A whaler and other vessels in a light breeze

This seascape shows three British whalers operating in good weather in Arctic summer conditions, amid icebergs, with all their boats launched and in pursuit of whales from the characteristic davits shown on the vessels' sterns. When the whale was sighted, boats were quickly lowered. Each boat, carrying six to seven men, was commanded by the harpooner. When the boat was ‘on fish’ (in a position to strike) the whale was harpooned. Once dead it was towed back to the ship and 'flensed' alongside, the blubber being cut off in strips using sharp blubber spades and hooks, with the whale carcase rotated to remove it all. Baleen was also saved from the mouths of filter-feeding species, teeth from sperm whales, and some whale bone, but the rest jettisoned. Blubber was 'tried' (boiled to extract the oil) and the oil barrelled and stowed in the hold. Whalers operating at sea did this in a deck furnace, but where it was practical to set up a shore base it could also be done on the coast.

The whalers shown may be large north-east-built 'cat-barks'. Why the one in the middle flies the white ensign is unclear, but it may be to distinguish it as commodore of the small fleet shown, of which the ship on the right flies the normal red ensign. The lack of a red St Patrick saltire in the Union quadrant shows the picture dates before 1801.

Object Details

ID: BHC1064
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - Atlantic Gallery
Creator: John Askew
Date made: 1788
Exhibition: The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire; Trade and Commerce
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Caird Fund.
Measurements: Frame: 814 mm x 1274 mm x 75 mm;Painting: 653 mm x 1116 mm

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