Whaling as Training

By 1818, whaling had long been one of the objects of inquiry that had driven explorers north.

I accompanied the whale-fishers on several expeditions to the North Sea; I voluntarily endured cold, famine, thirst, and want of sleep; I often worked harder than the common sailors during the day, and devoted my nights to the study of mathematics, the theory of medicine, and those branches of physical science from which a naval adventurer might derive the greatest practical advantage. Twice I actually hired myself as an under-mate in a Greenland whaler, and acquitted myself to admiration.

By 1818, whaling had long been one of the objects of inquiry that had driven explorers north. The flourishing industry furnished travel writers with moments of commercial promise, scientific investigation, and engaging terror; O'Reilly records that "in the dying scene, pierced with many wounds, the animal exhibits a terrific object by the mightiness of his efforts" (124). Like Frankenstein's Walton, Bernard O'Reilly joined a whaling vessel (as a "surgeon") to facilitate his studies, though O'Reilly is drawn as much to anthropological inquiries—the history of 'mankind,' the source of national character, and the 'progress' of civilization—as to those of natural science. The panoramic framing in the image above is typical of the genre and period, but it also allows O'Reilly to underscore the cooperative character of the whale hunt; whereas Walton's rapid acclimatization and ready professionalization puts the other crew to shame and attests to his fateful talent, prompting him to assert his prerogative to "accomplish some great purpose," O'Reilly underscores the teamwork demanded by the process, instanced here by the profusion of harpoons in the harried whale and the variety of posture among the whalers. 

James Waddel and W. & D. Lizars, "Dangers of the Whale Fishery," from William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery, Volume 1 (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1820) (Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/accountofarcticr02scor/page/n7).


Frederick Christian Lewis and S. Koenig, "Whale Hunting," from Greenland, the Adjacent Seas, and the North-West Passages to the Pacific Ocean (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1818), 125. (Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/greenlandadjacen00orei/page/n159).