South Sea Whalers boiling blubber c1876. By Oswald Brierly. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A128893 / DG 366 Dixson Galleries

There’s been more than one shift in the chair this week with our guest historian, Nicole Cama, joining Sophie Ly for Breakfast on 2SER this morning.

In light of the International Court of Justice’s ruling delivered yesterday against Japan’s whaling program, Nicole thought it would be interesting to remember how integral the whaling industry was to the Australian economy during the 1800s when it was our major export commodity. In fact, the main whaling port of Australia at the time was a city that we all know and love – Sydney!

Thanks Nicole for our guest post today.

British whalers and sealers were the most frequent visitors to Port Jackson during the first decade of European settlement. At least a third of the convict transports and store ships sent to the new colony before 1800 were British whalers.

Over time, Sydney became a natural place for British and American whalers to stop in port, as whales would migrate along the east coast of Australia. There was also a real sense that the industry could aid the new colony; American author Herman Melville, who famously wrote Moby Dick, noted that the colony was ‘saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale ship dropping anchor in their waters.’

By 1805, the first Sydney-owned vessel set sail to go whaling and the trade reached a peak in the 1830s. Eventually whaling stations popped up in Mosman and even one at the Heads. But just to give you some stats to demonstrate just how major the industry was – by 1850, the commodities exported through this industry amounted to £4.2 million. Sydney alone had a fleet that produced whale oil and baleen valued at £2.6 million between 1825 and 1879.

And it wasn’t just the money made from whale products, which could even include ointments made from whale blubber, that made the industry so lucrative. It provided opportunities for the shipping industry, it employed around 1,300 seamen, the government made money through port charges and customs duties.

Sadly, as Sydney whalers took an average of 81 barrels of whale oil per month during its peak period, the years of wholesale slaughter had a dramatic impact on the whale population.

But on a nicer note, it’s important to point out that Australia completely transformed its attitudes toward whaling. Although it took a long time, in 1979, whaling was totally banned. And so began the country’s campaign to protect the species and as we’ve seen, our efforts have produced some optimistic results.

You can read more about our whaling history in Mark Howard’s article for the Dictionary, Sydney’s whaling fleet, 2011.

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