Whaling Was Filthy Work.You'd Be Covered in Blood, Blubber, Oil and Grease. but It Kept Our City Afloat; PICTURE SPECIAL WHALERS SHARED THEIR EXPERTISE WITH WORLD'S GREATEST EXPLORERS Dundee's Forgotten History Is Revealed in New Book

Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland), November 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Whaling Was Filthy Work.You'd Be Covered in Blood, Blubber, Oil and Grease. but It Kept Our City Afloat; PICTURE SPECIAL WHALERS SHARED THEIR EXPERTISE WITH WORLD'S GREATEST EXPLORERS Dundee's Forgotten History Is Revealed in New Book


Byline: Craig McQueen

Ask anyone what Dundee is famous for and they're likely to give the answer jute, jam and journalism.

Chances are they won't know that for 160 years the city was the whaling capital of Europe.

Most of the world may now be united in outrage against the few countries which continue to kill the oceans' biggest creatures but for thousands of Dundonians, whaling was a lucrative industry.

Now a new book by Malcolm Archibald is shedding light on a long-forgotten part of the city's history.

Featuring an extraordinary collection of photographs from Dundee Art Galleries and Museums, Ancestors in the Arctic explains how from the 1750s to 1914, generations of men braved the icy waters in more than 100 ships.

Malcolm said: "When whaling started, the major centre was London but it gradually moved north as Scottish ports were closer to the Arctic.

"Dundee became the focal point as it built the ships and there was also a demand for whale oil in the jute factories.

"That kept whaling going in the city after it had died out elsewhere.

"At the time it was a good thing. It gave employment to thousands of people and drove the economy of the whole city.

"The world didn't have the same attitude towards whaling that it does now."

Ships would spend months in the Arctic Circle, hunting in the Greenland Sea and the Davis Strait, close to Canada.

Whale blubber could be boiled down into oil, while baleen - the comb-like filters inside the creature's mouth - was used for everything from chair backs to skirt hoops and corsets.

Malcolm said: "Whaling was very hard work. When you were in the whaling grounds you could be working for two or three days non-stop, catching a whale and flensing it - taking off the blubber.

"As more whales appeared, you kept moving from one job to the next.

"The whale would be spotted from a distance from the crow's nest and small boats would be sent out with six men in each one.

"The harpooner would thrust the harpoon in the whale, and it would dive, staying under the water for about half an hour with the boat getting towed behind it.

"When it surfaced, a second or third harpoon would be used. Once the whale got tired and floated to the surface, they would kill it with lances. It was a horrible job.

"They would then tow it back to the ship, which could take hours or even days, and gradually they would remove the baleen and strip off the blubber.

"When it was full, the ship would return to Dundee and the blubber would be boiled off to make oil in a yard where the city's bus station is now. Apparently the stink was quite appalling.

"It was filthy work. You'd be covered in blood, blubber, oil and grease.

"Whalers also hunted anything else that made money, such as seals or walrus - walrus skin was apparently the best sort of leather for polishing bicycles.

"And they also hunted narwhals, seabirds and salmon from the Canadian coast, and brought back polar bears to sell to zoos."

Spending so long in the icy seas of the Arctic wasn't just hard work but dangerous as well.

Malcolm said: "There were about 40 Dundee ships sunk up there over the period.

"They normally sailed as a fleet, so if one ship sank, other ships nearby could pick up the survivors.

"In 1830, 19 ships went down together, and roughly 1000 men were stranded on the ice for at least a week. Rather than worrying about it, they went into the ships which were still afloat, took out the rum and had a week-long party which became known as the Baffin Fair.

"Three or four people died of exposure but that's not too bad out of 1000 people."

There were other risks at sea as well. Malcolm said: "During the French wars of the 18th century and the American wars later on, privateers would target the whaling ships because they had a very valuable cargo. …

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Whaling Was Filthy Work.You'd Be Covered in Blood, Blubber, Oil and Grease. but It Kept Our City Afloat; PICTURE SPECIAL WHALERS SHARED THEIR EXPERTISE WITH WORLD'S GREATEST EXPLORERS Dundee's Forgotten History Is Revealed in New Book
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