‘Thar she blows!’

Did you ever hear the tale, of the mighty sperm whale
Matty John


One of the many aspects of world history in which St Helena played a part

Whaling: one of St Helena’s Industries.

Below: Whaler’s paradiseGrowthDeclineEcological ImpactRead More

‘The mighty sperm whale’
Matty John, 1962{b}

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Did you ever hear the tale, of the mighty sperm whale
That when boldly attacked in his lair
With one sweep of his mighty and ponderous tail
Sends the whale-boat so high in the air?

A whaler’s paradise

An American whaleman, writing in 1859, enthused:

Jamestown is a whaler’s paradise… there is neither lack of women nor wine.

Whatever the merits of his assertion, for a brief period starting at the beginning of the 19th Century whalers flocked to Jamestown to exploit the opportunities here, and in doing so brought much-needed wealth to the island. Sadly (for the economy; not for the whales) the ‘Whale Fishing’{3} boom was short-lived, and only 100 years later this once-thriving industry was completely extinct. This is its story.


Prior to the War of American Independence, from 1775-83, Britain’s main source of sperm whale oil and whale-bone was the waters of the north-west Atlantic, off Cape Cod. But following the war the new Americans claimed exclusive rights to these waters for themselves, thus depriving Britain of a much-needed resource. The whalers turned instead to the waters of the South Atlantic.

A major port was not needed because the whalers had developed the technique of processing caught whales aboard ship. Being on the main shipping route to Britain, St Helena was an ideal base for operations.


Two whale species were hunted: Sperm Whales, which would yield between 25 and 90 barrels of oil per whale, and Right Whales, providing useful whale bone (a component of corsets, popular at the time).

There are only two kinds of whale. One of ‘em is the Sperm Whale and the rest of ‘em is the other.
From ‘The Yankee Whaler’ by Clifford W. Ashley

Whale oil provided fuel for lighting, lubricated machines and made soap and candles. Whale oil was also popular with watchmakers, and other precision instrument manufacturers. In addition, Train Oil was obtained by boiling down the blubber, which was done in ‘try-pots’, either on board ship or onshore (several of these pots are still to be found around the island, including two either side of the porch at Plantation House.) The rest of the whale was generally discarded.

To protect supplies of these precious raw materials the British Government provided financial support for whalers. And while initially The East India Company demanded that whalers calling at, or operating off, St Helena pay it a licence fee, enforcing this with heavy fines or confiscation of cargo for any ship found operating in the area without the necessary permits, by 1802, under pressure from the British government, this policy was abandoned and St Helena became, in effect, a ‘free port’ for whalers.

War with France from 1793-1815 was a problem for the whalers, but increased St Helena’s importance as a safe port, though at least one whaler, the Coldstream, is recorded as having been taken by the French Privateer Bellona while cruizing to the windward of the Island.

To support this flourishing industry, Governor Robert Brooke (1878-1801) proposed the creation of a whale fishing ‘depot’ on St Helena, providing transhipment for whaling products back to Britain.

Historian Francis Duncan, writing in 1805, reports:

Whales are seen playing about the island in such numbers that it is supposed the Southern Whale Fishery might be carried on here with great advantage, as it certainly might with safety and without difficulty, in seas which are never obstructed with ice, not ruffled with hurricanes. This circumstance may, in future, constitute a source of wealth and trade to the island itself.

This nearly all came to nothing when Napoleon arrived in 1815 and Governor Hudson Lowe, arriving in 1816, imposed strict restraints on ships calling at St Helena, but as soon as these were lifted the industry began to take off.

Whalers were popular on St Helena, especially with local taverns and other ‘industries’ supplying services to men a long way from home{4}. In 1829, 22 whaling ships were reported as visiting St Helena: two Americans and twenty British. The arriving whaling ships also brought other cargo with them to St Helena. In the early 19th Century it was estimated that whalers were bringing in about a quarter of the island’s total imports.

Whale fishery share certificate 1837
Whale fishery share certificate 1837
Harpoon in use
Harpoon in use{1}

An attempt was made to set up a whaling company in 1837, but investors declined to participate and the share offering failed. This can now be seen as a wise decision on behalf of the investors…


All of this changed over the following 25 years. In 1855 a total of 46 whaling ships called at St Helena, but only three were British. Britain never really took to eating whale meat, and as substitutes were found for whale bone and whale oil, such as coal gas and paraffin, so the industry declined. In 1859 the last cargoes of sperm oil from British vessels operating in the South Atlantic were landed in London.

‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology’, by John Melliss, published in 1875 records:

The exciting, in many instances, highly remunerative, occupation of whaling is, however, exclusively carried on [ⵈ] by American vessels, at least 60 or 70 of which call at the island every year. They are ships averaging 80-200 tons burthen, and rendezvous for refitting, re-provisioning and transhipping their oil to those vessels which may be homeward bound, about the month of October, previous to their cruising to Tristan da Cunha. The local whaling ground extends from 30 to 180 miles off the island, but the vessels are constantly seen cruising close to the land [ⵈ] from April to July, and whales have even been taken within a few miles of the roadstead. Beyond the circulation of money which these vessels [ⵈ] necessarily occasion, the St Helenians derive no profit whatever from this source of wealth, which lies at their very doors. One or more whaling ship have been fitted out from the island, but the spirit of enterprise [ⵈ] succumbed to the misfortunes which befell each attempt.

In 1876 the barque Elizabeth was adapted by Solomon, Moss, Gideon & Co., and manned by island whalemen. The first shipment of 408 casks of oil made £5,600 and in 1877 earnings rose to £5,800 but there are no reports for any of the following years so it can be assumed that the project was abandoned in 1878.

The St Helena Whaling Association was dissolved on 15th June 1886.

America’s whalers, accounting for 75% of the world’s whaling fleet, eventually moved from the South Atlantic to much more productive waters in the Pacific. Some use of St Helena continued until the beginning of the 20th Century, but the economic impact for the island was minimal. The last St Helenian whaleman to be paid off at Jamestown is said to have been a Mr. Harris, in 1908.

Governor Cordeaux argued upon his arrival in 1912 that the industry should be restarted, but was annoyed by the apparent diffidence now shown in reviving what was at one time a profitable industry and after continual delays the start of World War 1 put an end to his plans.

Although unrelated to St Helena, the French had similar problems. In 1851 a law was passed to encourage the trade, at which point the French had seventeen vessels employed in it. The law was not successful. The last French whalers abandoned the South Atlantic in 1868.

Ecological Impact

It seems that the ecological impact of whale hunting in the South Atlantic was not significant. No species are recorded as being threatened with extinction and the industry failed not because it ran out of whales but because the demand for whale products evaporated.

Certainly both the hunted species are plentiful in the South Atlantic today, and whales are regular visitors to St Helena. They can be seen from the cliffs or on Dolphin Watching trips.

Read More

Article: Extracts from the log of Dr Franklin, an American whaler

Obtained from the Museum of St Helena{5}

While these extracts tell us nothing about whaling, they are very informative on the visitor’s perspective of St Helena in the 1850s.

Saturday 14th March 1857

At daylight we found ourselves to windward of the Island, so we squared away, and got everything in readiness for coming to anchor, which we did about ten O’clock in the forenoon, in twenty fathoms of water about one third of a mile from the shore. I was greatly amused today by several of the washwomen that came off to us; fine Rosy-cheeked buxom looking lasses who were as full of deviltry as an egg is full of meat. They told us that they did not depend altogether upon the washing they got for a livelihood, but that very often they picked up a sweetheart when they come off to ships, who would befriend them while the vessel laid here. I took a kiss from one pretty little Damsel, who was nothing loath to perform the delicious ceremony but returned it with a hearty smack, and cordially invited me to visit her at her residence, of which she gave me the directions & said I should not lack for either board or lodging, & A Good Bedfellow.

Sunday 15th

The Captain came onboard this Morning at 7am. He told the Starboard Watch to get ready to go on liberty. This was very welcome news to our watch, who flew about like a hen with head cut off, everyone mustering up his best suit, polishing up shoes, & brushing, up clothes, that had not seen daylight for over four long months; shaving, hair trimming &c; for as the order had come unexpectedly, no one was in readiness. But, we managed in about an hour to present ourselves on the quarter deck in Apple Pie Order, and the Captain, after attempting to make a speech on the propriety of good behaviour & abstaining from intoxicating liquors, cut it short by exclaiming, I don’t care a Damn! Get as drunk as you please! But anyone who comes onboard drunk, will not get on shore again, that’s all.

Thursday 19th

The Captain came on board, shifted his clothes, and went right ashore again. Mr Warner & James Patterson had their sweethearts onboard tonight, so they set the Fiddle a going & we had a dance on the quarter deck. Their names were Miss Teresa Clark and Miss Jane Dontevon. We kept it up until 10PM & set the watch.

Sunday 22nd

The larboard watch went on liberty today & our watch spent the day gamming with the other whalers in Harbour. All the watch remained onshore but one man, and the ladies remained onshore likewise, there having been some words about their stopping onboard.

Wednesday 25th

A very heavy swell setting in. The watch all came off all but John Platt & the Carpenter. When the boat went in with the larboard watch, she got capsized in the rollers but, as plenty of assistance was at hand no damage was received, excepting a good drenching in their Sunday go-to-meetings. The boat was also righted without any damage to her.

Saturday 28th

The Copper John Guinan & Carpenter William J Talbot ran away today & we cannot look after them until the Captain comes back from the country, and gets a warrant out for them.

Tuesday 31st

All were onboard this morning but the Cooper & Carpenter & we have got to lay 24 hours according to law to look for them.

Wednesday 1st, April fools day

It was found this morning that three of our men had deserted during the night. Jams Sherman, James Platt and John Platt. Information was immediately sent onshore, where it was found they were already in custody, having been found with Talbott our carpenter & taken on suspicion. They were all brought onboard by a policeman, and our captain came also, putting them in irons & confining them in the after hold. He then went ashore for his papers & returning bout 11:30am, we got under weight taking a last look at the town, where most of our people had enjoyed themselves so well that it seemed more like leaving home again, than it did like leaving a strange place.

{a} Into The Blue{5}{b} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{5}

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{1} This photograph is actually from the 1930s and the target was likely a dolphin or porpoise, but the harpoon almost certainly dates from the whaling days.{2} Or maybe Boer PoWs - there are differing interpretations of this photograph.{3} Yes, we know - whales are mammals, not fish. That’s just what the industry was called at the time.{4} It was said that, on arrival, whalemen would immediately head for public houses where the type of women they were looking for could be found.{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

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