Since Crooked Timber’s first publication in 1953, “Ask a Nineteenth-Century Whaling Expert” has consistently been one of its most popular features. We are pleased to bring you the novelist Kenneth Gardner, author of Rich Man’s Coffin.
I’m baffled at the economics of nineteenth-century whaling. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville says that a whaling expedition would be a success if a crew of 40 men captured the oil from 40 whales in 48 months. Each whale produced about 40-50 barrels of oil. Presumably this oil had to be cover the approximate costs of four years’ labor, plus the costs of operating the ship, plus a sizeable profit for the investors in these risky ventures.
How could whale-oil have been so valuable? I understand that it was scarce, that illumination is highly desirable, and apparently it smelled nice. But there were substitutes, weren’t there?
Ted B., Houston, TX
Kenneth Gardner writes:
At that time you had the same resistance to technology transition as we have in boom markets today which may not be as efficient as their more technologically savvy counterparts, but are still ‘cheaper’ in the eyes of their producers in terms of the amount of time and energy required to make the transition. Best example of course, is the abundance of crude oil and our resistance to move to alternative and more efficient natural sources. The same was true in the 19th century whaling industry.
Ironically, my example of crude oil also answers your question about the possibility of alternatives to whale oil in the 19th century. Yes, crude had been discovered. Did efficient or effective means of drilling and refining exist then? Hell no. Was there much pressure on society to develop this technology in the face of abundant whale oil? No again.
Also, you underestimate the value and amount of whale oil being harvested by overlooking a commonly overlooked fact about old whaling: The whole whale value. They sold the bones to dress makers, and ambergris, the basis of 19th century perfume, was worth more at that time per ounce than gold is today, relatively. One Sperm Whale could yield an 800 pound lump of ambergris, a glandular secretion. Most importantly, whale oil was almost in a pure form with the only refining being the boiling down and straining of the fat. There was a lot of money made on those 4-year voyages!
Lastly, the whaling that Melville wrote about in Moby-Dick was ‘open-ocean’ whaling which was tedious and dangerous, with Sperm Whale numbers dwindling by the mid-1800s. But bear in mind, that archaic yet lucrative practice was tied into the colonization of the world and the development of other lucrative trades like sneaking up on millions of easy harbor seals on foreign, exotic shores and bringing home coat furs that were worth their weight in gold. Moreover, whalers were discovering ‘shore-whaling,’ where they would go and find the calving shores of the whales and lay claim to an entire coastline and set up towns and just start reaping in the biggest female Black Whales, which were twice as big and yielded twice as much profit as the nearly extinct Sperm Whales. It was easy pickings, and that industry started roaring just as the kind of whaling the Melville did was dying. So don’t wonder if those investors were getting their monies worth by sending out a bunch of hacks to sail the world for a few years and bring back what they could. They were bringing back tremendous wealth.
In case my framing was too cute, Kenneth Gardner is a real guy, who has written a real historical novel called Rich Man’s Coffin about an escaped slave who joins a whaling expedition. He was kind enough to write this response for me.