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The 1830 Baffin Fair

July 23, 2010

Like modern oilmen, Arctic whalers took oil first from where it was easy. They began with Greenland and eastward towards Spitzbergen. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century whalers in that region caught 50 percent more whales than in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay to the West. By the late 1820s, though, the whales had almost been wiped out in the Greenland fishery, and like the deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, whalers were prepared to take more risks. In the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay the weather was less predictable, the ice more likely to trap you, and crush your ship.

In June and July 1830, after several years of poor catches in the Greenland Sea, the Davis Strait was packed with vessels. Whaling, especially Arctic whaling, was always a risky business, and some ships were lost every year, but in 1830 the weather in the Davis Strait was appalling. Violent storms pushed ice into the Strait, crushing ships and lifting them out  of the water.

That year the British whaling fleet lost 19 ships out of 90 in the Davis Strait. These included William Scoresby Jr.’s former ship Baffin, and the John, once captained by his brother in law, William Jackson. In 1830 the John was based at Greenock and her crew had a reputation for trouble. In 1829 some of them had refused to sail on a voyage of exploration in support of Captain John Ross and his ship Victory. The story of what happened on board the John in 1830 is not at all clear, but what is known is that when she was wrecked on September 24th, she was commanded by one of the officers, that her captain was dead, and that the mate and several of the crew had been set adrift in a boat. The John was the last whaler to sail out of Greenock.

Each of the 19 wrecked whalers had on board over fifty men, and for a while around 1000 were camped on the ice, drinking ale, wine, and rum plundered from the wrecked ships. This drunken way-below-zero jamboree was known as the Baffin Fair and went on for several days until the wrecked ships had been emptied and burnt. Free from the discipline of their ships the men were out of control, but when the food and drink was exhausted most were picked up by other ships and surprisingly few died. Basil Lubbock, whose book The Arctic Whalers is one of the best on the subject, estimates ‘eight or ten,’ did not survive, some of whom were deserters from French ships, and had been wandering on the ice even before the storms broke.

Besides the 19 ships lost, many more were damaged and 21 came home empty. After the 1830 catastrophe, whaling in the Davis Strait declined by about two thirds, and to make matters worse the American deep sea whaling industry had started to dominate oil production, making the Arctic fishery less attractive. Many British whalers turned to killing seals instead.

The image above can be downloaded from the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.


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