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Once we were whalers

By Ben-Peter Terpstra - posted Thursday, 18 March 2010

Australia good? Japan bad? History understands that when it comes to whaling, hypocrisy and censorship are more than just friends. In Australia, they’re close allies.

Once we were whalers. Still our whaling history is scrubbed out of textbooks or minimised, without justification. One can also watch hours of Australian television, dedicated to demonising Japanese whalers, without ever learning about the many ways in which our whaling industry contributed to Australia’s prosperity. Along with edited histories, lazy school curriculum standards, and a cosy ignorance comes a new self-righteousness, a new superiority - I sniff therefore I am!

“Tasmania alone in the 1840s built 400 vessels ranging from small cutters to ships of 500 tons that joined the England-Australian run,” wrote Geoffrey Blainey in The Tyranny of Distance. “Whaling was a mainstay of the shipyards, and scores of large whaling ships were launched in Hobart or Sydney, with popular ceremonies and quaint toasts.”


By July of 1954, The Sydney Morning Herald was reporting, without controversy, that “Anderson Meat Industries Ltd has acquired the Byron Whaling” Company. The piece stated that “the new subsidiary has a quota of 120 whales and operations are expected to begin next week …” From oil to stockfeed, a whale had more uses than a cow, or even Uncle Joe’s sheep farm.

One can argue that Australia was built on the whale’s back - not the sheep’s. Culturally and economically speaking, it is hard to write a history of our nation, without acknowledging our whaling past. And yet, our new national draft curriculum standards and mainstream textbooks like Jacaranda essentials History 2 by Maureen Anderson and Anne Low manage to do so brilliantly.

“One suspects,” explains Blainey, “that our reluctance to see the importance of whaling stems from an apathy towards maritime history”. “Or history in general,” I thought. “Is Blainey being too generous?” At any rate, Australian students deserve an explanation. Our campaigning journalists too, need to study up. For “as late as 1833 whaling is New South Wales’ main export industry” according to records.

Campaigning journalists are happy to religiously parrot Greenpeace’s talking points and highly questionable research, relating to whale numbers. The whale-first propagandist too forgets that Australia not only participated in whaling but promoted international whaling for decades. He also forgets that post-war icons like Ray Martin ate whale meat. But never mind. Today our elites preach about the evils of whaling, to the oriental hordes, after having taken our share.

Or so it must seem that way, to an informed citizen. “One of the reasons why the ports of Sydney and Hobart held such a high part of the population of Australia in the 1830s was the strength of whaling,” according to Blainey. Indeed it wasn’t uncommon for foreign whalers to spend big, like modern-day sailors. They needed repairs, provisions, and other essentials. Not surprisingly, therefore, “it was estimated in Hobart in the early 1840s that each foreign vessel in port spent an average of £300, not counting the sovereigns their crews slapped onto counters in waterfront inns.”

In the 1840s, newspapers benefited from the whaling industry too, on many levels. Advertisements, for example, informed foreign whalers where to access fresh water, where to purchase fresh foods, where to find wood and offered information concerning shipwrights and boat-builders. Call them enablers, if you’d like. Or co-conspirators. You see, Australian newspapers were more than happy to cash in back then. Today’s media prefers to moralise, however.


Arguably, some office-bound environmentalists feel uncomfortable with Australia’s whaling record. But what’s really changed? Today’s elites sniff at the thought of killing whales, and then merrily purchase animal-tested products, endorsed by celebrities, in major newspapers. Hypocrisy is everywhere. And because many of us don’t like to think about thousands of laboratory bunnies, I wonder if our media watchdogs are projecting. Would you rather be a harpooned whale or one beauty company’s pound puppy, to make a point about cruelty? And do 50,000 tortured bunnies make a whale?

Blainey (for example) writes about men tracking the large fish-shaped mammals, as weighty as 25 elephants, and what that really means: “Chasing whales was therefore the most dangerous and masculine of all seafaring trades.”

More: “The insidious enemies of whales, however,” explains Blainey, “were not the crews with harpoons and lances but rather women and their households in Europe and North America.”

In the Book of Jonah, we read about a prophet who was saved by a whale, but in the Australian context, women were - like it or not - saving the whaling industry. Perfumes. Chichi candles. Soaps. Domestic lamps. Corsets. Umbrella frames. So, I have to say that when I hear foreigners sharing their whale-eating experiences, I don’t feel smug. I appreciate their raw honesty, their time-honoured traditions. Who can ignore the whale in our room? Besides our educrats, I mean.

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About the Author

Ben-Peter Terpstra has provided commentary for The Daily Caller (Washington D.C.), NewsReal Blog (Los Angeles), Quadrant (Sydney), and Menzies House (Adelaide).

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All articles by Ben-Peter Terpstra

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