Rear Window: Mocha Dick: the whale that (almost) got away: British Whalers

Geoffrey Lean
Saturday 28 May 1994 23:02 BST

THE great white leviathan breached spectacularly two miles off the bow of Desmond, the English whaler, and some 200 miles off the coast of Chile. It was June 1840. Two of the small boats carrying men who killed whales with hand-held harpoons were launched to chase it. But as they drew near, the 70ft-long, giant bull sperm whale dramatically turned the tables and charged his pursuers. He hit the first boat head-on and smashed it. He then erupted from the water right under the second boat and destroyed that too. After looking over the damage, he swam calmly away. Two men were never found.

A month later, 500 miles away, the white giant attacked two boats, splintering one of them in his jaws. A whale had just been killed, and the white giant stood guard over his dead companion until the second ship sailed out of sight.

A few months later, he charged and sank an innocent timber schooner, apparently without provocation. He also routed the crews of three whalers. When one of the men harpooned him, he let out a great despairing blow and then lay still. Then, as the men approached, he came to life and smashed their boats, swallowing two sailors at the same time.

The following year, the captain of John Day, a Bristol whaler, swore to finish off the shipkiller. That May in the South Atlantic, as if by pre-arrangement, the great bull rose from the sea just a few hundred yards from the ship. Three boats were sent after him, but again he smashed them all. For years, stories of Mocha Dick, as he came to be called, spread around the world. When, half-blind and weary, he was eventually killed in 1859, he was found to have 19 harpoons embedded in his body. They were the souvenirs of more than 100 fights that had left 30 men dead and sunk scores of boats.

Mocha Dick and another sperm whale that sank an American whaler and forced its crew to drift in small boats for three months became the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Last week the Government championed conservation at the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting in Mexico. But things were not always so. Britain was once in the forefront of the hunt. Ours was a whaling nation for more than a thousand years, at least since the days of King Alfred the Great. The Desmond and the John Day serve as reminders of those times.

The first commercial whalers were the Basques. They hunted the vast herds of right whales that once lumbered through the Bay of Biscay. These whales swam slowly, were rich in oil, and floated when dead. These qualities made them the 'right' whales to catch. The Basques also pushed up past the Faroes to make another killing in the icy waters off Spitbergen. They used the oil to light and heat their homes, and made the bones into knives. The tough and flexible baleen were used for horsewhips and archers' bows.

When the English and Dutch began their 17th-century battle for supremacy at sea, both were attracted by the vast profits being made in the polar seas. They recruited Basque whalers to teach them the trade. Together, the Dutch and English drove out their teachers and took over the business. Thomas Edge, a captain with England's Muscovy Company, described its dangers. When a whale 'is lanced he friskes and strikes with his tayle so forcibly that many times when he hitteth a shallop he splitteth her in pieces'.

Though England won the battle for military naval supremacy, the Dutch proved much the better whalers. They took 8,537 whales between 1699 and 1708 alone, at a profit (in today's terms) of nearly pounds 20m. The English South Sea Company lost some pounds 6m over eight years in the 1720s and 1730s.

But in the year of the Glorious Revolution, the British agent in the new American colonies reported that 'New Plimouth Colony have great profit by whale killing. I believe it will be one of our best returns now beaver and peltry fayle us'. And so it proved. By the 1770s, New England whaling was making some pounds 20m a year in today's prices, shipping most of the oil to Britain. Three whalers, carrying tea as their return cargo, put into Boston Harbour to become the centre of the Tea Party.

Britain and Norway opened up the seas around Antarctica for whaling with fast ships and harpoon guns. In 1912, by one report, the shores of South Georgia were 'lined for miles with the bones of whales'. Last week, the area was declared a sanctuary.

Factory boats made huge depredations. In 1933 British and Norwegian boats killed 55,000 whales, weighing 5 million tons.

The Japanese, who in recent years have become international pariahs for wanting to take some 2,500 whales from the Southern Ocean every year, did not arrive there until the following year.

(Photographs omitted)

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