How US whaling helped shape WA explored in new book

Tom ZaunmayrBusselton-Dunsborough Times
Depiction of a crew about to harpoon. Frank Brangwyn c1893.
Camera IconDepiction of a crew about to harpoon. Frank Brangwyn c1893. Credit: Whale Hunters of the West

It is mid-19th century Western Australia and along the South West coast seafaring Americans are strangers in a strange land, trading goods for food after long voyages chasing dreams of fortunes across the high seas.

They arrive at our fledgling regional towns laden with tools and textiles, keen to upsell to locals for fresh produce to eat while wandering around these foreign yet familiar settlements.

This is one of many fascinating and forgotten snippets of history from an industry vital to the growth of regional WA which inspired former Busselton resident and journalist Tim Blue to put pen to paper for a work of non-fiction.

An illustration of crews attacking a right whale, according to Currier & Ives. Credit US Library of Congress
Camera IconAn illustration of crews attacking a right whale, according to Currier & Ives. Credit US Library of Congress Credit: US Library of Congress

The book isn’t about logging though, nor is about mining or agriculture. This is the forgotten tale of whaling, and the influence of American fleets on early WA settlement.

“Americans were the epitome of capitalists — they would turn up with cloth, flour, farm equipment, and they would swap those,” he said.

“They would have this huge bartering trade where they would swap tools for water, wood, spuds, carrot, pumpkin, oranges and peaches.

“They loved the local Aboriginals too. They would get them on the boats for their sight and put them up the mast where they would see whale blows before anyone else.

“They were paid very well for that.”

Tim Blue.
Camera IconTim Blue. Credit: Tim Blue.

The American whaling industry was huge in the middle of the nineteenth century, as hundreds of ships roamed the world for whale oil to sustain lighting and train lubrication. Baleen was also harvested for corsets and buggy springs.

It wasn’t an industry for the faint-hearted — chasing a 50-tonne beast out to sea with a small crew, row boat, harpoon and lance required a heap of either bravery or foolishness — but it was a lucrative trade for those under the command of a good skipper.

Blue has recorded more than 900 voyages by American and French whalers to Western Australia, where they would often spend years on the coast between Esperance and the Burrup Peninsula.

“American interest in the West Australian whaling industry is quite intense, as they are well aware of this period in their history, far more so than in WA,” he said.

“The whalers were vital to the culture of towns in the early days in providing this social uplift to talk to different people. They brought new food and goods, and they added this sort of social gaiety to town.”

Blue said he hoped his book would contribute to a better understanding of the mid-1800’s whaling industry in Western Australia.

Whale Hunters of the West can be purchased online or at Margaret River Visitor Centre, Margaret River Bookshop and Barefoot Books Busselton

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