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Scottish Arctic Whaling

Professor emeritus mines whalers' logbooks, diaries for new book

Research | Books at Memorial

Scottish Arctic Whaling, by Dr. Chesley Sanger, professor emeritus, Department of Geography, brings to light a previously little-known but important Scottish industry.

The author’s extensive use of original sources such as logbooks and diaries shows that hundreds of whaling vessels, sailing variously from 16 east coast Scottish ports, harvested more than 20,000 bowhead whales at East Greenland, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay during 18th and 19th centuries. And they did so under almost unimaginably demanding and hazardous conditions.

More than 110 ships were lost, while others were detained within the pack ice, causing the whale-men to suffer starvation, disease, scurvy, frostbite and death. In 1836 alone, more than 100 whalers on the Advice and Thomas, Dundee, and Dee of Aberdeen, perished when they became entrapped at Davis Strait.

Nevertheless, by the second half of the 19th century, through hard work, skill and perseverance, Scotland had a virtual monopoly on Arctic oil and bone, until seriously depleted stocks and the outbreak of the First World War brought the industry to a close.

Dr. Sanger grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, where life was geared to the rhythms of the sea. He says the book draws together under one cover information contained in his two graduate thesis and more than 20 journal articles and book chapters dating from 1973-2012.

“I also made a conscious effort to mould the earlier studies into a coherent whole, with a minimum of repetition, in order to make Arctic bowhead whaling and its contribution to Scotland’s history better known and more easily available to a broader audience, including to a lesser degree, those who might be interested in Newfoundland sealing and Baffin Island whaling,” he said.

Dr. Sanger completed a PhD in the Origins of the Scottish Northern Whaling Fishery from the University of Dundee. He has published a number of books, including Twentieth Century Shore-Station Whaling in Newfoundland and Labrador (2006, with A.B. Dickinson), which received the Canadian Nautical Research Society Award for Best Book. He also received the New Bedford Whaling Museum Waterman Award for “contribution to the history of whaling” (2008).