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Beer Aboard Ship in the Greenland Whale Fishery

February 15, 2010

In a chapter headed ‘The Decanter’ in Moby Dick Ishmael the narrator describes an ‘ancient volume’ detailing ‘the larders and cellars of 180 sail of Dutch whalemen’. He is struck by the volume of beer and gin taken on board (an ‘anker’ is roughly 35 litres):

The quantity of beer, too, is very large, 10,800 barrels. Now, as those polar fisheries could only be prosecuted in the short summer of that climate, so that the whole cruise of one of these Dutch whalemen, including the short voyage to and from the Spitzbergen sea, did not much exceed three months, say, and reckoning 30 men to each of their fleet of 180 sail, we have 5,400 Low Dutch seamen in all; therefore, I say, we have precisely two barrels of beer per man, for a twelve weeks’ allowance, exclusive of his fair proportion of that 550 ankers of gin.

Three centuries later, when Melville’s notional drunken Dutch whalers had been replaced in the fishery by the English, nineteenth century whale ships heading for Greenland would leave their home ports–Whitby, Hull, Liverpool,  Peterhead–in March and return in August with the catch. They often called in at Stromness on Orkney, or at the Shetlands, to pick up crew, but they would be at sea for most of the five or six months they were away. The amount of beer they took with them was significant.

In February 1815 whaling captain William Scoresby Jr. was preparing the ship Esk for its voyage from Whitby to the Greenland fishery. His journal* for that year records that besides nine tons of meat, and five of bread the ship took on 11 casks (probably 160 gallons each) of beer ‘from Mr. Stonehouse’ and 10 casks, containing ‘five tons of beer from Clarks’. Stonehouse and Clark later delivered a further four barrels each (36 gallons per barrel) of beer and T. Fishburn Esq provided a cask of fine ale, ‘to be distributed to the crew in the progress of he fishery, if favoured with success’. To supplement this the ship also took on 3300 gallons of fresh water in 11 casks.

Assuming Scoresby’s casks were 160 gallons each it seems the Esk sailed with an allowance of around three and a half pints of beer per man per day; more than enough to ward off scurvy, or so they thought. I’m curious too about what kind of beer this would be. No doubt it was relatively strong by today’s standards, but there is clearly a distinction in quality here between the ‘beer’ taken on board in quantity as a nutritional substitute for water, and the ‘fine ale’ provided as a reward.

There is a clue to the quality of the seamen’s supply in Scoresby’s journal for 1814, in which he details his own bottled supplies. Not for him beer from the common cask:

Wednesday 16th March [1814]. … Received from Gile and Brown stock of spirits for Harbour & Sea use, also 10 Dozn. Bottles of Porter: & from [Pierson?] & Frankland 5 Dozn. Port; 1 1/5 Dozn. Sherry & 1 Dozn. of Vidonia Wine. Completing my Sea & Harbour Stock of Wines, Spirits, & Porter.

In later life Scoresby was concerned about with the amount of alcohol sailors consumed and with the number of shipwrecks that seemed to have been caused by drunkenness among the officers and crew. It would continue to be a problem until fresh water supplies improved.

*The Arctic Whaling Journals of William Scoresby the Younger Vol 2: The Voyages of 1814, 1815, and 1816. Edited by C. Ian Jackson. London: Ashgate, for the Hakluyt Society, 2008.

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