Dr. Vicki Ellen Szabo, Western Carolina University
2017 was a calamitous year for the North Atlantic right whale. The final count of the 2017 "Unusual Mortality Event" or UME, as defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was eighteen animals. Fourteen North Atlantic right whales were found dead from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to Cape Cod between June and December, with an additional four strandings and entanglements through the year. An average annual mortality rate for the North Atlantic right whale is four animals. To make matters worse, these right whales began 2017 with an estimated population of just 450 animals, including only about one hundred breeding females who have exhibited such stress in recent years that their breeding rate has slowed. As proof of this, in addition to the UME, 2017 saw no recorded calf births.
The cause of the UME is no mystery; warming waters have expanded the whales' habitat further north. Bypassing their usual feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine, most of the whales were found entangled or dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they have sought out their favorite food, Calanus finmarchicus or copepods, a cold water species. Measures in place in more southern waters to prevent entanglements and ship strikes haven't been implemented further north, but as the whales move, so too must these regulations – if there is time left. Marine ecologist Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ominously noted in December 2017 that North Atlantic right whales, without immediate intervention and protective measures, would be extinct in twenty years. The story of the North Atlantic right whale may end in 2040, but the beginning of the end of this species may have begun a thousand years earlier.
North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, earned their common name because of the ease with which they were hunted – they were literally the 'right' whales to hunt. Right whales are bountiful in blubber, giving them exceptional buoyancy, even after death. Their shallow coastal habitat, slow swimming speed, docility, and sizeable pods - averaging twenty but recorded in superpods of one hundred animals - made them accessible and attractive to coastal predation. Averaging fifteen meters in length and 40 - 100 tons in weight, a single right whale could feed and supply a premodern community for months.
The deck is stacked, it would seem, against the Atlantic species, and it is clear that all of these natural factors led to significant premodern exploitation of the right whale across the Atlantic. While a population of right whales also exists in the Pacific, predation or natural causes have not led to a dramatic population decline as we see in the Atlantic. Biologists have estimated around 5500 right whales taken across the North Atlantic from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. Reaching an estimated population low of 100 in the 1930s, the species’ brief recovery to approximately 500 animals in the modern era is cold comfort. Without a sense of a historical baseline or 'natural' population of North Atlantic right whales, both in population size and genetic diversity, it is difficult to estimate what a recovered population should look like and whether recovery is even possible.
Historians and marine biologists recognize that human exploitation and interference have had a massive impact on the North Atlantic right whale, particularly during and since the sixteenth century. Randall Reeves says that this species has suffered from “one of the most extensive, prolonged, and thorough campaigns of wildlife exploitation in all of human history.” It is a challenge, though, to determine the full extent of human interference in the case of premodern depletions of extinctions. North Atlantic right whales once existed in two presumed separate breeding populations. Still extant, for now, is the population local to the western North Atlantic and the North American coastline. An eastern North Atlantic population, thought to have bred off the coast of the Canaries and migrated along the Atlantic coast to the Subarctic, is presumed extinct. Of this population, though, we know almost nothing with respect to population size, species duration, or genetic diversity. Did changes in premodern climate – the Medieval Climatic Anomaly and the Little Ice Age – affect the whales' migrations and habitats alongside human interference? Were right whales so heavily predated in premodernity that non-industrial whaling could bring about the end of a population? This is the case typically made for North Atlantic gray whales, extinct by the eighteenth century, and for the eastern population of North Atlantic right whales. Does this also explain the precarious state of the western population of North Atlantic right whales?
Reeves, in 2007, wrote that “historical research has provided a general perspective on past right whale distribution, population structure, and numbers, but understanding of just how abundant these animals were when whaling began in the North Atlantic remains vague." In 2008, Brenna McLeod led a genetic analysis of historical North Atlantic right whale remains from whaling stations up and down the Labrador coast. McLeod and her team concluded that “the pre-exploitation population size of right whales was clearly much smaller than previously estimated [which] has effected our modern impressions of the recovery of right whale stocks.” In short, predation almost certainly played a role in the species' decline, but the degree remains unclear.
The deep history of North Atlantic right whales and their ill-fated engagements with human populations could offer a valuable lens at this critical moment for the species. Historical and archaeological proxy data on cetacean populations, especially for the North Atlantic right whale, may contribute to analysis of modern species populations, habitats, behaviors, and other statistics. Working back from peak points of exploitation through the earliest records of right whale use, historical and archaeological evidence may provide useful context for this imperiled species.
We often begin the story of the North Atlantic right whale extirpation with the medieval Basques, who historically have been blamed for the destruction of the eastern branch of the North Atlantic right whale. The Basques established some of the earliest whale fisheries along the European Atlantic coast, maintaining those fisheries from the 13th through the early 20th centuries. Forty-seven medieval and early modern French and Spanish Basque ports have been identified as possible whale fisheries. Alex Aguilar, using catch data from its beginnings in the 16th century, estimates that each port may have taken one or at most two whales a year through the eighteenth century.
Far from the depredations wrought by industrial whaling, even this small catch was enough to make an impact on the population, as the Basques were known to target whale calves, and the Bay of Biscay may have been the winter nursery for the eastern population of the North Atlantic right whales. In some ports, Aguilar concluded that the catch of calves accounted for over 20% of records. Additionally, mothers will follow struck calves, making them more readily subject to predation as well, and removing breeding females from the population. This hunting strategy, common among preindustrial whalers, would explain the apparent downturn in catch records by the 18th century and a thinning population that may have precipitated Basque movements to new hunting grounds in North America and the Northeastern Atlantic and Subarctic, where their quarry was the western population of North Atlantic right whales. Also to be considered are possible changing habitats and migrations over the course of the Little Ice Age, when Bowhead whales may have moved south into the Subarctic, potentially competing with right whales for prey.
Basque whalers in Labrador reportedly caught well over 20,000 animals, presumed, again, to be right whales. Archaeological and historical investigations of around twenty whaling ports along the Labrador shore, focusing especially on the major Basque port of Red Bay, have forced a reassessment of the role of the Basques in right whale extirpation. In genetic analysis of nearly three hundred whale bones from ten of those ports, only one sample was identified as right whale. Over two hundred bones came from bowhead whales, of which 72 individual animals were identified. The unanticipated number of bowheads on these sites has altered our perceptions not only of the right whale's decline, but also of the expected habitats of the bowhead. While not clearing the Basques of impact in the decline of the right whales, their involvement may not have been central to this population’s decline. The Basques had another crack, potentially, at the North Atlantic right whales during their ill-fated residence in the Icelandic Westfjords, but they weren’t the only hunters targeting these animal populations.
Right whales and their utility to human societies has been documented for over a thousand years in Europe. This documentation largely comes from the Northern world, and specifically from Norse populations, from the homeland and across the diaspora. Norse whalers in Ireland, according to a Spanish geographer, spent the 11th century picking off right whale calves, perhaps from the same population travelling through the Bay of Biscay: "… on their coasts, [the Norsemen] hunt the young of the whale, which is an exceeding great fish. They hunt its calves, regarding them as a delicacy. They have mentioned that these calves are born in the month of September, and are hunted in the four months October to January. After this their flesh is hard and no longer good for eating…. Then they cut up the meat of the calf and salt it. Its meat is white like snow, and its skin black as ink." The North Atlantic right whale migration up the European coast peaked in January, but lasted from October through March, according to Aguilar's analysis of the Basque hunt in Spain and southern France. If right whale calves were being taken at multiple points up and down the European coast, the seemingly minimal catch of the Basque ports become magnified in its impact.
In addition to the Norse whalers of Ireland, Norsemen back in the homeland itself had already been targeting right whales some three centuries prior. The laconic merchant-hunter Ottar was an Arctic hunter of right whales off the coast of northern Norway, or so he told King Alfred and his court in the ninth century. The whales of Ottar's homeland, he noted, were far bigger than those he fished from the sea off Tromsø, but his ship, along with five others, reportedly killed sixty large whales in the span of two days. Ottar describes the whales as being up to 20 meters long, and while perhaps exaggerated, many historians have surmised that his quarry were right whales, a species called "the first commercial whale." For ninth-century Norsemen, the ability to shoot at and kill whales was second, perhaps, to their capacity to control and acquire. A whale that sank was of no good to anyone, but whales that floated would certainly be keenly sought. Barring any reference to netting, floats, or lines secured by harpoons, a primitive hunter could kill and acquire a right whale if conditions were right.
There is good reason to place faith in the ability of hunters like Ottar or the Hiberno-Norsemen to recognize whales they could catch. The twelfth-century anonymous King's Mirror, old Norse Konungs skuggsjá , described the behavior and appearance of over a dozen species of North Atlantic whales. Medieval manuscript illuminations from Scandinavian and Western European texts depict whales in various recognized activities that awe and delight us today - breaching, porpoising, spy-hopping, logging and especially predation. Among the most articulate and observant of all premodern authors was the late medieval Icelander Jón Guðmundsson, also known as Jón Laerði, or Jon the Learned (1574-1658). Jón was a sorcerer and a poet, a physician, outlaw, artist, fisherman, historian, and naturalist. He possessed a wealth of local, traditional environmental knowledge on seafaring, fishing, and especially on whales.
Jón was born and lived in the Snaefellsness peninsula in Western Iceland, where he says he saw many whales. He also lived in the Westfjords, where he witnessed and recorded the infamous killing of Basque whalers in 1615. Sometime before his death, perhaps around 1640, Jón wrote a work called the Natural History of Iceland in which he illustrates and describes twenty-two whale species of Iceland. According to Viðar Hreinsson, recent biographer of Jon Laerði, Jón compiled illustrations with Danish captions of nineteen whale species, in addition to a rather skinny walrus, on a loose leaf of paper preserved in the Royal Archive in Copenhagen. The right whale according to Jón exists in two varieties, one smaller, the sléttbakur and a larger animal which he calls höddunefur, measuring 35 ells at the longest (about 17 meters). The smaller whales are the ones most hunted, particularly for their valuable blubber. Icelandic waters, he notes, had been home to a large number of those whales, but the "foreign whalers have reduced the number of this species the most." One wonders which of the right whales – western or eastern North Atlantic - were being preyed upon and whether the diminished species, which he notes, was the beginning of the end of the North Atlantic right whale.
In what ways can past histories tell us something new, critical or important about modern animal populations? In the case of the North Atlantic right whale, new technologies like ancient DNA analysis offer a possible means of insight into the current state of this population and context for the references to the species throughout medieval and early modern literature and history. Through an ongoing National Science Foundation Arctic Social Science project, (NSF # 1503714, Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic; henceforth Norse North Atlantic Marine Mammal Project or NNAMMP) genetic materials from whale remains found on numerous archaeological sites in the North Atlantic and Subarctic may provide evidence related to modern right whale populations.
Archaeological sites across the North Atlantic often preserve fragments of marine mammal bones both as artifacts and as butchery or bone working residue. The Norse North Atlantic Marine Mammal Project has compiled over 200 worked and waste whale bone samples from a dozen archaeological sites in Iceland, Greenland, North America, the Faroes and Orkney, ranging from 800 through 1500 CE. Whale bone is a challenging resource for archaeological analysis, defying typical zooarchaeological standards for data recording and analysis. Whale bone is not transported to archaeological sites as part of animal butchery, so bones that are found on a site do not follow regular butchery patterns. Depending on the size of the animal stranded, only 10 to 15% or less of an animal’s body weight may be derived from hard tissues; in the case of North Atlantic right whales, about 13% of an animal’s body weight is bone. This detail becomes important when you consider that the physical evidence of premodern whale use must come from this small percentage of hard tissues, of which only a fraction – if any at all – is transported from a coastal butchering site to an inland settlement.
Complicating matters, medieval laws and charters, in Iceland and across the Continent, scrupulously divide stranded whales based on location of stranding, species, class or status of the claimant, and other factors. With all of these metrics in play, recovery of whale bone is not assured on any site, and the bone present on a site may not attest to the quantity of soft tissues used from any animal. Further, to isolate the bones of a single species from massively modified and fragmented whale bone creates an additional challenge for species analysis.
Despite these challenges, the Norse North Atlantic Marine Mammal Project and Brenna McLeod at the Frasier lab at St. Mary's University have identified over thirteen unique cetacean species within 200+ bone samples. In those samples, nine unique examples of Eubalaena glacialis have been genetically confirmed across the sampled site assemblages. Over the course of the next year, our project will continue to identify and analyze additional bone samples from across the North Atlantic. Microsatellite analysis of nuclear DNA from identified samples will help to refine which populations of North Atlantic right whales have been found across archaeological sites from North America, Iceland, Greenland, and the Orkney Islands. By 2020, our project will have analyzed over 400 whale bones and we hope to tell a number of species stories, not postscripts, on the whales of the North Atlantic.
Selected Works Cited:
Active and Closed Unusual Mortality Events. NOAA Fisheries. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/marine-mammal-unusual-mortality-events
Aguilar, Alex. “A Review of Old Basque Whaling and its Effect on the Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) of the North Atlantic.” Report of the International Whaling Commission, Special Issue 10 (1986): 191-199.
Dunlop, D. M. “The British Isles according to Medieval Arabic Authors.” Islamic Quarterly 4 (1957): 11-28.
Hreinsson, Viðar. Jón lærði og náttúrur náttúrunnar (Jon the Learned and the Nature of Nature). Reykjavik: Lesstofan Press, 2016.
Laist, David W. North Atlantic Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Lindquist, Ole. Peasant Fisherman Whaling in the Northeast Atlantic Area, CA 900-1900 AD. Akureyri: Háskólinn á Akureyri, 1997.
Lindquist, Ole. “Whaling by Peasant Fishermen in Norway, Orkney, Shetland, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Norse Greenland: Medieval and Early Modern Whaling Methods and Inshore Legal Régimes.” In Whaling and History Perspectives on the Evolution of the Industry. Eds. Bjørn L. Basberg, Jan Erik Ringstad, and Einar Wexelsen. Sandefjord: Kommandor Chr. Christensens, 1995, 17-54.
McLeod., B., M. Brown, M. Moore, W. Stevens, S. H. Barkham, M. Barkham and B. White. “Bowhead whales, and not right whales, were the primary target of 16th to 17th-century Basque whalers in the Western North Atlantic.” Arctic 61.1 (2008): 61-75.
McLeod, B. et al., “DNA profile of a sixteenth century western North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).” Conservation Genetics (30 Jan. 2009). 10.1007/s10592-009-9811-6.
“North Atlantic right whales on the brink of extinction, officials say,” The Guardian, 10 Dec. 2017.
Palumbi, Stephen R., "Whales, Logbooks, and DNA.” In Shifting Baselines: The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries, ed. by Jeremy B. C. Jackson, Karen E. Alexander, and Enric Sala, 163-173. Washington DC: Island Press, 2011.
Proulx, J. ‘Basque Whaling Methods, Technology and Organization in the 16th Century.” Trans. A. McGain. In The Underwater Archaeology of Red Bay: Basque Shipbuilding and Whaling in the 16th Century, Volume 1, ed. R. Grenier, M. Bernier and W. Stevens, 42-96. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 2007.
Rastogi, T., M.W. Brown, B. A. McLeod, T. R. Frasier, R. Grenier, S. L. Cumbaa, J. Nadarajah and B. N. White 2004. “Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 82 (2004): 1647-1654.
Reeves, R. R., T. Smith and E. Josephson. “Near-annihilation of a species: Right whaling in the North Atlantic.” In S.D.Kraus and R. M. Roland (eds), 39-74. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic right whales at the crossroads. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Roman, Joe and Stephen R. Palumbi. “Whales Before Whaling in the North Atlantic.” Science 301 (25 July 2003): 508-510.
Soviet Illegal Whaling in the North Pacific: Reconstructing the True Catches. NOAA Fisheries, 2012. https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/quarterly/ond2012/divrptsNMML2.htm
Szabo, Vicki. Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Teixeria, R. Venancio, and C. Brito. "Archaeological remains accouting for the presence and exploitation of the North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacilis on the Portuguese coast (Peniche, West Iberia), 16th to 17th century." PLOS One 2014 9(2): e 85971 / doi 10.1371/journal.pone.0085971
In article after article, academics, policy analysts, and journalists have told a similar story: climate change, by melting Arctic ice, is unlocking resources that could soon trigger war in the far north. They argue that the race to extract the vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas that lie under the vanishing ice – up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuel reserves, by some estimates – will likely provoke hostilities between Russia, the United States, and other nations with claims to the bonanza. The overall failure of early drilling efforts in the Arctic, it seems, is of little consequence.
These claims add a new twist to a vast and growing body of scholarship that links climate change to conflict. Academics working in this area often begin their work by showing that past climate changes reduced – rather than increased – the regional availability of some crucial resource, such as water, or grain, or fish spawning grounds. They then use diverse methods to trace the destabilizing social and political consequences of these resource shortages. Environmental historians, for example, have argued that falling temperatures and changing precipitation patterns in the seventeenth century led to poor grain harvests and famines that provoked rebellions in diverse societies the world over. More controversially, scholars in many disciplines have linked human-caused global warming to droughts that encouraged migration and ultimately conflict in twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa. Far less attention has been directed at the ways in which more abundant resources might incite violence either within or between states.
In fact, those who make claims about the inevitably more violent nature of the future Arctic have rarely thought to consider the history of climate change and conflict in the far north. Yet violence in the Arctic has long coincided with volcanic eruptions and fluctuations in solar activity that altered regional temperatures and in turn the availability of crucial resources. In the early seventeenth century, for example, the Arctic cooled sharply and then warmed slightly just as Europeans discovered, hunted, and fought over bowhead whales off Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Oil, bones, and baleen from bowheads became crucial resources for the economies of England and the Dutch Republic.
Diverse manifestations of climate change in the Arctic and Europe influenced how easy bowhead whales were to hunt, the profits that could be fetched by their oil, the proximity of whalers to one another, and the ability of whalers to reach the far north. Skirmishes within and between whaling companies operating from rival European nations reveal that climate change can affect both the causes and the conduct of conflict in diverse ways, even in environments it transforms on a vast scale. There is nothing inevitable or simple about the ways in which climate change influences human decisions and actions.
This history would be hard to investigate without new climate reconstructions compiled by scholars in many different disciplines, using many different sources. In 2014, researchers drew from natural and textual sources to create a sweeping new reconstruction of average Arctic air surface temperatures over the past 2,000 years. It confirms that the Arctic was overall very cold in the seventeenth century, but also that it warmed slightly towards the middle and end of the century. Temperatures in the Arctic therefore roughly mirrored those elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere during the chilliest century of the “Little Ice Age,” a cooler climatic regime that endured for roughly six centuries. The extent and distribution of sea ice in the Arctic – the most important environmental condition that whalers coped with – would have responded to even subtle changes in average annual temperatures.
Yet these very big trends do not tell us exactly how climate change transformed environments around Svalbard. Local temperature trends do not always precisely mirror regional or global developments, and anyway the distribution and extent of Arctic sea ice registers more than just the warmth or chilliness of the lower atmosphere. Ice core and model simulation data both suggest that air surface temperatures around Svalbard were quite cool in the early seventeenth century and somewhat warmer in the middle of the century, at least in summer. Lakebed sediments, by contrast, suggest that glaciers across Svalbard actually retreated beginning in around 1600 owing to changes in precipitation, not temperature, which may have reduced the local frequency of storms that can break up sea ice. Moreover, sea surface temperatures – which also influence sea ice – were quite warm off the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, for much of the seventeenth century, although they were very cold off the northern coast.
Overall, it seems safe to conclude that, in the summer, temperatures around Svalbard roughly mirrored those of the broader Arctic in the seventeenth century. Warmer currents may have brought more nutrients to the region and probably reduced the extent of local sea ice, although a reduction in storm frequency would have preserved the ice that was there. In any case, most Arctic sea ice melts in the summer before reaching its minimum annual extent in the fall, which means that summer weather and currents had the greatest impact on the extent of ice in the Arctic north of Europe. Because sea ice retreated from Svalbard in the summer, it was also the crucial season for whaling.
If the local consequences of global climate changes can be counterintuitive – that warming current off Spitsbergen, for example – so too can human responses. One might assume that climatic cooling would have dissuaded explorers, fishers, and whalers from entering the Arctic. Instead, European sailors found and then started exploiting the environments on and around Svalbard in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, just as volcanic eruptions led to arguably the coldest point of the Little Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere. In previous work, I have shown that climate changes in this period interacted with local environments to leave just enough sea ice in the Arctic north of Europe to redirect expeditions in search of an elusive “Northern Passage” to Asia. Dutch and English sailors struggling to find a way through the ice ended up discovering Spitsbergen and the many bowhead whales off its western coast. Bowheads are relatively docile, float on the surface when killed, and have very thick blubber that can be turned into oil. Beginning in 1611, they started attracting Dutch, English, and Basque whalers.
Other scholars have argued that cooling in the early seventeenth century led bowhead whales to congregate along more extensive sea ice near Spitsbergen, which made them easier to hunt for whalers. By contrast, whales dispersed as sea ice retreated in the warmer middle of the seventeenth century, which made them harder to hunt. There does seem to be a statistically significant correlation between ice core reconstructions and model simulations of summer temperatures around Spitsbergen on the one hand, and the annual whale catch on the other. Iñupiat whalers consulted by our own Bathsheba Demuth, however, report that bowheads in the Berring Sea are not social enough to gather in huge groups. Perhaps bowhead culture was different in the Atlantic corner of the Arctic when whale populations were much higher than they are today.
The apparent correlation between surface air temperatures and the whale catch around Spitsbergen provides our first point of entry into relationships between climate change and conflict in the far north. From the first years of whaling around Spitsbergen, two companies – the Dutch Northern Company, and the English Muscovy Company – emerged as the leading players in the Arctic whaling industry. The governments of England and the Dutch Republic had granted these companies monopolies on whaling operations, but they were resented by merchants and mariners who preferred to operate independently. After around 1625, as bowhead whales dispersed amid warming temperatures, competition between Dutch whalers devolved into piracy. Many conflicts involved whalers who sailed either for the Northern Company or for themselves, although even some Company whalers hid the best hunting grounds from one another. In these circumstances, the governing body of the Dutch Republic rescinded the monopoly of the Northern Company in 1642.
From the beginning, competition between English whalers assumed an even more brutal character. The Muscovy Company took an uncompromising stance towards English interlopers, who responded in turn. In 1626, for example, whalers aboard independently-owned vessels destroyed the Company’s station at Horn Sound, Spitsbergen, after they had been harassed by Company ships. Not surprisingly, petitions submitted to the English Standing Council for Trade in 1652 reveal that small groups of English merchants also sought to overturn the monopoly of the Muscovy Company. Individual merchants insisted that the Company could not adequately “fish” the territories over which it held a monopoly. The Company responded that whalers in the employ of those merchants had interfered with the activities of its sailors and stolen whales they had killed.
Warming temperatures that reduced the extent of pack ice and encouraged whales to disperse may well have encouraged competition and conflict between whalers belonging to the same nationality. Bizarrely, the whaling industry also responded to fluctuations in the supply of rape, linseed and hemp oils, which were less smelly substitutes to whale oil for fueling lamps or manufacturing soap, leather, or wax. Temperature and precipitation extremes that reduced the supply of vegetable oils naturally also increased the price of whale oils in the Dutch and English economies, and thereby the profitability of whaling. In the context of the Little Ice Age, the 1630s in particular were relatively warm across the Northern Hemisphere. The trusty Allen-Unger commodity database tells us that the price of linseed oil in Augsburg, for example, dropped sharply as average annual temperatures increased. Even the price of lamp oil – which would have also registered the price of whale oil – fell modestly in the same period. Could whalers in the 1630s and 1640s have vied with monopolistic companies just climate change both reduced the supply of their resource and increased its profitability?
We can sketch these relationships by mixing and matching different statistics from natural and textual archives. Detailed qualitative accounts written by whalers, however, reveal that climate influenced conflict in more complicated ways during the first decade of the Svalbard whaling industry. In that decade, whalers from several European nations – most importantly England and the Dutch Republic – employed experienced Basque whalers to kill bowhead whales, strip their blubber, and boil the blubber on the coast. Whalers would deploy boats from a mothership to kill small groups of whales. They would then establish temporary settlements on the coast to turn the blubber into oil that could be loaded into barrels and returned to the ship.
These techniques forced whalers from different nations to rove along the coast of Spitsbergen, which made it likely that they would encounter one another. Initially, the Muscovy Company falsely claimed that English explorers had found Spitsbergen, which meant that it alone had the right to hunt for whales off the island. The Dutch – who had actually discovered the island – insisted that whalers from all European nations should be allowed to fish off its coast. In 1613, a Dutch expedition under Willem van Muyden, the legendary “First Whaleman” of the Republic, reached Spitsbergen in late May and found the coast blocked by ice. After only two weeks, the retreating ice let his whalers enter a bay roughly halfway down the island, but a better-armed English fleet quickly spotted them. In subsequent weeks, the English harassed the Dutch whalers and stole much of their equipment and whale commodities. Yet the Dutch returned with naval escorts in 1614. After the English seized a Dutch ship in 1617, the Dutch arrived with overwhelming force in 1618 and killed several English whalers.
The worst skirmishes between Dutch and English whalers raged in years that were relatively warm across the Arctic and probably around Svalbard, despite the generally cooler climate of the early seventeenth century. In cold years, sea ice could have kept whalers working for different companies from lingering on the coast, where tensions simmered and eventually erupted into bloodshed. In any case, the Muscovy Company and the Northern Company eventually agreed to occupy different parts of Spitsbergen. The Dutch would claim the northwestern tip, where they established the major, fortified settlement of Smeerenburg: “blubber town.” The English, meanwhile, took the rest. The Dutch eventually benefited from being closer to the edge of the summer pack ice, where there were more whales to hunt.
Hostilities between the English and the Dutch in the volatile first decades of the Svalbard whaling industry convinced the Northern Company to keep a skeleton crew at Smeerenburg and nearby Jan Mayen island during the winter. If they could survive, they would keep Company infrastructure safe from springtime raids and provide valuable information about the region’s winter weather. In 1633/34, two groups of Dutch whalers overwintered at Smeerenburg and Jan Mayen. Regional summer temperatures may have been warming at the time, but winter temperatures across the Arctic were cooling, and 1633/34 was particularly cold. The Smeerenburg group survived the frigid temperatures and killed enough caribou and Arctic foxes to hold off scurvy. The Jan Mayen whalers endured until the spring, but they could not catch enough game to survive the ravages of scurvy. In 1634/35, the Northern Company tried again. This time, both groups died from scurvy, and the Smeerenburg whalers did not even make it to winter. Violent competition between whaling companies – plausibly influenced by warming summers – exposed whalers to a quirk in the climatic trends of the Little Ice Age in the Arctic: the big difference between summer and winter temperatures, relative to long-term averages.
Climate change also influenced hostilities between whalers by altering how easily they could reach the “battlefield” around Spitsbergen. In 1615, a year of typical chilliness during the Little Ice Age, the author of a Dutch whaling logbook reported that sea ice on June 7th blocked the crew’s progress towards Svalbard. The crew spotted a bowhead whale three days later, but ice kept them from pursuing. That evening, a storm rose just as they found themselves surrounded by sea ice. They tried to anchor themselves to an iceberg, but it shattered and would have destroyed their ship “had God not saved us.” The few surviving logbooks written by Dutch whalers also record trouble with ice in the warmer 1630s, yet it surely would have been harder to reach Svalbard and compete with English whalers in the first decade of the Arctic whaling industry.
Beginning in 1652, the Dutch Republic and England also embarked on hostilities in the North Sea region that would endure, with interruptions, until the Dutch invasion that launched the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During the three Anglo-Dutch Wars that raged in these decades, English and Dutch ordinance kept whalers from sailing to the Arctic or constructing new ships and equipment for the whaling industry. Sailors who might have served aboard whaling ships were urgently needed to crew the warships of the English and Dutch fleets. Many whalers also served as privateers, raiding merchant ships and convoys and then surrendering a share of the profits to their governments. Any whalers who set sail for the Arctic risked losing everything if discovered.
As I have written elsewhere, a cooling climate in the second half of the seventeenth century profoundly influenced naval hostilities between the English and Dutch fleets. By altering the frequency of easterly and westerly winds in the North Sea, it helped the English claim victory in the First Anglo-Dutch War but aided the Dutch in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, as well as the Glorious Revolution. It probably shortened the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) but lengthened the third war (1672-74). That, in turn, would mean that the manifestations of global climate change in the North Sea affected the opportunities for whalers to engage in hostilities in the Arctic.
After 1650, the character of hostilities between Arctic whalers changed dramatically. Cooling summer temperatures brought thick ice into the harbors of Spitsbergen, while the depletion of the bowhead whale population may have worsened the prospects of whaling near land. Whalers had to hunt further and further from the shore, and started processing their whales at sea. They abandoned settlements along the coast of Spitsbergen, which soon fell into ruin. Violence between whalers now took place exclusively at sea. The evidence is spotty, but privateers seem to have hunted whalers in the final decades of the seventeenth century. In 1692, Henry Greenhill, commissioner of the English navy at Plymouth, reported that two “Greenland Prizes” – whaling vessels captured off Spitsbergen – had been brought into harbor. Since England had allied with the Dutch Republic against France, these ships were probably French in origin.
The history of climate change, whaling, and violence in and around Svalbard during the seventeenth century is above all complicated, filled with surprising twists and turns. Climate change may have occasionally provoked violence, but it probably did so by reducing, rather than increasing, the accessibility of bowhead whales to whalers. More importantly and more certainly, it altered the character of confrontations between whalers in the far north. Moreover, its manifestations thousands of kilometers from the Arctic ended up having important consequences for hostilities in and around Svalbard.
These intricate relationships in the distant past should give us pause as we contemplate the warmer future in the Arctic. Global warming may indeed set the stage for war in the far north, but we have no way of knowing for sure. It is equally likely that climate change will provoke human responses that are hard to guess at present. In this case, we cannot use the past to predict the future, but we can draw on it to ask more insightful questions in the present.
Selected Works Cited:
Degroot, Dagomar. “Exploring the North in a Changing Climate: The Little Ice Age and the Journals of Henry Hudson, 1607-1611.” Journal of Northern Studies 9:1 (2015): 69-91.
Degroot, Dagomar. “Testing the Limits of Climate History: The Quest for a Northeast Passage During the Little Ice Age, 1594-1597.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History XLV:4 (Spring 2015): 459-484.
Degroot, Dagomar. “‘Never such weather known in these seas:’ Climatic Fluctuations and the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, 1652–1674.” Environment and History 20.2 (May 2014): 239-273.
Hacquebord, Louwrens. De Noordse Compagnie (1614-1642): Opkomst, Bloei en Ondergang. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2014.
Hacquebord, Louwrens. “The hunting of the Greenland right whale in Svalbard, its interaction with climate and its impact on the marine ecosystem.” Polar Research 18:2 (1999): 375-382.
Hacquebord, Louwrens and Jurjen R. Leinenga. “The ecology of Greenland whale in relation to whaling and climate change in 17th and 18th centuries.” Tijdschrift voor Geschiendenis 107 (1994): 415–438.
Hacquebord, Louwrens, Frits Steenhuisen and Huib Waterbolk. “English and Dutch Whaling Trade and Whaling Stations in Spitsbergen (Svalbard) before 1660.” International Journal of Maritime History 15:2 (2003): 117-134.
Laist, David W. North Atlantic Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon. Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
McKaya, Nicholas P. and Darrell S. Kaufman. "An extended Arctic proxy temperature database for the past 2,000 years." Scientific Data (2014). doi: 10.1038/sdata.2014.26.