The Whalers ... and Public Domain
by Bill Hudson
As a maritime artist, I become enlightened and motivated to paint every time I read even a chapter or two from Herman Melville's
. Scholars claim it to be the greatest American novel and unquestionably the greatest sea story ever written. The facts, descriptions, thoughts and feelings expressed in this book can only be those of an experienced whaler with a strong literary education. I visualize living on the Massachusetts coast around 1845 when New Bedford and Nantucket were the capitals of New World whaling with nearly 700 American whaling ships including brigs, schooners, and barks. This was the time when whaling was necessary, considered noble, and catches were mercifully limited by the crude tools available to whalemen. Petroleum, the eventual relief for the demand on whale oil, would not be discovered in Pennsylvania until 1859.
Watercolor & Casein, 14" x 20"
Whale oil was still the only practical way to light the world and there were seventy-five species of whales and dolphins which had been hunted since the ninth century for oil, baleen or "whalebone", and meat. The largest of these cetaceans, and the largest animal to ever live on the earth, is the blue whale measuring over 100 feet in length and weighing more than 150 tons. The premium oil, worth four times as much as processed or "tried-out" whale oil, was spermaceti ... the 500-900 gallons of natural liquid wax contained in the nose of a single sperm whale. Spermaceti burns bright white, without smoke or odor and "winter-strained sperm oil" remains liquid even in freezing winter temperatures.
The exploding grenade harpoon would not be invented by the Norwegian Svend Foyn until the late 1860's. Until then, there was no mass slaughter executed by sailors firing long range 200-pound artillery (equipped with compressed air tubes to keep a dead whale afloat) from a bow-mounted cannon on a powered catcher boat. No, the 1850's and 60's still had 30 fearless heroes on board a 100 to 150 foot sailing ship for a 3 to 4 year voyage, who after hearing "Thar she blows" from the crow's nest would rapidly lower themselves in small wooden 6-man whaleboats that could be rowed or sailed, and chase leviathans in icy waters to get within throwing distance with a 15-pound harpoon.
This was a poorly paid, dangerous profession with an exceptionally high fatality rate. The crew would often be 2,000 miles from land, rowing their 25-foot double-ender intently toward a sperm whale, the largest toothed animal that ever lived with a brain five times larger than a human's and a notoriously bad disposition once attacked. These men would pull up next to the 60-foot, 50-ton odontocete, piss it off with a harpoon, and begin a spectacular series of probable events wherein the animal could smash the whaleboat with its flukes, crush the boat with its jaws, dive for the bottom taking the boat and whalers with him, head toward and under islands of floating Arctic ice, or run at 25 mph taking the crew on a legendary, unforgettable-if-survived "Nantucket Sleigh Ride."
The whaleship crew lived in cramped quarters shared with rats and cockroaches. Food rations ranged from "bad to disgusting."¹ Vegetables rotted shortly after departure and even though the causes of scurvy were known by 1840, there was little that could be done on a long voyage. Whale meat, though coarse and strong, became a welcomed part of their diet. American whalers rarely had any doctor or medically trained person aboard, and severe injuries and death from encounters with whales and miserable crew mates, razor-sharp cutting spades, whirling ropes, and boiling trypot oil were common.
After the kill, the real work began with towing a many-ton deadweight to the mother ship to begin the processes known as "cutting in" and "trying-out." The whale would be fastened to the starboard side of the ship with chains. There, the cutting stages were lowered, cantilevered outboard, and the process of removing blubber began. The blanket pieces were reduced to "horse pieces" and then to smaller "Bible leaves" which were then placed in the trypots for boiling into oil. "Oil and blood covered the decks and the people, and the smell was often intolerable. When the oil had cooled, it was ladled into barrels.
Each filled wooden barrel contained 31 ½ gallons of oil and weighed about 300 pounds full. A large sperm whale would yield about one barrel of oil per foot of body length. Typical of a full ship arriving home after a two-year voyage was the bark
Lagoda in September 1843. The bark was the most common configuration of whale ship ... three-masted and square-rigged on the forward two masts. The aftmost mast was rigged fore-and-aft with the sail slung between a gaff and a boom. This required fewer men to handle sails leaving more crew available to be lowered in whaleboats. The
Lagoda was 108 feet long with a beam of 28 feet. It arrived with 600 barrels of sperm oil, 2,700 barrels of whale oil, and 17,000 pounds of baleen. "²
Arriving ships and crews could be smelled miles away upon return to port where the men were paid their "lay" while charged their fees for clothes, thread, needles, tobacco, and knives purchased from the ship's store leaving them in debt with only one choice ... to sign up for the next available trip. If they were fortunate and discharged with some money in their pockets, they were often greeted by the local land sharks who directed them to the nearby watering holes which provided other quick investment opportunities. Once again they were left in poverty and ready for another 3-year cruise.
This is our American history and thank God much of it is preserved in places like the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Historical Society which have libraries of photographs. And that is what I find so unique about the 1850's and 60's. Whaling was needed; there was no petroleum; there were no grenade harpoons; men were in wooden sailing ships and rowboats; and black-and-white
photography had become available in a nick of time (1839) to forever capture that window of history after which everything changed.
I went on Google images in search of reference material for the painting above which I call "
The Whalers." You can't accurately make this stuff up and fortunately photographic records of that period are public domain.
The term "public domain" refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. An important wrinkle to understand about public domain material is that, while each work belongs to the public, collections of public domain works may be protected by copyright. If, for example, someone has collected public domain images in a book or on a website, the collection as a whole may be protectable even though individual images are not. You are free to copy and use individual images but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe what is known as the "collective works" copyright. - See more at:
Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire). Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019, when works published in 1923 will expire. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on. For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author's death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies."³
1. Richard Ellis, Interlude: "Life Aboard a Whaler," in Men and Whales, First Lyons Press edition, 1999, p.178
2. Richard Ellis, Interlude: "Life Aboard a Whaler," in Men and Whales, First Lyons Press edition, 1999, p.198-200
3. Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford University Libraries,