If you want to find out who’s responsible for killing the whale, the Frisia Coast Trail area is the prime spot to look. When you stop people on the streets in this coastal region and ask them if they have knowledge of who did it, they probably will respond with: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing”. Officials in The Hague city will say they consider it shitty not to have any recollection on the matter. Better call them all Ishmael. In this post we’ll reveal the unvarnished truth. How the people living in the coastal zone from the city of Amsterdam to that of Hamburg, and up to the islands of Föhr and Sylt, practically exterminated the Arctic whale populations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, grab a pen and paper to prepare a lawsuit for redress and compensation after all.
This is a history of the classic whaling in the Arctic that existed between circa 1610 and 1860, commonly known as Grönlandfahrt or Groenlandvaart ‘Greenland navigation’ in the waters east of Greenland, and Davi(d)straatvaart ‘Davis Strait navigation’ in the waters west of Greenland. Commercial whale hunting in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean that developed from the late-eighteenth century onward, led by the Americans and as monumentally described by Herman Melville in his novel Moby-Dick or The Whale, isn’t the focus of this post. Neither is modern commercial whaling with its ship factories that started after the Second World War.
1. But Why?
Before we begin, it’s instructive to know why the peoples of the southern coast of the North Sea started harpooning and slaughtering whales and other cute-looking chubby mammals in the Arctic in the first place. The main reason was for its fat. Its blubber. Out of their blubber whale oil, or better known as train-oil, can be manufactured. An oil called traan, Tran or troon in the various coastal speeches of the southern North Sea. Blubber of whales, or of any other fat mammal, was cooked in big copper cauldrons to melt it. When you then cool it down using several baths of cold water, clear train-oil remains floating on the water surface. Prima quality is achieved if the blubber is cooked quickly after the kill. Therefore, train-oil was produced on various islands in the Arctic itself. Later, halfway the seventeenth century, the blubber had to be transported in barrels all the way back to patria ‘homeland’ to cook it there. Later in this post we’ll explain the reason for this change of production location. There were two types of blubber that were separately stored in barrels, namely vet ‘fat’, and smelly kreng. Kreng was impure vet and gut. A kreng, by the way, is a common, more-or-less minor insult for a person still being used in the Netherlands.
Oils were necessary in all kinds of industries, like ropewalk, expedient textiles, wool production, lubricant for machinery, and for lighting fuel. Indeed, the grease lightnin’. Prices of regular vegetarian oil had gone up in the sixteenth century due to a fast-growing population in Europe. The focus of agriculture was on producing grains which led to a shortage of oil-seeds. After the Second World War, again a shortage of oil existed, which was a major incentive to restart commercial whaling.
Another product made out of whales, albeit not as lucrative as train-oil, was baleen. Baleen plates are the bristles in the mouth of baleen whales to filter out krill. It’s a flexible material which was used to produce all kinds of products. From tobacco boxes and umbrellas to knife handles. Baleen was also lucrative because of fashion. It was used for corsets and later for crinoline dresses. Furthermore, out of whale bones an expensive lubricant or charnel oil was extracted called knekelolie in Dutch, used for, among other, medicinal purposes. Lastly, whale bones as such were used for making fences, streets, and even gravestones. Just try not to trip over a piece of whale bone when you are on holiday on one of the Wadden Sea islands. Impossible not to.
Species hunted at, were the grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and the North Atlantic right whale (Balaene mysticetus). The latter is also known as the bowhead whale or, in Dutch language, the noordkaper. The right whale is thought to be the longest living mammal on the planet, and becomes an estimated 200 years old. But different theories on this. The right whale got its name because it was simply the ‘right’ whale to catch. It swam slow, it was relatively big and heavy, it had a very thick layer of blubber, and, most importantly, it didn’t sink to the sea floor after it took its last breath. Due to all its body fat. Many other whale species sink when dead. Back then, no ropes existed that were strong enough to haul such a dead weight from the blue depths.
At the beginning of the commercial whaling industry, the fat layer of right whales was about forty to sixty centimetres thick. Commercial hunting affected populations strongly and the size and the average amount of fat per animal decreased. In the ’60s of the eighteenth century, the average amount of vet ‘fat’ per animal was forty to fifty barrels. In the ’90s of the same century, this had decreased to ten to twenty-five barrels of vet (Bruijn 2016). Especially in the waters around the Spitsbergen archipelago, whales were skinnier due to long-term overfishing resulting in younger immature whale populations. In the waters west of Greenland, whales carried more fat for longer (Baars-Visser, et al 2022). At the end of the nineteenth century, the North Atlantic right whale was nearly extinct. The North Atlantic grey whale became extinct. Period.
To warm you up for this icy long-read, first a shivering testimony of a Frisian who wandered stark naked on freezing and barren Greenland for days. Albeit most documented encounters of seafarers with the native people of Greenland, the Inuit, were friendly, this was one wasn’t that welcoming.
On the run naked on Greenland – In the year 1777, known as the disaster year, fourteen ships were wrecked in the Arctic waters west of Greenland after a heavy storm. Seven ships from the city of Hamburg, and seven ships from the Republic. In total, 300 men died that season. Other men of wrecked ships succeeded in reaching the shores of Greenland, where they encountered the Inuit. One of the sailors is Reinier Hylkes from the village of Warnt in province Friesland. He sailed on the ship De Hopende Visser ‘the optimistic fisherman’.
The ‘wilden’ (wildlings), as the account goes, brought the whalers to their settlement, where they received fish, seal meat and, scurvy-grass, also called ‘salaat’ or ‘lepelblad’. The men were divided over two tents. A big and a small tent. Hylkes was put in the big one, together with thirty-seven other men. Here they stayed for two weeks, when nineteen men left with boats they had purchased from the Inuit in the meantime. The others had no further valuables left to buy a boat too. These remaining nineteen men noticed that the atmosphere became hostile. They received little to eat, and had to do chores. When relatives of the Inuit came over, the sailors had to sing for them, after which they were rewarded with some raw seal meat. If someone became ill, which happened regularly because all of them were weakened, the Inuit threw the person outside to die in the cold. The next phase was that the Inuit started to take men outside continuously, regardless of being ill. Never to be heard from again. Sometimes the Inuit came back laughing and imitating: ”Jan, Pieter, Aarjen, Oh God, oh God!” It were the last words of men in mortal fear.
This went on until Hylkes with only four others were the last remaining men alive. By then it was February. That month the Inuit moved north with their boats. After a few days of travelling, it turned out another shipmate, who probably had stayed in the small tent, was still alive. The joy of seeing each other was great but brief. Before Hylkes’ eyes the man was clubbed to death. After this, they took Hylkes’ clothes and left him stark naked on the beach. Hylkes was told he would die the following day. That night Hylkes fled. After three days wandering stark naked on the rocks along the coast, he spotted a tent. These Inuit were friendly and gave him clothing and food. Later they brought Hylkes to a Danish trader. This trader also spoke with the cruel Inuit, but it was impossible to act against these murderers. There were too many, and it would become too dangerous for them as Europeans. They did return Hylkes’ clothes, though.
Now watch the Taxes Chainsaw Massacre movies again.
Another sailor who was shipwrecked in the disaster year of 1777, was the Frisian Hidde Dirks Kat (1747-1824) from the Wadden Sea island of Ameland. On 30 September, his ship was wrecked by pack-ice and icebergs during a heavy swell directly after the severe storm that had been blowing from the northeast for days. After being an amazing eleven days on ice floes at open sea, with no shelter and only a bit of food, they managed to reach Statenhoek, i.e. the southernmost point of Greenland, known now as Cape Farewell or Nunap Isua in Greenlandic language.
From the seventy-eight men only eighteen had reached land. Some drowned, some froze to death, some were heartbreakingly left behind because they were too weak to continue moving. After some more wandering along the coast, Kat and his men ended up with the Inuit at the settlement of Frederikshab, modern Paamiut. They were treated friendly by the locals. Kat is very impressed by them, and it feels even warmer than at home. Worst thing happened to Kat concerning the treatment by the Inuit people, was that he had to wash himself with human urine. In the house of the Inuit stood a barrel filled with saved up urine. Concerning food, his diet consisted of seals, foxes, and crows. In 1778, Kat returns to his own cozy, rainy and windy island at the Wadden Sea.
2. The Run Up to Whaling
The high North was not an unfamiliar place for merchants of the Dutch Republic. Merchants traded for long with Norway, Finnmark, and the White Sea area. Trade consisted of timber, furs, and hemp. Between 1578 and 1583, the Republic had a trading post at the mouth of the river Dvina in the Tsardom of Russia. A post that was relocated to Novo Kholmogory, where also the eternal enemy of the Dutch, the English, was present. Later, Kholmogory was known as Arkhangelsk. Named after the nearby monastery. This is also how the so-called Archangelvaart or Arkangelsk navigation got its name. An early explorer of the Arctic was Olivier Brunel (also written as Bruyneel) from the town of Leuven, Flanders. In the year 1584 he ventured in the area. Sadly, it was his last trip too. He drowned in 1585 near the mouth of the river Pechora. Brunel is considered the founder of the Arkangelsk navigation. Today, Team Brunel led by Dutch sailor Bouwe Bekking, is a strong competitor in the Volvo Ocean Race. But this aside.
At the end of the sixteenth century, the English and Dutch became truly obsessed with finding a sea passage through the Arctic seas to Asia, the mythical Northeast Passage. It would be shorter thus cheaper. The overland Silk Road to Asia took very long and was dangerous. Hence, very costly. And, as a bonus, with a Northeast Passage the British and Dutch would get rid of Portuguese, Spanish and French attacks at sea, and avoid seas and harbours infested with pirates, privateers, and Barbary and Salé corsairs. Of course, the Northeast Passage would only be possible four centuries later after civilization had warmed the earth sufficiently to melt the ice.
The Republic organized three expeditions to find the Northeast Passage. In the year 1594, two ships gave it a try. One under command of the West-Frisian Cornelis Nay from the town of Enkhuizen, and one under that of the Frisian Willem Barentsz. from the Wadden Sea island of Terschelling. The East-Frisian seafarer Pieter Dirksz. Keyser from the city of Emden, also participated in the expedition. Nay and his party reached Kara Strait, south of Novaya Zemlya. The ship of Nay casually and provisionally caught a whale for the first time too. That was on 14 July 1594. Explorer Jan Huygens van Linschoten, who was also present at the scene of the crime, wrote about this first blood in his travelogue. It was, by the way, only a young animal. While the men were removing the blubber and chopping the creature into pieces on the beach, its mother watched the whole Dexter massacre from the water. Its body lifted high from the water so she could see. Not the celebrating atmosphere of quatorze julliet of today. And mother whale only witnessed a short prelude of what was to come the coming centuries. In the old city hall of Haarlem, one of the two whalebone jaws Van Linschoten took from the Arctic still hangs on its ceiling.
A year later, in 1595, a fleet of seven ships under command of Nay gave it another, second, try. Barentsz. was also one of the captains. Of course, no passage to Asia was found.
Three is a charm, and in 1596 stubborn Barentsz. tried for a third time to find the Northeast Passage. This time alone with one ship. It was during this voyage that Barentsz. discovered the archipelago of Spitsbergen ‘peak mountains’ and Beereneiland ‘bears island’. His ship got stuck in the ice at the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. ‘Zoo vast als Haarlem‘, as the expression was when a ship got beset ‘stuck’ in the ice. Referring to the long siege of the city of Haarlem by the Spanish in the years 1572-1573 (Baars-Visser 2022). Finally the ship was crushed. Barentsz. and his crew had to stay and defy the harsh Arctic winter. They managed to survive in a house they’d built from the wood of the ship. A house they named ‘t Behouden Huys ‘the preserving house’. With a sloop they had constructed, they rowed back to the mainland once the sea was ice free the next year. On their way back, Barentsz. died on 20 June 1597.
The reward of the States General for finding the Northeast Passage was 25,000 guilders. If he would have survived, would it all have been worth it for Barentsz., we wonder.
At the start of the seventeenth century, initiated by the Muscovy Company, the English began to look for the Northeast Passage too. The Muscovy Company, also named the Russia Company and founded in the year 1551, held monopoly over the English-Russian trade. In 1557, it already had a charter on whaling. In the years 1603, 1604, 1605, 1607 and 1610 expeditions financed by the Muscovy Company took off to the Arctic as well.
The one of 1607 was led by the famous explorer Henry Hudson. Shortly after this expedition, Hudson was hired by Dutch merchants of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie VOC to discover a Northeast Passage. In the year 1609, sailing under the Dutch flag, he didn’t discover a passage but something completely else: the river Hudson and the island of Manhattan. No idea wow Hudson ended up all the way in west given his assignment. Anyway, it’s here where the New Netherland colony and the town of New Amsterdam, future New York City, soon would be founded. Read our post History is written by the victors – a history of the credits for more about this piece of Dutch-Frisian world-changing history.
An interesting anecdote worth mentioning happened during the English expedition of 1610 into the Arctic, which was led by Jonas Pool. When Pool passed the waters of the Spitsbergen archipelago, the sea was filled with whales. They were so many that they swam against the anchor chains and the rudder of the ship.
Concerning Spitsbergen, the Norwegians annexed the archipelago in the twentieth century. Claiming the Vikings already had discovered everything there is to discover in the northern hemisphere, and consequently every grain of sand, pebble, or piece of rock in this area was already theirs. Norwegians do think big, it cannot be denied. They also gave Spitsbergen another name to mark their turf, namely Svalbard meaning ‘cold coast’. Nevertheless, Barentsz’ name Spitsbergen for the whole archipelago stuck as the predominant name to this day. At least some consolation for Barentsz.’ efforts.
The Republic did not claim the rocks, islands, and land after Barentsz. had discovered it. Its merchants were merely interested in making money in the waters surrounding the archipelago. For the rest they lived by Hugo Grotius’ international law concept of mare liberum ‘the free sea’. Neither did the Republic claim Beereneiland now called Bjørnøya, nor did they claim the island of Jan Mayen. Islands Dutch seafarers had discovered too. The latter island kept its name as well. It was discovered in the year 1614 by the West-Frisian Jan Jacobsz. Mayen from the village of Schellinkhout. All these islands have been claimed by the king of Norway based on that same hackneyed Viking-stuff reasoning: Vikings must have been there, so it’s ours. We’re unaware if the Norwegians consulted the Inuit prior to their pretentions. And while we’re at it, if one follows this reasoning the Irish will probably have an even older claim than the Vikings, with their monks sailing the seas to remote lands and islands in the sixth century in the tradition of peregrinatio dei. Who knows, Ireland will file a claim at the Peace Palace in The Hague to make a case Greenland, Beereneiland, Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Island are actually Irish territory.
3. Basque Tutors
In the year 1611, things really started moving with the whole whale catching thing. The time was right because of high demand for oil and the prices that go with it. Thanks to all previous expeditions, both the Republic and England had mapped the Arctic area well. The Muscovy Company fitted out two ships for the hunt. A year later, in 1612, Dutch investors also send a ship, led by Willem Cornelisz. van Muyden. Because both countries had no experience how to hunt, kill, cut, and process these huge animals, they hired Basque seamen. Especially harpooners and speksnijders ‘whale-cutters’. This coastal people had been whaling for ages and became the Master Yodas of full-scale commercial whaling in the Arctic by the Dutch, Frisians, Germans and, to a lesser extent, the English and Danes in the early modern period.
Basques already hunted whales in the mid-eleventh century. Maybe centuries before that already. But evidence for this is circumstantial. The chase was for its meat. Producing salted fish – whales were considered fish back then – was an economic niche due to Catholic dietary restrictions. No meat allowed on Fridays, neither on the uncountable Catholic saint’s days. Bit comparable as to why typical Western seafood joints selling fish and ships are popular with Muslim youth for a snack these days. Medieval Basque whaling was not in the Arctic yet, but in their own waters, the Bay of Biscay. Through this bay is where the North Atlantic right whale migrated north. In Euskara language, the Basques call them sarda meaning ‘schooling whale’. They also hunted the grey whale, which they called otta sotta. How would it have ended with the pious Catholics at the gates of Heaven when interrogated by Saint Peter? Explaining they honestly hadn’t eaten any meat on Fridays and saint’s days, and it always was fish they ate. And don’t go blaming the Basque for it. They too thought those whales were fish.
Along the coast of Biscay, Basques had constructed stone watch towers called vigías to look out for whales. As soon as whales were spotted, sloops called chalupas in Euskara language, were sent out to hunt the animals down. The French called these sloops chaloupes, the English shallops and the German Schaluppe. It’s clear the English word sloop and the Dutch sloep derive from it as well. The chalupas were manned by five oarsmen, a harpooner, and a steersman. After the harpoon, which was attached with a rope to the sloop, was thrown by hand into the body, the animal then was tired out. For many whales, prolonged exertion leads to heat exhaustion, because their blubber is too thick to get rid off excessive body heat quick. At the point the whale was exhausted, the whalers approached the beast up close again and with a lance, a blade without barbs, called a lens in Dutch language, they made the kill. Trying to hit the lungs or heart specifically. Basque whaling in the Bay of Biscay reached its peak mid-sixteenth century. It went into decline soon after that.
Whale Rodeo – Harpooner Jacob Dieukes from the village of Assendelft in province Holland is the first successful whale rodeo rider in history. In the year 1660, he throws his harpoon into a whale, but he falls overboard. The lines of the harpoon entangle him to the lower body part of the whale. The whale, in terror and agony, swims for its life with Dieukes tied to its body. The men in the sloop try to keep up, but the animal is too fast. Three times the whale dives deep into the freezing cold Arctic waters, with Dieukes as a horse rider on his back holding his breath. A sea so cold it can make your heart stop instantly. After the third dive the harpoon finally falls loose, and Dieukes can reach his knife and cuts himself free. He was picked up from the icy water and quickly given a new set of clothes. Dieukes resumed the hunt immediately. Well, Daryl Mills, chew on that!
It’s a scene one can also find in Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, when the ‘Iranian’ harpooner Fedallah is tied with ropes to the famous white sperm whale too. Fedallah, however, never lived to tell the rough sea ride. Only storyteller Ishmael did, of course. Whether Melville was inspired by this historic account, we don’t know.
It’s from the first quarter of the sixteenth century that Basques started to hunt whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, called la gran baya, at the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Especially the Strait of Belle Isle was an important hunting ground of the Basques. At Red Bay rendering stations have been found, including the remains of tryworks. Archaeological research suggests that, although cod fishing was the primary objective, whale hunting became a fallback activity for the Basques during the period 1520-1530. It’s from 1540 onward, that Basques mounted dedicated whale hunting expeditions to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. They applied the same coastal hunting strategy as in the Bay of Biscay. As they’d done since the Middle Ages.
For long, the Basques managed to keep their cod fishing and whaling grounds secret. To this day, it’s unclear when exactly Basques started fishing cod in Canadian waters. Was it before or after Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492? This remains the pressing question. Incidentally, not much different from today when you ask a sport angler where he or she caught that big pike perch or carp. They’ll never give you an honest answer. Whales were still primarily caught by Basques for their meat which was salted. But also for lamp oil. Train-oil, or grasa de ballena, mixed with tar was also used to chalk ships.
The so-called Terra Nova industry peaked between 1560 and 1570. During this period, each summer about twenty ships with a crew of about 2,000 men in total left from Basque Country for the Canadian shores. By the year 1620, however, this activity had ended. As to why it did, scholars aren’t in agreement. It might have been due to over-hunting with a reduction of the right whale populations as a consequence. In only fifty years about 20,000 whales had been killed. It also might have been caused by external, Castilian reasons, like wars, forced recruitment for the armada, taxes, and a drop in train-oil prices. We guess, the latter explanation is more convincing, since not much later commercial whaling started and was lucrative.
The previous is to illustrate that the Dutch and the English whaling start-ups needed the expertise of the Basques badly. Basque sailors knew their value and hiring them did cost you. Over the years 1612-1639, more than a quarter of the whaling crew consisted of Basque officers. No wonder the Dutch tried to master the skills themselves as soon as possible and cut costs. Over the years 1640-1700, the Basque share of the crew sharply dropped to a few percent. Their place had been taken over by notably Frisians from province Friesland and from region Ostfriesland, including many Frisians of the Wadden Sea islands like Ameland, Borkum, Terschelling, Texel, and Vlieland, and most of the islands and Halligen of region Nordfriesland. Especially, the march of the troonbook into the whaling branch was significant, as we will see further below in this post, when discussing the massive participation and representation of the Nordfriesen in the whale hunt. Troonbook, by the way, is North-Frisian language and translates as ‘train-oil beacon’. Referring to the penetrating smell of sailors when they arrived back home from whaling after many months. To be more precise, the smell of a mixture of train-oil, overcooked pea, and yummy old sweat.
One Basque sailor we should mention, namely Jean Vrolicq, also known by the Dutch as Jan or Johannes Vrolyk. Claimed to have been the one who had discovered Disco Island and the good hunting grounds of Disco Bay in the year 1629. The French Cardinal Duke of Richelieu, who believed the profitable words of Vrolicq, gave him a charter for whaling north of 60 degrees latitude. Commander Cornelis Pietersz. Ys from Wadden Sea island Vlieland, however, felt less than impressed by this cardinal charter, and confiscated five of Vrolicq’s hunting sloops in 1634, and simply ordered the Frenchman-Basque to seek his fortunes and misfortunes elsewhere (Doedens & Houter 2022). Vrolicq’s claim to have discovered Disco Island is undeserved. These ‘credits’ must go to Norseman Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red, who lived in the tenth century. The colony of the Greenland Vikings used the island as summer hunting area, which they called Norðrsetur. Or were it the Irish monks?
Anyway, presence of the Dutch along the coasts of Greenland, is evident from the many toponyms like Walvis Eilanden ‘whale islands’, Honden Eilanden ‘dog islands’, Vlakke Groene Eilanden ‘flat green islands’, Fortuyn Baai ‘fortune bay’, and Liefde Baai ‘love bay'(!), of which some still are being used (Baars-Visser, et al 2022). What happened at Liefde Baai will be explained further below.
4. Monopoly Whaling
Initial heart of commercial whaling was the wealthy merchants in the city of Amsterdam and the regions north of it, namely region Zaan, the villages Graft and De Rijp on (former) Schermer island, and to a lesser extent regions Waterland and West-Friesland, like De Zijpe. From the (former) island of Huisduinen many commandeurs ‘commanders’ originated too, about which we’ll say something more later. All these areas are located in what’s today province Noord Holland. More in general, at the end of the sixteenth century, the three coastal provinces of the Dutch Republic, namely province Zeeland, province Holland and West-Friesland, and province Friesland, had built up the biggest merchant fleet the world had ever seen hitherto.
Besides a long-standing seafaring tradition, dating back to the Early Middle Ages (read our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks), this coastal strip had achieved this status through, among other, innovations in ship building. At the time of the Republic, they were able to build standardized, thus cheaper ships. This way this part of the North Sea coast became dominant in maritime freight. Especially, the three-masted fluit ship-type, also named flute, fluyt or fly-boat, developed in the West-Frisian town of Hoorn, was paramount to this development. A bit like the black-painted Ford Model T rolling from the assembly lines in Detroit from 1908 onward. To quote Henry Ford: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”
With cheap fluit ships the Republic became leading in particularly the marine trade of grain, wood, and salt. Besides the assembly line, other innovations concerning fluit ships were: its big loading capacity, not being armed, and that it could be sailed with a relatively small crew. Living and sleeping quarters was a shared area for the whole crew regardless of rank, which was unusual back then. Indeed, the concept of flex working spaces of today. All this resulting in reduced costs and thus bigger profits. Around the year 1600, the Republic indisputable had become the center in world trade. Crowded Amsterdam was bursting with investors and capital, looking for new business opportunities. The reports from the Arctic were financially promising, so these money makers happily started to invest in commercial whaling too.
The start of whaling in the year 1612, immediately led to incidents among the ships of different countries hunting in the waters of the Spitsbergen archipelago. Furthermore, to strengthen their position against the English Muscovy Company, several merchants requested the States General of the Republic to grant an octroy ‘charter’. In 1614, a charter for three years was given. It read:
van Nova Sembla tot Fretum Davids toe, daeronder begrepen Spitsbergen, Beereneylant, Groenlandt ende andere eylanden, die onder de voorsz. Limieten souden mogen gevonden wordenoctroy of the Noordt Compagnie
(from Novaya Zemlya to Davis Strait, including Spitsbergen (i.e. modern Svalbard), Beereneylant (i.e. modern Bjørnøya), Greenland and other islands, which may be found within the aforementioned limitations).
The charter would be renewed in the years 1617, 1622, 1623, and for one last time in 1634. In the year 1642, the charter expired, and whaling was a fully free, private enterprise henceforward.
The charter of 1614 was the start of the Noordsche Compagnie ‘northern company’. A bit analogue to the aforementioned VOC and the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC). At first, the Noordsche Compagnie had five sections, the so-called kamers ‘chambers’, namely of the cities and towns of Amsterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, and Rotterdam. In 1617, another company was established. This after the discovery of Jan Mayen Island a few years earlier. In 1623, this smaller company was merged into the bigger Noordsche Compagnie.
Later, in 1635, the kamer of the town of Harlingen was added to the Compagnie. This after a serious conflict between States General of the Republic in The Hague and the States of Province Friesland, because Friesland was denied participation by the Noordsche Compagnie. A year before, province Friesland had created leverage in their quarrel with Holland by unilaterally granting a charter to Hilbrand Dircksz., a burgomaster in the port of Harlingen, and to Wijbe Jansz., a burgomaster in the port of Stavoren. Both got their own kamer (Doedens & Houter 2022). Soon after, the States General in The Hague turned around. Frisians were accepted, and the kamer of Harlingen was added to the Noordsche Compagnie. The kamer of Harlingen probably was housed at the north end of the Zuiderhaven docks (Otten 2022).
The Noordsche Compagnie set up whaling stations on Spitsbergen, Jan Meyen Island, and on Beereneiland. In the north-west of the Spitsbergen archipelago were three factorijen ‘factories’ or landing stations, i.e. small seasonal settlements. These tryworks annex settlements were Smeerenburg ‘smear burg’ on Amsterdam Island, Harlinger Traankokerij ‘Harlingen oil factory’ on Deenseiland, and Zeeuwse Uytkyck ‘Zeeland look out’ on the northern-most point of the archipelago. So, every Dutch coastal province had its own base. The English concentrated their activities in the south of the Spitsbergen archipelago, and is where their tryworks were established. That way both countries could co-exist in the otherwise vast ice seas.
After some naughty Basques had plundered the company’s storage on Spitsbergen in the year 1632, and not lacking in good ideas, the Noordsche Compagnie even tried to maintain presence in the Arctic all year round. It was a disastrous, and maybe not too smart, undertaking. Seven men stayed the winter on Jan Mayen Island in 1633. They all died. At Smeerenburg on Spitsbergen, the overwintering succeeded that year. The men were able to find enough scurvy-grass in time for crucial vitamin C intake which prevented, indeed, the illness of scurvy. Scurvy-grass a day, keeps the doctor away. The year after, however, all seven men left again at again at Smeerenburg died a horrible death. After that, the overwintering idea in the Arctic was put to bed by the company for good.
Besides Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Island, men would stay the winter on Beereneiland too. This, however, involuntary after shipwreck. It was the Frisian helmsman Lambert Pietersz. Geweldt from the Wadden Sea island of Vlieland who survived a horrible winter. He stayed from 3 November 1700 till 16 July 1701 on Beereneiland. Sleeping in an improvised tent, sometimes enduring temperatures of almost 30 degree Celsius below freezing. Geweldt and his men fed on foxes, bears, birds, eggs, and walrus. And, just in time in the month June, some scurfy grass, because they all suffered of scurvy very badly already. Only four of the ten men survived (Doedens & Houter 2022). Indeed, what a way to celebrate the turn of a century.
Typical routine of whalers was that they left with their ships in spring and returned well after summer. The route they sailed was from the Wadden Sea island of Texel to the archipelago of Shetland. From there the ships sailed to the Spitsbergen archipelago, Jan Mayen Island, and Beereneiland. Shetland, by the way, was called Hitland by the Dutch. This name is copied from the Faroese language in which it’s named Hetland.
As soon as the ships had left from the Texel anchorage, the so-called vleet or armazoen was distributed among the crew. The armazoen, provided by the ship owner, was the whale hunting equipment, like harpoons, lances, and uncountable different types of whale-cutter knives. Everyone had to prepare and sharpen their own knives etc, and split their own hunting ropes. They had to be ready once they entered the Arctic seas. Sloops were prepared for immediate action too. When the command Val! Val! was shouted, all sloops, often six in total, had to be manned instantly. Six to seven men in every sloop. As the sailors said: “because the whale wouldn’t wait for them”. The Dutch word val means ‘to fall/to drop’. If the hunt was unsuccessful, the whalers spoke of a loose val ‘futile fall’. Total crew on board a whaling ship amounted around forty-five men, all listed on the monster rolle ‘muster roll’. Muster rolls were drawn-up by an official named waterschout ‘water sheriff’. Know that a fluit ship in regular marine trade only needed about fifteen men to sail it. So, whale hunting with a crew of forty-five was all about intensive, and relatively costly business.
Note that on board whaling ships the command was not in the hands of a kapitein ‘captain’ but of a commandeur ‘commander’. Owner of the enterprise itself was called a directeur ‘director’ or boekhouder ‘bookkeeper’. Apart from commanding the ship at sea, the commander was also responsibly for recruiting his crew. Often, these men were family members and trusted, familiar faces from the village or area, supplemented with men from further away, as far as Germany. Interviewing potential crew typically took place at the local tavern. If the applicant was hired, he received some earnest money called wijnkoop ‘wine purchase’ to buy warm clothing and purchase some personal supplies like tobacco (Baars-Visser, et al 2022).
From 1719 onward, when hunting grounds were expanded into Davis Strait at the west coast of Greenland, they sailed west from Shetland to Statenhoek, the southernmost point of Greenland. From there they sailed up north into the strait. All in all, it took them a month and a half to reach these far away hunting grounds.
Top 10 dangers for whalers – (1) pack-ice, (2) ice bergs, (3) heavy storms, (4) the hunt itself, (5) scurvy, (6) pirates and privateers (mostly French and Spanish), (7) illnesses, (8) mutiny, (9) Inuit, (10) sea monsters (unverified)
Reliable statistics concerning the numbers and percentages of seamen who died are not available. The recorded shipwrecks and deaths show it was a much safer job than sailing with the VOC to the West. In this line of business a mortality rate of fifty percent was pretty normal. Of course, then they were longer away, so the time at risk increased too.
From the late 1630s, profits of the Noordsche Compagnie were in decline. Main reasons for it was climate change. Yes, already back then. The climate had become warmer. Therefore, the rim of the pack-ice moved more to the north. Whales forage especially at the fringes of the ice. This meant whales had to be caught further out at sea (Hacquebord 2019). Because the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie only extended to the shores of land and islands, given Grotius’ concept of mare liberum mentioned earlier, the company couldn’t benefit from its monopoly anymore. Hence, many more whaling ships were financed by Dutch businessmen to hunt at open sea: ‘hvalfangst i no man’s land‘.
The Noordsche Compagnie did petition for a new charter, this time for the whole Arctic. But the States General in The Hague principally declined the request. As a result, a fierce competition developed at high sea. No longer merely with foreign nations like the English and French, but now also with ships financed by the Dutch themselves. A fre market. Cooperation among the kamers became poor, and it was everyone for themselves. As said, in the year 1642 the charter expired and wasn’t extended anymore. Despite the Noordsche Compagnie had lost its monopoly, the kamer of Amsterdam kept functioning as an enterprise until 1658, and the kamer of Harlingen a bit longer until 1662.
Whaling was an important source of revenue for the port town of Harlingen. When looking at its value, train-oil was the most import export commodity of Harlingen in the mid-seventeenth century. Between 1641 and 1660, at least seven skippers from Harlingen where at the whaling. In the notarial archives of Amsterdam over the period 1640-1664, at least twenty skippers from Harlingen have been identified (Doedens & Houter 2022).
Given that whales had to be caught much further away from the islands, it also meant dead whales could no longer be dragged to the landing stations to be processed into train-oil promptly. Distances were too great and it would be too time consuming. Efficiency demanded that whales were being processed at high sea henceforth. Also, a dead whale decays quickly. As a result the stations on the Spitsbergen archipelago were abandoned in the 1650s. The last one that was abandoned, was in the year 1660. Although whales from then on were cut at high sea, they didn’t cook the blubber on board the ships. This would too risky for burning the ship down. After the blubber was cut off, it was conserved in airtight barrels to be cooked back at home.
5. Free Whaling for Everyone
From the end of the 1630’s, whaling is booming business. In the year 1650, the English Muscovy Company stepped out of the whaling industry. It was in a state of bankruptcy due to worsened bilateral relations between England and the Tsardom of Russia. England would only re-enter the whaling business modestly in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. However, around the mid-eighteenth century, England had equaled the Republic in volume already, and would take over the leading position from then on. The English whaling industry was heavily subsidized by the state. This had a strategic military purpose, namely to have sailors at the whaling as de facto reservists for the navy when needed. Availability of enough sailors on warships on short notice, was always a real concern for navies.
In the period between 1670 and 1730, whaling was at its peak. Every season between 150 and 250 ships were fitted out from the Republic for the hunt. Sometimes even as many as 300. Over the whole eighteenth century on average 260 ships went whaling in the Arctic every year (Leinenga 2015). Were in the period before the year 1642 only between 300 and 400 whales caught, after that numbers skyrocketed to circa 2,000 every year.
The Republic also started whaling on the other side of the Pond, in their fresh colony of New Netherland. In 1629, the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) ‘Dutch West India Company’ bought land in Delaware Bay from the Lenape native tribe. Among other with an aim at commercial whaling (Romm 2010). The piece of land in Delaware Bay is where the settlement of Swaanendael was founded, the modern town of Lewes, and is where the Dutch would start hunting whales in the year 1631. The eighty, first settlers from the Republic at the new settlement of Swaanendael even left for the Americas with a ship called De Walvis ‘the whale’ in the year 1630. Coincidence? However, it turned out to be a disaster. Most of the settlers were killed by the Lenape soon after their arrival in 1632, possibly due to a misunderstanding. In the year that followed, another attempt was made to start whaling in Delaware Bay, also at Cape May (Degener 2012). But these settlers lacked the skills and decent quality harpoons to hunt whales properly. No Basques there to teach them. Despite whaling didn’t develop in the New Netherland colony into a business, it’s the start of American whaling history nevertheless. Of course, if we leave out potential earlier but undocumented Basque’s hunting activity.
Besides the Republic, also the free cities of Bremen and, especially, Hamburg along the southern coast of the North Sea, participated in the whaling too. That was when the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie ended. These cities fitted out about sixty ships every season. From the mid-fifteenth century, Bremen and Hamburg claimed to be a Freie Reichsstadt, free imperial cities, not belonging to any duchy or lord. Their way of doing business was comparable with that of the Republic, and many connections and relations existed between both. From 1640, the city of Hamburg had its own landing station and trywork on the western shores of the Spitsbergen archipelago, called Hamburg-Bucht, or in Dutch Hamburger Baaytje. Like the Republic, the ‘German’ cities of Bremen and Hamburg also preferred the principle of international free maritime trade. This contrary to Denmark, England and Sweden, which adhered (and adhere) mercantilism, a protective trade policy. De term ‘German’ is written between quotations marks, because in the eighteenth century there was no such thing as a German state yet. Only a collection of principalities, counties and (free) cities.
What about the Danes?
Danish whaling started with the Dutch in the lead. Johan or Jan de Villum from the Republic. In the year 1614, he was granted a the right to hunt whales in the Arctic. Four years later, De Villum and the Dane Jens Munk start together a whaling company. In 1917, yet another Dutchman, Herman Rosenkrantz from Rotterdam, was one of the founders of a different Danish whaling company. Both companies were minor players, and each send a ship to the Spitsbergen archipelago in 1619. A year later, Johan Braem, again a Dutchman in Denmark, became director of the Greenlandic Company. This company wasn’t a success, and in 1652 the Greenlandic Company was liquidated (Christensen 2021).
After these Dutch-Danish enterprises, it took the Danes until the last quarter of the eighteenth century to engage in whaling in an organized fashion. After apparently giving it much and long consideration, their king founded the Kongelige Grønlandske Handel ‘royal Greelandic trade’ (KGH) as late as in the year 1774. A company founded in a time when meanwhile Arctic whaling was in its waning days. This distinguished royal enterprise bought eight ships that year, and the following year another eight. Denmark unilaterally declared that its royal company had monopoly over Greenland and the Spitsbergen archipelago, including sailing on its shores. In real life, however, a sweet fleet of sixteen was no match for the German cities, and certainly not for the Republic and England. To illustrate this, in the year 1776 the Republic still sent out 123 ships to the Arctic, and the free city of Hamburg fifty-one. By the way, twelve of the sixteen Danish ships were under command of Nordfriesen, seafarers mostly from islands Föhr and Sylt. More about the Nordfriesen further below. There was more to say about the success of the KGH. When in 1776 it ordered harpoons and stuff, the quality was very poor. According to the North-Frisian commanders, these harpoons already broke when thrown against a piece of thin glass, and therefore considered unusable.
The above is not entirely fair to the Danes. There were private persons who were involved with whaling until 1775. Especially, the merchant Jacob Severin who had received the exclusive right to hunt whales for Denmark and their province Norway. Both countries were constitutional united under the Danish monarchy. Severin was in practice viceroy of Greenland for long. But, at the end these privileged individuals weren’t able to punch themselves a way out of a paper bag when it came to setting up a profitable whaling business.
The fluit ships of the Republic were being adjusted as well halfway the seventeenth century. Ships were regularly sandwiched by pack-ice. As such not so bad. As soon as the wind turned, they could free themselves again from the firm embrace of ice. Things only became dangerous when the wind would continue to blow from one direction only, and was strong as well. Then, pressure on the ship became too strong, and the ice would crush the ship. On average about four percent of the ships were lost on a yearly basis (Feddersen 1991). To give more protection, bow and hull of fluit ships were strengthened with a second skin, called verdubbelen ‘to double’. This ijshuid ‘ice skin’ protected the ship better against drifting ice and icebergs. Albeit, having a whale carcass between ship and pack-ice was still the best protection against pressing ice, according to seafarers. Also, facilities were added to the ship to carry six or seven hunting sloops.
At the end of the seventeenth century, another ship type was introduced, the bootschiff or bootschip ‘boat-ship. It had, among other, a robust bow and, in comparison to the fluit ship, a broader deck. A wider deck was necessary because, as said, the blubber had to be processed at sea from the mid-seventeenth century onward. Cutting and storing the blubber onboard the ship needed more working space on deck. The bootschip was the standard whaling ship of the eighteenth century. Later the brig ship type followed, in Dutch language brik, and in German language Brigg.
Because whale populations decreased in the seas around Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen Island and Beereneiland, new happy hunting grounds had to be found. In the year 1669, the average catch per ship was eight whales. In 1789, only two. Averages of catches went up and down, but with a clear, undeniable downward trend. To give the reader an impression: 1669 – 8 whales; 1691 – 2.5 whales; 1701 – 5.8 whales; 1728 – 1.1 whales; 1744 – 4 whales; 1762 – 1.5 whales; 1781 – 4.2 whales; 1789 – 2 whales. The investment paid off if ships returned with at least four whales (Leinenga 2015). Of course, everything depending on current (vegetarian) oil prices, and especially if they’d sailed longer for the west coast of Greenland too, and thus had made more costs for labour wages and victuals.
From the year 1719, ships from the Republic started whaling west of Greenland, in Davis Strait, often called Davidstraat. At the west coast of Greenland, two sea currents meet. A warm current from the south running along the coast of Greenland, and a cold current, the Labrador Current, entering from the northern Baffin Bay. Where the warm and cold currents meet, there’s bounty plankton. So, great forage spots for baleen whales, and thus excellent hunting grounds. Whales were in general also still bigger and fatter at the west coast of Greenland than around the Spitsbergen archipelago, which had to do with the fact that whale populations of the latter had been overhunted for quite some time already. Normally, around the start of the month May, the Disco Bay in Davis Strait would be ice free, and a prime spot to start whaling. Then, gradually moving north with the seasonal retreat of the ice. Late June, the hunting season in Davis Strait came to an end.
It was the Frisian seafarer Laurens Feyjes Haan from the Wadden Sea island of Terschelling who had sailed since 1708 on a yearly basis to these waters west of Greenland for trade. The islanders of Terschelling were bartering with the Inuit of Greenland during much of the seventeenth century. In 1719, Haan published a book with directions how to navigate to Davis Strait. And lo and behold, whalers immediately moved west. The Inuit, called wilden ‘wildings’, wildemannen ‘wilde men’, or Groenlanders ‘Greenlanders’ by the Dutch, were described in the mid-sixteenth century as a people who ate their fish raw. Furthermore, that they loved raw meat and the fat of seals. Bird eggs were being boiled so hard until they turned blue. Sprat and mullet was cooked too. Lamps were made with moss and oil from seals. Of course, Greenland was he territory of Denmark, and the Kompagni til Grønlands besejling ‘the Greenland company’ was trading with it. However, much of the higher ranks on Danish merchant and war ships during the early modern period originated from the Republic. Like cartographer Joris Carolus and David Urbanis Dannel, who were captains of the Kompagni, and sailing in the second quarter of the seventeenth century between Denmark and Greenland already (Christensen 2021).
Because the waters of Davis Strait were much further away from patria ‘home country’ and it therefore took longer for ship to be at sea for the same time to catch, this was, as said, a more costly hunting ground. On average to get to the west coast of Greenland took six weeks. Often sailing along coasts or archipelagos like Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes or the Norwegian coast. This also offered the possibility to have some additional, fresh supplies.
6. Origins of Whalers
The whole whaling business had become an efficient and reasonable lucrative business from the mid-seventeenth century. At least, it generated quite a lot of employ. Vacancies that couldn’t be filled entirely by the hinterlands of the Republic and the city of Hamburg. So, contract workers were attracted. But who were these contract workers from elsewhere?
A first general observation is the broader picture of the origins of seafarers in the merchant marine of the Dutch Republic. Around the year 1710, at the height of power of the Republic, about seventy-five percent of the seafarers was from the Republic itself. Of this, about forty-seven percent came from province Friesland, including the Wadden Sea islands. From the twenty-five percent who came from abroad, forty-three percent came from region Ostfriesland, including the Wadden Sea islands, and from the Duchy of Schleswig (i.e. essentially region Nordfriesland). The overall picture, therefore, is that during the heydays of the Republic, nearly half of its merchant marine was Frisian of origin. Take also into consideration that the population density in the Frisian regions of provenance was much lower than in province Holland. Frisians, therefore, still were a sea people par excellence. And to think we haven’t taken the massive inland navigation into consideration yet. For being a water people, Frisians can shake hands with Basques; besides shaking hands for having issues with kings, central governments and being scattered over several countries as well.
A second general remark on the background of the whalers is, that the religious faith of relatively many was Anabaptism. The reason for it is simple, once you see it. Anabaptists denounce the use of violence. Hence, neither the Admiralties, nor the quasi-militaristic merchant ships of the VOC and the WIC were an option. Another, theoretical option for the Anabaptists would have been working in the fisheries. However, manning of herring busses was exclusively available for men from the local fishing village. No import accepted. At best someone from another, neighbouring fishing village.
So, self-employment through private businesses or, indeed, working in the non-armed whaling industry, were credible options for these pacifists, denouncers of violence. Relatively many of them lived in province Friesland, region Ostfriesland, and on the Frisian Wadden Sea islands. Think of Menno Simons and the Mennonites, who originate from this region too. Of course, their rejection of violence only concerned violence against other humans. Not against other mammals paddling with fins and flippers through the icy seas.
Zakkoek, a real treat – The last whaling ship was the Dirkje Adema from the city of Harlingen in 1862. Some notes have been preserved concerning the diet. One thing is zakkoek which literally translates as ‘sack cake/cookie’. The batter was made with brewer’s yeast, and perhaps with raisins. It took many hours to prepare. It was hung au-bain-marie in a linen sack on the ceiling of the caboose the day before. Every Wednesday and Sunday the men got zakkoek. They loved it!
It’s a dish of the northern provinces of the Netherlands and has many other names, like: ketelkoek (‘kettle cake’), Jan in de Zak (‘Jan in the sack’), Witte Zuster (‘white nurse’), Broeder (‘male nurse’), Blinde Dirk (‘blind Dirk’), Poffert, Boffert and Trommelkoek (‘lunch-box cake’). Sometimes served with butter and syrup. We’re curious whether other regions along the Wadden Sea coast are familiar with this recipe too. Let us know.
Over the period 1612-1639, so from the start of commercial whaling until the end of the Noordsche Compagnie, by far the most commanders came from the northern part of province Holland. More specific, from Amsterdam and the area north of the city. About eighty percent of the commanders came from Holland. Nearly twenty percent came from province Friesland or the southern Frisian Wadden Sea islands. In absolute numbers they were twenty-eight Frisian commanders. Over the period 1640-1665, the share of Frisian commanders increased strongly. The percentage of commanders from Holland dropped to about fifty-five percent, whilst that of the Frisian commanders reached nearly forty percent. In absolute numbers, they were 385 Frisian commanders.
Overall the seventeenth century, when focussing on the Dutch Republic, it were the islanders of Vlieland and, to a lesser extent, of Terschelling who provided the most commanders. Research into maritime freighting contracts over the period 1640-1664 showed that the most commanders, 59 in total, came from the island of Vlieland. The port town of Stavoren followed with 54, the big city of Amsterdam with (a meager) 50, and the island of Terschelling with 36 commanders. An estimated 100 ships from the island of Vlieland operated in the Arctic around the year 1650. The explanation as to why islanders of Vlieland were so heavily represented, is because these islanders already had a large fleet trading with especially the Baltic Sea before commercial whaling started. Their ships, galiots and fluit ships, were multi-purpose vessels (Doedens & Houter 2022).
After 1700, the representation of commanders from the Wadden Sea island of Vlieland decreased strongly. Many commanders came from the village of Westeynde at the western end of the island. Westeynde was slowly swallowed by the sea from the second half of the seventeenth century, and definitely deserted in the year 1736. Many of the inhabitants resettled on the former island of Huisduinen in the north of province Holland. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Huisduinen provided about thirty percent of the commanders, and with this the main provider of commanders at the whaling. And why is that, you think?
A similar development as with the commanders can be witnessed concerning the crew of whalers. Over the period 1612-1639, nearly sixty percent originated from province Holland and region West-Friesland. Again, mainly from the city of Amsterdam and the region north of it. About thirty percent came from Basque Country. A mere eight percent from province Friesland and from the Frisian southern Wadden Sea islands. This image totally changes in the years after that. Over the period 1640-1700, almost sixty-five percent came from province Holland and region West-Friesland. The share of Frisians at the whaling had increased to roughly a third, including from the Frisian Wadden Sea island. The first Nordfriesen from island Föhr start entering the records as well in this period. The expensive Basques had been made superfluous in the meantime, and were reduced to a measly two percent of all crew.
The composition concerning the origins of the whaling crew over this period, shows some similarities with the northern Arkangelsk navigation. In this northern Russian trade, fifty-five percent originated from province Holland and region West-Friesland, and thirty-six percent from province Friesland, again including the Frisian southern Wadden Sea islands.
Over the eighteenth century until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the picture becomes even more dramatic when it comes to the share of Frisians at the whaling. Half of the crew came from the northern coast of Germany, especially the regions Ostfriesland and Nordfriesland, and from the German-Frisian Wadden Sea islands. Only a third came from the Republic itself, of which about eight percent came from Friesland or the Frisian Wadden Sea islands. So, as a rough indication, during much of the eighteenth century, Frisians from the various Frisian regions of provenance, represented about fifty to sixty percent of all the whaling crew on ships of the Republic. Concerning this observation, region West-Friesland as part of province Holland, isn’t considered as a separate Frisian region.
The Wadden Sea islands also contributed significantly concerning whaling commanders. Of the 1,250 commanders in the eighteenth century, no less than 490 came from the Frisian Wadden Sea islands. The main islands were Föhr with 128, Ameland with 121, Terschelling with 88, Texel with 75, and Borkum with 65 commanders. But also the island of Vlieland was still supplying the navigation with commanders and crew, but not as much as the century before. Furthermore, still many commanders from (the northern part of) province Holland, of course. And, again, keep in mind that commanders from the former island of Huisduinen in province Holland were, in fact, resettled islanders from the island of Vlieland.
7. Island Nordfriesen
The first phase of whaling, from 1612 until around 1660, basically went past the region of Nordfriesland. During the whole era of whaling, Nordfriesen never fitted out any ships. Even if they would have considered it, competition from the free cities of Altona, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Glückstadt, and Bremen would have been too fierce. And you need businessmen and investors with money. Only a modest effort was made at the town of Husum, but it didn’t last. It’s in the course of the eighteenth century that the number of Nordfriesen seamen in the whaling strongly increased.
Relations between region Nordfriesland and the Republic dated already from before the Nordfriesen joined the whaling industry. From the first half of the seventeenth century, Nordfriesen were involved in the maritime trade of especially the transport of Danish oxen and Scandinavian timber to the Republic. Important harbour from where the beef trade of oxen bred in the area of southern Jutland were transported to the Republic was the town of Ribe. With their smack ships, also called smakschepen or smackschiffen, which were small and flat-bottomed ships suitable for sailing over the shallow Wadden Sea, they did most of the transport. In modest numbers, Nordfriesen worked for the VOC and the Admiralties as well.
Because of the intensive trade in oxen and timber, many connections existed with region West-Friesland, among other the towns of Enkhuizen, Hoorn, and with Amsterdam (Christensen 2021). Not only Föhrer, i.e. Nordfriesen from the island of Föhr, were involved in this maritime trade. Also, Nordfriesen from the island of Nordstrand, and from the towns of Husum, Møltønder, and Tønder. Furthermore, men from the islands of Oland and Rømø were involved too. From around the year 1660, more and more Nordfriesen, again mainly from the island of Föhr, settled in Amsterdam. We know this also from analyses of the Amsterdam city records concerning marriages. A lot of North-Frisian grooms pop up in the records. By the way, many Föhrer lived in the neighbourhood Oude Teertuinen ‘old tar-gardens’, what’s today Prins Hendrikkade St. in Amsterdam. Prins Hendrikkade St. was also the spot where the daily market-ferry with the town of Hindeloopen in the south-west of province Friesland moored (Van Doorn 2021). Yet another connection with province Friesland.
When Nordfriesen signed up for whaling in the Republic, they received free-of-charge Dutch personal names. Apparently, the North-Frisian names were too difficult for the Dutch to handle. Or, is it Dutch cultural conservative nature which prefers to keep things as they are? An impression of how names were converted into Dutch speech:
Arfst – Adriaen; Erk – Dirk; Früd – Frederik; Girre – Gerrit; Hark – Hendrik; Hay – Hendrik; Jap – Jacob; Ketel – Cornelis; Nahmen – Nanning; Ocke – Adriaen; Rörd – Riewert; Sönk – Simon; Tay – Teunis; Tücke – Teunis; Wögen – Willem (Faltings 2011). This also complicates historic research to identify the cloaked Nordfriesen in the records.
Reason why Nordfriesen started to participate in the whale hunt was because after the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie was no longer renewed, whaling had become a completely free enterprise within the Republic from 1642 onward. And, the Republic was the key player in the North Atlantic whaling. From 1642, everyone with money could buy shares, so-called parten, of a whaling ship. Parten were fixed at 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 and 1/64 fractions. And wealthy merchants, shipyards and investors enough in the Republic to set up yet another shipping company and/or to buy a part of a whaling expedition. Whaling became booming, and thus much labour with maritime expertise was needed. This was the sign the Nordfriesen were waiting for, and they entered the whaling business with full dedication and domination.
Sometimes it’s being argued the reason for the Nordfriesen to step in, was the fact that France forbade in the year 1633 the Basques from sailing with whaling ships of the Republic. In reality, however, this was not the true reason. Enrollment of Basques on Dutch whaling ships continued between 1625 and 1641, even until 1669 (Hacquebord 1999).
Another explanation often given why Nordfriesen entered the whaling business in large numbers, in combination with the former reason, is the storm flood of 1634; the Burchardi flood. This Grote Mandränke ‘great drowning of men’, as it’s locally remembered, devastated much of the southern North Sea coast, and hit region Nordfriesland notably hard. Between 8,000 and 15,000 people drowned in a single day. Hallig-island Strand was shattered into pieces, of which only a few smaller hallig-islands remained. Of the about 9,100 inhabitants of Strand, about 6,100 drowned. Moreover, Strand was the granary of region Nordfriesland as well. As a consequence the great loss of land led also to great poverty. Whaling as a means of support was part of the solution to survive.
By the year 1700, already around 3,600 Nordfriesen were at the whaling. Most of them from the islands of Sylt and Föhr, but also from the hallig-islands and the island of Rømø. Above, out of every twenty or thirty Nordfriesen one was a commander. The golden age of the Nordfriesen in the whale hunt was between 1745 and 1785. During this period about twenty-five percent of all the island Nordfriesen worked at sea on a whaling ship. In the top year 1762, almost 1,200 men from the island of Föhr embarked on whaling ships. In practice this meant nearly all adult men, except the elderly, was a whaler. Mid-eighteenth century was also the turning point when whale hunting nog longer was sustainable. After a century of killing more whales than the natural population growth, the tipping point was around 1750, when populations decreased strongly and the industry no longer was profitable (Baars-Visser, et al 2022).
The Nordfriesen were highly valued for their sailing and navigation skills. That much even, that they climbed to the maritime top. Many of them became helmsman or commander on ships fitted out in the Republic and the city of Hamburg, and later by the Danes. In the year 1762, forty-three commanders were Nordfriesen. Probably it’s no exaggeration to state that without the Nordfriesen the whaling industries of the Republic and the city of Hamburg wouldn’t have been able to man their ships (Holm 2003).
Private Navigation Schools Nordfriesland – Region Nordfriesland had a unique system how to learn their youth to navigate. Especially on island Föhr and later also Sylt, but also on the mainland of Nordfriesland. These were private schools, in North-Frisian Ferring speech ‘Naawigatjuunsskuulen’, run at homes of former sailors to educate them against a modest tariff, i.e. a shilling per day and the costs for heating. Mostly, the education started in winter and in evenings.
It’s because of these home school skills in piloting, celestial navigation and mathematics in general were high. That is why Nordfriesen were able to obtain the position of commander and helmsman on foreign ships, notably those from the Republic and from the river Elbe region. The study books were in either German or Dutch language. Because it was a fully local affair, teachings happened in North-Frisian language. After private teaching, the students went to maritime academies of, for example, Copenhagen and Hamburg to do a state exam. The Nordfriesen were known to be the best.
This private navigation school system existed for two centuries. In 1864 it ended. The reason for it was, as often, politics. Prussia conquered the region Schleswig from the Danes. This meant the whole region Nordfriesland became part of Prussia. Three years later, the navigation schools were abolished. For education in navigation, students had to go to the mainland. These institutions were far away, the training took longer, and, above all, they were expensive. About 1,000 Mark for nine months. Perhaps the private island school were also closed by the new government because they were hotbeds of anti-Prussian occupation as well, and therefore abolished.
The downfall of the private navigation school meant that the Nordfriesen turned away from seafaring and looked for other income opportunities, including emigration to the United States. Furthermore, in that same year 1867 the island Nordfriesen were obliged to fulfill military service in the Prussian army. Something which they were exempted from under Danish rule. It’s thought that the military service was also a reason for young men to emigrate to New York and California.
Navigation instruction the Netherlands – Also in the Netherlands, sea navigation traditionally was thought by former captains and commanders, and by (former) teachers of mathematics. Here, already in 1785 a maritime school was founded in Amsterdam, the so-called ‘kweekschool voor de Zeevaart’. At the port town of Harlingen, in 1818 a maritime school was established. This school still exists as the ‘Maritieme Academy Holland’. Furthermore, on the Wadden Sea islands of Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling and Schiermonnikoog, navigations schools existed in the nineteenth century, Only the one on island Terschelling survived, and is known today as ‘Maritiem Instituut Willem Barentsz’. Other navigation schools existed at Delfzijl, Groningen, Den Helder, Vlissingen and Rotterdam. In other words, except Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Vlissingen, the north had the most, albeit smaller, schools.
Students at Harlingen, locally known as zeebaby’s (sea babies), mostly were from the lower class. Just like the instruction in region Nordfriesland, this took place in the winter. During the sailing season, men and kids, the age of thirteen was no exception, had to work on ships. When the winter was mild and there was no ice, attendance at school dropped too, because students kept working at sea or in inland shipping.
Relevant textbooks – One of the most important maritime tutorials in the Republic but also for Nordfriesen, is the book of Claes, or Klaas de Vries (1662-1730) titled Schat-kamer ofte konst der stier-lieden ‘treasury or the art of helmsmen’ published in 1702. It was still being used around 1820. Claes de Vries was a cartographer, mathematician and maritime expert, and originated from Leeuwarden in province Friesland. A ‘schatkamer’ was a common term used for a manuscript with personal notes relating to maritime themes (Bruijn 2016). Another well-known book was written by Pybo Steenstra (1731?-1788), Grondbeginselen des stuurmanskunst ‘fundamentals of steerage’ published in 1766. Pybo Steenstra was born in Franeker in province Friesland. A final two important navigation manuals were: t Vergulde licht der zeevaert ‘the golden light of sea navigation’ written by Claes Hindrickz. Gietermaker in 1660, and Nieuw en Groote Zee-Spiegel ‘new and great mirror’ written by Caspar Lootsmans in 1680. Also navigation schools in Copenhagen, Hamburg, Christiana (modern Oslo), Porsgrund and Danzig, educated their students with these Dutch (text)books, mirrors and manuals (Christensen 2021).
In the beginning of February, the commanders sailed in smack ships from Nordfriesland to Amsterdam and the river Elbe, Hamburg. To prepare their ships. The journey to Hamburg took three days, that to Amsterdam seven. A few weeks later, the lower ranking sailors left too. In convoys of ten to fourteen smack ships. More than a 1,000 Föhrer went whaling. Often a commander selected most of his crew from his own, familiar village or island. So, a commander from the island of Föhr sailed with a crew of mostly other Föhrer. A commander from the island of Vlieland selected most of his crew from his island too. And so forth, and so forth.
Some say the yearly departure of the men from Nordfriesland leaving their women behind, is the origin of the so-called Biikebrånen or Biikin tradition. This is the feast whereby stacks of wood are lit on the shores of Nordfriesland. It takes place in the night of 21 February. These bon fires allegedly are the beacons of the woman who wanted to guide their men as long as possible. Read our post Beacons of Nordfriesland to read more about this festival, where we present also an alternative explanation for this festival.
With that many men away on whale hunt, the women of many Wadden Sea islands, and especially those of Nordfriesland, were basically left on their own half of the year, from late February to September. Only together with their small children, the elderly, and perhaps a stray reverend. No, do not let your imagination run wild now with this lucky reverend. The moral was chaste and strict. Adultery and illegitimate children did not happen, so they have repeatedly reassured us.
Concerning the men, the whalers, it’s interesting to know that the west coast of Greenland islands had names like De Vrouweneilanden ‘the women islands’ and, the aforementioned, Liefde Baai ‘love bay’. In fact, a whole creole generation grew up on the west coast (Zwier 2019). Would their wives and fiancées back home have known? From journals we know that Inuit women were invited onto the ships to dance (Baars-Visser 2022). Maybe for obvious reasons, journals didn’t provide any more details what happened after the dancing.
Not only on cold Greenland whalers could enjoy themselves and find some bodily warmth. Also before embarking or after disembarking in the big city of Amsterdam they could find these pleasures. Amsterdam of the Dutch Republic was literally loaded with prostitutes, brothels, music halls, streetwalkers etc. From the memoirs of the North-Frisian seafarer Jens Jacob Eschels we know Nordfriesen frequented whore houses too, and sometimes got a venereal disease causing much discomfort and pain while hunting in the Arctic (Bruijn 2016). Generally called venusziekte ‘Venus disease’ and potentially lethal. Read also our post Harbours, Hookers, Heroines and Women in Masquerade for the history of women and the sea in the early modern period.
“wie traurig es lässt, wenn all Mannspersonen von unseren Insel weggefahren sind. In den ersten Tagen ist alles ganz stille, man sieht fast niemand auf dem Felde gehen, und es scheint, als ob die Einwohner fast gänzlich ausgestorben wären”reverend Lorenzen, 1749
“how sad it is, when all men have sailed from our island. In the first few days everything is very quiet, you hardly see anyone walking in the fields, and it seems as if the inhabitants are very close to extinction.”
This seasonal exodus of men led to a social structure on the Frisian Wadden Sea islands without too much hierarchy. A community in which women were fully responsible for the house and farm. So, working the land, shearing sheep, milking cows, making dairy products, fishing for porren ‘shrimp’, drying cow dung for fuel, haying, spinning wool etc. Also, it was the women who traded and did the bookkeeping, even when the men were back in winter (Holm 2003). Many of the women were widow too, since whaling was not an occupation without risks, as described earlier. In other words, when, and if, her smelly troonbook returned from sea, he entered the domain of his wife. These sailor men knew they had to put the northern Ice Sea out of their heads, put off their boots, and wear soft slippers (Deen 2013). Main task of men when they were back on the island, was to upkeep and repair the house.
Not surprisingly, many Frisian sagas exist about emancipated, strong women of the Wadden Sea protecting their islands against external aggressors. One of those sagas, is the saga of Der schwarze Rolf ‘black Rolf’ on the island of Borkum in region Ostfriesland. Find in this saga also some interesting leads that the island women might not have been that strict with moral after all. Drinking and dancing with the younger beautiful boys. Perhaps they were merely able to fool their sailing men they were faithful and in full adoration awaiting their return. Also a lone reverend appears in the saga Der schwarze Rolf. However, the island women weren’t too fond of his modesty and devoutness. Another sign we might doubt their presumed innocence. Became curious? read our post Yet another wayward archipelago to have the full, uncensored story.
A last typical cultural aspect of Nordfriesen was the way how people married. Women were free to decide whom they wanted to marry. Once the girl had made her choice, the couple informed their parents. The marriage itself happened in a very organized manner, and always in the autumn season, soon after the men had returned from the northern seas. And, of course, only after the men had had a hot bath and a good scrubbing. Couples were married simultaneously. Could be well up to twenty couples in a day in one community. There was little time because soon the winter would start, and after that their men would be off sailing and hunting again already.
From 1776, when finally the Danes entered whaling too, they set up a campaign to recruit Nordfriesen for their whaling ships. The Danes were successful at it. Many Nordfriesen left the whaling ships of the Republic, and signed lucrative contracts with the Kongelige Grønlandske Handel (KGH). Reason for its success was the benefits offered. Especially, the allowance offered for the travel from the island in Nordfriesland to the city of Copenhagen was very attractive and effective. A travel allowance of six Reichsthaler ‘imperial dollar’. On top of this, also boarding money of twelve shillings per day was granted by the KGH. Something the penny-pinching merchants of Amsterdam never had offered. Also, travel distances to the port of departure Copenhagen were less. Another advantage was that whaling with the royal Danish company took place all year round. Besides the traditional spring to autumn hunting season, the Danes also fitted out ships to western Greenland during winter. In autumn the ships left, to be in time before winter fell at the Disco Bay at western Greenland, and only to return early spring.
When the classic whaling industry collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century, many Nordfriesen emigrated to the United States, and the population of Nordfriesland decreased strongly. In the boxed text above, we pointed out some other migration drivers above too, when Prussia conquered Nordfriesland from the Danes and abolished the private navigation schools.
8. Final Throes of Whaling
At the end of the nineteenth century, classic whaling came to a halt. The free cities of Bremen and Hamburg had given up whaling in the Arctic in 1792, due to bad catches. Not only because the Arctic seas had been emptied out of whales and petrol had become the new fuel for lightning over the course of the century, also the French period was crucial for its demise. The Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815, and sea blockades that were part of it, were the deathblow of the already waning North Atlantic whaling industry. Of course, England experienced no limitations from the war raging on the Continent, and could continue commercial whaling in the Arctic. With the total absence of competition from the Republic and Hamburg, their business even expanded. Almost 150 ships per year sailed to the Arctic to hunt the last remaining whales.
After the French occupation, the former Dutch Republic, now called the Kingdom of the Netherlands, did try to reactivate the Arctic whaling industry. It was especially the port of Harlingen in province Friesland that tried to do so. Persistent Frisians apparently. Harlingen used to be a wealthy port because of the trade with the Baltic Seas. This once rich navigation to the east was dead and gone too since Napoleon and the French period, and would never be restored. Hence, poverty hit the densely populated town of Harlingen extremely hard, leading among other to the so-called potato revolts. Read our post Know where to find your sweet potato, to have more backgrounds on these revolts.
In 1822 and 1823, two whaling expedition from Harlingen to the Arctic took place, but these were disappointing. In 1824, the company Groenlandse en Straatdavidse Visscherij Sociëteit was founded in Harlingen. The company was housed at the north end of the Zuiderhaven docks in a former property of the Admiralty of Friesland (Otten 2022). Ships the Spitsbergen Twee and the Nederland were owned by this company. It was no success either. A year later, the city of Rotterdam also founded a company, the Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor Walvisvangst, and again it was no success. It had also two ships, the Rotterdam and the Maasstroom, and sailed in the years 1826 and 1827 to the Arctic.
The last classic whaling expedition to the Arctic, with the traditional sloops and manual harpoons, was the ship the Dirkje Adema from Harlingen in the year 1862. In 1863, ship the Dirkje Adema, went for a last time to the Arctic and only came back with 900 seals, whilst the year before they had hunted 2,800 seals (Leinenga 2018). In 1864, the ship was sold to a ship-owner at the town of Arendal in Norway. Commander of the Dirkje Adema, Hendrik Wildts from the town Sneek in province Friesland (1802-1889), was therefore the last commander of the classic Arctic whaling from the Netherlands. His gravestone, made from a whale’s jaw, has been preserved.
A question unanswered is, why the Dutch and Frisians didn’t innovate the whaling industry and invested in steamships and modern harpoons from the mid-nineteenth century like other intelligent European countries did. Instead, they somehow preserved the old order and sailed with sails (Schokkenbroek 2008).
The remaining, and flourishing, whaling activity happened in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Antarctic. Its hunting grounds were along the coasts of South America, Japan, the Dutch Indies, and Australia. This whaling industry was dominated by the Americans, later followed by the cities of Bremen and Hamburg, and had emerged in the late eighteenth century. Whales hunted at, were sperm whales and southern right whales.
Only after the Second World War would the Dutch re-engage in whaling because of scarcity of oils, with the foundation of the Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor Walvischvaart (NMW) and the factory ships Willem Barentsz I and Willem Barentsz II. This company stopped in 1964. Many young men from the poor province Friesland enrolled on these ships (Breteler 2018). In 1964, the NMW, after catching in total about 27,700 whales, was dissolved. It meant the definitive end of whaling from the once so prominent Dutch-Frisian whaling business.
9. Rest in Green Peace
Now the reader knows whodunit. It were the wealthy merchants of the Republic who provided the means and the capital, and it were the Hollanders (Dutch and West-Frisians), and, especially, the Frisians who were manning the ships during this ‘Ice Age’. Together they are the main perpetrators and responsible for nearly exterminating the North Atlantic baleen whale populations. If you also take into account the cities Altona, Bremen, Glückstadt, and above all the city of Hamburg, the Frisia Coast Trail coincides with the area that housed a massive, murderous Arctic whaling industry for more than two centuries.
What large-scale whaling did to the traditional hunting of the Inuit, is little debated in (Western-originated) studies on North Atlantic whaling. The global picture is that the first encounters with the Inuit before and after the start of the whaling, could be violent. But through time the Inuit and Europeans got used to each other. Also, there was actually not much competition on hunting whales. Much of what Europeans considered waste of a whale, namely the tale and the outer skin, were considered most valuable by the Inuit. The outer skin contains much vitamin C. So, they were no competitors, and the food-supply was not negatively upset by the European whalers (Leinenga 2015). Possibly even enhanced.
Already in 1656, Nicolas Tunes from Vlissingen in province Zeeland, reports after sailing to Greenland that there are commercial possibilities for trade. Europeans supplied the Inuit with different products, like pans, knives, axes and woolen cloth. In return they got furs, ivory of walrus and narwals. Besides this trade, which was forbidden by Denmark for all non-Danish, there was small-scale souvenir trade. Later, at the end of the eighteenth century, also guns for hunting were traded. Of course, Europeans exported besides merchandise also contagious diseases, especially smallpox. This has led to many fatalities. We only don’t know how many victims. There are reports that ninety percent of a settlement died, and we may assume the impact on the Inuit must have been very significant.
Presenting in this post this historic image of whaling from an, admittedly and purposely biased, Frisian perspective extracted from the existing studies, wasn’t easy. It’s either a history of Denmark, of Germany, or of the Netherlands. Often is spoken in studies and books about the north of Germany, region Schleswig, Lower Saxony, the Wadden Sea islands etc., instead of Friesland, Ostfriesland or Nordfriesland. It contributes to the situation that there is no integral statistical approach if one wants look at it from a historic Frisian point of view. Above, in general every study has a different (ways of presenting) statistics.
However, the rough but evident picture is that Frisians, especially those from the Wadden Sea islands, from Vlieland to Sylt, played an important role when it came to manning and commandeering whaling ships. During the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, their share was about fifty percent. When one realizes these Frisian lands were thinly populated, it’s fair to say that their role is even more remarkable.
Modern whaling industry after the Second World War was devastating for the baleen whale populations. Species nearly wiped out are the humpback whale, blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, bryde’s whale, southern right whale, and several more. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) decided to impose a moratorium on whaling, except for non-commercial hunting by several native peoples like the Inuit. Japan continued the hunt based on so-called scientific purposes. Iceland and Norway never acknowledged the IWC altogether and continued commercial hunting in their vast territorial waters supposedly inherited by the Vikings. In 2019, Japan resumed, despite the moratorium, commercial hunting within its territorial waters. It ceased the hunt in the Antarctic for scientific purposes, though. Organizations like Greenpeace, and the more aggressive Sea Shepherd, still do not rest.
Note 1 – Victuals of a seventeenth-century whaling ship were: anise, bacon, barley, beer, brandy, bread, butter, candles, cannon balls, chalk, (fat) cheese, cinnamon, clove, coffee, Edam cheese, figs, firewood, flour, gun powder, gun fire, hardtack, mace, matches, meat, mustard, nutmeg, pea, pepper, piping, plums, powdered sugar, raisins, rock candy, saw dust, sirop, sponges, stockfish, turf, twigs, vinegar, and wine.
Note 2 – In the harbour of the former whaling town Harlingen a fountain has been placed in the water. It’s a sperm whale, a potvis. Arch! we hear you say after reading this post. Indeed, how could they blew this one? It’s all wrong! The species hunted at from Harlingen was the less sexy North Atlantic right whale, or in local language the noordkaper. Never ever was it the sperm whale.
The fountain has been developed by the artists Jennifer Allora (USA) and Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuba). Maybe they were inspired by the American whaling industry, or more than a bit blinded by their own national history. The fountain in Harlingen was part of the somewhat controversial Eleven Fountains project when the city of Leeuwarden was the Cultural Capital of Europe. Nevertheless, we do appreciate a decorative mammal-with-flippers-and-fins fountain in the harbour.
Note 3 – Word on the street is that Frisians already sailed around the year 1000 to the Arctic seas, yes even to World’s End. Read our post Sailors escaped from Cyclops. Or even earlier that they roamed the northern seas as Vikings, to steal young women from the Faroes. Check our post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! to learn more.
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