Colonial Australia didn’t always ride on the sheep’s back, indeed for its first forty years it rode on something much bigger. The Leviathan, cetaceans, whales.
Whales were abundant in the southern seas and great men went in pursuit. The whale features early in Sydney history. Whales swam right into the harbour, as they have done again in recent years. Dead whales that washed ashore were invitations to huge Aboriginal feasts and ceremony. Sydney’s sea cliffs are decorated with Aboriginal carvings showing these splendid creatures.
Soon enough the struggling English colony began to hunt the whales in an attempt to start the economy. Whale products were highly prized with the oil being used for everything from lighting, to soap, to candles to perfume. Bone was used for ladies corsets and other garments, teeth were carved in scrimshaw as souvenirs.
Some English ships heading to Sydney got involved, but the main whalers were American, mostly coming out of Long Island and Nantucket, roaming the Pacific and heading to Sydney for supplies. By 1791 ships were hunting Sperm Whales and Right Whales, the two most prized in the southern oceans off of Sydney’s coast. Early Governors were worried that the ships would take away escaping convicts with them as crew but the lucrative returns soon encouraged more ships, English, American and Australian. The first locally built deep sea whaler was launched in 1805.
The trade quickly expanded. By the 1820s whaling boats were based out of Sydney Harbour, tying up at Bennelong Point and Darling Harbour. As part of this expanding trade, Sydney whaler Archibald Mosman built an onshore whaling station using convict labour on his land, now Mosman Bay. The station was in use from 1831 until Mosman sold it in 1839, boiling down and storing whale oil on site. The main building still stands; it’s now a scout hall.
Whaling as an industry in Sydney however died out in the 1840s. The whales had been hunted out of the local waters.
While the trade flourished, there was always danger. The whalers chased the largest animals to ever live in small open boats, propelled only by oars, throwing hand harpoons no bigger than javelins. Many were dashed to pieces, drowned far off shore.
Of these the most infamous case was that of the American whaler the Essex. In November 1820 the Essex, already out at sea for 16 months was attacked by an enraged Sperm whale, wounded earlier by harpoons. The whale smashed its head into the side of the ship, breaking a hole below water before turning and charging again, hitting the ship with such force as to push it backwards through the churning sea. The whaler quickly sank, leaving the crew to scramble into three whale boats some 1500 nautical miles west of the Galapagos.
The middle of nowhere.
Of the twenty crew that went into the boats eight survived. One boat disappeared with all hands, three were left behind on an Island and were rescued by Captain Raine of the Surry out of Sydney. The others ran out of food, and in a desperate situation drew lots to see who would be killed for food. Both boats when found were full of bones and crazed survivors.
The three rescued landed in Sydney in May 1821 to much fanfare. The Sydney Gazette reported the story in all its gory detail. The seafaring town was morbidly fascinated by the strange and terrifying tale while one American writer immortalised the story in his novel, Moby Dick.