Flensing a whale, Twofold Bay, New South Wales

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•••Start of whaling

1791: Establishment of the whaling industry in Sydney

Britannia, a whaling ship that brought convicts and supplies to Sydney as part of the Third Fleet, was the first ship to harpoon a sperm whale off the Australian coast, in October 1791.

The whaling industry helped the fledgling colony survive and the industry flourished until a downturn in the 1850s and the eventual overharvesting of many species. The last whaling station in Australia closed in 1978.

Sydney Gazette, 18 March 1830:

‘A good part of the capital which had [been] so lavishly employed in the import trade, they are gradually diverting into that safer and infinitely more productive channel — the oil-fisheries … the whaling merchants are public benefactors, entitled to the gratitude of the whole community.

They are stopping the inlets of Australian poverty, and opening those of Australian wealth.’

•••Indigenous people and whales

Whales are a totemic animal for many coastal Indigenous groups. There is no evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples actively hunted whales, but beached whales were a valuable source of food, oil, and other products. When commercial whaling began in Australia, Aboriginal people played an active role.

••Whaling in Australia

The First Fleet arrived in New South Wales in 1788 just as the international whaling industry was rapidly expanding to meet the increasing demand for whale oil that would continue throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Until the development of petroleum in the 1850s, whale oil was the primary machine lubricant and preferred lamp oil in Europe and North America.

While Enderby was at the forefront of the international whale oil business, he also saw another commercial opportunity, noting that whaling ships were travelling to the South Pacific with no cargo before returning fully laden.

Transporting convicts and supplies to the newly established colony would provide his ships with a profitable cargo for their outward voyage.

The First Fleet had been arranged and financed through government channels. However, private contractors provided the ships, rations, and crew of the Second Fleet, resulting in appallingly high death rates among the convicts.

Enderby lobbied the British Government to award the contract for transporting convicts to NSW to the whaling industry, and then let the whalers hunt in the waters of the South Pacific before returning to England with their cargoes of oil.

In early 1791 the Third Fleet set sail for Sydney. Eleven ships transported 1716 convicts. When their human cargo had been delivered, the William and Ann, Mary Ann, Matilda, Salamander, and Enderby’s own ship Britannia went whaling.

Their success saw the start of the Australian whaling industry and Eber Bunker, captain of the William and Mary, went on to become a leading figure in the early colony.

•••Whaling in the early colony

Whaling became an essential part of the New South Wales economy and culture. Whalers were the most frequent visitors to the colony in its first decade.

Whaling was Australia’s first major industry with thousands of men and hundreds of ships eventually involved in the trade.

Whale oil and bone products were ideal commodities for the new colony as they were high-value items that could survive months at sea.

The focus of South Pacific whaling had been along the South American west coast, but the industry shifted west after war was declared between Spain and Great Britain in 1797. With British ships unable to buy provisions in the Spanish colonies, Sydney became a major whaling port.

British whalers were soon joined by Americans in the South Pacific, but it was still a few years before Sydney-based ships became involved in the trade.

•••Sydney and Hobart

Whaling was an expensive industry: fully outfitting a suitable ship cost more than £10,000. Business people were more likely to invest in the less costly sealing industry.

The discovery, with the settlement of Hobart, that the Derwent River estuary was a breeding ground for the southern right whale encouraged the launch of the first Sydney-owned whaler, the King George, in June 1805.

Small-boat, shore-based whaling conducted around Tasmania and in the bays of the southeast mainland grew rapidly.

The first Sydney-based, oceangoing sperm-whaler Argo, owned by the pastoralist John Macarthur, sailed out of Sydney in 1806.

The peak of Australian whaling activity was between 1820 and 1855, with up to 1300 men working in the industry each year.

With the 1851 discovery of gold in Australia, however, sailors deserted their ships en masse to travel to the goldfields. As petroleum increasingly replaced whale oil throughout the 1850s, the industry went into decline.

An industry that had provided New South Wales with 52 percent of her exports in 1832 provided less than one percent by 1855.

•••Legacy of the whalers

The whaling industry helped the fledgling colony of New South Wales survive, as the whaling ships brought much-needed food and supplies to the colonists from the 1790s.

Whaling went on to become the colony’s first viable industry at the turn of the 19th century. Even into the 1820s whaling was as financially important as pastoralism.

The push to find productive whaling grounds, especially by the private companies involved in bay-based hunting operations, led to some of the first intensive European explorations of the Australian coastline.

Despite the downturn during the 1850s, whaling continued well into the 20th century with technological changes radically increasing the productivity of the whaling fleets.

This efficiency led to the catastrophic overharvesting of many whale species and a public outcry to halt the industry.

The last whaling station in Australia, Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany, Western Australia, closed in July 1978.

Australia is today a leading member of the International Whaling Commission and deeply engaged in the fight against whaling.


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