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The Art of Whaling, from Those Who Were There

The deep-sea whalers of Nantucket were hard-working men on a difficult job, but there was plenty of time between whale sightings to fill with activities that survive to this day. Those were keeping logs of the voyage, scrimshaw, drawing, and painting. The most common subjects of these works are, of course, ships and whales. The art those whalers left behind gives us a glimpse into the adventures they experienced as well as the boring days in between.

As with shore whaling, the key was to draw close to the great mammal before striking it with a harpoon attached to a long coil of rope. Once the harpoon’s iron was firmly lodged into the creature’s flesh, then it would either promptly die or, more commonly, flee, in which case a “Nantucket sleigh ride” would ensue. During this chase the frenzied whale would bolt with the boats in tow, until eventually, exhausted, the leviathan would collapse and be pierced to a gruesome death.

The cruelty of the hunt is not something that generally comes across in the logbook and journal depictions, where the blood and gore are replaced by anthropomorphised whales complete with unfathomably merry faces. Perhaps the brutality of whaling was difficult to reconcile with the principles of pacifism and non-violence that supposedly underpinned the Nantucketers’ Quaker way of life.

The "Nantucket sleigh ride" depicted above obviously has a little fantasy added, but that makes for more interesting art. See more of this, plus smiling whales and detailed ships in art at the Public Domain Review. -via Atlas Obscura

(Image credit: Log of the ship Susan)


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I might take a little issue with the sighting of whales being a "rare event." Especially when you consider that Nantucket was the global leader in whale oil, which during the Industrial Age was the answer for lubrication and light. Anyway, for a mesmerizing account of whaling, I would recommend reading Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, the inspiration for Moby Dick. And pay no attention to the movie of the same name.
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