Whales have been in the news of late, given that it’s the whale migration season and that Japan has just withdrawn from the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, so today on 2SER Breakfast Lisa and Julia had another look at the history of whaling in Sydney.
Today Australia is a leading nation lobbying for the protection and conservation of whales. But in the 19th century, it was a different story.Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Julia on 2SER here
You know the aphorism – Australia was built on the sheep’s back.
Well, whaling was the other key industry, aside from wool, that sustained the colony of New South Wales through its port, Sydney, in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The first whaling ship to leave Sydney was around 1805. Initially Sydney was just a base for whalers, a safe port. Later Sydney businessmen became more directly involved in whaling.
The period of peak activity was from 1820 to 1855 when Sydney whalers made 558 deep-sea whaling voyages from Port Jackson.
It’s hard to imagine now but Mosman Bay was the location of one of the early whaling stations in Sydney which fitted out whaling ships. This was established by Archibald Mosman and John Bell.
The importance of whaling to the new colony can’t be underestimated. Unlike the wool industry that got just one clip a year and involved years of breeding, this was an industry that could be conducted year-round due to deep-sea whalers.
Whaling involved hundreds of ships and thousands of workers. The 42 deep-sea whalers based in Sydney by 1837, for example, employed around 1,300 seamen. And these men were from many countries: Americans, Pacific Islanders, Maoris, as well as British. Local Aboriginal men like Boatswain Maroot also took jobs on whaling ships. They all contributed to the multicultural melting pot of the Rocks area.
Between 1825 and 1879 Sydney was Australia’s largest whaling port – producing whale oil and baleen valued at £2.6 million.
This was a major export commodity – a valuable product to trade for the fledgling colony.
In our article on Sydney’s Whaling Fleet, author Mark Howard makes the point that:
“Casks of whale oil were a welcome cargo on trading vessels sailing to Britain, as they helped to deadweight the vessel so that little or no ballast was needed. The rest of the hold could then be filled with a lighter cargo, such as wool.”
The industry was a broader stimulus for the maritime economy. Ship-building flourished around Darling Harbour and Johnstons Bay.
The whaling industry provided work for a host of other professions as well. Coopers, sailmakers, dockyard caulkers, anchor smiths, block-makers, shipwrights, ship chandlers, mast-makers, clothing outfitters, insurance agents, wharfingers and warehouse owners all catered to the trade. Sydney butchers and bakers supplied sea stores, and local ropewalks made whale lines and rigging for the ships.
Whaling also had a big impact on popular culture in Sydney. Sailors from around the world brought their culture to Sydney via the whalers. There was even an area down at The Rocks called Maori Town, due to the prevalence of Maori seamen.
Artists were inspired by the scale and brutality of the industry, producing paintings of the whaling fleet. There are even popular songs from the 1850s connected with whaling!! After a sperm whale skeleton was acquired by the Australian Museum, local composer George Strong wrote the Catadon Polka and dedicated the dance music to the curator of the museum.
Whaling generated considerable wealth for Sydney and supplied the colony with a major export commodity. Whaling stations developed up and down the coast.
In Sydney the industry dwindled from the 1850s (the gold rush put a big dampener on things). There was a resurgence in the 1870s, due to a spike in the price of whale oil, but really by then other whaling stations up and down the coast had taken over the trade.
Australia finally stopped whaling in 1979.
To read more about the provisioning of the whaling fleet and some of the key players in this early industry, check out the Mark Howard’s Dictionary entry on Sydney’s Whaling Fleet and some of the other content we have under the subject term ‘Whaling‘.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio