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An oil and blubber economy

1791: The whaling industry is established in Sydney

State Library of NSW a128893
1700 1800
Year level

5

9

Learning area

History

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. The National Museum of Australia has a number of objects linked to whaling. Look through some of these items and ask yourself:

(a) Did the economic benefits of whaling outweigh the environmental risks?

(b) Why do you think whaling continues today?

 

National Museum of Australia

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the start of whaling in Australia is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>A man on a dead whale, Twofold Bay, New South Wales</p>
National Library of Australia nla.obj-148638992

In a snapshot

Whaling began in Australia in 1791 and quickly became an important part of the colonial economy. It made up half of the export industry in New South Wales in the 1830s. But the industry had nearly collapsed by the middle of the 1800s as whale oil was less sought after. The last whaling station in Australia closed in 1978. Despite its whaling past Australia is now a world leader in the fight against whale hunting.

A man on a dead whale, Twofold Bay, New South Wales

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. How did Aboriginal people use whales differently to European settlers?

2. Was whaling a profitable industry for the early settlement?

3. When did whaling start to decline? Why did this happen?

Did Aboriginal people hunt whales?

There is no evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people actively hunted whales. However some Indigenous people did use beached whales as a valuable source of food, oil and other products. Whales are totemic for many coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.

Why did Australian settlers start whaling?

The First Fleet arrived in New South Wales in 1788, just as the international whaling industry was growing. The colony of New South Wales had a great need for whale products (especially from sperm whales) for food, soap and oil for lamps and machines.

In early 1791 the Third Fleet set sail for Sydney. Eleven ships transported 1716 convicts to the colony of New South Wales. When their human cargo had been delivered five of the ships went on a whaling trip. In October 1791 one of these ships, called the Britannia, was the first ship to harpoon a sperm whale off the Australian coast.

While they were looking for more whales to hunt Europeans explored areas of the Australian coastline for the first time. After whales were found near Hobart the first Sydney-owned whaling ship, the King George, was launched in June 1805, followed by the Argo in 1806.

Whaling was the first industry to make money in the new colony and was as important to the colony’s economy as pastoralism (farming animals) in the 1820s. Whaling in Australia peaked between 1820 and 1855 when up to 1300 men worked in the industry each year.

When gold was discovered in Australia in 1851 many sailors became miners and whaling declined rapidly. Whaling had made up 52 per cent of New South Wales exports in 1832 but this had dropped to less than 1 per cent by 1855. Throughout the 1850s, as petroleum (which makes up petrol today) replaced whale oil, the whaling industry became even smaller.

Research task

 

Read this article examining indigenous whaling in Alaska by the International Whaling Commission. How do the Inupiat and Siberian Yupik people interact with whales differently to Indigenous Australians?

International Whaling Commission

‘A good part of the capital which had [been] so lavishly employed in the import trade, they are gradually diverting into the safer and infinitely more productive channel—the oil-fisheries … the whaling merchants are public benefactors, entitled to the gratitude of the whole community.’

 

Sydney Gazette, 18 March 1830

<p><em>Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales 1867</em>, by Sir Oswald Brierly&nbsp;(England; Australia, b.1817, d.1894)</p>

Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1901

<p><em>Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales 1867</em>, by Sir Oswald Brierly&nbsp;(England; Australia, b.1817, d.1894)</p>

What was the legacy of the whalers?

As the hunting of whales became more efficient many whale species became overharvested. A public outcry eventually halted the industry. The last whaling station in Australia, Cheynes Beach Whaling Company in Albany, Western Australia, closed in July 1978. 

Today Australia is a leading member of the International Whaling Commission and is deeply involved in the fight against whaling.

 

Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research task

 

What else were whale products used for in the 1700s and 1800s? Do some research and make a list of as many products as you can, and research if there are alternative sources for these products today.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. How did Aboriginal people use whales differently to European settlers?

2. Was whaling a profitable industry for the early settlement?

3. When did whaling start to decline? Why did this happen?