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Polar Bears and the Arctic Whalers

January 5, 2012

A fascinating post yesterday at Shakespeare’s England reveals the possibility that two polar bears were brought back to England from the Arctic as early as 1609, and that they may have appeared on stage in London. By the early nineteenth century, when around 120 whale ships sailed for the Arctic from Britain each year, polar bears, dead and alive, had become a valuable prize. Adult polar bears were far too large and dangerous to keep on board ship, but cubs were sometimes captured alive, and taken back to Britain for public display, and zoological research.

In his journal entry for 15 June, 1812, Scoresby writes “we Shot an old Bear and took two cubs that She had with her alive” and the following day notes that “The two bears we took yesterday seem pretty contented one of them often walks about [the deck] at large and is quite harmless. The other somewhat larger seems not quite so inoffensive.” The bears were secured with an iron ring around the neck which, after the bear had grown, could only be removed by cutting.

One of these cubs Scoresby gave to another captain, Mr Johnstone, later that month, while the other he took home himself as a gift for his mentor at Edinburgh University, Professor Jameson. In their 1976 biography of Scoresby, Tom and Cordelia Stamp quote from Jameson’s letter of thanks: “I found your valuable present, the polar bear, in perfect health. I return you many thanks for your attention and kindness. I have brought the animal to the college where he is now lodged in a commodious den. I wish to know from you what you consider is the best food for him–he has been fed on liver and horse flesh.” (From Tom and Cordelia Stamp William Scoresby, Arctic Scientist. Caedmon: Whitby, 1976. p. 47).

Any whaler who succeeded in killing or capturing a bear could expect great admiration, and perhaps therefore a greater share of the profit on subsequent voyages, and as a result they were prepared to take enormous risks. Scoresby’s An Account of the Arctic Regions and the Northern Whale Fishery (1820) includes a chapter on polar bears, in which he gives several anecdotes of encounters with them. Despite the risks sailors took in going after these dangerous animals, armed only with lances and knives, he notes that there were fewer accidents with bears than “the ferocity of these animals, and the temerity of the sailors, who embrace every opportunity of attacking them, might lead one to expect” (p. 523). Bears were more safely attacked when they were in the water, but even so, such attempts didn’t always go as planned:

I shall only remark, with regard to curious adventures, that, on one occasion, a bear which was attacked by a boat’s crew, in the Spitzbergen Sea, made such a formidable resistance that it was enabled to climb the side of the boat and take possession of it, while the intimidated crew fled for safety for the water, supporting themselves by the gunwale and rings of the boat, until, by assistance of another party from their ship, it was shot as it sat inoffensively in the stern. And, with regard to narrow escapes, I shall only add, that a sailor, who was pursued on a field of ice by a bear, when at a considerable distance from assistance, preserved his life, by throwing down an article of clothing, whenever the bear gained on him, on which it always suspended its pursuit, until it had examined it, and thus gave him time to obtain some advance. In this way, by means of a hat, a jacket, and a neck handkerchief, successively cast down, the progress of the bear was retarded, and the sailor escaped from the danger that threatened him, in the refuge afforded him by his vessel. (Account of the Arctic Regions, 1820. p. 525-6)

Scoresby retells this latter tale in greater detail in his 1823 book A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, presenting it as a humorous story to balance a more gruesome one in which a sailor “armed only with a handspike” went after a bear on the ice: “the bear, regardless of such weapons … immediately, it would seem, disarmed his antagonist, and, seizing him by the back with his powerful jaws, carried him off …” (p. 111)

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