Much has been written about the history of Dutch whaling. Literature on the subject dates from the eighteenth century onwards (see e.g., Dekker 1971; Frank 2005; de Jong 1784–86, 1972–79; Leinenga 1995; Lootsma 1937; Martens 1710; Muller 1874; Münzing 1987; Zorgdrager and Moubach 1727/28; for a full overview of the literature, see Hacquebord 1994). What follows is a short summary of Dutch whaling.
The First Dutch Whale Hunters and the Foundation of the Noordsche Compagnie
European whale hunting florished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most important species of whale for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century whalers was the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) (Hacquebord and Leinenga 1994, p. 420; Leinenga 1995, p. 39). This whale is a baleen whale and belongs to the family of Balaenidae. The advantages of the bowhead whale are that the blubber of this species is very thick and therefore contains much oil, it also has the largest baleen plates. Another whale of this family is the north Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). This whale was also hunted, but gave less train-oil and shorter baleen plates than the bowhead whale (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 14; Leinenga 1995, p. 55). Occasionally another species could be caught, such as sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus/cetodon) or narwhal (Monodon monoceros), but this did not happen not very often (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 14). The blubber of these big sea mammals was cooked to obtain train-oil, which was used for lamps, soap, and leather working (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 39; Lootsma 1937, pp. 159–164). Baleen became an important product after the discovery of its qualities.
The Dutch whaling history started at the end of the sixteenth century, following the English example. Both nations, however, could not have developed whale hunting without the help of the Basques. The Basques had hunted whales for centuries, beginning in the twelfth century. Their experience was used to establish Dutch and English whaling, and Basques were the teachers of the northwest European whale hunters (Frank 2005, p. 204; Hacquebord and Vroom 1988; Hart 1976; de Jong 1972–79, III; Münzing 1987, p. 10).
At the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch made several journeys to the north in search of a northeast passage to Asia. In this search they also noticed the whales and probably caught their first (small) whale near Russia (de Jong 1972–79, III, p. 32). They also visited Spitsbergen and discovered Bereneiland (Bear Island). The discovery of Bereneiland, however, was soon forgotten until rediscovered by the English; they called it Cherie Island (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 29). In 1604 or 1605 the English Muscovy Company started to hunt seals and walruses at Cherie Island. Soon also Spitsbergen was visited for the walrushunt (Dekker 1971, p. 16; Hart 1976, p. 214; de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 30). In 1611, with help of the Basques, the English commenced whale hunting (Hart 1976, p. 214). The Dutch sent ships to the north for whale hunting beginning in 1612. The growing population of the Dutch Republic caused an increased demand for oils and soap (de Jong 1972–79, I, pp. 37–39). These demands could be lifted by the train-oil obtained from the whales. Whaling also provided employment for many people.
The English did not tolerate any competition of other nations at Spitsbergen, and Dutch ships were attacked many times. To protect themselves from English hostilities Dutch whale hunters joined forces and founded the Noordsche Compagnie in 1614 (Muller 1874). Armed ships were now guarding the whale-ships and their cargo. The Noordsche Compagnie held a Dutch monopoly until 1642. This meant that no Dutch citizens other than those connected to the Noordsche Compagnie could hunt whales at the bays of Spitsbergen. The Muscovy Company and the Noordsche Compagnie divided Spitsbergen as if it was their own. Other nations that held a much smaller part of the whale hunt—for example, Denmark, France, and Spain—were also present at Spitsbergen. Newcomers had to catch whales at open sea. Basques processed the whales on their ships according to their tradition (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 41).
The Noordsche Compagnie hunted whales in the bays of Spitsbergen and the whale products were prepared at land stations at “Smeerenburg” at Amsterdam Island, the Dutch territory at Spitsbergen. The number of whales in the bays however decreased rapidly as a result of intensive hunting and climate changes. Because of the diminishing population of whales in the bays, the whales were followed into the open sea and even into the ice (Hacquebord and Leinenga 1994). The products were now directly shipped to and processed in the homeland (Dekker 1971; Frank 2005, pp. 204–207). The stations at Spitsbergen were all abandoned at the end of the seventeenth century (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 41).
Free Trade and New Hunting Areas
Because the monopoly of the Noordsche Compagnie only applied to the bay area of Spitsbergen, other Dutch ships were already catching whales at open sea before the monopoly of the company actually ended. In 1642, the monopoly of the company was not prolonged and whale hunting was permitted for any shipping company or ship owner. Many shipping companies and ship owners now participated in the whale hunt (Bruijn and Davids 1975; Dekker 1971). Because of irregular profits, whale hunting was often compared to a lottery (de Jong 1972–79; Leinenga 1995).
After a century of whale hunting at Spitsbergen, new hunting areas had to be found (Frank 2005, pp. 207–208). In the eighteenth century, Street Davis became the second most important whaling area (Leinenga 1995). Spitsbergen maintained its position as the most important place for whalers. At Street Davis Europeans traded with indigenous people before the whale hunt in this area actually started. According to Dekker (1976), this trade already existed at the end of the seventeenth century. Dutch whale hunting in this area, however, did not start until 1719 (Leinenga 1995).
The End of Dutch Whaling
At the end of the eighteenth century, Dutch whaling came to an end. This development was caused by many reasons, such as naval wars and increasing competition from various European nations that had developed their own whale hunt. But also a decreasing population of whales at Spitsbergen and rising costs were taking their toll on the Dutch whale hunt (Hacquebord 2005, pp. 104–105; Hacquebord and Leinenga 1994). Whale products were replaced by other products, and a few attempts to revive the Dutch whale hunting were never successful.
Baleen whales have a different feeding system from toothed whales. Baleen whales have baleen plates instead of teeth, with which they filter food from the water. Prices of baleen fluctuated strongly. Between the end of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century it varied between 25–250 guilders per 100 lbs (Honig 1867; de Jong 1972–79, III, pp. 185–195; Leinenga 1995, p. 75). The amounts of baleen that were brought back to the Dutch Republic were not registered (Leinenga 1995, 59, 74). De Jong has estimated these amounts by looking at numbers of caught whales and oil imports. In the seventeenth century, 1–2 million pounds per year were not exceptional. In the eighteenth century, counting both Spitsbergen and Street Davis, it hardly reached one million pounds per year. In the second half of the eighteenth century, 500,000 lbs was normal, but reaching only 8,000 lbs in 1798 (de Jong 1972–79).
Whalers of different nations shared information on whale populations and traded whale products between them. Whaling nations traded whale products between themselves when sufficient whale products could not be obtained by hunting (Leinenga 1995, p. 59). Exports to non-whaling nations also occurred. Baleen was exported from Amsterdam to Germany, England, Scandinavia, France, Spain, Portugal, Russia, the southern Netherlands, and the Mediterranean. But baleen was also imported to Amsterdam from Germany, England, Scandinavia, France, Spain and Portugal (Leinenga 1995, pp. 85–91, 203–206; van Nierop 1915).
Between 1726 and 1731 an attempt was made by the West India Company (WIC) to set up whaling at the African coast, but this attempt however failed miserably (Dekker 1994). Shortly after this period, when prices of baleen were at their highest (Honig 1867; de Jong 1972–79, I, pp. 185–195; Leinenga 1995, p. 75), the Dutch East India Company (VOC) started trading baleen. In 1732, probably the first sample of baleen from Japan was brought to the Dutch Republic (Coolhaas and van Goor 1988, 2004). The VOC experimented with the import of baleen from Japan to the Dutch Republic. A list of products that were sold in the different chambers of the VOC records a total of 23,691 lbs of baleen imported between 1733 and 1738, with a value of little more than 23,246 guilders. The average price per pound was 136 cents. The baleen sheets were sold in Amsterdam, Zeeland, Delft, Rotterdam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen. (Nationaal Archief, VOC 6989). But more baleen was probably imported from Japan in this period. The VOC, however, succumbed to the protests of the Dutch whale hunters in the north, the so-called “Greenland traders,” after a few years and ended the trade in baleen from Japan (Nationaal Archief, Radermacher 129). Trade in baleen with the Japanese was supposed to end in 1737, but it could not be terminated until 1738 (Coolhaas and van Goor 1988, 2004).
In Search of a Use for Baleen
A primary reason for the start of the European whale hunt was train oil. When the qualities of baleen were discovered, prices rose and many products were made from baleen sheets, especially corset strips. Before the use of baleen was known, people sought a purpose for this strange material. Excavations at Spitsbergen produced many baleen waste fragments in the context of the early period of Smeerenburg. This find indicates that baleen was not in high demand. Whalers tried to find a purpose for this material, and baleen even has been used as a building material at Smeerenburg (Hacquebord and Vroom 1988, pp. 52–53). The Noordsche Compagnie was in search of possibilities for this material and they asked John Osborn to find a purpose for the big sheets of baleen.
Baleen, like horn and tortoise shell, consists of keratin. Baleen sheets, in contrast with the other keratin based materials, have three different layers. The middle layer consists of keratin tubules, on both sides a layer of keratin covers this tube layer. Several of these sheets are connected to each other at the base. The fringes at the end of the sheets filter food from the water (MacGregor 1985; O’Connor 1987). The advantages of baleen as a material are that it is elastic and lightweight. An important quality of keratin-based materials is that these materials are thermoplastic. This means that it can be formed in any shape using heat; after cooling it retains its new shape (O’Connor 1987). These qualities were used by John Osborn (1581/4–1634) to find new techniques to process baleen at the request of the Noordsche Compagnie. John Osborn was born in England and moved to Amsterdam around 1600. In spite of competition, he received his first patent in 1618. After his first patent two more followed, the last one ending in 1630. He invented not only new methods to work baleen, but also a method to press it using metal molds. By pressing the baleen, any shape could easily be obtained, and medallions and reliefs were made. Some of these pressed objects were apparently painted black, and resembled ebony. Baleen was also used as a veneer for frames and cabinets (Lootsma 1937, pp. 165–167; Muller 1915; van Thiel 1969; van Thiel and de Bruyn Kops 1984). Pressed baleen objects and frames with baleen veneer are in possession of various Dutch museums (Hacquebord and Vroom 1988; van Thiel 1969; van Thiel and de Bruyn Kops 1984). A relief panel “The Bacchanalian Frolic,” made by John Osborn and Jan Lutma, is in possession of the New Bedford Whaling Museum (collection of the former Kendall Whaling Museum) (Lauffenburger 1993).
Baleen Workers in Amsterdam
The imported baleen was mostly sold and processed in Amsterdam. Baleen sheets were cleaned and bundled before shipment and sale (Dekker 1971, p. 23; Honig 1867, p. 72; de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 143; Leinenga 1995, p. 22). The names of many baleen workers in Amsterdam are known from historical sources (Wagemakers 1992). Shops and artisans specialized in the sale or the processing of baleen sheets. Some of them only abraded or cut the baleen, others were specialized in making corsets. Baleen could also be used for other objects such as umbrellas, fans, and knife handles (Lootsma 1937, p. 164), but the main use was for corset strips. Baleen was used for corset strips because it is lightweight and because of its elasticity. Its thermoplastic nature also makes it easy to process.
Information on the income of craftsmen can be found in the Kohier personeele quotisatie from Amsterdam in 1742. The profession, possessions, rent, and income of everyone in Amsterdam who made more than 600 guilders a year were recorded to determine taxes. This document indicates that 12 baleen buyers or shops were present in the city. They earned a salary between 800–6,000 guilders a year, which was quite an amount in that period. In the same year 12 corset makers and six corset shops existed in Amsterdam. They had salaries between 600–2,000 guilders a year (Oldewelt 1945).
The Absence of Baleen in Archaeology
Although baleen was an important product for the Republic and was used by several artisans, it is a rare archaeological find. Even though it was much used in Amsterdam, only two waste fragments of baleen have been found in excavations in Amsterdam (Rijkelijkhuizen 2004) (Fig. 1). Both pieces date to the eighteenth century. No other finds of archaeological baleen are known in the Netherlands. In other countries, such as England, baleen is also absent in archaeological collections (O’Connor 1987). This paucity probably results because baleen is difficult to identify and because preservation in the soil is problematic. The conditions of the soil in Amsterdam are favorable for materials such as horn and baleen, but the number of baleen finds are still low (Rijkelijkhuizen 2004). Another important factor is that little baleen was wasted. Even the waste from the baleen plates was used for filling couches (O’Connor 1987). Expensive baleen objects such as decorated boxes, frames, and reliefs are present in museums and are not likely to be found in excavations. It is also possible that baleen strips for corsets were reused.
Whale Skeletal Bone
In contrast to baleen, whale bone was not an important material for artisans (Rijkelijkhuizen 2004). It was sometimes used as a building material or to obtain oil. The usage was simple and limited to the use as tombstones, church benches, sign boards, and other objects (Dekker 1971, p. 23; Lootsma 1937). At Spitsbergen whale bones were found which were used as the foundation of a fire place or as a foundation for house poles (Hacquebord and Vroom 1988, pp. 58, 71). This usage of whale bones was probably born out of shortage of building materials. At the Wadden Islands of the Dutch Republic whale bones were used as fence poles, church benches, and tombstones (Lootsma 1937). The use of whale bone in the Republic was not restricted to practical uses as a result of a shortage of building material. In other parts of the Republic, whale bones were used as signboards. Although a practical reason for the use of bone instead of wood could be that bone did not rot as fast as wood, it probably also had a symbolic function (Brongers 1995; Dekker 1971, p. 45). Whale bones were furthermore brought home as proof of the amount of whales caught or to show the great size of whales to non-believers (Lauwerier 1983).
Whale bones do not contain marrow but a kind of oil (de Jong 1972–79, I, p. 10; Lootsma 1937, p. 164). Sometimes holes were drilled in the big whale bones which would then be put upright on deck on the homeward journey (Dekker 1971, p. 23). In this way the oil could be obtained out of the greasy bones. It did not provide much oil and was not of great economic use, but provided only a little extra money for the crew (Lauwerier 1983).
The use of whale bones as a raw material for the manufacture of small objects by artisans was not very common in the Republic. In Amsterdam only one object made of whale bone has been found, a knife handle with the initials H V (Rijkelijkhuizen 2004) (Fig. 2). These initials were probably made by its owner, who may have been a whaler. He even could have made the knife handle himself. Whalers sometimes made small objects on board ship. The small number of archaeological finds of whale bone objects indicates that whale bone was not used by craftsmen (Rijkelijkhuizen 2004), a conclusion supported by the non-mention of whale bone in the inventories of knife makers in Amsterdam. Whale bone was probably not used by craftsmen because more suitable and useful materials were available, such as regular, odor-free bones and elastic ivory. Whale bone objects remained a rarity in public life.