Pacific Postcards

Whaling in the Pacific (Rafael Perez)

Whaling in the Pacific

The historical records we have of American Pacific history dates back hundreds of years. Much of the knowledge we have about the Pacific stems from trade and commerce. One of the main animals that was hunted in the Pacific for not only food, but also to make clothes and extract oil, was whales. Proof of this historical fact is contained in a picture from 1846, of two men on an American whaling vessel with a whale that they killed. This photograph helps to visualize the practice of whaling, which was once thought of as a safe and ethical way to attain resources, but today is banned in almost every country in the world. Whaling historically was intertwined with trade, which was one of the main narratives of American Pacific beaches.

The image seen above relates a lot to the trade and commerce in the Pacific during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The image clearly depicts two men smiling while holding onto the whale they killed. They are most likely smiling because in this time period, catching a whale was a very profitable venture. The title of the image is “Dead Whale Lashed to the Side of a Whaling Vessel”, and  the caption below the image says, “Dead Whale, Showing Interesting Portions of His Anatomy, Lying Along Side Whaling Vessel”. These describe what is depicted in the image very well, but do not connect it to the whaling industry or the global economy at that time. However, this image relates a lot to the global economy in the Pacific during that time period because whale oil was a huge part of trade, and American whaling vessels, like the one depicted above, were a main factor in this trade. 

To understand whaling and the ecological risks of reducing the whale population, we first need to understand how and why they are essential to an ecosystem. Whales feed deep down in the ocean and as they come up to the surface to breathe they circulate nutrients that help other organisms thrive. The main beneficiary of these nutrients is phytoplankton. Phytoplankton need these nutrients to survive, and they are very important because they not only absorb a third of human-generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they also produce half of the earth’s oxygen. When whales are killed, as seen in the source image, human beings and the earth’s delicate ecosystem are harmed. Yet during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whales were being slaughtered at an alarming rate.

Much like whaling, the narrative behind Pacific beaches has changed a lot in the past couple hundred years. Back in the eighteenth century, beaches were used mainly as trade destinations and for acquiring food and resources. Since there was no way to get around the world besides by boat or ship, beaches became very important to the development of society. The growth of many societies in the Pacific depended on trade, and therefore they depended on beaches. There was also no real sense of the importance of sustainability, so every society tried to get as much as it could of the natural resources provided by the beach and the ocean, without giving thought to the harmful effects it could have. Today, the narrative around Pacific beaches has changed drastically. When we think of Pacific beaches what most likely comes to mind is a positive and relaxing recreational experience.

The picture of the whale hunt represents a time where whaling was a very accepted and popular mode of acquiring resources, and a hot commodity in international trade. In one of the readings we analyzed in class, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush by David Igler, one chapter talks about trade and commerce in the Pacific. One of the main trade items at that time was whale oil and meat. Whales at the time were very difficult to capture and kill, which made them an even more valuable trade item. In the reading, Igler writes, “Decades later, the Pacific’s unsurpassed population of whales encountered the rapidly expanding US whaling fleet. A tremendous slaughter commenced for the sake of whale oil, with American factories as the main beneficiary.” (Igler 14). This point by Igler is meant to show how important whaling was to the world’s economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Igler’s theories help to exemplify the link between whaling and trade in the Pacific that are shown in the picture. 

The world started cracking down on whaling around the mid 1900’s. Before then everything was pretty much fair game in the whaling industry, which made the whale population worldwide decline rapidly. The shift to stopping the practice of whaling occurred in part because by 1970, the world whale population was dangerously low, and many species of whale were even classified as endangered. This change parallels the transformation in the narrative of Pacific beaches, as the narrative went from using the beaches’ resources as much as possible, to realizing that if we did not change our habits of polluting and over-fishing, the ecosystems of many Pacific beaches would be destroyed. Along with banning whaling, the U.S. and many other countries started to think more seriously about the future of our world, and the fact that if we didn’t change our ways, the planet will eventually be destroyed. 

It is clear that both whaling and the commercial usage of Pacific beaches were once very important in the world trade network. Nowadays they are both much less important, losing their relevance for similar reasons. Whaling is no longer an important world trade factor because it was not sustainable, and viable alternatives were eventually discovered. Whales are very important to the ocean’s ecosystems and if we had not stopped or severely decreased the amount of whaling that was going on, the world’s ecosystems would have been completely disrupted. That fact forced us to innovate, and for that reason whaling and whale trading contribute almost nothing to the global economy today. This point is made clear in the essay, Whales and Whaling in the Western Pacific, by Robert Lever. In this essay Lever speaks on the history of whaling and why the practice of whaling declined. He underscores the main theory about why whaling declined when he writes, “The short-sighted policy of ruthless slaughter caused the number of whales to be drastically reduced, and they were only saved from virtual extinction by the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859.” (Lever 4). Lever’s hypothesis is that whales would have become extinct, and our economy would have been left with a huge hole to fill, if we had not discovered and put to use petroleum and other fossil fuels. The discovery and shift to a reliance on the more efficient and easily accessible petroleum was a key reason for the diminishing whaling industry in the early twentieth century.

As both authors discuss, Pacific beaches used to be hotspots for trading. Although trading and commerce through the use of ships still occurs, it is far less prevalent than it was hundreds of years ago. Similar to the reasons whaling became irrelevant, Pacific beaches lost some of their importance due to innovations like planes, trains and automobiles, which led to an increase in commerce away from the coastlines. Many goods that are traded in the world's economy today do not have to be transported by water, and are instead shipped directly to specific destinations via air or on land. 

Whaling was used for very different purposes between different cultures and societies. In indegenous and less developed societies, whaling was used mostly for food and clothing. Pretty much every single part of the whale was used because they were rare and hard to kill, so when a whale was captured, all its resources needed to be put to good use. Indegenous societies in places like Hawaii and the northern coast of what would later become the contiguous United States, were some of the most prolific whale hunters in the world. Whales were a huge part of their societies, not only for the food they provided, but also due to the trade value they had, which the indegenous people could then use to obtain other goods necessary for survival and for achieving advancement. 

On the other hand, Europeans, who would trade with indigenous societies as well as capture their own whales, primarily used whales’ resources for different purposes. The Europeans were making luxury items such as Corsets and skirts, while most indigenous tribes used whaling to try to feed their people. Europeans also had better tools to hunt whales, which made it significantly easier for them to kill and capture the whales than it was for indigenous tribes throughout the Pacific. This lack of efficiency in the whaling practices of indigenous populations made it even more difficult for indigenous societies to thrive and grow. 

By the start of the nineteenth century, the U.S. was becoming an important world power. The industrial revolution had just begun and American factory production was booming. At the time, whale oil was needed to run a lot of the machines in factories. This made whale oil a hugely important resource. In response to this demand, the U.S. ramped up its whaling industry, as seen in the image. Soon after, the U.S., along with the rest of the world, realized that there was a much more abundant whale population in the Pacific Ocean than anywhere else. The U.S. proceeded to deploy hundreds of whaling fleets, one of which is depicted in the source image, to compete with other world powers in the whaling industry. With increased investment into the whaling industry, the U.S. and other powerful nations like Russia and England fought for control over the whale trade. This rush to slaughter whales in the Pacific can be equated to the gold rush that occurred in the mid 1800’s, because of the sudden high demand for whale byproducts. This influx of people trying to harvest a single resource was extremely profitable in the short run, but similar to the gold rush, the resources being harvested were finite. 

The image of the U.S. whaling vessel in the Pacific again relates back to another excerpt in The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, by Igler. In chapter four of his book, Igler makes a point of describing just how gruesome and inhumane the practice of whaling is. This is exemplified when he describes the practice by writing, “Yet, the moments when those mammals became lifeless carcasses on distant beaches or bays involved tremendous— and largely thoughtless— brutality.” (Igler 105). This relates directly to the source picture of the whale ship, because the image really sears into the audience's mind the lifelessness of a killed whale, which parallels this excerpt about the gruesomeness of the whole whaling process. Igler’s theories also highlight how the native populations are often depicted as the savages, but that the real savages are actually the non-natives who are killing whales at a high rate. This idea is supported by the image, because in it, the two American men are smiling while standing next to the whale they had just slaughtered, like it was some sort of prize. 

As the source image and both authors establish, whaling was a huge trade factor in the Pacific during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For the reasons explored by Igler and Lever, and as the image of the whaling boat illustrates, the historical uses of the Pacific beaches which were based upon trade, eventually lead to the successful but ultimately unsustainable whaling industry. Today, that narrative has changed drastically. In the exact area where the source image shows the slaughtered whale and its smiling killers, many Americans and tourists would happily spend a hot and sunny day, participating in recreational activities. 


Work Cited


  Igler, D. (2013). The great ocean Pacific worlds from Captain Cook to the gold rush . Oxford University Press.

Lever, R. (1964). Whales and Whaling in the Western Pacific. South Pacific Bulletin, 33-36.


This page has tags:

This page references: