How hostilities between the United States and Britain affected the whale oil trade in the 19th century


For hundreds of years, the British hunted whales for their oil, blubber and bones. Whales provided lubricant for machinery during the Industrial Revolution, fuel for lamps, and their baleen could be used as parts for everyday objects such as corsets and umbrellas.

Traditionally, Britain’s whaling grounds were in the north where northern right whales and bowhead whales were hunted, but the prized sperm whale oil called ‘spermaceti’ would see trade expand into the southern seas.

The expansion of British whaling grounds is intimately linked to the history of the British Empire and oil prices were often influenced by colonial gains and losses. The eruption of the American Revolutionary War had a massive effect on the British whale oil trade, depleting production and raising prices.

Whaling in colonies

Much of the whale oil trade came from the British colonies in North America, but with the advent of war this was almost completely stopped. At the end of the war, the British wanted to create more self-sufficiency in terms of oil supply.

American trade rebounded and the British wanted to compete in a buoyant market, so Britain imposed import duties on American oil and created the southern fishing trade, concentrating British whaling over the middle and southern Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Whale oil import and export accounts showing a heavy trade deficit at the start of the fishing trade to the south. Photo credit: British Library
Notes on the Acts of Parliament passed to encourage the expansion of whaling in the South Seas, 1791. Photo credit: British Library

British Guiana, Madras, South Africa and Australia in the early 1800s further contributed to the whale oil trade. They introduced landing spots for ships working along tropical latitudes pursuing the most lucrative sperm whale with its more valuable oil.

British whaling became a global enterprise and those who crewed the whalers were multinational and multi-ethnic. The crews included employed and contract sailors, as well as enslaved and free African men.

Given the drudgery of the work, employers could not afford to turn away whalers, regardless of background, so whalers were a popular destination for those fleeing or being freed from slavery in the 18th century.

The price spike

However, the War of 1812, waged by the United States and its allies against Great Britain and its allies in British North America, disrupted trade and temporarily raised the price of whale oil. It was not until the end of the war that whaling returned unhindered. Production soared to the point of becoming a surplus, causing a glut and a fall in value by the late 1830s.

The British whaling trade began to decline as more colonial oil was bought from Australia, and the government decided not to support the London-based trade further.

A combination of free trade policy with the Americans and the colonies diminished investor interest in British whaling and on top of that whale stocks were depleting after hundreds of years of whaling . The British began to import the majority of the oil and were therefore likely to cause shocks to the American market, such as that caused by the American Civil War.

Excerpt from a letter from Charles Enderby to Robert Peel lamenting the decline of Southern Whale Fisheries and the dominance of American industry. Photo credit: British Library
Ink drawing of a sperm whale from ‘A Voyage for Whaling and Discovery’ by James Colnett. Photo credit: British Library

British whaling would return in the 20th century, and global, mass-marketed whaling would cause far more devastation to whale stocks than the London and Nantucket-based industries of earlier centuries.

This article was first published on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog.


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