Over the weekend we heard that more than 140 whales had died after becoming stranded on a New Zealand beach. It’s a sad story and reminded us that whaling was for many years one of Sydney’s (and Australia’s) main industries, so today we thought we’d have a look at that dark period in our history.
During the first decade of European settlement, British whalers and sealers were the most frequent visitors to Port Jackson. At least a third of the convict transports and store ships sent to the new colony before 1800 were also British whalers and would resume their trade in the ‘South Sea fisheries’ once they’d deposited their cargo.
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 sense that the industry could aid the new colony. American author Herman Melville, who visited Sydney as part of a whaling crew in the early 1840s and later 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 whaling vessel set sail and the trade reached its peak in the 1830s. Eventually whaling stations popped up in Mosman and at Sydney Heads. Facilities at the Mosman station included a heaving-down wharf with deep water alongside sufficient for large ships, a two-storey stone warehouse, and cottages to accommodate the crews of a vessels.
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 included ointments made from whale blubber, candlesticks and lamp oil, 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.
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. As a result the industry was in serious decline during the latter half of the 19th century. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t until 1979 that Australia really transformed its attitudes toward whaling and banned it completely.
For more information, go to the entry Sydney’s Whaling Fleet by Mark Howard on the Dictionary of Sydney.
Check out other other material on the site under the Whaling subject heading here too, including an article by Keith Vincent Smith on Boatswain Maroot, one of the Aboriginal men who worked on the whalers in colonial Sydney.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!