Monday, October 16, 2017 - 08:48

Below is a short but fascinating history of the whaling industry in South Africa. It was compiled by C De Jong and first published in the 1976 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa). Thank you to the University of Pretoria (copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

Since times immemorial right whales visit the bays of the Cape Province during winter to give birth to their calves in shallow and safe water and to suckle them. They gave their name to Walvis Bay and after 1790 attracted whalers from many nations who anchored in the bays to provision and to hunt whales with their rowing boats. Leendert Jansen and Jan van Riebeeck proposed to the Dutch East Indian Company to kill not only seals but also whales off South Africa, but as whaling needed specialized personnel and equipment and many casks it was not practised before 1792. Between 1792 and 1850 several land stations on the Cape coast participated in the hunt until the whales became scarce and the stations had to close down. 

The foreign ships used the bays also as bases to pursue another kind of whale, the sperm whale in the open sea out of sight of the coast. For many decades after 1800 North Americans operated from Delagoa Bay and Madagascar to catch sperms. Those were the days of sailing ships, hand harpoons, open cooking pots on ship's decks and Moby Dick adventures. The Moby Dick of the wide whaling grounds off Southeast Africa was no legend ; he was called Madagascar Jack. 

The industrial revolution was introduced into the dying old whaling industry by the Norwegian skipper Svend Foyn. In 1864-70 he modernised it singlehanded. He created modern whaling with steam-propelled ships (whaleboats), armed with a swivel harpoongun, operating from land stations where a factory converted whales into oil, meat meal for fodder, bone meal for manure and steaks for food. After 1904 the floating factory was introduced, installed in a mother ship which serves as a base to a fleet of whaleboats.

From Norway modern whaling spread to all coasts overseas frequented by whales - also to Africa. Between 1900 and 1914 some 14 land stations were founded scattered along the coasts of Africa south of the Equator. The gunners, mates and factory managers were mostly Norwegians. In 1908 the first whaling station in South Africa was established by the Norwegian, Johan Bryde, and two immigrants from Norway in Durban, the merchant Jacob J Egeland (1864-1946) and the carpenter Abraham Larsen. After one year they separated from Bryde who continued whaling at Saldanha Bay; they called their company the Union Whaling Company because the Union of South Africa was drawing near. They invited members of the National Convention in Durban in 1908 to attend a hunting trip on a whaleboat before leaving. Among their guests were General De la Rey and Percy Fitzpatrick who described this new adventure.

Other land stations were founded in the Union and by 1912 six were in operation in Natal. During the First World War most of them closed down. Some resumed whaling after the war - "Union Whaling" in 1921 - but owing to the depression only this firm and the Premier Whaling Company, founded in 1920, remained active. They combined in 1932 when the Great Depression made it difficult to go it alone.  

The Union Whaling Company continued whaling year after year, both during the Second World War and after 1960 in the Antartic Sea with the decline of open sea whaling in the main field. The humpbacks and blue whales became scarce and were protected, but "Union Whaling" switched over to other baleen whales: fin, sei and minke, and when these too became rarer in the Antarctic Sea, sperm whales became the principal game. The big, toothed animals abound in the old vast field around Madagascar.

As the Durban company was alone in these grounds and the number of "sperms" to be killed was strictly limited by the government, the company could have continued the hunt for endless years and the international action to stop all whaling to save the baleen whales was inapplicable to "Union Whaling's" activities.

South Africa also sent three factory ships to the Antarctic Sea for a number of years, two of which Union Whaling equipped; they were "Uniwaleco" in the thirties and "Abraham Larsen ex-Empire Victory" after the Second World War. In the course of years, Union Whaling extended and modernised its land station continuously and became one of  the largest and most modern in the world with a good reputation among official whaling inspectors and biologists. But costs were high and rose fast and the catch always fluctuated owing to the variability of weather and whale feed. In 1968 the company had to restrict its activity and sold half of its 12 whaleboats. It recovered until fuel oil prices rose enormously; fuel oil is one of its highest cost items. After a fuel price hike in October 1975 and a bad season the directors decided to close the station. Whaling off South Africa has ended, probably for ever. For many years the quaint whaleboats with their high bridge, catwalk leading from the bridge to the platform upon the high stem and harpoon gun, were conspicuous entering the Durban Bay with whales in tow or moored in neat rows at Salisbury Island. They will no more be seen. 

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