People in both subarctic and tropical regions have hunted whales for thousands of years, but commercial whaling for oil and food – not to mention women’s corsetry, jagging wheels for pastry decorating and scrimshaw for bored sailors – began with the Basques in the 11th century, and possibly earlier. By the 14th century the Basques were sailing as far as Newfoundland in search of right whales, their favoured targets, having been efficient enough in their own waters to have hunted stocks into scarcity. It’s estimated that, even harpooning whales singly from rowing boats, the Basques dispensed with some 40,000 right whales alone over about seven centuries.
The English subsequently took to hunting whales alongside their spice enterprise, mostly for oil and bone. Unlike the Basques – who considered whale tongue “particularly good … accompanied by peas” – they disdained to eat it, even though Queen Elizabeth I, who in 1577 decreed that her men should “hunt whales within any seas whatsoever”, is recorded as having, at the very least, nibbled on a “porpesse”.
In a new book, Australian writer John Newton, better known as a food critic, lays bare the audacity, the sheer grunt-work, of whaling over time. A Savage History: Whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans (NewSouth Publishing; $49.99) covers early exploration, colonial conquest, European bloodlust and the gargantuan mammals in whose wake all these things churned. Part benign coffee-table production, part catalogue of horrors, A Savage History tugs deeply at the reader, even if it feels at times a little hurried.