Concept: Whaling


Until the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans remained little more than hunters and gatherers of exotic items in the Pacific. From the Solomons they took whales and their teeth, pearls, pearl-shell, bĂȘche-de-mer and turtle shell. Whaling provided the first long-term sustained contact with outsiders. Today whale oil is little used, but in the days before petroleum products (oil fields began to be developed in the 1860s) whale oil was used for lights and lubrication to drive the machinery of Europe during the industrial revolution, and for lamps, lubricants and candles and as a base for perfumes. The whales were killed with harpoons darted from small boats, and then towed back either to a ship or a station on shore. Their blubber (the thick layer of fatty tissue under the skin) was melted down and taken to Europe or the United States. Baleen (whalebone) was used to make corsets for women, handles for whips and umbrellas, and many other things.

The average whaling ship carried a crew of twenty-five to thirty men and remained at sea on voyages of two or three years. The whale oil was processed in huge vats on the ships that required large supplies of wood to operate. The only detailed research into whaling in the Solomons was conducted by Judith Bennett (1987, 24-33, 350-355) and Alastair Gray (1999) undertook a similar study into whaling in the Bismarck Archipelago to the north. When New South Wales was settled as a convict colony in 1788, many of the ships that brought the convicts continued their voyagers as whalers, as did American ships that supplied the colony. (Moore 2003, 104-122) Whaling expeditions began to visit the Solomon Islands in the 1800s and increased in numbers in the 1820s, still as an economic outgrowth of New South Wales. Then, as the long-established whaling grounds in the Atlantic Ocean became less profitable, whalers shifted their interests to the Pacific. The ships moved with the prevailing winds: north through the Solomons from May to November and south from Micronesia for the remainder of the year. The peak of Solomons whaling was in the 1840s and 1850s, and then began to wane in the 1860s when many American ships were recalled due to the Civil War, and as whale oil became less essential for industry because of easier access to petroleum oil and technical advances in processing copra for oil. Bennett records 1887 as the year of the last visit to the Solomons from a whaling ship. (1987, 25-26)

Whalers were controlled by the migratory habits of whales, which usually take the same paths through the sea in their annual migrations north and south through the Pacific. Whalers were also constrained by the availability of suitable sheltered anchorages to enable them to replenish supplies of food, water and timber with minimal hostile interactions with local people. Simbo (Eddystone), Mono (Treasury) Islands just south of Bougainville, Santa Ana and Santa Catalina Islands in the central Solomons, and Sikaiana Atoll became early favourite ports for whalers. Along with Makira Harbour on Makira Island, these islands effectively became the first ports of the Solomons and the peoples there engaged in the first sustained trade with foreigners. Wood, water, fruit and vegetables, artefacts, shells, turtle shell and women's sexual services (the latter mainly on Makira) were traded for iron, tobacco and glass. Slaves were also used to provide sexual services. (Bennett 1987, 29-30) Gray's research suggests that most of these early contacts took place at sea rather than on shore since whalers were reluctant to come ashore. That is why they usually chose the smaller Solomon Islands where there was less chance of large-scale attack. The Islanders paddled out to the ships to exchange for hoop iron, steel tools, glass, and tobacco.

Related Concepts

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Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details
  • Moore, Clive, New Guinea: Crossing Boundaries and History, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2003. Details