Pacific Postcards

The Two Sides of Whaling (Ethan Vicente)

Whale oil was one of the key ingredients in the industrial revolution that changed how the world operated. In the mid-1800s demand for this oil sent superpowers and laymen alike to the Pacific to get involved in this global economy. My source depicts a dead whale held by a whaling vessel that looks hardly longer than the whale itself, with two men smiling over the edge of the vessel. Though there is no exact date or location on the image, the fact that it was taken near California means it was likely from the southern edge of what is now known as the state of California. The image can be seen as gruesome but also telling of the scope of whaling during this time.

Chapter Four in David Igler’s The Great Ocean focuses on the mass hunting of marine animals in the Pacific starting in the mid-1800s. Specifically focusing on gray whales, Igler emphasizes how whale oil affected the entire American economy as well drew interest from powerful countries across the globe. This oil was used to lubricate factory machinery in the North that then went on to impact the production of cotton in the South. Of course, this now-forbidden practice of whaling was very widespread. Igler makes sure to detail the cruelty and also the intense human risk that went into harvesting the whale oil. Hunting ships would travel to the spots on the coastline where the whales would go and nurse their young, then strike knowing that the mother whale would never abandon the calf and would become an easy target. Not only were the actions of the whalers cruel towards the whales and the ecosystem of the Pacific, but whaling could be deadly to the crews on those whaling ships. Igler writes how whales could cripple ships simply with their tail, mangling crewmembers and potentially sinking ships. Death numbers were not closely tracked, but given that every part of obtaining the whale oil held a risk for death, there was a significant amount. This kind of “carnage” was completely detached from those buying and using the oil in the East. There were hardly any actions that were taken against whaling over the next century. No one voting on these potential policies had seen the things that were often left out at sea. Plus, whale oil was fueling industrialization in the United States and hence their imperial expansion. The pursual of power took precedence with those who could have changed the whaling industry. The decades of whaling nearly brought some whale species to extinction.

My source does not show any of the disturbing actions detailed by Igler. In the image, the two members of the crew are smiling over the dead body of the whale. This says a lot about the experience of the men on board the whale-hunting ships. Men saw consistent accidents where their crewmates would be seriously injured or killed, yet continued to go out for months at sea collecting barrels of oil. Igler’s chapter on this provides a personal account of the chaos that was often brought on by hunting whales. They tell stories from Magdalena Bay, a place this picture very well could have been taken, where “a young man was killed by a whale . . . and he sunk before they could reach him” (Igler 119). In the picture, despite only seeing part of the whale it does not seem to be that much smaller than the boat it is attached to. If it had hit the boat just in the wrong spot the whale could have staved in the boat. The happiness shown in the photo over killing the whale shows how they had become completely detached from the harsh reality of their actions. Igler would certainly agree with this. Igler cites a first-hand account from a whaling ship that says the “men were undoubtedly ‘happy,’ . . . because each pot of rendered blubber translated into more pay” (Igler 123). The sailors appear to be proud of what they’ve done, but often they were not going on grand hunts for monster whales. They preyed on the calves and used them as live bait to capture the mothers. Igler’s interpretation of whaling is very negative. Besides acknowledging how important whale oil was in the world economy, Igler paints a dark picture of that part of the Pacific.

Another author, Fichter, may look at this photograph differently. His work, So Great a Profit, looks at the United States with a larger focus on their trade with other countries. In the first chapter, Fichter starts by detailing the role the trading of tea played in the buildup to the American Revolutionary War. Many American historians focus on the taxation of tea as one of the final straws for the colonists, but Fichter focuses on the monopoly the East India Company held. He asserts that many Americans at the time felt a monopoly was a slight against liberty. They saw the tyranny the Company had executed in places like Bengal, and even “equated monopoly with monarchy and slavery” (Fichter 20). This anti-monopoly sentiment continued long after the Revolution was over. For example, this thought appeared in 1832 where President Andrew Jackson stopped the creation of the Bank of the United States (Fichter 23). Eventually, the American East India trade began and left the English East India Company in shambles, proving that free trade could be far more effective and efficient. Later in his eighth chapter, Fichter focuses on the United States’ trade relationship with China in the early nineteenth century. Free trade principles in the Indies allowed the U.S. to become the majority presence for trade. Fichter discusses how the US had many different options for trade, and for a place far away like China, the returns from the trip had to be heavily profitable to make the journey worthwhile. Even though it was a long journey, they replaced other European shipping companies because they were able to make the trip more times than could the Europeans. Americans would pack their ships with as much value as possible, and transporting silver became the only viable option. However, it was not an ideal one. Americans were very eager to find a replacement good and tried to mostly with fur and sandalwood (Fichter 206). In the Pacific Northwest, where the fur trade was the booming item, free trade also allowed Americans to dominate, where two-thirds of the ships arriving were theirs. Only after the end of the East India Company’s China-trade monopoly did British merchants overtake Americans in the number of vessels arriving in the Northwest (Fichter 213). At the end of the chapter, Fichter brings up the opium trade, a good that could be considered even more harmful to the world at large than whale oil. Fichter acknowledges the Chinese concern for the amount of opium that was being brought in and consumed in their state but does not focus on its negative effects. Instead, the focus is more on the British and Americans utilizing its very efficient value-per-volume dynamic. Fichter writes, “[Opium] was compact, unlike furs or sandalwood, making it easier to replace a shipful of opium with a shipful of tea (Fichter 230). Through his language on the opioid trade, it is clear Fichter is writing purely to explain the economic effects of his topics and the United States’ involvement with them.

Looking at the image through Fichter’s eyes, the men on the boat have good reason to be smiling. Fichter writes extensively about the development of the United States trade from its birth as a nation. Despite devoting a significant amount of time to the trade of fur and opioids, there is little space taken to explain the negative consequences of such industries. He does explain how and why the Chinese government was forced to take action against opium but does not make attempts to portray the opium trade as a harmful practice overall. On top of this, there is no mention of the often cruel practices that were used to obtain the large levels of fur being traded that he discusses. Deriving from this reading, there is reason to believe Fichter would have hailed the hunting of whales for their oil as a grand boost to the United States economy. His more detached opinion on the US economy may not think as harshly of the massive whaling industry. Fichter’s perspective on the photo would be that the seamen deserve to be happy and that they are doing good in supporting the US. Fichter is surely aware of the part whale oil played in both the U.S. economy and in bringing the U.S. to higher economic relevance in the nineteenth century. Whale oil could be used as both a lubricant as well as a tool to produce light. Because of this, sperm and whale oil was now heavily sought after for use in factories and also for personal use. England, a country Fichter frequently discusses, had their whaling industry, but as the United States’ started to boom, their’s declined, and England again pushed U.S. trade to greater heights (Igler 118). The United States became the world’s most successful supplier for whale oil; “by 1850, some seven hundred US ships in the Pacific comprised over three-quarters of the world’s whaling fleet” (Igler 118). My source does not show the scope of the whaling industry, but it can be assumed that the sailors depicted were happily involved with it and reaped the rewards of the mass amount of attention brought on the American Pacific coast.

Both Igler and Fichter would acknowledge the widespread impact that whaling had on the United States. Its significance is undeniable. However, based on their works, the two authors would look at my source, and the industry as a whole, in different ways. Even though Igler does take time to go over the economic impact of whaling, he spends far more time detailing the process of whaling itself and emphasizing the cruelty and environmental effects of the industry. Had Fichter discussed whaling, he would have gone into a lot more detail on the role it played in creating economic relationships for the United States. This dynamic is shown by how each author discusses the fur trade. Fichter never mentions how the furs were obtained, focusing more on their value as a good being imported to China (Fichter 210). Igler however, takes care to show the brutality of that industry, comparing the “taking of fur seals” to “an industrial slaughterhouse” (Igler 112). Fichter stays away from this firey language in his writing. The title of the image, “Dead whale lashed to the side of a whaling vessel”, leans more towards Igler’s writing. Although not exactly firey, the title is evocative and very physical. Hearing about a creature being treated purely as a resource evokes a more emotional response like that which Igler seems to be attempting to evoke through his work. Maybe Fichter would have titled the photo regarding the bigger economic picture with something like “whaling vessel brings in a whale for oil”.

Whaling brought a lot of prosperity to the United States but also crippled the population of whales in the Pacific. My source represents both sides of that with the smiling sailors juxtaposed with the whale belly up alongside the boat. Even though major whaling practices have been gone for almost 200 years, whale populations are still recovering. On the other hand, having a strong economy is key to holding power, and if whaling helped spring the United States into a strong position then it may have been worth it for some people. While there is no excuse for whaling today, the gains that the U.S. earned from whaling are no small matter, and the trade played a large role in developing the U.S. into a recognized power.

Works Cited

Fichter, James R. So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central Accessed 7 March 2021.

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