Friday, August 26, 2011

Un Piccolo Divertimento

Dr. Sidney Holt is ASOC's representative at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and has decades of IWC experience. The following guest blog by Dr. Holt compares modern economic conditions with those of the past. 

I have been mugging up on the relations in the 17th century between the Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales (not yet ‘United’ because Northern Ireland had not yet been ‘integrated’) and the Republic of the United Netherlands. Being a republican myself I have long been fascinated by the economic, scientific and artistic vigour of that daughter of the liberation movement of the people of the Netherlands from their Spanish and Frankish oppressors. A revolutionary republic that can produce the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, the astronomer and mathematician Christian Huygens, and Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who founded the science of microscopy by squinting at protozoa, can’t be all bad.

It all started with my looking up trains to Lowestoft, in Suffolk, England, where I plan to attend an ICES workshop on fish population dynamics in October. That bustling, ugly town (there are still some interesting old bits, though, with narrow lanes – scores - running down cliffs to the flats – the denes - where hundreds of Scottish fisherwomen used to pack herrings in barrels of salt for export to the Soviet Union) was not so long ago a major fishing port – herring gill-netting and plaice trawling mostly. It’s just a few miles from the beautiful little seaside town of Southwold where I lived when I worked at the famous Lowestoft Fisheries Laboratory – at least that was its name until Mrs Thatcher’s bureaucrats changed it to the un-memorable Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and chopped its budget. Southwold was once a major port for the Royal Navy, then one stormy night its river moved – no harbour left. Southwold is now the home of Adnams brewery, makers of the best Real Beer in England, in my opinion. Off Southwold was fought, in 1672, the first great sea battle of the Third Anglo-Dutch war (The first big battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch war was fought off Lowestoft. Dutch historians say the Republic won; the British say the Anglo-French joint navy won. Whatever. One outcome was that a lot of Dutch sailors, finding themselves in the cold North Sea, swam ashore, married local English girls and built houses that look just like those in Amsterdam. I forget what the third war was all about, but the first was over the herring fisheries of the Southern Bight. Oh, yes, the second was provoked by the English because the Restored Charles II wanted his nephew William of Orange to rule the Netherlands, and the third led to William of Orange becoming King of England and the Netherlands.

So, what’s all this to do with whaling, you may reasonably ask? Pacienza!
During the century or more that the English and Dutch were sparring in the North and adjacent Seas, their Dutch East Indies and English East Indies Companies were slugging it out in the region of the spice islands, in the Moluccas, part of what is now Indonesia.  The Dutch company had moved in first, aiming to secure a monopoly in the immensely valuable spice trade – nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon, just like the Norwegians down in the Antarctic early in the 20th century with their ‘modern whaling’ technique.  The Dutch certainly didn’t want to share the trade with the pushy English, and many heads fell in discouragement. Basically the Dutch won and eventually the English went elsewhere. But while they were both operating in that part of the world they had a common objective of pushing out the Portuguese (who had themselves earlier pushed out the Ottoman traders), Spanish and Chinese – sound familiar: German and Japanese whalers pre-WWII, several others after it?  The point was that it was essential to limit, even to reduce, spice production in order to support their high market prices in Europe. There was attempted control of whale oil production in the 1930s, controlled, at first essentially by companies, not governments. The strange thing is that while all that was going on there happened to be Japanese mercenaries around; one of them fell into Dutch hands and got very, very badly treated in ways not to be recorded in a public blog. What were they up to? Looking for whales?

One Dutch idea was to uproot all the nutmeg trees on some of the Banda islands. I suppose the Antarctic equivalent would be to decide to exterminate, say, the humpback whales, or perhaps all the species in just one Southern Ocean sector to maintain the price of oil from blue and fin whales. The spicers even had a sort of Blue Whale Unit to take account of the differing prices of various types of vegetable matter in one big spice bag. Eventually the Dutch company, which issued loans and fancy bonds and accumulated huge debts, approached bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by the immensely wealthy Republic (‘too big to fail’), a process that led fatally to the decline of the Republic and its eventual extinction. Meanwhile the English had gone elsewhere in their growing Empire and planted spice trees on some of the nicest warm islands – nutmeg on Grenada and Zanzibar, cinnamon on Mahé, Seychelles. Sound familiar again? The Seychelles colony also did very nicely with vanilla, but that came from an orchid unique to Mexico. One neat territorial exchange at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch war was that the Dutch got the nutmeg island of Run and the English got New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. Unscrupulous Connecticut traders were said to whittle fake nutmeg nuts out of hard wood. Such ingenuity has Homo sapiens economicus.

Ah, yes, I now remember: Lowestoft is famous not only for its kippers but also for its fine porcelain – technology brought by the Navy from China - and as the birthplace of one of England’s best modern music composers – Benjamin Britten.

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