Maritime Africa 3: African Whaling

November 2022

Our third episode dedicated to the maritime history of Africa. We find out about indigenous African whaling; European and American exploitation of African waters; the numerous uses to which whale products were put both in Africa and abroad; the written and the archaeological evidence available for the study of whaling in Africa. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoked with Dr. Lynn Harris who has worked as a maritime historian and underwater archaeologist for over 40 years in South Africa, Namibia, Costa Rica, North and South Carolina and is currently employed as a Professor at the Program of Maritime Studies at East Carolina University. We also hear from Lindsay Wentzel, a third-year master’s student in East Carolina University’s Program in Maritime Studies.

If you haven’t heard our previous two episodes on the maritime history of Africa please go and find them in the back catalogue – the first is on the history of indigenous African canoemen and the second on the desolate and vengeful skeleton coast of Namibia, home to thousands of shipwrecks from centuries of maritime trade, war and exploration passing Namibia’s coast.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the mariners mirror podcast. This is the third episode we’ve done dedicated to the maritime history of Africa. If you haven’t heard our previous two episodes, please go back and find them, in our back catalogue. We have one on the history of indigenous African canoe men, and another on the desolate and vengeful skeleton coast of Namibia, home to 1000s and 1000s of shipwrecks from centuries of maritime trade war, and exploration that pasted Namibia’s coast. Today we hear about the history of whaling in Africa, we find out about indigenous African whaling as well as European and American exploitation of African waters. We hear about the numerous uses to which whale products were put both in Africa and abroad, and we talk about the written and archaeological evidence. If you don’t know what a tripod is, then please keep listening. My guest to help teach me about this fascinating topic is Dr. Lynn Harris, who has worked as a maritime historian and underwater archaeologist for over 40 years in South Africa, Namibia, Costa Rica and North and South Carolina. She is currently employed as a professor of the programme of Maritime Studies at East Carolina University, one of just a handful of programmes in the world that trains graduate students as underwater archaeologists. And with her we have Lindsay Wentzel, a third year Master’s student in East Carolina University’s programme in Maritime Studies, her MA thesis centres on the use of converted fishing schooners, and what is known as plum pudding whaling strategy as an economic response to wailings declined during the 19th century. And she writes with a particular focus on Provincetown in Massachusetts. But today, they are both here to cast their expertise onto the question of whaling in Africa, as ever, I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed talking with them. Here are the excellent Lynn, and Lindsay. Guys, thank you both very much for joining me today.

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Thanks, Sam. It’s a pleasure, quite an honour to be on your podcast today. Thank you for having us.

    Sam Willis
    Honour, no one’s ever said an honour. That’s good. So that means we must have we must be doing something right. Let’s start with a general question about the history of whaling. Why is it important?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    So in terms of the African heritage of whaling, it was one of the major fisheries and from colonial time onwards. It was a major economic industry behind agriculture, and of course winemaking in South Africa, which many people don’t know about. The other really important aspect of it is that it’s a shared whaling heritage. It incorporates indigenous whaling, as well as American British, as well as Norwegian in the 20th century. So this very international heritage is part of many different cultures maritime heritage is

    Sam Willis
    Could you explain about the history of why, what was the what’s the link with winemaking

    Dr Lynn Harris
    There were three industries that were the main industries in in southern Africa during colonial times this is 1600/1700s, with the Dutch and the British, and wine making agriculture were the main industries. Whaling was one of those economic industries as well. It’s often neglected in the background as a fishery, extremely lucrative.

    Sam Willis
    I see and what sort of the Northern the northern story.

    Lindsay Wentzel
    So I would add that one of the main importance’s of African whaling in particular is just the movement of people, especially in Cape Verde. It brought just a ton of immigrants into northern whaling ports like Provincetown in New Bedford, especially from these islands. And we still have communities of Cape Verdeans in Massachusetts today, and it’s a really rich culture and just that movement of people and really, like Dr. Harris was saying it’s an international industry that impacts a variety of different cultures and a variety of different people says there’s really a lot that you can study through whaling, and through that lens of whaling.

    Sam Willis
    I’m quite interested in the way it relates to the history of regulation at sea and people trying to control the industry or people trying to control the sea, or does the history of whaling have an important part to play in that history of maritime regulation?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Yes, from the colonial time onwards, there was competition about whaling charters, for example, in the 1600’s, the Dutch West Indies Company received a charter to hunt off hunt whales of southern Africa. And so they tended to monopolise that industry, later on Americans and other nations join into the game. And as it became more popular and more lucrative, the whaling stocks started to be depleted. And so what you see happening in terms of environmental history is switching from one whale species to another as it became scarce and, and then ultimately whaling legislation being enacted for different species at different times. But ultimately, it went on whaling went on in Africa until 1975, which was when it finally was ended with the Endangered Species Act. So some of it was regulated by the by peoples themselves and communities because they simply were not, for example, humpback and blue whales, which are the big migratory whales, when those stocks were depleted, they started switching to the smaller whales, the more local ones, like the fin, the sei, and the minke, and then ultimately, the sperm or the Southern Right Whale. And, and so you see that trend, and that that’s a really important part of whaling history, as well as the environmental aspect of it, which is not our really area of expertise, but it does impact whales they were hunting and who was hunting them at one time.

    Sam Willis
    I’m fascinated in the indigenous practice of whaling in Africa as well. So there are two sides to this story on there’s the European colonial whaling, but also a pre-existing history of whaling, who tell me a little bit about

    Dr Lynn Harris
    So the one of the sources we use was the archaeological record, which is fascinating. And they found archaeological evidence in the Khoisan coastal communities and along the Namibian coastline, as well as South African of whalebone in deposits along with other types of shellfish and animal bone. Not only in coastal communities, but also inland. So the speculation is that the coastal peoples were probably scavenging whaling, and then trading with inland groups for other types of resources. So that’s one there’s a wealth of archaeological reporting material on that. The others primary sources of early travellers who actually depict and draw and describe these early indigenous peoples homes. Where they built them from whale ribs, so they have structures, frameworks for the huts made out whalebone, as well as furniture like whalebone vertebra that were used for seats Then palisades or stockades, for the livestock for the sheep and the cattle that the herded along the beach. Another interesting angle to that is the trade that ensued between the local whalers the Dutch and the American in the in the 1700s. So the Europeans, their product was the blubber, but they didn’t consume the meat. So they would get the whale carcasses to the Khoisan indigenous people for consumption and often trade it for their sheep or cattle, on the beach and other resources. So there was this engagement between the Europeans, the Americans and the indigenous people going back to the 16 and 1700s in these really remote parts of Africa

    Sam Willis
    So the Khoisan give away their cattle and they get whale blubber, whale meat in return?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    They would trade various other resources for whale meat. The other types of archaeological evidence of indigenous people is there might be more out there but the Tsoodle Hills in Botswana, which is probably migratory distance from the Namibian coastline, has a rock art depicting whales, which gives further evidence to the speculation that there was this trade between inland and coastal indigenous people for them, at least to the extent that they would do artwork on whales in their habitats,

    Sam Willis
    Is there any artwork that depicts ships? Or is it just the whales?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    No, there is actually there’s in South Africa, the Portaville Galleon, which shows a ship with masts. It’s a fairly eroded, so the details aren’t visible, but it’s clearly a ship. And there is something in that depiction that looks something like a fish or a whale. It’s unclear yet, but there’s a strong possibility, you know that more of these colonial engagement, rock art depictions are around as well.

    Sam Willis
    That sounds fascinating. I’d love to see that. Have historians covered this subject well, or are you sort of breaking new ground here?

    Lindsay Wentzel
    I would say that history wise, there has definitely been more of a guess on New England and American based whaling, not as much in Africa. And I think the issue with that is that we just don’t have as many archaeological remains of African whaling. And a problem with that is because these shore based whaling sites are pretty ephemeral. So actually finding archaeological remains of shore whaling can prove to be difficult sometimes. But what’s interesting to me, especially in Cape Verde, is that there’s really a modern and an active valorisation of this intangible cultural heritage. So, for example, in 2006, there was a stamp collection issued in Cape Verde based on this history of whaling. There are also rock formations that are referred to as like Onca Belaya, believe that’s what they call this certain reformation still today in Puerto Rico because it resembles the back of a whale. And there’s also I think Dr. Harris mentioned, there’s still a local art that’s based on the vertebrae and bones and incorporates the vertebrae and bones of whales that are still used today.

    Sam Willis
    It certainly makes sense for people to be whaling in Cape Verde, can you just talk about the migratory routes of the whales? Why are they in this area off the African coast?

    Lindsay Wentzel
    Actually in Cape Verde, there’s almost 24 species of whales that are found along this migratory route. And it’s mostly because Cape Verde is a really rich breeding ground for these whales. So there’s a lot of access to these different species, and especially humpbacks, and baleen whales, and they’ll breed around the area of Cape Verde before returning to high latitudes for feeding grounds in the North Atlantic. Mostly because of breeding grounds, at least in Cape Verde.

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Alright, so that Gulf of Guinea with warm waters was ideal. And then they would migrate down along the coast of Africa during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere, to Antarctica, which was a very rich feeding ground, for krill, small crustacean feed in Antarctica, come back up past through the South Atlantic event to the North Atlantic back to the breeding grounds. So that was the root of these whales was up and down the coastline of South Africa. But you know, the other whales, in addition to hunting, those migratory whales will also species like the Southern Right Whale, which was in the colder waters of southern Africa in the South Atlantic. And those whales couldn’t survive in the warmer waters; they were adapted to the colder waters. So again, there was a variety of whales that the indigenous people and the whalers were exploiting and very aware of their seasonal migratory routes and carving, they were most vulnerable when they came into the bays to carve. So they were in tune with the whale seasonality and breeding grounds, and that most of this was shore whaling, of course.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, we’ve talked about Cape Verde and the coast of Namibia and down to South Africa, did this apply to the whole of the African coast are where they’re just sort of hotspots that we know about?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Yes, our research focused on the Guinea, the North Western African whaling cultures, and then South Africa. So there probably are other areas, but it’s less available in terms of historical and archaeological literature right now. So it’s to an extent driven by the available scholarship. So there are gaps to fill it and there’s plenty more for other researchers to dig into.

    Sam Willis
    It’s so exciting when you find a new subject like this, which you’re only scratching the surface, you know exactly. You know, when you start getting ideas on answers, you realise you’ve got to fill in all the other gaps to work to see whether they’re representative or not

    Lindsay Wentzel
    Filling in with research gaps, that’s what my graduate thesis focuses on. So I’m primarily focused on New England Whalers, but specifically plum pudding whaling. I don’t know if you’ve heard of plum, plum pudding. It’s pretty common for people not to know what plum pudding whaling is. But plum pudding whaling is the strategy of whaling, which focuses on the Atlantic and instead of doing these multi year long voyages, it was really only a couple of months, so like six to nine months or so. And they get the name plum pudding because since they weren’t gone for multiple years, they weren’t as far offshore. They were kind of inshore whaling along the coast of North America. And they also go to Cape Verde, and I believe down to the Brazilian banks before heading back to New England to refit and then head up to the Arctic. But anyways, they were always close enough to shore that they could refit and get kind of these indulgences like fresh fruit and make plum pudding. So that’s where they got their name. But that’s kind of an area of research where I’m focusing on because I think that plum pudding was used more so after the discovery of petroleum in 1859, because you’re able to take smaller vessels, which is more cost effective. And with limited resources and whale oil, not pulling as much of a profit as it used to the shorter voyages are, you’re able to pull more of a profit and not expend as many resources to do the same thing you were doing, you know, 10 years ago, and whaling was a lot more profitable.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, that would have been my type of whaling boat that I was on short and sharp, and I could have some nice food appeals to me. In terms of doing the research, trying to kind of get to the bottom of what was going on, did local modern communities have living memories of whaling practices?

    Lindsay Wentzel
    In Cape Verde especially there? I think I mentioned a little bit before, but they still have this active valorisation of whaling culture. So there’s like the stamp collection that was in 2006. They also have geographic locations that are named after whaling. And Dr. Harris has some good examples of waypoints and geocaches that actually focus on whaling.

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Yeah, so the Simonstown Historical Museum, which is based in Cape Town, in False Bay. This was a British naval station, today is still the South African Navy station area. But they collected whaling histories and orals as part of the local community history. It’s not exclusively devoted to whaling, but it’s part of the economics of the area and the maritime history. It’s really exciting. These were small whaling boats, literally whaling boats, rowboats that were taken out with about four horsemen, a harpoon and a helmsmen to enter the bay. And it was quite a recreational activity for the local community, after they’d harpoon the whale they would be dragged down the coast in the small boat, the children and everybody would be sort of running along the cliffs and waiting to see what happened, whether they’d get dragged out to sea, or they’d be successful in their endeavour and then bring the whale up onto the beach. Then everybody would come down and assist in the process of process of flensing the whale and boiling up the blubber. So these oral histories are available. And there are also a number of graphics, old photographs that are compiled in this local repository. So I think that’ interesting, that these were not colonials, they were indigenous people of colour, during t the early 1900s, late 1800s. So that’s a good collection of information.

    Lindsay Wentzel
    And then it’s a little bit out of the scope of our current research that we’re focusing on. But I think it’s important to mention these ceremonial practices used in modern whaling. So for example, in Ghana, in 1997, there was a stranded sperm whale that was actually given a customary burial ceremony by local fishermen, because of this traditional veneration of cetaceans. And I think that’s just really interesting practice because still, in other cases, some whales are still used as marine bush meat. And it kind of gets a little bit out of the scope of our research. But there’s definitely still this modern connection to historic whaling through continued whaling, or at least continued veneration of whales themselves.

    Sam Willis
    And respect for the marine environment. Which sounds nice, because you can’t actually bury a whale that big. Doing some interesting kind of symbolic actions. What about material culture objects? Do we have any interesting surviving material culture?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    In South Africa you have the ruins, or the remains of these whaling stations. One example is a small almost like a historic house whaling station in False Bay, which is now part of the South African resource heritage agency, historic site. It’s rather unusual, it’s embedded in a local residential community, but it’s been preserved. And you can still see the basement which was where the whaling boats were kept ,the platform for the try pots for boiling the blubber, and then the labourers quarters and the sheds for equipment in the back. So that’s one example of something that’s been preserved in a modern day landscape. And then the others are more remote and they’re ruins of these 20th century whaling stations. So between 1900 and 1914, this was the heyday of whaling in South Africa. And so these stations sprouted up all over the place. And they’re more ruins, which include the factory, the processing areas, the labourer’s quarters. There are a number of these stations out there that have been they have a very preliminary data set, maybe a map and a designation in a database. But those are all historic sites; historic archaeological sites that could deserve further study. These were pretty large yards they accommodated about 120 workers. It was during the of course, the apartheid era of South Africa where you would see designated on the maps the white labourers quarters and the black labourers quarters, and then fairly subsistence labour unit where they would have vegetable gardens and, and livestock so it would be a self-supporting industrial unit for processing these as whale meats so that’s another example might be just remnants in these whaling towns for example try pots, which were these gigantic cast iron cauldrons used for boiling up the blubber, and they been a fairly ubiquitous in any small whaling port. You’ll see them in front of a store or a museum or in a local street. False Bay peasant interesting geocache type of initiative where tourists in the local population can sort of roam around the town and locate historic icons and one of these geocache areas are the whaling equipment and paraphernalia for example, the cast iron pot, other small features in the landscape sort of footprints of whaling are the eyebolts, which are along the pier the popular walking area for the public. These eyebolts were used to winch up the whale carcasses onto the beach. Another remnant is the cauldron platforms, which were bricked out. Unfortunately, these have been turned into barbecue places or outdoor cooking areas for the public on the beach. But they still, you know, the, I guess the the footprints or the signatures of whaling that are visible to the locals.

    Lindsay Wentzel
    So in Cape Verde there are actually the remnants of a whaling station in Sao Nicolau and the Portuguese actually never built a whaling fleet because they viewed the Cape Verdean islands as not being profitable enough for whaling. So it was mostly dominated by foreign whaling. And then, during the mid-19th century, foreign whalers started to leave the islands because of these depleted stocks and shore whaling from Cape Verdeans actually kind of took over the industry. So there is one station, some remnants of it on Sao Nicolau. Thayt is still visible today. Other than that, not as much, just because those sites are so ephemeral.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. It’s so exciting with much more to be discovered. In your ongoing research. I pretty much look forward to hearing about it. Lynne. You actually mentioned to me a separate topic about shipwrecks on the Namibian coast, which I was fascinated by. Tell me a little bit about those.

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Yes, so the one that’s related to whaling specifically is Meob Bay, which is a incredibly remote area along the coast of Namibia. And this is a restricted diamond mining area. In 2011, East Carolina University took a group of students out there to study this area, including the shipwrecks which are now on land as the coastline has migrated. But one of the sites that our hosting group the Windhoek Underwater Club was very invested in were these two small boats called the Ladies of Meob. They resembled the classic American whaling boat; we know American whalers were on this coastline. They were surrounded by whale bones. We were not sure whether there were whaling boats or diamond mining boats that were used for ship to shore transport, and there’s a strong possibility that we used for both. So we were involved in preserving these two small boats, putting preservative substances on the hulls, with the local community. And learning more about the whaling community and those communities along the shore that conducted whaling, most likely American whalers from New Bedford.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating the way that the coastline has migrated, as you say, so you end up with shipwrecks in the desert. Is that right?

    Dr Lynn Harris
    Absolutely. So this is a shipwreck that is called the Eduard Bohlen. It’s clearly visible on Google Earth maps, its part of a sand dune now. And it’s a really popular tourism site for locals, simply because it’s such an unusual feature in the middle of the desert. That was also part of our study trip with our students. We were interested in the history of the vessel as it related to the Namaqua and Herero wars, the colonial wars because it was used as an incarceration facility for indigenous peoples. Later on, it became basically a dormitory for miners, for diamond miners, and their descriptions of travellers who arrived in the desert or new miners and they sort of see this saw the ship lit up through the portholes with a lighting system for the miners. What was also interesting is when we were there, it was also the residence for a number of animals, like hyenas who dragged their seal carcasses up into the ship, and we’re now residing in it. So as we came around the corner and our Land Rovers ready to document the ship, we’re just assaulted with this smell. And realised once we got to the ship, what we were looking at, it was the light of the local hyena population we were about to enter.

    Sam Willis
    Well, it’s a wonderful story. I think I’m going to do some more on that. That sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve always been interested in ships that have a second life one way or another.

    Dr Lynn Harris
    This was about the fourth life of this vessel, and it was carrying a lot of well known families to the Namibian settlement. So you have connections with the names of families who’ve now settled. The ship paintings and stamp collections abound. Some of the most five star upscale hotels in Namibia in Bucha, which is the capital, have huge paintings of the vessel in their foyers, but there’s very little understanding or knowledge of the ships role in its previous life as a prison during the colonial wars or as a diamond mining residence. It was also used for that crazy car show, Top Gear. Top Gear, took their cars and did a spin around the vessel as part of their, you know, entertainment series. There were a number of British film companies as well as German companies, who were very enamoured with this location for productions. These were usually romance and a lot of violence. People would be running around the ship setting up dynamite an these made excellent movies. Time Period.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, well, it’s a wonderful story. Listen, thank you both very much for sharing your research on on the history of whaling on the African coast. It’s fascinating and I wish you the best of luck as it carries on. Thank you. Thank you all so much for listening. Now please make sure that this isn’t the last thing you do to enjoy the content we produce. We have a huge back catalogue of fascinating episodes to explore from great naval battles to shipbuilding, ship models, exploration, fishing, maritime art and literature, trade famous heroes and maritime disasters among others. Please also do check out our YouTube channel. It is quite simply brilliant. There are numerous innovative videos they’re presenting the maritime past in an entirely new light. My current favourite being a laser scan of HMS Victory that shows Nelson’s magnificent flagship in white lines and grids against a black background. Not only can you fly around the ship, but you can even go inside. Please also remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. You can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at hec.lr foundation.org.uk and the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk where you can join up and please do there is a free level of membership. But if you’re willing to part with a small donation, you get a huge number of benefits, one of which is our winter lecture series where you can enjoy being entertained and enthralled by some of the finest maritime scholars in the world. You can find all of that at snr.org.uk

Category: | |