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Whaling, Sugar, & the U.S. Civil War: Impact on Hawaii

Whaling goes back almost to prehistoric times. A whale washing up on the beach could feed a village or tribe for weeks. In the arctic, whales are still a major part of the diet of the Inuit and other tribes. The fat in whale blubber fueled these arctic tribes through the winter.

Since one cannot depend upon a whale washing up on the beach to supply food when needed, at some point man started hunting them. Many whale species migrate, and early man noticed the pattern of when they arrived. Early whaling was shore-based, with lookouts posted on headlands to search for whales. When a whale was spotted, the entire village would run to the boats and go hunting. The Basques in Europe were famous as whalers. Native Indian tribes in America also engaged in coastal whaling.

As time went on, whales became less common alongshore due to hunting. The whalers had to start going further and further from home to find whales. If whales were only used for food, whaling might have died out as agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. However, whales provided other substances for which there was no substitute.

Whale oil: Before petroleum was discovered, whale oil was the primary fuel for lamps. It could also be used to make candles. All whales have blubber, which is rendered (melted) into oil.

Baleen: Also called whale bone or bone. A springy material used for corsets and other products before we discovered how to make spring steel and plastics. Right whales and other whales that filter feed are the primary sources of baleen. The baleen is used as a filter by whales to capture microscopic plankton upon which they feed.

Ambergris: A black, semi-liquid, foul-smelling substance found in the hindgut of Sperm whales. On exposure to air it hardens and becomes aromatic. Ambergris is thought to be a by-product of Sperm whales eating squid or cuttlefish. The whales are unable to digest the beaks which either turn into ambergris, or ambergris is produced by the whale to soothe their stomach. Ambergris has been used for thousands of years in perfumes. More about ambergris.

Spermacetti: A waxy substance found in the head of Sperm whales. If is used for candles and to make fine lubricating oils. The word spermacetti comes from two latin words - sperma and cetus. Cetus means whale.

By the 19th Century, man hunted whales for these products, and discarded the meat. The major American whaling ports were in New England. Originally, coastal whaling was common around Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The primary distant water whaling ports were New Bedford and Fairhaven in Massachusetts, Mystic, Connecticut, and Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York.

Whalers, like fisherman today, were paid on a share basis. Each whaler received some share of the profits of the voyage. No profits, or the ship sinks, no pay. A typical whaling vessel would have 2,000 shares, divided as follows:

Investors - 1,000 shares

Officers and crew - 1,000 shares 
Master (Captain) - 400 shares
First Mate - 200 shares
Second Mate - 100 shares
Third Mate - 75 shares
3 Harpooners (boat steerers) - total of 90 shares [Queequeeg had 11 shares, or 1/90th]
18 able-bodied seaman - total of 75 shares [Ishmael had 3 shares, or 1/300th]
5 others - total of 60 shares.

These shares are taken from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Source.

By the middle of the 19th Century, a whaling voyage would last three or four years. The whaler would leave the East Coast and hunt the South Atlantic, then venture into the Pacific. Whaling grounds were off New Zealand and up near the Arctic circle. No vessel could carry several years worth of food and water, not to mention fuel to render blubber, so they would reprovision periodically.

The Hawaiian Islands became the preferred supply and rest stop for American whalers. It is not entirely clear why Hawaii was chosen. Some suggest it was a pleasant climate. Others that it was willing women, which the missionary influence ended. Perhaps it was Hawaii's central location in the Pacific Ocean. Mark Twain suggests two other reasons. First, that crew members really could not abandon ship easily in Hawaii - there was no where for them to go. The second reason was that there were no lawyers in Hawaii. Crew members were always suing ship captains for various abuses in San Francisco. Not so in Hawaii. It thus may be that ship captains liked Hawaii because their crew would not run away or sue them. See Mark Twain, The Whaling Trade, The Sacramento Daily Union, May 23, 1866.

Twain estimated that during the peak of whaling, the 1840s, whalers were spending a $1.5 million a year in Honolulu. He said there were about 400 whale ships wintering in Hawaii in those days. By 1866 when Twain was in Honolulu, only 96 whale ships had wintered there. He provides some statistics on oil and bone landings:

1853 - Oil, 4,000,000 gallons; bone, 2,020,264 pounds.
1858 - Oil, 3,000,000 gallons; bone, 1,614,710 pounds.
1863 - Oil, 732,031 gallons; bone, 337,043 pounds.
1864 - Oil, 642,362 gallons; bone, 339,331 pounds.
1865 - Oil, 621,434 gallons; bone, 337,394 pounds.
Source

This decline in oil and bone landings, and whaling in general, was a result of several factors. One was a declining population of whales. The other factor was the American Civil War. The Civil War created a great demand for ships and seaman. In addition, part of the Confederate strategy was to engage in commerce raiding. Confederate naval ships would capture Union merchant vessels and whalers and either destroy them or send them to port to be sold. This threat to civilian vessels greatly increased insurance costs, and caused vessel owners to avoid risky voyages such as a long whaling trip.

The Confederate Navy Department ordered the CSS SHENANDOAH to cruise the Pacific and specifically target the Union whaling fleet. Captain James Waddell's orders stated:

"Sir: You are about to proceed upon a cruise in the far-distant Pacific, into the seas and among the islands frequented by the great American whaling fleet, a source of abundant wealth to our enemies and a nursery for their seamen. It is hoped that you may be able to greatly damage and disperse that fleet, even if you do not succeed in utterly destroying it." Detailed Instructions from Commander Bulloch, C.S. Navy, to Lieutenant J.I. Waddell, C.S. Navy, October 5, 1864.  Source: Cornell University, Making of America, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

Captain Waddell was directed to proceed to the Pacific and coal in Australia. From Australia he was to cruise the whaling grounds off New Zealand, and then to the grounds off the Caroline Islands (Marshall Islands) and the Ladrones (Guam and Saipan, the Mariana Islands). From there he was to cruise north along the Bonin and Japanese Islands to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.

The SHENANDOAH captured and destroyed several Union vessels, one a whaler, in the South Atlantic, and then rounded the southern tip of Africa, crossed the Indian Ocean, and arrived in Melbourne, Australia, for coaling. After leaving Australia the SHENANDOAH hailed the Hawaii schooner PELIN, five months out of Honolulu on a trading voyage. The Confederates pumped those on the PELIN for information on the location of American whalers.

SHENANDOAH kept going north to the Caroline Islands and arrived at Pohnpei, then called Ascension Island. There they found and destroyed four American whalers. One of the vessels, the HARVEST, claimed Hawaiian nationality, but the Confederates rejected that claim since there was no bill of sale onboard.

The SHENANDOAH continued north to the Arctic - many whales were caught within sight of the ice floes. They captured the bark ABIGAIL of New Bedford and burned her. Several members of the crew of the ABIGAIL signed up to serve on SHENANDOAH, including Emmanuel Slyvia (Silva?) and Joe Kanaka. Portuguese and Hawaii Confederates. 

All in all, the SHENANDOAH captured 25 whalers in the Bering Sea before learning the Civil War had ended. (Note: The SHENANDOAH would take the crew from whalers onboard before burning the vessel. The accumulated prisoners would be put ashore or placed on a captured vessel under bond to take them to port.)  The cruise of the SHENANDOAH, combined with other factors, decimated the American whaling trade.

While supporting the whaling fleet would decline in importance to Hawaii, the Civil War created another demand - sugar. Much of the sugar in the United States was produced in the States that seceded to form the Confederacy, particularly Louisiana.

Returning to Mark Twain as a source, the sugar production in Hawaii increased dramatically (measured in pounds):

1852

730,000

1861

2,567,498

1856

554,805

1862

3,005,603

1857

700,556

1863

5,292,121

1858

1,204,061

1864

10,414,441

1851

1,826,620

1865

15 318,097

1860

1,444,271

1866

27,050,000


Twain points out that Louisiana plantations produced at most 1,500 pounds of sugar per acre, while in Hawaii the average production was 10,000 pounds per acre. Writing in 1866, Twain also noted how much money was spent on customs duties to import sugar into the U.S.

The Civil War sealed the fate of the American whaling fleet, and threatened the economy of Hawaii. That war also sparked a demand for sugar and Hawaiian planters responded. Sugar growing rapidly replaced supplying the whaling fleet as the business of Hawaii. The high duties on sugar also created a reason for planters to want Hawaii to become part of the United States.

More Information

Moby Dick - publishing history, excerpts, literary criticism and origins of the name Moby Dick, from The Life and Works of Herman Melville.

Charles W. Morgan - sailing out of New Bedford, MA, the Morgan made 37 voyages spanning 80 years.  She visited Lahaina, Maui and Honolulu on six of these whaling voyages.  She has been preserved and is a floating exhibit at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.  The Web site contains a wealth of information on sailing and whaling.

Return to: Historic Lahaina Walking Tour; Humpback Whales: Hawaii's First Tourists; Monarchy Years; or History of Hawaii 

 


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