Fra il dire e il fare ce il mare
My son, Tim, reminded me of this old Italian saying when he read my promise of a moratorium on blog writing: ‘Between the saying and the doing is the ocean!’. I was thinking about patterns of killings after writing my piece on the Spice Islands a couple of weeks ago. Another Anglo-Dutch competitive-cooperative episode followed the Nutmeg caper. It was all about reaching Indonesia and Cathay (China) by ship from Northwest Europe without running the gauntlet of Portuguese and Spanish sea-power. Incomplete geography seemed to offer two possible routes, both through the Arctic region – a Northeast Passage and a Northwest one.
In 1607 Henry Hudson, a British adventurer, was employed by a consortium of merchant companies in London – including the English East India Company – to find a Northeastern route. He failed, but found an awful lot of whales, tried again, failed again, then the London companies said ‘Enough, already’. Henry them found employment with England’s merchant rivals, the Dutch East India Company, tried again (in a ship with a mixed crew of Dutch and English who couldn’t talk to each other), couldn’t make it and turned west and tried for the Northwest route. He reached the Hudson River bneary what would later become New Amsterdam – more precisely Coney island -, and went up it thinking it might lead him to China, found that it didn’t, went down to Delaware, then up to the Hudson strait that leads into Hudson Bay. His crew got fed up with this, mutinied, set Henry off to die in an open boat, and went home themselves. A few years later other British and Dutch adventurers went over and, although the riches of Cathay were enticing decided that immediate profit from furs – traded with ‘the aborigines’ – looked like a better deal. They came from many wild mammal species but eventually most profitably from beavers.
Fast forward to 1665. The Restored King of England, Charles II, had just launched the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Two French-Canadian traders, who had been dealing in beavers along the St Lawrence waterway, wanted royal approval to enter the English –controlled territory of Hudson Strait, leading into Hudson Bay, to outflank the other dealers by gaining access to the beavers around the bay. They got it. No-one knew then that the Bay’s area was as much as four million square kilometres and that it did not open, eventually, to the Pacific. The two returned to England without having found a passage to China, told the king about the abundance of furs, and he then sent his cousin Rupert of the Rhine off to what would one day be Canada, as boss of the new Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay, with monopoly powers and no territorial limitations.
The European market for beaver skins was seemingly infinite, but the beavers, though tremendously abundant, were not. The furs were used in fashionable hats and other decorative clothing and especially for the manufacture of felt. In a short time the areas along the edge of the Bay were, as they said “ beavered out”. By the mid-18th century the Hudson Bat traders begab to move away – southward and westward of the Bay shore, having given the Cree providers the technology to operate in the frozen hinterland. Thus they came more and more in conflict with the coureurs de bois from Montreal, later the North West Company, dealing in beaver pelts further south. Eventually both companies reached the North American west coast, leaving a trail of huge ‘beavered out’ regions. At the coast they met westward traveling (New) Americans, intent on settling, farming, raising cattle and killing bison – misnamed ‘buffalo’ – for their skins. By the end of the century there were hardly any beavers left anywhere nor – by the middle of the 19th century, many bison).
The hunting of right whales by Basques from the 13th century followed a similar path. Beginning in the Bay of Biscay the rights were ‘whaled out’ and the hunters steadily moved further afield, eventually reaching the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and discovering cod – just in time. This could happen because of a combination of market, technology, and opportunity facilitated by the absence of law. In this case the technology was preservation of meat by a combination of air-drying and salt, applied both to the baleen whales and to the fish – baccalà, the market was the Hanseatic League of wealthy states in the Baltic region.
In the ‘modern whaling’ era, beginning in Norway in the late nineteenth century, the fin and blue whales, easily accessible from the coastal bases in Norway, were quickly ‘whaled out’. The Norwegians steadily moved down the North Atlantic, to the South Atlantic, then quickly to all other oceans and eventually to the Antarctic, where they had to accommodate themselves to the British who controlled most of the potential bases on sub-Antarctic Islands and the Peninsula. We all know what happened to those abundant whales. Here the decisive technology (apart from powered vessels and water and air pumps) was the chemistry of making soap and margerine from the oil, and later the invention of fast and compact ship-board freezers for the meat.
European exploration of the Antarctic region, driven by curiosity concerning further possibilities of colonial expansions, opened up first the fur seals of the region (for furs) and then the elephant seals (for oil) both of which were ‘sealed out’ well before the whalers arrived. Even penguins were not spared: they were made to walk up planks until they tumbled into vats of boiling water and their oil ‘harvested’. In the Arctic the right whales, spotted in vast numbers by Henry Hudson were soon ‘whaled out’, and on the Pacific side of the Arctic the huge dugong – Steller’s Sea Cow, ten-ton monsters as big as a minke whale - was discovered in 1741 by an expedition led by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, in the employ of the Russian navy (still pining for a Northwest passage), and described and named by Bering’s resident naturalist, Georg Steller. The sea cow was exterminated within 27 years of its discovery on the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea. Oil, meat and skin for leather were the prizes. Fossils show the sea-cow had once been widely distributed and numerous along the North Pacific coasts from Japan to California. A slow-moving , it had possibly been ‘over-fished’ by aboriginal subsistence hunters.
The big ‘Siren’, the sea cow, is the only marine extermination I want to mention – so far there have been few, and none other of them mammals, as far as we know for sure. But what we have in all these mentioned cases is a spreading sequence of massacres that together constitute holocausts. Some of us now are trying to stop the terminating massacres in the false name of ‘sustainable use’, those that complete the holocausts, the ‘Final Solutions’. Such local massacres, leading to near-eliminations, are sometimes described nowadays by another convenient term of fashion – ‘over-fishing’. But that is a distorted use of the phrase, which was coined in the 1930s to mean something like ’reduced to less than an optimum population which could sustain a high continuous catch’. The ‘mining’ of marine mammals doesn’t work like that. The populations are reduced until profit is negligible, the costs become too high, and/or the market contracts for whatever reason. Japanese entrepreneurs now strive to keep the whale meat market alive with an eye to a flourishing future business, and keeping the technology and associated human skills in being. The third necessary element – opportunity offered by weak or absent law or other, ethical, restraints – is in limbo. Apart from the still numerous minke whales (two or three species, in all oceans) that ‘real hunters’ could not be bothered to chase and blow-up until half a century ago, there are now just small groups surviving in a few places, and in some actually increasing again.
I am tempted here to use a phrase I have heard many times in recent days with reference to what we hope are the closing stages of the civil war in Libya: Pockets of Resistance. One of the few is the fin whales of a North Atlantic clan that continue, so stupidly, to feed near Iceland. But, to retain basic optimism about the human species it might be enough to see, day after day, the wonderful images of whales that the Asian underwater photographer, Tony Wu, sends via the Internet to his friends, recently mostly from Tonga: humpback mothers with their calves.