2.1. The South Sea sperm whaling trade


    By the late 1770s the northern whaling grounds were beginning to be fished out and whalers turned their sights towards the rich grounds of the Pacific. While the northern whalers had operated both from East Coast ports and London, the southern whale fishers were based almost entirely on the Thames – “the River” – and the whaling Stavers lived in Rotherhithe in docklands or other parts of what is now East London, maintaining little or no apparent contact with Northumbria. The southern whaling trade did not last that long; by the 1860s, after the advent of gas lighting, it had pretty well died. The Stavers whaling captains were all active during its heyday, however, and generally made good livings.


    The chief objective of South Sea whalers was the valuable oil from the sperm whale, known as spermaceti – in fact a waxy substance from the whale’s immense head. Spermaceti oil made by far the best candles, which explains its value, but whale oil was also used for other purposes. Whale bones also continued to be valuable, not least to stiffen corsets. The oil that could be obtained from “elephants” or elephant seals also had value.


    To begin with, British whalers going south ventured no further than the Atlantic, looking for whales off the coasts of southern Africa  and Brazil. This was partly because the East India Company considered the seas the other side of the Cape of Good Hope their property and the Spanish claimed the waters off the west coast of South America. But various agreements removed these obstacles and by the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries British whalers increasingly took to the more productive Pacific Ocean, sometimes accessing it from the west via Cape Horn, and sometimes from the east via the Cape of Good Hope.

    Whaling ships roamed all over the Pacific except for the cold and stormy south. On the eastern side, the Galapagos Islands were a favoured hunting ground. Many visits were paid to the Hawaiian Islands, which had a convenient harbour and were a good source of provisions.  Tahiti and French Polynesia were much visited and Thomas Reid Stavers, probably the most adventurous in terms of exploration, visited Pitcairn Island. On the western side of the Pacific, whales were sought in particular off the coast of Japan and among the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

    The southern hemisphere was in many ways more pleasant with a better climate and – once the Pacific had been reached – better weather, and many tropical islands where the ships could stop off (and be entertained by any European settlers). However, there were other risks. The journeys typically lasted some three years. Boredom was a real problem: ships could cruise round the Pacific for months without seeing land.1  There was a real danger of running out of supplies; and many of inhabitants of the Pacific island were hostile, so ships had to go armed. The sperm whale was also more aggressive than its Arctic cousin.

    With crews of 30 or 40 people, sickness and injuries were a constant problem.. It was normal for whaling ships to have a doctor on board, but even he could not necessarily help in cases of serious accident or illness, and it was probably rare for a ship to return home without losing a crew member to sickness or accident.


    Unreliable and drunken officers and mutinous crew members were common. Drunkenness was rife, among both officers (including at least two of the Stavers captains) and men. In 1799, when William Stavers set out on the “good ship Leviathan”, he and the crew signed what was probably a fairly standard agreement which stated that it was intended that the ship will go to the South Seas to procure a cargo of whale oil and from there to London or some other British port. The officers covenanted with the captain to stay with the ship and perform their duties in exchange for a share of the proceeds of the cargo (the shares and names are listed). They further “feeling great interest in the ship and cargo” agree to abolish “an old custom of sleeping on shore while in port”, and  also to obey all the commands of the captain for suppressing “vice and immorality of all sorts, particularly drunkenness”.2


    Many of the ships were old and leaky, having been converted from other uses – although the ship that was longest in the trade, the Seringapatam, built of teak as a warship for Tippu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in 1799 (then seized by the British and purchased by the Mellishes in 1800), was still going strong (albeit not as a whaler) in the 1860s. But for the most part there was a real problem with bits falling off and the ship’s carpenter was an essential member of the crew. Wherever possible, ships sailed together so as to help each other in case of accident. But this was not always possible in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. When ships arrived home, one of the first things they did was to give news of any other ships they had sighted during their journey, so that those at home had at least some idea of the whereabouts of the ships in which they were interested, even though the news was often six or more months out of date.


    It was a young man’s trade. The master of a whaling ship would normally begin as an apprentice at around the age of 14. If he showed promise and impressed an owner, he could advance rapidly and have his own ship by his early 20s.3  William Stavers (1765-1816) was a captain by the age of 26; His sons John was a captain by 27; Francis by 24; Peter by 23 and Thomas by 26.  Having family connections helped, and certainly benefitted the sons of William Stavers, as they could quite often begin their career by serving on the ship of their father or that of an elder brother. John Reid Stavers was 44 when he gave up whaling; Francis was 41 and he ended his life taking passenger steamers between South Coast ports, the polar opposite in terms of risk and hardship from South Sea whaling; Peter Mellish Stavers gave up whaling at the age of 28, but then put in another 20 years on other sorts of merchant vessels; and Thomas Reid Stavers gave up seafaring at 41, although he packed in an enormous amount of whaling before then.


   The whole business of catching a whale was both dangerous and lengthy. A boat had to be launched from the ship and the whale had to be harpooned. Francis Stavers told a tale of being pursued by a whale which he had wounded. He parried it with a lance, “but the furious monster then rushed onto the boat and with one crash of its jaws bit it in two”, those on board having to jump into the sea and be rescued by other boats.4 On his first voyage as master of the Tuscan, T.R. Stavers also had a narrow escape when his boat was broken up by a whale in the dark where none of the crew could see him, and it was frequent for the crews of harpooning boats to be thrown out of them. Killing a harpooned whale could take many hours.5However, sperm whales could be hoisted aboard, and the extraction of the oil from their heads was quick and easy compared to the cutting out of blubber required in the northern whale fishery.


    Not surprisingly whalers were socially at the bottom of the pile in the merchant marine world.. But the money could be very good. The average return for a south sea whaling master from a three year cruise was around £1,200 (i.e. about £32 a month), or about three times what a merchant master could earn.6 It was normal in the Southern whale fishery (unlike the Arctic one) for the owners who had financed the voyage to reserve a proportion of the oil, but with the rest going to the captain and crew in previously agreed proportions according to rank – so a successful captain could  build up significant resources.


    The ships were at constant danger from privateers and from entanglement in the various wars during the period, including the Napoleonic wars, a brief UK-American war in 1812 (American whalers were the chief competitors of the British ships in the Pacific) and South American wars of independence from Spain. Whalers often had to be heavily armed as they risked being taken as prizes by enemy ships – although they in turn often had “letters of marque” from the British Government licensing them to attack and take enemy vessels.


    Whaling ships were the main means by which travellers from Britain to the Pacific Islands (chiefly missionaries) could be transported there. The captains of the better known whalers could also find themselves acting as go-between between people on different islands or taking messages to the islands. For instance, the king of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), shortly before he died of measles during a visit to London in 1824, entrusted  Captain John Reid Stavers, commanding the Offley, to take presents to the chiefs of Oahu, one of the islands.7


1 .D. Tyerman and G Bennet:  Journal of Voyages and Travels, 1832, Vol I, p.39 (on https://books.google.co.uk)

2. National Archives E140/167/3

3. . A.G.E. Jones; The British Southern Whale and Seal Fisheries, The Great Circle Vol. 3, No. 1 (April 1981), p. 26. This article is also good on whaling ships and their owners. 

4. D. Tyerman and G Bennet, op. cit. p. 3

5. Fredrerick Debell Bennett, Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe from the Year 1833 to 1836 (1840), describing T.R. Stavers' last voyage, gives good descriptions of the taking of whales.

6. Dale Chatwin: A Trade so uncontrollably uncertain, , thesis for master’s degree 1998, Australian National University

7. George Anson Byron (Baron Byron): Voyage of H. M. S. Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, in the Years 1824-1825,  p.66. 1826 (on https://books.google.co.uk)