The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Southern Venturer

At the start of the 20th Century almost every whaling station in the North Atlantic was faced with a decline in catches. Some gave up, others followed Captain C.A. Larsen to the more lucrative southern seas. In December 1909, he arrived in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia with a modern steam whaler and two small sailing vessels that would be used as transport. Deceived by the bareness of the island, Larsen established his whaling station and set to work; quite unaware that South Georgia was a British possession. C.S. & Co. (Christian Salvesen & Co.) had been given a chance to go south a decade before Larsen began to whale in the Antarctic. A Dundee expedition to the Antarctic by Dr. W. S. Bruce and his friend W. Burn Murdoch, like Larsen saw the potential of southern whaling and on their return to Scotland they held a meeting of businessmen in Edinburgh, in order to raise the capital needed to finance a whaling station on South Georgia. Christian had attended the meeting, but was unconvinced, with Bruce’s clams, for the taking of eight humpbacks a day, believing this to be a gross exaggeration. It was not until 1907 that Salvesen decided to go down to the Antarctic and applied to the Colonial Office for a licence to fish the waters off South Georgia, where Larson had been so successful, this was turned down. However, if they were to take up the offer of a whaling option for the Falkland, their application to fish South Georgia the following year would be looked upon most favourably.

C.S. & Co. at that time purchased the Icelandic station at Faskrudsfjord dismantled it and shipped it along with 60 men, some thousands of barrels and a cargo of coal to the New Island in the West Falklands. The construction of a station there was a formidable undertaking with the land having to be levelled, slipway built, fleshing plan, building to erect too house blubber, meat and bone boilers. All to be carried out by January, the start of the fishing season. On the16 January 1909, gunner Edmund Paulsen brought in the first whale to be caught by Salvesen in the southern hemisphere, 227 were caught that season. This was encouraging and in the 1909/1910 season, four catchers operated from the station and 475 whales taken. The New Island station was never as successful as Leith Harbour in South Georgia, and in 1915 New Island was dismantled and the equipment taken to Leith Harbour, where increased production was required to satisfy war needs. The cost of producing whale oil that could only be sold for burning or lubrication was becoming unsustainable. Fortunately, there were companies working to perfect the process of hardening oil to a soft solid fat by adding hydrogen, if successful whale oil could now be sold to soap manufactures and if the oil was deodorised, to manufactures of margarine. The technology was there but convincing customers to spread whale oil on their bread might prove more difficult and many margarine manufacturers shied off the new oil until the price forced a change of heart. Lever Brothers at first would only use whale oil in the manufacture of their Lifebuoy Soap, the carbolic destroying any hint of whale oil. However, as the scarcity of other oils, such as palm or kernel, pushed up the price and they were forced to reconsider. Unfortunately for the whaling companies the manufactures formed themselves into a cartel and kept the prices low, not allowing them to exploit the new markets. Again it would be the war that changed the fortunes of companies such as Salvesen. Glycerine and important component of high explosives, which could be extracted from whale oil. Lubricants was another and for the future margarine would later outsell butter. When in 1916/1917 Salvesen was asked by the Director of oil and fats to do everything possible to increase production, Theodore, went into overdrive, buying the station at Saldanha Bay, South Africa. Salvesen worked hard at improving production. The facilities at Leith Harbour, were greatly improved to utilise as much of the whale as was possible, it was said that had the smell so pungent at Leith Harbour been marketable he would have tried to process that too. Lever, the soap magnate, was once asked why he did not go into the lucrative whaling industry. He answered ‘Gold-mining or dice-throwing are unexciting occupations compared with whale-fishing’. Notwithstanding Salvesen was the largest whaling enterprise in operation, and without question the most efficient.

all research of the whaling industry, from Wray Vamplew book Salvesen of Leith 1997 Scottish Academic Press.  

Tomorrow, Jimmy goes fishing for the whale.

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