and scary but there are human stories here that many visitors can connect with. We feel it important that the controversial history of whaling is told and to highlight the ordinary men that worked on the island. Men working to make a living. Honest work, like ship building or coal mining.

Guard dog.
Guard dog.

Run by British companies with a largely Scottish workforce, the whaling industry attracted many working-class men with the promise of adventure and competitive wages. Now, only a dwindling number of men survive that have first-hand memories of this industry, an integral part of Scottish social history. They are the last generation to be able to share their stories, knowledge and personal collections before they are lost forever. It is important we capture and preserve these first-hand experiences of the industry while we still can.

My favourite objects in the museum are ones that look quite unremarkable but make a powerful connection to the past and this industry. On one wall we have a short account written by an ex-whaler; ‘A whalers 10 commandments’ – it starts in an expected way, Thou shall not steal,….but then goes onto say….Thou shall not complain about the mail, Thou shall not turn thy nose at meat balls’. It makes me laugh; I love it. We still complain about the same things on South Georgia in 2024. The mincemeat we get is quite frankly, inedible.

Due to its remoteness, many potential visitors will never get to visit South Georgia, so our aim is to make the collections more accessible through a greatly enhanced digital presence. We are currently working on a big project to tell the hidden history of British whaling and the connection to South Georgia. Our aim is to create a living, growing digital time capsule where veterans of the whaling industry, their families and communities can come together to contribute and share their story with a wider audience in one place. We’d like to create a digital portal that will be story based, highlighting human connections, acknowledging the controversies, and capturing a sense of place and community.

To find out more about the Whalers’ Memory Bank please visit the website.

https://sgmuseum.gs/memorybank/

Back To Top
Skip to content