This is a very interesting book. I am kind of an addict of northern history. After canoeing in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1960s, I have read the exploits of everyone from John Franklin, the search for whom was a cause célèbre in mid 19th century England, to Hornby the Hermit who starved to death with two young Englishmen because the caribou herds never came their way. In many of the stories of the search for the Northwest passage, famous explorers pass by whaling ships who plied their trade for hundreds of years before the explorers conceived of their searches. I often wondered whether the practical knowledge obtained by the whalers from their voyages was not a darn site better than that of the explorers. While Francis doesn't answer that question he does give insight into what the life of the whalers was like. His information comes from the English speaking whalers and he restricts himself to those of the northern reaches of Greenland, the eastern Arctic archipelago, Hudson Bay and from the western arctic of Alaska almost to the Boothia peninsula. It is a wild history of hardship, death, slaughter and virtual elimination of whales. He describes interaction with the Inuit and some northern Indians and the eventual alteration of the formers' lives. He describes the evolution of whaling techniques and ships. The labor was incredibly hard, and most workers on the boats from the dregs of society. It is hard to imagine hauling whale boats across the ice from ships frozen in, cutting a ship out of miles of ice with giant saws, or standing on a whale tied to the side of the ship flensing off big chunks of blubber to be hauled on deck and rendered. It was not often that those who were on the bottom on the whaling ladder rarely shipped out again. The greatest change came about with introduction of steam power. The deadly caprice of wind and ice was diminished but not eliminated, allowing whaling ships to take on even greater risk.
The most contradictory part of Francis' book comes in his description of the Inuit's relationship to whaling. On the one hand he says that the lives of those who had little contact was not impacted much, while those who participated in trade with whalers had their lives unalterably transformed. Quoting the anthropologist Stephansson in 1906, the author claims that the Inuit suffered greater changes in a short period of time than Indians did in century. The same, if not worse, devastation of disease, depopulation, trade dependency, and resource exhaustion took place hundreds of years before for Native Americans and was just as swift. It is not clear to me how much disease, particularly in the western Arctic, made its way up from the south as opposed to being introduced by the whalers. That the Eskimos so readily traded with whalers, even moving near their frozen ships to supply meat and winter clothing, was very interesting. The iron tools supplied by whalers were a vast improvement over bone so crucial for hunting and preparation of skins. Some Greenlanders worked a meteor for iron prior to contact. Although whalers brought disease, Christianity, and alcohol, the superior tools, including guns, were irresistible. When whaling died out after the turn of the century, trading sloops along the coast took its place. Whaling died out because of overwhaling combined with a drop in the price of whale oil, and bone. They were replaced by petroleum and spring steel stays for corsets.
This is a worthy contribution to Arctic literature. It makes me curious to know more about the Basque, French, and Dutch whalers who began whaling hundreds of years before the British came to dominate. This little book should find a place among all the tragi-heroic books about explorers.
Charlie Fisher author of Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World