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A Practical Joke: 24th June, 1811

In most respects the whale fishery was a serious place, but there was frequent interaction between ships’ crews, especially those sharing the same home port. In 1811, the crews of the Resolution and the Aimwell seem to have been particularly close, the two ships spending much of the season in company with one another.

In his entry for 24th June, Scoresby recounts the story of the Resolution‘s surgeon, who had lent a book to his counterpart on board the Aimwell. The surgeon found that he needed it for some reason, and, Scoresby says “pressed me repeatedly to allow him to take a Boat and a Man or two to fetch it.” Finally, the surgeon took matters into his own hands, and persuaded the crew of a boat to take him to the Aimwell, where he collected the book, and brought it back:

Mr Johnstone [of the Aimwell]understanding that he had got possession of it and wishing to teaze him sought for and found the Book in his absence on the Deck which he gave to the care of Captn K[earsley of the Henrietta] who concealed it. The Doctor presently afterwards went to see if his charge was safe and found it astonishing to behold it removed he knew not whither; he burst out in exclamation of surprize and partly taxed Captn J. with having got which of course he flatly denied persuading the Surgeon he had laid it somewhere else. Mr. J again took it on board the Aimwell whilst the Doctor repeatedly expressed his wonder that the book should be missing and his grief lest it should be lost.

This is quite a cruel ‘joke,’ and one that emphasises the social and hierarchical gap between the captains of whale ships, and everyone else. Ships’ surgeons on whalers, though no doubt necessary at times, were often thought of as little more than passengers, whose primary role was as companion to the captain, in much the same way as wealthy women might employ a servant as a ‘ladies’ companion’. They were sometimes medical students, or older medical men hoping for a season or two of adventure on the high seas, before returning to their profession onshore. For the crews of whaleships, this alone would have made them figures of fun. It is not known whether the surgeon of the Resolution fell into this category, but it seems to be the case that he took himself rather more seriously than others did.

Bad Conscience: June 23rd, 1811

On Sunday, June 23rd, Scoresby entertained Mr. Kearsly and Mr. Johnstone to breakfast, and dinner. Meanwhile the crew took a large whale, which was flinched. Many other ships were nearby, several of them nearly full, and almost ready to head for home.

Scoresby was raised in a Sabbatarian household, in which working, or entertaining, on the Sabbath, were forbidden. At this point in his career Scoresby was willing to break these rules for the sake of the business of catching whales, but he seems to have felt very bad indeed about “desecrating” the Sabbath. In 1850, by which time he was an ordained Church of England priest, Scoresby published a book called Sabbaths in the Arctic Regions. In that book, as Jackson notes alongside the journal entry for June 23rd, Scoresby mentions this episode as one in which felt he had failed to live up to his ideals. Not only that, but a run of bad luck in the following week was put down his having violated the sanctity of the Sabbath for the sake of the “excitement of social intercourse”.

Setting up Shakes: June 22nd, 1811

The work of organising the cargo of blubber continued as the Resolution “made all haste” through ice and thick fog, to windward (SW). Scoresby had the ship’s cooper, and the carpenter employed in “setting up Shakes,” or rather constructing casks from packs of wooden planks, known as “shakes”. By the end of the day they had filled a total of 193 casks, which were now stacked–in places–four deep in the hold. Doing this at sea was unique to whalers, all other cargo vessels being loaded and unloaded in port, and it required careful planning if the ship was to be kept safe, and manageable.

Scoresby notes that the ship now had a draught of 13 feet and 10 inches at the bow, and 14 feet 8 inches at the stern. Early in the the voyage, on March 18th, while at anchor in Brassa Sound, Shetland, Scoresby adjusted the ballast in the hold by filling casks with seawater, and “brought the Ship down to 13ft 3 in aft and 12ft 10 in forward”. By June 22nd that ballast had been replaced, bit by bit, with whale blubber. Being able to maintain the ship’s balance while this took place, and while the ship made progress through challenging waters, was an important skill for the commander of a whale ship.

Impetuosity of the Ice: June 20-21st, 1811

On Thursday Scoresby welcomed Mr Johnstone (Johnson?) of the Aimwell on board, and heard that they had “25 fish (13 size) about 130 tons of oil”. There was also news of the Henrietta, which had 160 tons of oil almost a week earlier, when the Aimwell had 100, and the Resolution 25 at best. At this stage in the season there was intense rivalry between captains, and the following day (the 21st) Scoreby heard that his father, commanding the John, had already begun to head home, full. He also heard about the Ocean, which got

dreadfully abused by the Impetuosity of the Ice in the Gale of the 7th of June she had been making off at the field edges (or rather Floes) … got entangled amongst pieces and the Ship … stove they were obliged to force into the Ice as far as possible where they received such blows from the Ice agitated by the swell that most of the Timbers they believe in the Ship are broken. The pumps are constantly going, they have several fish and still persevere in the object of their voyage.

Boats on the bran: June 18-19th, 1811

By Tuesday, the Resolution had a great deal of blubber on board that was not yet stowed in the hold. So much so that getting around the ship was becoming difficult. Nevertheless, another whale was killed in the early hours of the morning. All around, whale ships were busy flinching whales, and taking the blubber on board. There were so many ships in the vicinity that Scoresby kept two boats in the water or ‘in the bran’ and ready to go. On Wednesday the 19th, something had to be done about the mountain of blubber on board, and the ship was moored to a floe so that the hatches and ‘flinch gut‘ could be cleared, and the catch stowed away. While this was going on, the captain of the Fountain joined Scoresby for breakfast. Although he had taken 17 whales, which would yield around 120 tons of oil, the Fountain‘s rudder had been smashed, and later her hull stove in. Captain Barton also complained of “a discontented disrespectful crew.” Scoresby reports:

Many ships in sight 25 sail. Chiefly fishing.

Many whales, little rest: June 16-17th, 1811

In calm water, and occasional fog, Resolution, in company with several other ships, was enjoying great success in killing whales. They took so many whales in fact that no sooner was one ‘flinched’ than another was killed and brought alongside. Scoresby rotated the watches, so that there was constant activity. With so many boats in the water, and so many ships nearby, there was a lot of talk about the year’s catch. Scoresby entertained a delegation from the Sarah and Elizabeth, which brought news of the William and Ann (5 whales) the Jane of Aberdeen (7 whales), the Old Manchester (21 whales) and the Lion of Liverpool (3 whales), though in some cases the news was a week or more out of date. The Sarah and Elizabeth had taken 10 small whales, making about 40 tons of oil, but had also lost a man, caught by a line as a whale tried to escape. Others in the boat also came close to drowning.

The Resolution was not immune to trouble. On the 16th a whale damaged the six-oared ‘gig’, while fog made finding the boats difficult:

A fish was struck and soon killed (8 AM) and about 10 AM another at some distance from the Ship just at the moment of the commencement of fog. 4 Boats near the spot. Sent another with compass and two Horns with directions how to find the Boats (which bore SbW) and should the fish be killed to tow NbE) The wind a light breeze took alongside the Dead fish and made sail to the SbW sounded a Bugle the Ships Bell and the Men’s voices which were occasionally answered by the Boats. At 1/2 an hour PM got sight of the Boats.

The number of whales in the vicinity seems to have been very large, and on the 17th Scoresby wrote:

Our success for the last two Days has been wonderful so favoured have we been that every fish was killed with astonishingly little trouble. No. 17 was a fine fish as well as 20 21 & 23

The weight of the oil was estimated from the length of the whalebone:

No 20–10ft 2in bone commonly estimated at 131/2 Tons was in this fish supposed to be 16 or 17 Tons and 23–11 Tons thus 7 whales which at a fair estimation might be supposed to produce 61 Tons of oil were captured within 47 hours and all flinched within 57 hours from the commencement during which time also most of the sailors had had 4 or 6 hours rest!

A Peculiar Care: June 15, 1811

By the middle of June, it was clear that 1811 was to be a good year for Scoresby and the crew of the Resolution. Scoresby was usually an unsentimental man, but as a scientist his interest in whales went beyond their commercial value. Although he held to the common view that humans had been provided with nature as a bounty to be exploited and enjoyed, he was also curious about similarities he noticed between the creatures he killed, and human characteristics. Decades before Darwin began working on his Origin of Species, Scoresby and others had noticed physical similarities between humans and other species, but they did not understand how or why they might have come about. One example of this is Scoresby’s observation that the bone structure of the fins of the Common Whale resembles that of a human hand; and he was also troubled by the social behaviour of whales. On Saturday, June 15:

Being near a patch of Ice a sucking [baby] Fish came up close by a Boat laid on the Watch they struck it and presently the Mother arose nearly touching them and having got entangled with the line drew it out pretty briskly to 100 Fathoms[.] 5 other Boats were now sent around the spot to endeavour to entangle the mother[.] She was presently seen running furiously and frequently stopping short and returning seemingly in great agony for the loss of her young which it appeared she could not find out[.] For many several times she acted in a similar manner seeming not to fear the Boats which constantly pursued her[.] At length one of the Harpooneers hove at her and drew another struck and shared the same fate another delivered by a boatsteerer held fast and not long afterwards four Harpoons were fast[.] In about an hour after this she was killed thus becoming a prey from mutual affection her young one was all at which she aimed its safety was her pecular care in danger she feared nought nor neglected aught to accomplish its rescue.

While this was not a scientific study of whale behaviour, and Scoresby’s description of the mother whale steers close to anthropomorphism, the observation is nevertheless a pertinent one in the context of recent research into cetacean intelligence and ‘culture’. He reflected further on this episode in his 1820 book An Account of the Arctic Regions, indicating a conflict between the evident suffering of the whale, with which he empathised, and the purpose of the trade. In the end, Scoresby enjoyed the hunt:

There is something extremely painful in the destruction of a whale, when thus evincing a degree of affectionate regard for its offspring, that would do honour to the superior intelligence of human beings; yet the object of the adventure, the value of the prize, the joy of the capture, cannot be sacrificed to feelings of compassion.



Narwhals: June 14th, 1811

On Friday the Resolution was amongst loose ice again, but by using two boats to tow the ship through, by mid-morning they were in open water, and whales had been seen. Scoresby comments that the water here turned deep blue:

Many Narwhales [sic] were seen near the Ship I observed them swimming from the Mast Head with a Spy Glass; their fins were stretched out horizontally (from the Body) and appeared motionless while an undulating motion of the rump with the flexibility of the posterior part of the Tail seemed to give propelling force. Occasionally a latteral motion was observed this might be for velocity or turning. When the Unicorn* wished to descend like as the whale the tail was forcibly pressed downwards which elevated the crown or head and then immediately forced upwards caused the head to descend. … I observed no horns amongst them comparatively few of them are possessed of this Instrument.

*Unicorn was a common name for Narwhal, because of the long, single horn on their heads.

Prismatic Snow: June 13th, 1811

On Thursday there were no whales about, and Scoresby enthused about snow as they raced along the edge of an ice pack, with the Enterprize, just one of several ships in sight:

Light airs or inclinable to calm with showers of small prismatic snow which skimmed along the surface of the water like clouds of smoke rising out of it. The modification of the n[imbus] was particularly maked and much resembled the drawing given by Luke Howard Esq.


Fell in with several whales: June 11-12th, 1811

By  11 PM, 106 casks had been filled with blubber and the making off was finished for the time being. This made a total of 154 casks, which would yield between 80 and 90 tons of oil. But there was no rest for the crew, as around midnight more whales appeared. Three boats were sent off in pursuit, and Scoresby notes 19 ships in sight, including the Aimwell, which had taken a whale, and was “flinching”. There were a lot of whales nearby, and by noon the Resolution had struck three more, one of which made its escape. Another “got into [the ice] but not before two Harpoons were fast”. The relentlessness with which the Resolution and the rest of the fleet went after whales is shocking to modern sensibilities, but in 1811 the general view was that the exploitation of nature was a God-given right. In any case, this was the oil industry of its day, a lucrative business around which Georgian society had built itself, and no less rapacious in its pursuit of new ‘reserves’ than Esso or BP are today.

On Wednesday, Scoresby heard news of his father:

Yesterday from Mr Johnstone heard by the Neptune of Aberdeen news of my Father in the John had 2 large fish 29th May. To Day were informed by the Effort who heard it of the Reliance that he had 7 large whales the 1st Inst. Good news. Yesterday was the first acct we have had. … 17 sail in sight Enterprize 15 Fish Henrietta 29 Egginton 10 …