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  • Hans Faber

Happy Hunting Grounds in the Arctic

If you want to find out who is responsible for killing the whale, the Frisia Coast Trail area is the prime spot to look. When you stop people on the streets in this coastal region and ask them if they have knowledge of who did it, they probably will respond with: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing”. Officials in The Hague city will say they consider it shitty not to have any recollection on the matter. Better call them all Ishmael. In this post we reveal the unvarnished truth. How the people living in the coastal zone from the city of Amsterdam to that of Hamburg, and up to the islands of Föhr and Sylt, practically exterminated the Arctic whale populations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

This is a history of the classic whaling in the Arctic that existed between circa 1610 and 1860, commonly known as Grönlandfahrt or Groenlandvaart ‘Greenland navigation’. The whale hunting in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean that developed in the late-eighteenth century, led by the Americans and as legendary described by Herman Melville in his lasting novel Moby-Dick, is not the focus in this post. Neither is modern commercial whaling, that started after the Second World War with its ship factories.

Before we begin, it is good to know why the peoples along the southern coast of the North Sea started harpooning whales in the first place. The main reason was for its fat, its blubber. Out of this blubber whale oil, or better known as train-oil, can be produced. An oil called traan, Tran or troon in the various coastal speeches of the southern North Sea. The blubber was cooked in big copper cauldrons to melt it. When you then cool it down using several baths of cold water, clear train-oil remains floating on the water surface. Prima quality is achieved if the blubber is cooked quickly after the hunt. Later, halfway the seventeenth century, the blubber had to be transported in barrels all the way back to patria ‘homeland’ to cook it there. There were two types of blubber that were separately stored in barrels, namely vet 'fat' and kreng. Kreng was impure vet and gut.

Oils were necessary in all kinds of industries, like ropewalk, expedient textiles, wool production, lubricant for machinery and for lighting fuel. Indeed, the grease lightnin’. Prices of regular vegetarian oil had gone up in the sixteenth century due to a fast-growing population. The focus of agriculture was on producing grains which led to a shortage of oil seeds. After the Second World War, again a shortage of oil existed, which was a major incentive to restart whaling.

Another product, albeit not as lucrative as train oil, was baleen. Baleen plates are the bristles in the mouth of baleen whales to filter out krill. It is a flexible material which was used to produce all kinds of products. From tobacco boxes and umbrellas to knife handles. Baleen was also lucrative because of fashion. It was used for corsets and later for crinoline dresses. Furthermore, out of whale bones an expensive lubricant or charnel oil was extracted called knekelolie, used among other for medicinal purposes. Lastly, whale bones as such were used for making fences, streets and even gravestones. Just try not to trip over a piece of whale bone when you are on holiday on one of the Wadden Sea islands. Impossible not to.

Species hunted at were the grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and the North Atlantic right whale (Balaene mysticetus). The latter is also known as the bowhead whale or the noordkaper. The right whale is thought to be the longest living mammal on the planet, and becomes an estimated 200 years old. But different theories on this. The right whale got its name because it was simply the ‘right’ whale to catch. It swam slow, it was relatively big and heavy, it had a thick layer of blubber and, most importantly, it did not sink to the sea floor after it took its last breath. Many other species sink when dead. Back then, no ropes were strong enough to haul such a dead weight from the depths.

At the beginning of the whaling industry, the fat layer of the right whale was about sixty centimetres thick. Commercial hunting affected the populations strongly and the size and the average amount of fat per animal decreased. In the '60s of the eighteenth century the average amount of vet 'fat' per animal was forty to fifty barrels. In the '90s of the same century this had decreased to ten to twenty-five barrels vet (Bruijn 2016). At the end of the nineteenth century the North Atlantic right whale was nearly extinct. The North Atlantic grey whale became extinct, period.

To warm you up for this long-read, first a testimony of a Frisian wandering stark naked on freezing and barren Greenland for days. Albeit most documented encounters of seafarers with the native people of Greenland, the Inuit, were friendly, this was one was not that welcoming.


On the run naked on Greenland - In the year 1777, known as the disaster year, fourteen ships were wrecked in the Arctic waters west of Greenland after a heavy storm. Seven ships from the city of Hamburg and seven ships from the Republic. In total, 300 men died. Other men of wrecked ships succeeded in reaching the shores of Greenland, where they encountered the Inuit. One of the sailors is Reinier Hylkes from the village of Warnt in province Friesland. He sailed on the ship De Hopende Visser ‘the hoping fisherman’.

The wilden ‘wildlings’, as the account goes, brought the whalers to their settlement, where they received fish, seal meat and scurvy-grass (also called 'salaat' or 'lepelblad'). The men were divided over two tents. A big and a small tent. Hylkes was put in the big one, together with thirty-seven other men. Here they stayed for two weeks, when nineteen men left with boats they had purchased from the Inuit in the meantime. The others had no further valuables left to buy a boat too. These remaining nineteen men noticed that the atmosphere became hostile. They received little to eat and had to do chores. When relatives of the Inuit came over, the sailors had to sing for them, after which they were rewarded with some seal meat. If someone became ill, which happened regularly because all of them were weakened, the Inuit threw the person outside to die in the cold. The next phase was that the Inuit started to take men outside continuously, regardless of being ill. Never to be heard from again. Sometimes the Inuit came back laughing and imitating: ”Jan, Pieter, Aarjen, Oh God, oh God!” They were the last words of men in mortal fear.

This went on until Hylkes with only four other men were left. By then it was February. That month the Inuit moved north with their boats. After a few days of travelling, it turned out another shipmate, who probably had stayed in the small tent, was still alive. The joy of seeing each other was great but brief. Before Hylkes’ eyes the man was clubbed to death. After this, they took Hylkes’ clothes and left him stark naked on the beach. Hylkes was told he would die the following day. That night Hylkes fled. After three days wandering naked on the rocks along the coast, he spots a tent. These Inuit were friendly and gave him clothing and food. Later they brought Hylkes to a Danish trader. This trader also spoke with the murderous Inuit, but it was impossible to act against these murderers. There were too many and it would become dangerous for them as Europeans. They did return Hylkes’ clothes, though.


Another sailor who was shipwrecked in the disaster year of 1777, was the Frisian Hidde Dirks Kat (1747-1824) from island Ameland. On 30 September his ship was wrecked by pack-ice and icebergs during a heavy swell after a severe storm that had been blowing from the northeast for days. After being eleven days on foot on ice floes at open sea, with no shelter and only a bit of food, they managed to reach Statenhoek, i.e. the southern-most point of Greenland, now known as Kap Farvell. From the seventy-eight men only eighteen reached land. Some drowned, some froze to death, some were left behind still alive with great sadness because they were too weak to continue moving. After some more wandering on land, Kat and his men ended up with the Inuit at the settlement of Frederikshab, the modern village of Paamiut. They were treated friendly. Kat is impressed by them and it feels even warmer than home. The worst thing that happened to Kat concerning the Inuit was that he had to wash himself with human urine. In the house of the Inuit stood a barrel filled with saved up urine. His diet consisted of seals, foxes, and crows. In 1778 Kat returns to his own cozy island at the Wadden Sea.

The run up to whaling

The high north was not an unfamiliar place for the merchants of the Dutch Republic. Merchants traded for long with Norway, Finnmark and the White Sea area. The trade consisted of timber, furs, and hemp. Between 1578 and 1583 the Republic had a trading post at the mouth of River Dvina in Russia. A post that was relocated to Novo Kholmogory, where also the eternal enemy, the English, was present. Later Kholmogory was known as Arkhangelsk, named after the nearby monastery. It is also how the so-called Archangelvaart or Archangel navigation got its name. An early explorer of the Arctic was Olivier Brunel from Flanders in the year 1584. Sadly, it was his last trip too. He drowned in 1585 near the mouth of River Pechora.

The Dutch organized three expeditions to find the Northeast Passage. In the year 1594 two ships gave it a try. One under command of the Westfrisian Cornelis Nay from the town of Enkhuizen, and one under that of the Frisian Willem Barentsz from the island of Terschelling. The East-Frisian seafarer Pieter Dirksz Keyser from Emden also participated in the expedition. Nay reached Kara Strait, south of Novaya Zemlya. The ship of Nay casually and provisionally caught a whale for the first time too. That was on 14 July 1594. Explorer Jan Huygens van Linschoten, who was also present at the scene of the crime, wrote about the first blood in his travelogue. It was, by the way, only a young animal. While the men were removing the blubber and chopping the animal into pieces on the beach, its mother watched the whole Dexter massacre from the water. Its body lifted high from the water so she could see. Not the celebrating atmosphere of quatorze julliet today. A year later, in 1595, a fleet of seven ships under command of Nay gave it another try. Barentsz was also one of the captains. Of course, no passage to Asia was found. In the old city hall of Haarlem, one of the two whalebone jaws Van Linschoten took from the Arctic still hangs on its ceiling.

Three is a charm, and in 1596 stubborn Barentsz tried for a third time to find the Passage. This time alone. It was during this voyage that Barentsz discovered the archipelago of Spitsbergen ‘peak mountains’ and Beereneiland ‘bears-island’. His ship got stuck in the ice at Novaya Zemlya and was crushed. Barentsz and his crew had to stay the harsh arctic winter. They managed to survive in a house they had built from the wood of the ship. A house they named ‘t Behouden Huys ‘the preserving house’. Once the sea was ice free the next year, they rowed with a sloop they had constructed to the mainland. On their way back Barentsz died on 20 June 1597.

death of Willem Barentsz by C.J.L. Portman, 1836

At the start of the seventeenth century, initiated by the Muscovy Company, the English began to look for the Northeast Passage too. The Muscovy Company, also named the Russia Company and founded in the year 1551, had monopoly over the English-Russian trade. In 1557 it already had a charter on whaling. In the years 1603, 1604, 1605, 1607 and 1610 expeditions financed by the Muscovy Company took off to the Arctic. The one of 1607 was led by the famous explorer Henry Hudson. Shortly after this expedition, Hudson was hired by Dutch merchants of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie VOC to discover the Northeast Passage. In the year 1609 he discovered, however, the island of Manhattan and the River Hudson. Sailing under the Dutch flag. It is here where the New Netherland colony and the town of New Amsterdam soon would be founded. Read our post History is written by the victors – a history of the credits for more about this piece of world history. The English expedition of 1610 to the Arctic was led by Jonas Pool. When he passed the waters of Spitsbergen, the sea was filled with whales. They were so many that they swam against the anchor chains and the rudder of the ship.

Concerning Spitsbergen, the Norwegians annexed the archipelago in the twentieth century. Claiming the Vikings already had discovered everything there is to discover in the northern hemisphere. They also gave it another name to mark their turf, namely Svalbard meaning ‘cold coast’. Nevertheless, Barentsz’ name Spitsbergen for the whole archipelago stuck as the predominant name to this day. The Republic did not claim the land after Barentsz discovered it. They were merely interested in making money in the waters surrounding the archipelago and for the rest lived by Hugo Grotius’ international law concept of mare liberum ‘the free sea’. Neither did the Republic claim Beereneiland or Bear Island, now called Bjørnøya, nor Jan Mayen island. The latter island kept its name too. It was discovered in the year 1614 by the Westfrisian Jan Jacobsz Mayen from the village of Schellinkhout. All these islands have been claimed by the king of Norway based on that same hackneyed Viking-stuff reasoning.

Basque tutors

In the year 1611 things really started moving with whale catching. The time was right because of the high demand for oil and prices that go with it. Thanks to all the previous expeditions, both the Republic and England had mapped the area well. The Muscovy Company fitted out two ships for the hunt. A year later, Dutch investors also send a ship, led by Willem Cornelisz van Muyden. Because both countries had no experience how to hunt, kill and process these huge animals, they hired Basque seamen. Especially harpooners and speksnijders ‘whale-cutters’. This coastal people had been whaling for ages and were the Master Yodas of full-scale commercial whaling in the Arctic by the Dutch, Frisians, Germans and to a lesser extent the English.

The Basques already hunted whales in the mid-eleventh century. Maybe centuries before that already, but evidence for this is circumstantial. The chase was for its meat. Producing salted fish, and whales were considered fish back then, was an economic niche due to Catholic dietary restrictions. No meat allowed on Fridays, neither on the uncountable Catholic saint’s days. Medieval Basque whaling was not in the Arctic yet but in their own waters, the Bay of Biscay. It is through this bay that the North Atlantic right whales migrated to the north. In Euskara language, the Basques call them sarda meaning ‘schooling whale’. They also hunted the grey whale which they called otta sotta.

Along the coast of Biscay, the Basques had constructed stone watch towers called vigías to look out for whales. As soon as whales were spotted, sloops called chalupas in Euskara were sent out to hunt the animals down. The French called these sloops chaloupes, the English shallops and the German Schaluppe. It is clear the English word sloop and the Dutch sloep derive from it as well. The chalupas were manned by five oarsmen, a harpooner, and a steersman. After the harpoon was thrown into the body, which was attached with a rope to the sloop, the animal then was tired out. For many whales, prolonged exertion leads to heat exhaustion, because their blubber is too thick to get rid off excessive body heat quick. At the point the whale was exhausted, the whalers approached the animal up close again and with lances they made the kill. Especially trying to hit the lungs. Basque whaling in the Bay of Biscay reached its peak mid-sixteenth century. It went into decline soon after that.


Whale Rodeo - Harpooner Jacob Dieukes from the village of Assendelft in province Holland is the first successful whale rodeo rider in history. In the year 1660 he throws his harpoon into a whale, but he falls overboard. The lines of the harpoon entangle him to the lower body part of the whale. The whale, in terror and agony, swims for its life with Dieukes tied to its body. The men in the sloop try to keep up, but the animal is too fast. Three times the whale dives deep into the freezing cold Arctic sea, with Dieukes as a horse rider on his back holding his breath. A sea so cold it can make your heart stop. After the third dive the harpoon finally falls loose, and Dieukes can reach his knife and cuts himself free. He was picked up from the icy water and quickly given a new set of clothes. Dieukes resumed the hunt immediately. Well, Daryl Mills, chew on that!

It is a scene one can also find in Melville’s Moby-Dick, when the ‘Iranian’ harpooner Fedallah is tied with ropes to the famous white sperm whale too. Fedallah, however, never lived to tell the rough sea ride. Only storyteller Ishmael did, of course. Whether Melville was inspired by this historic account, we do not know.


It is from the first quarter of the sixteenth century that the Basques started to hunt whales in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, called la gran baya, at the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Especially the Strait of Belle Isle was an important hunting ground of the Basques. At Red Bay rendering stations have been found, including the remains of tryworks. Archaeological research suggests that although cod fishing was the primary objective, whale hunting became a fallback activity during 1520-1530. It is from 1540 onward that the Basques mounted dedicated whale hunting expeditions to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. They applied the same coastal hunting strategy as in the Bay of Biscay. As they had done since the Middle Ages.

For long the Basques managed to keep their cod fishing and whaling grounds secret. To this day, it is unclear when exactly the Basques started fishing cod in Canadian waters. Was it before or after Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492? Incidentally, not much different from today when you ask an angler where he or she caught that big pike perch or carp. They will never give you a honest answer. Whales were still primarily caught by the Basques for its meat which was salted, but also for lamp oil. Train oil, or grasa de ballena, mixed with tar was also used for chalking ships.

The Barentsz map by Cornelis Claesz, 1598

The so-called Terra Nova industry peaked between 1560 and 1570. During this period, each summer about twenty ships with a crew of about 2,000 men in total left from Basque Country for the Canadian shores. By the year 1620 this activity had ended, however. As to why it did, scholars are not in agreement. It might have been due to over-hunting with a reduction of the right whale populations as a consequence. In only fifty years about 20,000 whales had been killed. It also might have been caused by external, Castilion reasons, like wars, forced recruitment for the armada, taxes, and a drop in train-oil prices.

All the previous is to illustrate that the Dutch and the English whaling start-ups needed the expertise of the Basques badly. Basque sailors knew their value and hiring them did cost you. Over the years 1612-1639, more than a quarter of the whaling crew consisted of Basque officers. No wonder the Dutch tried to master the skills themselves as soon as possible. Over the years 1640-1700, the Basque share of the crew sharply dropped to a few percent. Their place had been taken over by notably Frisians from province Friesland and region Ostfriesland, including many of the Wadden Sea islands like Ameland, Borkum, Terschelling and Texel, and most of the islands and Halligs of region Nordfriesland. Especially the march of the troonbook into the whaling branch was significant, as we shall see further below when we discuss the participation of the Nordfriesen in the whale hunt. Troonbook is North-Frisian language and translates as ‘train oil beacon’ referring to the penetrating smell of sailors when they arrived back home from whaling. To be more precise, the smell of a mixture of train oil, overcooked pea and old sweat.

Monopoly whaling

The initial heart of commercial whaling was the wealthy merchants in the city of Amsterdam and the regions north of it, namely the region Zaan, the villages Graft and De Rijp on (former) Schermer island, and to a lesser extent the regions Waterland and West-friesland. From the village of Huisduinen many commanders originated too. All these areas are located in what is today province Noord Holland. At the end of the sixteenth century, the coastal provinces of the Republic had built up the biggest merchant fleet the world had ever seen.

Besides a long-standing seafaring tradition, dating back to the Early Middle Ages (read our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks), they had achieved this status, among other, through innovations in ship building. The Republic was able to build standardized and thus cheaper ships. This way they became dominant in maritime freight. Especially the fluit ship-type, also named flute or fly-boat, developed in the West-frisian town of Hoorn, was paramount in this development. A bit like the black-painted Ford Model T rolling from the assembly lines in Detroit from 1908. To quote Henry Ford: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” With cheap fluit ships the Republic became leading in particularly the marine trade of grain, wood, and salt. Around the year 1600, the Republic indisputable had become the center in world trade. Amsterdam was bursting with investors looking for new business opportunities. The reports from the Arctic were financially promising, so these money makers started to invest in commercial whaling too.

The start of whaling in the year 1612 immediately led to incidents among the ships at Spitsbergen. Furthermore, to strengthen their position against the Muscovy Company, several merchants requested the States General of the Republic to grant an octroy ‘charter’. In 1614 a charter for three years was given. It read:

van Nova Sembla tot Fretum Davids toe, daeronder begrepen Spitsbergen, Beereneylant, Groenlandt ende andere eylanden, die onder de voorsz. Limieten souden mogen gevonden worden

(from Novaya Zemlya to Davis Strait, including Spitsbergen [modern Svalbard], Beereneylant [modern Bjørnøya], Greenland and other islands, which may be found within the aforementioned limitations)

The charter would be renewed in the years 1617, 1622, 1623, and for a last time in 1634. In the year 1642 the charter expired, and whaling was a fully free, individual activity.

The charter of 1614 was the start of the Noordsche Compagnie ‘northern company’. A bit analogue to the aforementioned VOC and the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC). At first, the Noordsche Compagnie had five sections, the so-called kamers ‘chambers’, namely of the cities of Amsterdam, Delft, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, and Rotterdam. In 1617 another company was established. This after the discovery of Jan Mayen island a few years earlier. In 1623 this smaller company was merged into the big Noordsche Compagnie. Later, in 1635, the kamer of the town of Harlingen was added to the Compagnie. This after a serious conflict with the States of Province Friesland, because the Frisians were denied participation by the Noordsche Compagnie. Province Friesland created leverage through establishing its own company with two kamers, one in Harlingen and one in Hindeloopen. Soon after, the States General in The Hague turned around. The Frisians were accepted, and the kamer of Harlingen was added to the Noordsche Compagnie. The kamer of Harlingen probably was housed at the north end of the Zuiderhaven dock (Otten 2022).

Jan Mayen island with Beerenberg in the back, by Cornelis de Man (1639)
Jan Mayen island with Beerenberg in the back, by Cornelis de Man (1639)

The Noordsche Compagnie set up whaling stations at Spitsbergen, Jan Meyen island and Beereneiland. In the northwest of Spitsbergen there were three factorijen ‘factories’ or landing stations, i.e. small seasonal settlements. These were Smeerenburg ‘smear-burg’ on Amsterdam island, Harlinger Traankokerij ‘Harlingen oil factory’ on Deenseiland, and Zeeuwse Uytkyck ‘Zeeland look-out’ on the northernmost point of Spitsbergen. So, every Dutch coastal province its own base. The English concentrated their activities in the south of the Spitsbergen archipelago. That way both countries could co-exist in the otherwise vast ice seas.

After some naughty Basques had plundered the company’s storage in the year 1632, the Noordsche Compagnie even tried to settle on the island all year round. It was a disastrous undertaking. Seven men stayed the winter on Jan Mayen island in 1633, and they all died. At Smeerenburg it succeeded that year. The men were able to find enough scurvy-grass for crucial vitamin C intake which prevented, indeed, the illness of scurvy. Scurvy-grass a day keeps the doctor away. The year after, however, all seven men left again at Smeerenburg died a horrible death. After that, the whole overwintering thing in the Arctic was put to bed by the company.

The typical routine of whalers was, that the ships left in early spring and returned after summer. The route they sailed was from island Texel to Shetland. From there the ships sailed to Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen island and Beereneiland. Shetland was called Hitland by the Dutch. This is copied from the Faroese language in which it is named Hetland. Once they had left from island Texel, the so-called vleet or armazoen was distributed among the crew. The armazoen, provided by the ship, was the whale hunting equipment, like harpoons, lances, and uncountable different types of whale-cutter knifes. Everyone had to prepare and sharpen their own knifes etc, and split their own hunting ropes. They had to be ready once they entered the Arctic seas. Also, the sloops were prepared for immediate action. As soon as the command Val! Val! was shouted, all the sloops, often six in total, had to be manned instantly. Six men in every sloop. As the sailors said: “because the whale would not wait for them”. The Dutch word val means ‘to fall/to drop’. The total crew on board a whaling ship amounted around forty-five men. Know that a fluit ship in regular marine trade only needed about fifteen men to sail it. So, whale hunting was all about intensive, and relatively costly business.

From 1719 onward, when hunting grounds were expanded into Davis Strait at the west coast of Greenland, they sailed west from Shetland to Statenhoek, the southernmost point of Greenland. From there they sailed up north to the strait. It took them a month and a half to reach these hunting grounds.


Top 10 dangers for whalers

  1. pack-ice

  2. ice bergs

  3. heavy storms

  4. the hunt itself

  5. scurvy

  6. privateers (French and Spanish)

  7. illnesses

  8. mutiny

  9. Inuit

  10. sea monsters (unverified)

Reliable statistics concerning the numbers and percentages of seamen who died are not available. The recorded shipwrecks and deaths show it was a much safer job than sailing with the VOC to the West. In this line of business a mortality rate of fifty percent was pretty normal. Of course, then they were longer away, so the time at risk increased too.


From the late 1630s, profits of the Noordsche Compagnie were in decline. The main reasons for it was climate change. The climate had become a bit warmer. Therefore, the rim of the pack-ice moved more to the north. Whales forage especially at the fringes of the ice. This meant whales had to be caught further out at sea (Hacquebord 2019). Because the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie only extended to the shores of land and islands, given the concept of mare liberum mentioned earlier, the company could not benefit from its monopoly anymore. Hence, many more whaling ships were financed by Dutch businessmen to hunt at open sea: ‘hvalfangst i no man’s land‘. The Noordsche Compagnie did petition for a new charter, this time for the whole Arctic. But the States General declined the request. Hence, a fierce competition developed at high sea. No longer merely with foreign nations like the English and French, but now also with ships financed by the Dutch themselves. Cooperation among the kamers became poor, and it was everyone for themselves. As said, in the year 1642 the charter expired and was not renewed anymore. Despite the Noordsche Compagnie had lost its monopoly, the kamer of Amsterdam kept functioning as an enterprise until 1658, and the kamer of Harlingen until 1662.

The fact whales had to be caught away from the islands, also meant dead whales could no longer be dragged to the landing stations to be processed into train oil, etc. The distance was too great and it would be too time consuming. Also, dead whales decay quickly. Efficiency demanded that whales were being processed at high sea. As a result the stations at Spitsbergen were abandoned in the 1650s. The last one that was abandoned, was in 1660. They did not cook the blubber on board the ships, for it was too risky for burning the ship down. After the blubber was cut off, it was conserved in airtight barrels to be cooked back at home.

Free whaling for everyone

From the end of the 1630’s whaling is booming business. In the year 1650 the English Muscovy Company stepped out of the whaling industry. It was in a state of bankruptcy due to worsened bilateral relations between England and Russia. England would only re-enter the whaling business modestly in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. However, around the mid-eighteenth century, England had equaled the Republic in volume already and would take the leading position from then on. The English whaling industry was heavily subsidized by the state. This also had a strategic military purpose, namely to have sailors at the whaling as reservists for the navy when needed. In the period between 1670 and 1730 whaling was at its peak. Every season between 150 and 250 ships were fitted out from the Republic for the hunt. Sometimes even as many as 300. Over the whole eighteenth century on average 260 ships went whaling in the Arctic every year (Leinenga 2015). Were in the period before the year 1642 only between 300 and 400 whales caught, after it numbers skyrocketed to circa 2,000 every year.

The Republic also started whaling on the other side of the Pond, in their colony of New Netherland. In 1629 the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) 'Dutch West India Company' bought land in Delaware Bay from the Lena'pe native tribe. Among other with an aim at commercial whaling (Romm 2010). The piece of land in Delaware Bay is where the settlement of Swaanendael was founded, the modern town of Lewes, and is where the Dutch would start hunting at whales in 1631. The eighty, first settlers at Swaanendael from the Republic even left with a ship called De Walvis 'the whale' in the year 1630. However, it turned out to be a disaster. Most of the settlers were killed by the native tribes soon after their arrival in 1632, possibly due to a misunderstanding. In the year that followed, another attempt was made to start whaling in Delaware Bay, also at Cape May (Degener 2012). But they lacked the skills and decent quality harpoons to hunt whales properly. No Basques there to teach them. Despite whaling did not develop in the New Netherland colony into a business, it did was the start of American whaling history.

Besides the Republic, also the cities of Bremen and especially of Hamburg participated in whaling along the southern coast of the North Sea. That was when the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie ended. These cities fitted out about sixty ships every season. From the mid-fifteenth century, Bremen and Hamburg claimed to be a Freie Reichsstadt, a free imperial city, not belonging to any duchy or lord. Their way of doing business was comparable with that of the Republic and many connections and relations existed between both. From 1640, the city of Hamburg also had its own landing station on the west coast of Spitsbergen, called Hamburg-Bucht, or in Dutch Hamburger Baaytje. Like the Republic, the ‘German’ cities of Bremen and Hamburg also preferred the principle of international free trade. This contrary to Denmark, England and Sweden, which adhered (and adhere) mercantilism, a protective trade policy. German is written between quotations marks because in the eighteenth century there was no such thing as a German state yet. Only a collection of principalities, counties and (free) cities.

What about the Danes? Well, it took them until the last quarter of the eighteenth century to engage in whaling in an organized fashion. After apparently giving it much consideration, their king founded the Kongelige Grønlandske Handel (KGH) in the year 1774. A company founded in a time when Arctic whaling was already in its waning days. This distinguished enterprise bought eight ships that year and the following year another eighth. Denmark unilateral declared that its royal company had monopoly over Greenland and Spitsbergen, including sailing on its shores. In real life, however, a sweet fleet of sixteen was no match for the German cities, and certainly not for the Republic and England. To illustrate this, in the year 1776 the Republic still sent out 123 ships to the Arctic and the city of Hamburg fifty-one. By the way, twelve of the sixteen Danish ships were under command of Nordfriesen, mostly from islands Föhr and Sylt. More about the Nordfriesen further below. There was more to say about the success of the KGH. When in 1776 it ordered harpoons and stuff, the quality was very poor. According to the North-Frisian commanders, the harpoons already broke when thrown against a piece of glass and they regarded these as unusable.

The above is not entirely fair to the Danes. There were private persons who were involved with whaling until 1775. Especially the merchant Jacob Severin who had received the exclusive right to hunt whales for Denmark and (their province) Norway. Both were constitutional united under the Danish monarchy. Severin who was in practice viceroy of Greenland for long. But these privileged individuals were not able to punch them out of a paper bag when it came to setting up profitable whaling business.

de Groenlandvaarder ‘the Greenland Navigator’ by Jochem de Vries

The fluit ships of the Dutch Republic were being adjusted as well halfway the seventeenth century. Ships were regularly sandwiched by pack-ice. As such not so bad. As soon as the wind turned, they could free themselves again. Things became dangerous when the wind continued to blow from one direction, and was strong. Then the pressure became too strong, and the ice would crush the ship. On average about four percent of the ships were lost on a yearly basis (Feddersen 1991). To give more protection, bow and hull of the fluit ships were strengthened with a second skin, called verdubbelen ‘to double’. This ijshuid ‘ice-skin’ protected the ship better against drifting ice. Albeit, having a whale carcass between ship and pack-ice was still the best protection against pressing ice, according to the ice-sea seafarers. Also, facilities were added to the ship to carry six or seven sloops.

At the end of the seventeenth century another ship type was introduced, the bootschiff or bootschip ‘boat-ship. It had, among other, a robust bow and, in comparison to the fluit ship, a broader deck. A wider deck was necessary because, as said, the blubber had to be processed at sea from the mid-seventeenth century onward. Cutting and storing the blubber onboard the ship needed more space on deck. The bootschip was the standard whaling ship of the eighteenth century. Later the brig, in Dutch brik and in German Brigg, followed.

Because whale populations decreased in the seas around Spitsbergen, Jan Mayen island and Beereneiland, new happy hunting grounds had to be found. In the year 1669 the average catch per ship was eight whales, but in 1789 only two. The averages of catches went up and down, but with a clear downward trend. To give the reader an impression: 1669 – 8 whales; 1691 – 2.5 whales; 1701 – 5.8 whales; 1728 – 1.1 whales; 1744 – 4 whales; 1762 – 1.5 whales; 1781 – 4.2 whales; 1789 – 2 whales. The investment paid off if ships returned with at least four whales (Leinenga 2015). Of course depending on current (vegetarian) oil prices, and especially if they had sailed longer for the west coast of Greenland too.

From the year 1719 ships from the Republic started whaling west of Greenland, in Davis Strait. At the west coast of Greenland two sea currents meet. A warm current from the south running along the coast of Greenland, and a cold current, the Labrador Current, from the northern Baffin Bay. Where the warm and cold currents meet, there is plankton bounty. So, great forage spots for baleen whales and thus excellent new happy hunting grounds. The whales were in general also bigger and fatter on the west coast of Greenland than at Spitsbergen. Normally, around the start of the month May, the Disko Bay in Davis Strait would be ice free, and the prime spot to start whaling. Then gradually moving north with the seasonal retreat of the ice. The hunting season in the Davis Strait ended late June.

It was the Frisian seafarer Laurens Feyjes Haan from the Wadden Sea island of Terschelling who had sailed since 1708 on a yearly basis to these waters for trade. The islanders of Terschelling were bartering with the Inuit of Greenland during much of the seventeenth century. In 1719 Haan published a book with directions how to navigate to Davis Strait. And lo and behold, whalers immediately moved west. The Inuit, called wilden ‘wildings’ or Groenlanders ‘Greenlanders’ by the Dutch, were described in the mid-sixteenth century as a people who ate their fish raw. Furthermore, that they loved raw meat and fat of seals. Bird eggs were being boiled hard until they turned blue. Sprat and mullet was cooked too. Lamps were made with moss and oil from seals.

Because Davis Strait was much further away from patria ‘home country’ and it therefore took longer for ship to be at sea for the same time to catch, this was a more costly hunting ground. Think only of victuals and wages. On average to get to the west coast of Greenland took six weeks. Often sailing along coasts or islands like Orkney, Shetland, Faroes or the Norwegian coast. This also offered the possibility to have some additional, fresh supplies.

Origins of whalers

The whole whaling business had become an efficient and reasonable lucrative business from the mid-seventeenth century. At least it generated quite a lot of employ. Vacancies that could not be filled entirely by the hinterlands of the Republic and Hamburg. So contract workers were attracted. But who were these contract workers from elsewhere?

A first general observation is the broader picture of the origins of seafarers in the merchant marine of the Dutch Republic. Around the year 1710, within the height of the Republic, about seventy-five percent was from the Republic itself. Of this, about forty-seven percent came from province Friesland, including the Wadden Sea islands. From the twenty-five percent who came from abroad, forty-three percent came from region Ostfriesland, including the Wadden Sea islands, and from the Duchy of Schleswig (i.e. essentially region Nordfriesland). The overall picture, therefore, is that during the heydays of the Republic, nearly half of its merchant marine was Frisian of origin. Take also into consideration that the population density in the Frisian regions of provenance was much lower than in province Holland. The Frisians were therefore a sea people par excellence. For this they can shake hands with the Basques, besides for having issues with the king of Spain and being scattered over several countries as well.

A second general remark on the background of the whalers is that the religious faith of relatively many was Anabaptism. The reason for it is simple, once you see it. Anabaptists denounce the use of violence. Hence, neither the Admiralties, nor the quasi-militaristic merchant ships of the VOC and the WIC were an option. Another theoretical option for the Anabaptists would have been the fisheries. However, manning of herring busses was exclusively available for men from the local village. No import accepted. At most someone from another, neighbouring fishing village.

So, self-employment through private businesses or, indeed, working in the non-armed whaling industry were credible options for these pacifists. Many of them lived in province Friesland, region Ostfriesland and on the Frisian Wadden Sea islands. Think of Menno Simons and the Mennonites who originate from this region too. Of course, their rejection of violence only concerned violence against other humans. Not against other mammals.


Zakkoek, a real treat - The last whaling ship was the Dirkje Adema from the city of Harlingen in 1862. Some notes have been preserved concerning the diet. One thing is zakkoek which literally translates as ‘sack-cake’. The batter was made with brewer’s yeast, and perhaps with raisins. It took many hours to prepare. It was hung au-bain-marie in a linen sack on the ceiling of the caboose the day before. Every Wednesday and Sunday the men got zakkoek. They loved it!

It is a dish of the northern provinces of the Netherlands and has many other names, like: ketelkoek (‘kettle cake’), Jan in de Zak (‘Jan in the sack’), Witte Zuster (‘white nurse’), Broeder (‘male nurse’), Blinde Dirk (‘blind Dirk’), Poffert, Boffert and Trommelkoek (‘lunch-box cake’). Sometimes served with butter and syrup. We are curious whether other regions along the Wadden Sea coast are familiar with this recipe too. Let us know.


Over the period 1612-1639, so from the start of commercial whaling until the end of the Noordsche Compagnie, by far the most commanders came from the northern part of province Holland. More specific, from Amsterdam and the area north of the city. About eighty percent of the commanders came from Holland. Nearly twenty percent came from province Friesland or the southern Frisian Wadden Sea islands. In absolute numbers they were twenty-eight Frisian commanders. Over the period 1640-1665, the share of Frisian commanders increased strongly. The percentage of commanders from Holland dropped to about fifty-five percent, whilst that of the Frisian commanders reached nearly forty percent. In absolute numbers, they were 385 Frisian commanders.

A similar development took place concerning the crew. Over the period 1612-1639 nearly sixty percent originated from province Holland. Again, mainly from the city of Amsterdam and the region north of it. About thirty percent came from Basque Country. A mere eight percent from province Friesland and the Frisian southern Wadden Sea islands. This totally changes in the years after that. Over the period 1640-1700, almost sixty-five percent came from province Holland. The share of Frisians at the whaling had increased to roughly a third, including from the Frisian Wadden Sea island. The first Nordfriesen from island Föhr enter the records too. The expensive Basques had been made superfluous in the meantime and reduced to a measly two percent. The composition concerning the origins of the whaling crew over this period, shows some similarities with the northern Archangel navigation. In this northern trade fifty-five percent originated from province Holland and thirty-six percent from province Friesland, including the southern Wadden Sea islands.

whaler the Harlingen crushed at the Melville Bay in 1826, by Herman Siderius (1819-1892)

Over the eighteenth century until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the picture becomes even more dramatic when it comes to the share of Frisians at the whaling. Half of the crew came from the north coast of Germany and from the German Wadden Sea islands. Only a third came from the Republic itself, of which about eight percent came from Friesland or the Wadden Sea island. So, a rough indication is that during much of the eighteenth century Frisians from the various Frisian regions of provenance, represented about fifty to sixty percent of all the whaling crew on ships of the Republic. The Wadden Sea islands also contributed significantly concerning whaling commanders. Of the 1,250 commanders in the eighteenth century, no less than 490 came from the Frisian Wadden Sea islands. The main islands were island Föhr with 128, island Ameland with 121, island Terschelling with eighty-eight, island Texel with seventy-five and island Borkum with sixty-five commanders. Furthermore, still many commanders from (the northern part of) province Holland, of course.

The Island Nordfriesen

The first phase of whaling, from 1612 until around 1660, basically went past the region of Nordfriesland. During the whole era of whaling, the Nordfriesen never fitted out any ships. Even if they would have considered it, the competition from the cities of Altona, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Glückstadt, and Bremen would have been too fierce. And you need businessmen and investors with money. A modest effort was made in the town of Husum, but it did not last. It is in the course of the eighteenth century that the number of Nordfriesen in whaling increased strongly.

Relations between Nordfriesland and the Republic dated already from before the Nordfriesen joined the whaling industry. From the first half of the seventeenth century, Nordfriesen were involved in the maritime trade of especially the transport of Danish oxen and Scandinavian timber to the Republic. With their smack ships (also smakschepen or smackschiffen), which were small and flat-bottomed ships suitable for sailing over the shallow Wadden Sea, they did most of the transport. In modest numbers the Nordfriesen worked for the VOC and the Admiralties as well. Because of the intensive trade in oxen and timber, many connections existed with region West-friesland (a.o. the town of Enkhuizen) and with Amsterdam. Not only Ferringer, i.e. Nordfriesen from island Föhr, were involved in this maritime trade. Also, Nordfriesen from island Nordstrand and the towns of Husum, Møltønder and Tønder. Furthermore, men from islands Oland and Rømø were involved too. From around the year 1660 more and more Nordfriesen, again mainly from island Föhr, settled in Amsterdam. We know this also from analyzing the city records concerning marriages. A lot of North-Frisian grooms pop up in the records. By the way, many Ferringer lived in the neighbourhood Oude Teertuinen ‘old tar-gardens’ what is today Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam. Also the spot where the daily martket ferry with the town of Hindeloopen in the southwest of province Friesland moored (Van Doorn 2021).

When Nordfriesen signed up for whaling in the Republic, they received Dutch personal names. Apparently the North-Frisian names were too difficult for the Dutch to handle. An impression of how names were converted into Dutch: Arfst – Adriaen; Erk – Dirk; Früd – Frederik; Girre – Gerrit; Hark – Hendrik; Hay – Hendrik; Jap – Jacob; Ketel – Cornelis; Nahmen – Nanning; Ocke – Adriaen; Rörd – Riewert; Sönk – Simon; Tay – Teunis; Tücke – Teunis; Wögen – Willem (Faltings 2011). This also complicates historic research to identify the cloaked Nordfriesen in the records.

The reason why Nordfriesen started to participate in the whale hunt was because after the charter of the Noordsche Compagnie was no longer renewed, whaling had become a completely free enterprise within the Republic from 1642 onward. And, the Republic was the key player in the North Atlantic whaling. From 1642 everyone with money could buy shares, so-called parten, of a whaling ship. And wealthy merchants enough in the Republic to set up yet another shipping company. Whaling became booming and thus much labour with maritime expertise was needed. This was the sign the Nordfriesen were waiting for and they entered the whaling business with full dedication and domination.

Sometimes it is argued the reason for the Nordfriesen to step in, was the fact that in the year 1633 France forbade the Basques from sailing with whaling ships of the Republic. In fact, it was not the reason. Enrollment of Basques at Dutch whaling ships continued between 1625 and 1641, even until 1669 (Hacquebord 1999).

Another explanation often given, in combination with the former, is the storm flood of 1634, the Burchardi flood. This Grote Mandränke ‘great drowning of men’ as it is locally remembered, devastated much of the southern North Sea coast and hit region Nordfriesland notably hard. Between 8,000 and 15,000 people drowned in a single day. Island Strand was shattered into pieces of which only a few smaller islands remained. Of the about 9,100 inhabitants of island Strand, about 6,100 drowned. And island Strand was the granary of region Nordfriesland as well. This led to great poverty, and whaling as a means of support was part of the solution.

By the year 1700 already around 3,600 Nordfriesen were at the whaling. Most of them from islands Sylt and Föhr, but also from the Halligs and island Rømø. Above, out of every twenty or thirty Nordfriesen one was a commander. The golden age of the Nordfriesen in the whale hunt was between 1745 and 1785. During this period about twenty-five percent of all the island Nordfriesen worked at sea on a whaling ship. In the top year 1762, almost 1,200 men from island Föhr embarked on whaling ships. In practice this meant nearly all adult men, except the elderly, was a whaler. The Nordfriesen were highly valued for their sailing and navigation skills. That much even, that they climbed to the maritime top. Many of them became helmsman or commander on ships of the Republic, Hamburg and later of the Danes. In the year 1762 thirty-four commanders were Nordfriesen. It is probably no exaggeration to say that without the Nordfriesen the whaling industries of the Republic and Hamburg would not have been able to man its ships (Holm 2003).


Private Navigation Schools Nordfriesland - Region Nordfriesland had a unique system how to learn their youth to navigate. Especially on island Föhr and later also Sylt, but also on the mainland of Nordfriesland. These were private schools run at homes of former sailors to educate them against a modest tariff, i.e. a shilling per day and the costs for heating. Mostly, the education started in winter and in evenings. It is because of these homeschool skills in piloting, celestial navigation and mathematics in general were high. That is why Nordfriesen were able to obtain the position of commander and helmsman on foreign ships, notably those from the Republic and from the River Elbe region. The study books were in either German or Dutch language. Because it was a fully local affair, teachings happened in North-Frisian language. After private teaching, the students went to maritime academies of, for example, Copenhagen and Hamburg to do a state exam. The Nordfriesen were known to be the best.

This private navigation school system existed for two centuries. In 1864 it ended. The reason for it was, as often, politics. Prussia conquered the region Schleswig from the Danes. This meant the whole region Nordfriesland became part of Prussia. Three years later, the navigation schools were abolished. For education in navigation, students had to go to the mainland. These institutions were far away, the training took longer, and, above all, they were expensive. About 1,000 Mark for nine months. Perhaps the private island school were also closed by the new government because they were hotbeds of anti-Prussian occupation as well, and therefore abolished. The downfall of the private navigation school meant that the Nordfriesen turned away from seafaring and looked for other income opportunities, including emigration to the United States. Furthermore, in that same year 1867 the island Nordfriesen were obliged to fulfill military service in the Prussian army. Something which they were exempted from under Danish rule. It is thought that the military service was also a reason for young men to emigrate to New York and California.

Navigation instruction the Netherlands - Also in the Netherlands, sea navigation traditionally was thought by former captains and commanders, and by (former) teachers of mathematics. Here, already in 1785 a maritime school was founded in Amsterdam, the so-called 'kweekschool voor de Zeevaart'. At the port town of Harlingen, in 1818 a maritime school was established. This school still exists as the 'Maritieme Academy Holland'.Furthermore, on the Wadden Sea islands Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling and Schiermonnikoog, navigations schools existed in the nineteenth century, Only the one on island Terschelling survived and is known today as 'Maritiem Instituut Willem Barentsz'. Other navigation schools existed at Delfzijl, Groningen, Den Helder, Vlissingen and Rotterdam. In other words, except Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Vlissingen, the north had the most, albeit smaller, schools.

Students at Harlingen, locally known as zeebaby's (sea babies), mostly were from the lower class. Just like the instruction in region Nordfriesland, this took place in the winter. During the sailing season, men and kids, the age of thirteen was no exception, had to work on ships. When the winter was mild and there was no ice, attendance at school dropped too, because students kept working at sea or in inland shipping.

Relevant textbooks - One of the most important maritime tutorials in the Republic but also for Nordfriesen, is the book of Claes, or Klaas de Vries (1662-1730) titled Schat-kamer ofte konst der stier-lieden 'treasury or the art of helmsmen' published in 1702.It was still being used around 1820. Claes de Vries was a cartographer, mathematician and maritime expert, and originated from Leeuwarden in province Friesland. A 'schatkamer' was a common term used for a manuscript with personal notes relating to maritime themes (Bruijn 2016). Another well-known book was written by Pybo Steenstra (1731?-1788), Grondbeginselen des stuurmanskunst 'fundamentals of steerage' published in the year 1766. Pybo Steenstra was born in Franeker in province Friesland.


In the beginning of February, the commanders sailed in smack ships to Amsterdam and the River Elbe, Hamburg. To prepare their ships. The journey to Hamburg took three days, that of Amsterdam seven. A few weeks later the lower ranking sailors left too, in convoys of ten to fourteen smack ships. More than a 1,000 Ferringer went whaling. Often a commander selected most of his crew from his own, familiar village or island. So, a commander from island Föhr sailed with a crew of mostly other Ferringer. A commander from island Ameland selected most of his crew from his island too. And so forth.

Some say the yearly departure of the men from Nordfriesland leaving their women behind, is the origin of the so-called Biikebrånen or Biikin tradition. This is the feast whereby stacks of wood are lit on the shores of Nordfriesland. It takes place in the night of 21 February. These bon fires allegedly are the beacons of the woman who wanted to guide their men as long as possible. Read our post Beacons of Nordfriesland to read more about this festival, where we present also an alternative explanation for this festival.

With that many men away on whale hunt, the women of many Wadden Sea islands, and especially those of Nordfriesland, were basically left on their own half of the year, from late February to September. Only together with their small children, the elderly and perhaps a stray reverend. No, do not let your imagination run wild now with this lucky reverend. The moral was chaste and strict. Adultery and illegitimate children did not happen, so they have repeatedly reassured us.

Concerning the men, the whalers, it is interesting to know that the west coast of Greenland islands had names like De Vrouweneilanden ‘the women islands’ and Liefdebaai ‘love-bay’. In fact, a whole creole generation grew up on the west coast (Zwier 2019). Would their wives back home have known? And not only on cold Greenland the whalers could enjoy themselves, also before embarking or after disembarking in the city of Amsterdam they could. The Amsterdam of the Dutch Republic was loaded with whores, brothels, music halls, streetwalkers. From the memoirs of the North-Frisian seafarer Jens Jacob Eschels we know Nordfriesen frequented the whore houses too, and sometimes got a venereal disease causing much discomfort and pain while hunting in the Arctic (Bruijn 2016). Read also our post Harbours, Hookers, Heroines and Women in Masquerade for the history of women and the sea in the early modern period.

Inuit women
wie traurig es lässt, wenn all Mannspersonen von unseren Insel weggefahren sind. In den ersten Tagen ist alles ganz stille, man sieht fast niemand auf dem Felde gehen, und es scheint, als ob die Einwohner fast gänzlich ausgestorben wären” (reverend Lorenzen, 1749)

(how sad it is, when all men have sailed from our island. In the first few days everything is very quiet, you hardly see anyone walking in the fields, and it seems as if the inhabitants are very close to extinction)

This seasonal exodus of men led to a social structure without much hierarchy. A community in which women were fully responsible for the house and farm. So, working the land, shearing sheep, milking cows, making dairy products, fishing for porren ‘shrimp’, drying cow dung for fuel, haying, spinning wool etc. Also, it was the women who traded, even when the men were back in winter (Holm 2003). Many of the women were widow too, since whaling was not an occupation without risks, as described earlier. When, and if, her smelly troonbook returned, he entered the domain of his wife. The men knew they had to put the northern Ice Sea out of their heads, put off their boots and wear soft slippers (Deen 2013). The main task of men when they were back, was to upkeep and repair the house.

Not surprisingly, many Frisian sagas exists about emancipated, strong women of the Wadden Sea protecting their islands against external aggressors. One of those is the saga of Der schwarze Rolf ‘black Rolf’ at island Borkum in region Ostfriesland. Find in this saga also some interesting leads that the island women might not have been that strict with moral after all. Perhaps they were merely able to fool their sailing men they were faithful. Also a lone reverend appears in this saga, but the island women were not too fond of his modesty and devoutness. Read our post Yet another wayward archipelago to have the full, uncensored story.

A last typical cultural aspect was how people married. The women were free to decide whom they wanted to marry. Once the girl had made her choice, the couple informed their parents. The marriage itself happened in a very organized manner and always in the autumn season, soon after the men had returned from the northern seas. And, of course, only after the men had had a bath. Couples were married simultaneously. Could be well up to twenty couples in a day in one community. There was little time because soon the winter would start and after that the men would be off sailing again already.

From 1776, when the Danes entered whaling after all, they set up a campaign to recruit Nordfriesen for their whaling ships. The Danes were successful at it, and many Nordfriesen left the whaling ships of the Republic and signed lucrative contracts with the Kongelige Grønlandske Handel (KGH). The reason for its success was the benefits offered. Especially the allowance offered for the travel from the island in Nordfriesland to Copenhagen was effective. A travel allowance of six Reichsthaler. On top of this, also boarding money of twelve shillings per day was granted by the KGH. Something the penny-pinching merchants of Amsterdam never had offered. Also, the travel distance to the port of departure Copenhagen was less. Another advantage was that whaling with the Danish company took place all year round. Besides the traditional spring to autumn hunting season, the Danes also fitted out ships to western Greenland during winter. In autumn the ships left, to be in time before winter fell at the Disko Bay at western Greenland, and only to return early spring.

When the classic whaling industry collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century, many Nordfriesen emigrated to the United States and the population of Nordfriesland decreased strongly. We pointed out some other migration drivers above too, when Prussia conquered Nordfriesland from the Danes and abolished the private navigation schools.

Final throes of whaling

At the end of the nineteenth century, classic whaling came to an end. The cities of Bremen and Hamburg had given up whaling in the Arctic in 1792, due to bad catches. Not only because the Arctic seas had been emptied out of whales and petrol had become the new fuel for lightning over the course of the century, also the French Period was crucial for its demise. The Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815 and sea blockades that were part of it, were the deathblow of the already waning North Atlantic whaling industry. Of course, England had no limitations from the war to continue whaling. With the absence of competition from the continent their business even expanded. Almost 150 ships per year sailed to the Arctic to hunt whales.

After the French occupation, the former Republic, now called the Netherlands, did try to reactivate the Arctic whaling industry. It was especially the port of Harlingen in province Friesland that tried to do so. Harlingen used to be a wealthy port because of the trade with the Baltic Seas. This navigation to the east was killed too during the French Period and would never be restored. Hence, poverty hit the town of Harlingen extremely hard, leading among other to the so-called potato revolts. Read our post Know where to find your sweet potato, to have more backgrounds on these revolts.

In 1822 and 1823 two whaling expedition from Harlingen to the Arctic took place, but these were disappointing. In 1824 the company Groenlandse en Straatdavidse Visscherij Sociëteit was founded in Harlingen. The company was housed at the north end of the Zuiderhaven dock in a former property of the Admiralty of Friesland (Otten 2022). Ships the Spitsbergen Twee and the Nederland were owned by this company. It was no success either. A year later, the city of Rotterdam also founded a company, the Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor Walvisvangst, and again it was no success. It had also two ships, the Rotterdam and the Maasstroom, and sailed in the years 1826 and 1827 to the Arctic.

The last classic whaling expedition to the Arctic, with the traditional sloops and manual harpoons, was the ship the Dirkje Adema from Harlingen in the year 1862. In 1863, ship the Dirkje Adema, went for a last time to the Arctic and only came back with 900 seals, whilst the year before they had hunted 2,800 seals (Leinenga 2018). In 1864 the ship was sold to a ship-owner at Arendal in Norway. Commander of the Dirkje Adema, Hendrik Wildts from the town Sneek in Friesland (1802-1889), was therefore the last commander of the classic Arctic whaling from the Netherlands. His gravestone, made from a whale’s jaw, has been preserved. A question unanswered is why the Dutch did not innovate the whaling industry and invested in steamships from the mid-nineteenth century like other European countries did. Instead, the Dutch preserved the old order and sailed with sails (Schokkenbroek 2008).

The remaining, and flourishing, whaling activity happened in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic. Its hunting grounds were along the coasts of South America, Japan, Dutch Indies, and Australia. This whaling industry was dominated by the Americans, later followed by Bremen and Hamburg, and had emerged in the late eighteenth century. Whales hunted at were sperm whales and southern right whales.

Only after the Second World War would the Dutch reengage in whaling because of scarcity of oils, with the foundation of the Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor Walvischvaart (NMW) and the ship the factory ships the Willem Barentsz I and the Willem Barentsz II. This company stopped in 1964. Many young men from the poor province Friesland enrolled on these ships (Breteler 2018). In 1964 the NMW, after catching in total about 27,700 whales, was dissolved. It meant the definitive end of whaling from the once so prominent Dutch whaling business.

Rest in Green Peace

Now the readers knows whodunit. It were the wealthy merchants of the Republic who provided the means and the capital, and it were the Hollanders and especially the Frisians who were manning the ships during this 'Ice Age'. Together they are the main perpetrators and responsible for nearly exterminating the North Atlantic baleen whale populations. If you also take into account the cities Altona, Bremen, Glückstadt and above all the city of Hamburg, the Frisia Coast Trail was a massive Arctic whaling industry for two centuries long.

What large-scale whaling did to the traditional hunting of the Inuit, is little debated in studies on the North Atlantic whaling. The global picture is that the first encounters with the Inuit before and after the start of the whaling, could be violent. But through time the Inuit and Europeans got used to each other. Also, there was actually not much competition on whales. Much of what Europeans considered waste of a whale, namely the tale and the outer skin, were considered valuable by the Inuit. The outer skin contains much vitamin C. So, they were no competitors and the food-supply was not negatively upset by the European whalers (Leinenga 2015).

Already in 1656, Nicolas Tunes from Vlissingen in province Zeeland, reports after sailing to Greenland that there are commercial possibilities for trade. Europeans supplied the Inuit with different products, like pans, knifes, axes and woolen cloth. Besides this trade, which was forbidden by Denmark for all non Danish, there was small-scale souvenir trade. Later, at the end of the eighteenth century, also guns for hunting were traded. Of course, Europeans exported besides merchandise also contagious diseases, especially smallpox. This has led many fatalities. We only do not know how many. There are reports that ninety percent of a settlement died, and we may assume the impact on the Inuit must have been significant.

Presenting this historic image of whaling from a Frisian perspective in this post from the existing studies, was not easy. It is either a history of Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands. Often is spoken in the studies and books about: the north of Germany, region Schleswig, Lower Saxony, the Wadden Sea islands etc, instead of Friesland, Ostfriesland or Nordfriesland. It contributes to the situation that there is no integral statistical approach if you want look at it from a historic Frisian point of view. In general, every studies has different (ways of presenting) statistics. However, the rough picture is that the Frisians, especially those from the Wadden Sea islands, from island Terschelling to island Sylt, played an important role when it came to manning and commandeering the whaling ships. During the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, its share was about fifty percent. When one realizes these areas were thinly populated, their role is even more impressive.

Beereneiland or Bjørnøya or Bear Island, Norway today

The modern whaling industry after the Second World War was devastating for the baleen whale populations. Species nearly wiped out are the humpback whale, blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, bryde’s whale, southern right whale, and several more. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) decided to impose a moratorium on whaling, except for non-commercial hunting by several native peoples like the Inuit. Japan continued the hunt based on so-called scientific purposes. Iceland and Norway never acknowledged the IWC and continued commercial hunting in their vast territorial waters. In 2019 Japan resumed, despite the moratorium, the commercial hunt within its territorial waters. It ceased the hunt in the Antarctic for scientific purposes, though. Organizations like Greenpeace and the more aggressive Sea Shepherd still do not rest.

Note 1 – Victuals of a seventeenth-century whaling ship: anise, bacon, barley, beer, brandy, bread, butter, candles, cannon balls, chalk, (fat) cheese, cinnamon, clove, coffee, Edam cheese, figs, firewood, flour, gun powder, gun fire, hardtack, mace, matches, meat, mustard, nutmeg, pea, pepper, piping, plums, powdered sugar, raisins, rock candy, saw dust, sirup, sponges, stockfish, turf, twigs, vinegar, and wine.

Note 2 – In the port of the former whaling town Harlingen a fountain has been placed in the sea water of the harbour. It is a sperm whale. Arch, we hear you say after reading this post. Indeed, how could they blew this one? It is all wrong. The species hunted at from Harlingen was the less sexy North Atlantic right whale or in local language the noordkaper. Never was it the sperm whale. The fountain has been developed by the artists Jennifer Allora (USA) and Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuba). Maybe they were inspired by the American whaling. Nevertheless, we appreciate the mammal fountain in the sea.

Note 3 – Word on the street is that Frisians already sailed around the year 1000 to the Arctic seas, yes even to the end of the world, read our post Sailors escaped from Cyclops. Or even earlier that they roamed the northern seas as Vikings to steal young women from the Faroes, check our post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! to learn more.

Suggested music

Travolta, J., Greased lightnin’ (1978)

Further reading

Arnolli, G., De reis van IJslandse wollen kousen (2022)

Beelen, H. & Biesheuvel, I. (ed), Walvissen groot en vet. Nederlanders op walvisvaar in het Hoge Noorden (2018)

Bohn. R. (ed), Nordfriesische Seefahrer in der frühen Neuzeit (1999)

Breteler, A.G., De traanjager. Herinneringen van naoorlogse walvisvaarders (2018)

Bruijn, J.R., Zeegang. Zeevarend Nederland in de achttiende eeuw (2016)

Bruijn, J.R. & Hacquebord, L., Een zee van traan. Vier eeuwen Nederlandse walvisvaart 1612-1964 (2019)

Deen, M., De Wadden. Een geschiedenis (2013)

Degener, R., Dutch bought Cape May land for whaling colony that never materialized (2012)

Doorn, van F., De Friezen. Een geschiedenis (2021)

Faltings, J.I., Föhrer Grönlandfahrt im 18. Und 19. Jahrhundert (2011)

Faltings, V.F. & Jannen, R., Twäärs üüs haligschep. Swäärs üs en halagsjep. Lexikon der friesischen Redewendungen von Föhr und Amrum (2016)

Feddersen, B.H. & Asbach, W., Der historische Walfang der Nordfriesen. 1 (1991)

Gransbergen, C., Een walvis als boterham. Herinneringen van een Amelander walvisvaarder (2018)

Hacquebord, L., De Noordse Compagnie (1614-1642) (2014)

Hesteren, van G., Lezing Jaap R. Bruijn; Friese zeelui vaak van buitenlandse afkomst (2017)

Hobbes, T., Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651)

Holm, S., Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgechichte des Walfangs der Nordfriesen (2003)

Ironmonger, J., Not Forgetting the Whale (2020)

Knaap, van der J., Het dagboek van de Amelandse walvisvaarder Hidde Dirks Kat. De meest vergeten schipbreuk uit de vaderlandse geschiedenis 1777-1778; Zwier, G.J., Een wildeman in zijn schuitje; Hacquebord, L., De laatste walvisvaart van Hidde Dirks Kat (2019)

Kurlansky, M., Cod. A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997)

Lehmann, S., Die Insel under der Wal. Eine sozio-ökonomische Betrachtung des Föhrer Walfangs (2008)

Lehmann, S., Föhrer Walfang. Zur Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte einer nordfriesischen Insel in der Frühen Neuzeit (2000)

Leinenga, J.R., Arctische walvisvangst in de achttiende eeuw. De betekenis van Straat Davis als vangstgebied (1995)

Leinenga, J.R., Leren navigeren. 200 jaar maritiem onderwijs in Harlingen (2018)

Loonen, M. et al, Veranderingen in een 17de eeuws grafveld op Spitsbergen door dooiende permafrost (2019)

Loveluck, C. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600–1000 (2006)

Melville, H., Moby-Dick or The Whale (1851)

Nordfriisk Instituut, Nordfrieslandlexikon Navigationsschulen (website)

O’Leary, J., Basque Whaling in Red Bay, Labrador (1997)

Phelan, S., Zeelieden, zeemeerminnen en surfers van de Baskische kust (2022)

Pluijmen, M., Walvisvaart in de 19e eeuw: onbekend en onsuccesvol (2008)

Otten, S., Zakkoek op de laatste Harlinger walvisvaarder ‘Dirkje Adema’, 1862 (2010)

Romm, R.M., America’s first whaling industry and the whaler yeomen of Cape May 1630-1830 (2010)

Schokkenbroek, J.C.A., Trying-out. An anatomy of Dutch whaling and sealing in the nineteenth century, 1815-1885 (2008)

Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen am Meer von A-Z (2020)

Wassenberg, T., Het walviskind. Een familiegeschiedenis rond de walvisvaart (2019)

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