A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2013 Mar 7, 14:23 -0800
Andrés, you wrote:
"So we are guilty of the whale is in danger of extinction."
Well, exhibits like these tend to focus on "relevance" and the modern consequences of the past, and a straight line is often drawn from past "sins" to modern "liberal guilt". For Basque whaling, it's a very THIN and, I would say, over-stretched line.
There is a particular species of whale, the North Atlantic Right Whale, that was probably depleted to some limited extent by Basque whaling, but it was almost certainly the rapidly-growing American coastal whaling fleet from here in New England that really drove the population down in the 18th century. The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of only a very few whale species that were really threatened by traditional whaling. They are docile. They swim slowly. And they have such a large fraction of blubber (valuable because it is rendered down to whale oil) to total body mass that they float when they are killed. They were ideal prey for the early whaling industry. And there are only about a hundred of these whales left. But this is a unique case; traditional whaling from open boats with hand-thrown harpoons was a sustainable "fishery" with respect to nearly all other whale species. It was modern mechanized whaling, an international industry, and especially the harpoon-gun that really decimated the major whale species in the twentieth century.
And you wrote:
"Frank talked us about a reproduction of a whaler vessel in Mystic, and the logbooks of the whalers in the XIX century."
Just so there's no confusion, there are two vessels that I have mentioned. First, and what I think you're referring to here, there is the reproduction of a whaling vessel that I described shortly after Hurricane Sandy passed us by (it had sought "safe harbor" at Mystic. That's the "Mystic Whaler". It's a small steel-hulled schooner built in the 1960s, painted and otherwise decorated to resemble a whaling vessel from the late 19th century, including "faux" gunports on the side which were, in fact, common on American whalers in that era. The Mystic Whaler is a tourist schooner that takes groups out for day sails along the southern New England coast.
The other vessel in Mystic, Connecticut is a genuine historic vessel and the centerpiece of "Mystic Seaport" museum, the Charles W. Morgan, currently undergoing a major restoration. The Morgan is a relatively large, three-masted bark (meaning square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast and fore-and-aft or "schooner-rigged" on the mizzen-mast). The Morgan was built originally in 1841, though continually renewed so that its "original fabric", as they say in the world of maritime museums, is now a relatively small fraction. It's the last of the wooden whaleships that once dominated the world's oceans from New England ports, especially New Bedford, Massachusetts, made famous by Herman Melville's symbolic novel "Moby Dick". In the 1840s, there were over 400 of these New Bedford whalers at sea, primarily in the Pacific, during a boom period of investment in the whaling industry. Whaling crashed hard following the discovery and early exploitation of petroleum in the US (Pennsylvania originally) and also following the major disruptions of the US Civil War. The whaling industry's legacy is scattered all across southeastern New England, including a nearly-assimilated, but still significant Portuguese component of the population, many of whom are the descendants of families who moved here from the Azores while working in the whaling industry and other fisheries. There's still one lonely Portuguese radio station on the dial here that I listen to sometimes while driving.
You also wrote:
"Now I am wondering how they navigated from Europe to America in the XVI century."
Unlike the 19th century whalers of New England who have left us mountains of documentation, it has been my understanding that there are very few written records from the era of Basque whaling. Was Basque even a written language in the 17th century? Perhaps we can only speculate on their navigational methods. Of course, they could determine latitude by the common methods of Noon Sun altitudes and Polaris altitudes. Though the accuracy would be relatively low with the cross-staffs and tables for that period, their navigational target outbound was good "whaling grounds" which can be hundreds of miles in extent, so accuracy is not critical. They did have one advantage if they approached North America in the manner suggested by the chart in one of the photos you posted. They would have been heading towards the Grand Banks after crossing portions of the Gulf Stream. These are readily identified by basic traditional navigation techniques. Even the sargassum and other types of drifting sea life would be a reliable clue to position at the right times of the year. The Banks themselves are shallow and can be navigated by soundings (see the movie "Captains Courageous", for some navigation by soundings and some amazing sailing, too). But as with all voyages, getting there is only half the battle. I wonder how many of those Basque sailing vessels made it safely back to port to sell their cargos? How did they navigate from America to Europe?
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