Greenland Whale Fishery, The [Laws K21]
DESCRIPTION: The singer and his companions (are forced by poverty to) sign on a whaler. They spot a whale. The whale is harpooned, but sinks the boat and escapes. Five crewmen are killed. The captain regrets the loss of whale and/or crew. At last they leave Greenland
EARLIEST DATE: 1820 (_The Mavis_, according to Greig-FolkSongInBuchan-FolkSongOfTheNorthEast); before 1825 (broadside, Bodleian 2806 c.17(160))
KEYWORDS: ship whale whaler death
FOUND IN: US(MA,MW,NE) Britain(England(Lond,South),Scotland(Aber)) West Indies(Bahamas) Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (31 citations):
Laws K21, "The Greenland Whale Fishery"
Belden-BalladsSongsCollectedByMissourFolkloreSociety, pp. 104-105, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text)
Huntington-SongsTheWhalemenSang, pp. 9-10, "The Whalefish Song" (1 text, 1 tune, without reference to the drowned men); pp. 11-12
Huntington-TheGam-MoreSongsWhalemenSang, pp. 18-19, "Brave Boys (The Greenland Whale)" (1 text, 2 tunes)
Huntington-FolksongsFromMarthasVineyard, pp. 29-30, "Brave Boys" (1 text, 1 tune)
Colcord-SongsOfAmericanSailormen, pp. 151-152, "Greenland Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Harlow-ChantyingAboardAmericanShips, pp. 223-227, "The Whale," "The Greenland Whale" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Kinsey-SongsOfTheSea, pp. 147-148, "The Whale" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-TheBalladBook, pp. 707-708, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text)
Peacock, pp. 147-148, "Whaling Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Karpeles-FolkSongsFromNewfoundland 42, "The Greenland Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 401, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 169, "The Greenland Fishery" (1 text)
Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer-FolkSongsOfTheCatskills 95, "Bound for the Stormy Main" (1 text, 1 tune)
Grigson-PenguinBookOfBallads 81, "The Greenland Whale" (1 text)
Greig-FolkSongInBuchan-FolkSongOfTheNorthEast #85, pp. 2-3, "The Greenland Fishery"; #87, p. 2, "The Greenland Fishery"; #135, p. 2, "The Greenland Fishery" (1 text plus 2 fragments)
Greig/Duncan1 9, "The Greenland Fishery" (10 texts, 8 tunes)
VaughanWilliams/Lloyd-PenguinBookOfEnglishFolkSongs, pp. 50-51, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Williams-Wiltshire-WSRO Ox 200, "Whale Fishers" (1 text)
Reeves-TheEverlastingCircle 58, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text)
Karpeles-TheCrystalSpring 83, "The Greenland Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Roud/Bishop-NewPenguinBookOfEnglishFolkSongs #11, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Shay-AmericanSeaSongsAndChanteys, pp. 122-123, "The Whale" (1 text, 1 tune, plus a fragment from _Moby Dick_ which may well be derived from this song)
Lomax/Lomax-OurSingingCountry, p. 89, 'When de Whale Get Strike" (1 short text, 1 tune); , pp. 214-215, "Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FolkSongsOfNorthAmerica 32, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scott-TheBalladOfAmerica, pp. 142-144, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-TreasuryOfAmericanFolklore, pp. 832-833, "Greenland Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ashton-RealSailorSongs, #83 insert, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text)
Palmer-OxfordBookOfSeaSongs, p. 72, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 94, "Greenland Fisheries" (1 text)
DT 321, GREENLAN* GRENLAN2* GRNFISH* GRENFIS4*
Almanac Singers, "Greenland Fishing" (Rec. 1941, unissued at the time; on AlmanacCD1)
A. L. Lloyd, "The Greenland Whale Fishery" (on Lloyd9)
David Pryor: "When the Whale Get Strike" [fragment] (AAFS 512 A1, 1935; on LomaxCD1822-2)
Pete Seeger, "The Greenland Whalers" (on PeteSeeger10)
Bodleian, 2806 c.17(160), "Greenland Whale Fishery" ("In eighteen-hundred and twenty-three"), W. Armstrong (Liverpool), 1820-1824; also Firth c.13(67), Firth c.13(68), Firth c.13(69), Firth c.13(71), Harding B 11(90), Harding B 11(3307), Harding B 11(958), Harding B 25(778), "Greenland Whale Fishery"
cf. "The Barrack's Song" (form)
NOTES [750 words]: [Lloyd cites a blackletter printing of this piece from before 1725.]
In 1830, the English whaling fleet moved from the right-whale grounds off Greenland to Baffin Bay, and thence to the grounds off Hawaii and Peru. The whalers' songs nonetheless continued to refer to the Greenland grounds. - PJS
It is true that there was a decrease in whalers going to the Greenland in 1830, but the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay were close enough that sailors might refer to the latter as "Greenland." More noteworthy was the decline Arctic whalers overall, because 1830 was "the most disastrous year in the whole history of British whaling. Out of 91 ships in Davis Straits (sic.), 19 were lost and 21 returned clean [i.e. without taking a whale]" (Lubbock, p. 278). 1835 was also very bad: "The disastrous years of 1835 and 1836 played havoc with British whaling, and the only fleet that could be said to be in a flourishing condition in 1837 was that of Peterhead, and this mainly because Peterhead captains made such a success of the sealing" (Lubbock, p. 342). One of those lost in 1835 was the famous whaler and exploration ship Isabella (Lubbock, p. 299). So there just weren't as many ships to go to the Arctic.
Plus, of course, whales were getting fished out; in 1838, one of the most successful whalers, the Eclipse, caught nothing but juveniles (Lubbock, p. 343).
Nonetheless, there were still whalers in the Arctic for many years. The aforementioned Isabella rescued John Ross in 1833 (see "Bold Adventures of Captain Ross"); the last ship to see the Franklin Expedition in the 1840s was a whaler (see "Lady Franklin's Lament (The Sailor's Dream) [Laws K9] ").
Nonetheless it must be said that by 1843 "a large fleet of ships in Davis Straits was now a thing of the past" (Lubbock, p. 344). Watson, p. 4, says, "The toll of such losses and paucity of whales acted as a turning-point in British Arctic whaling. From a peak of over 160 vessels in 1815, barely 30 sailed in 1830. Yields dropped, companies failed, boiling yards closed and men were paid off. London abandoned whaling in 1835 and Leith in 1840. The once-mighty Aberdeen fleet was cut to three vessels by 1839."
But that wasn't the end -- because of steam -- observe, for instance, that the ships of "The Old Polina" were steam whalers of the 1880s. "Just when it looked as if the trade... faced extinction, a timely restoration of fortunes returned to the port [of Dundee] through the innovative decision to introduce steam power to the fleet.... It provided speed to the fleet, ice-breaking capabilities in the whaling grounds, and safety in being able to press forward and cautiously retreat.... These factors... acted to motivate owners to construct bigger and better vessels to stalk the Right whale." It wasn't until 1885-1886 that the Greenland/Baffin Bay fishery went into terminal decline (Watson, p. 93), with a few whalers continuing in service until World War I.
Whalers also continued to sail from New England -- in fact, "Of an estimated nine hundred whaleships of all nations engaged in whaling in the late 1840s, more than seven hundred were American (Allen, p. 82) -- and this song is known in America as well as Britain, so maybe the American whalers kept the "Greenland" references alive.
In addition, although we don't use the term today, Spitsbergen (Svalbard) was sometimes known as "Old Greenland," so the song might refer to that.
Of course, the whales eventually failed, and the whaling steamers either went to Newfoundland to hunt seals or were sold off or scrapped. Arctic whaling was truly done by World War I.
Also, the skills needed for whaling in the Arctic differed from those needed in the Pacific: "the [arctic] bowhead, having no teeth, was forced to defend himself with his flukes; and it is probable that as many whale-boats have been smashed up and as many men killed or maimed by a Greenland or right whale's flukes [as in this song] as by a sperm whale's teeth. The chachalot or sperm whale was constantly killed by one lone boat, but it usually required three or four boats to kill a Greenland whale" (Lubbock, p. 5).
Interestingly, this song was well enough known to show up in Irish stage musicals, or at least in books inspired by them. Ned Harrigan (for whom see "Babies On Our Block") on p. 281 quoted the opening line as "'Twas in the good ship Nancy" and on pp. 281, 282, 286, 287, 288, 431 gave the conclusion "An' they niver cot that whale, brave boys! An' they niver cot that whale!" - RBW
Last updated in version 5.2
- Allen: Everett S. Allen, Children of the Light: The Rise and Fall of New Bedford Whaling and the Death of the Arctic Fleet, 1973; I use the 2015 Commonwealth Editions paperback edition
- HarriganMulligans: Edward Harrigan, The Mulligans, G. W. Dillingham, 1901
- Lubbock: Basil Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers, Brown, Son, & Ferguson, 1937 (I use the 1955 reprint)
- Watson: Norman Watson, The Dundee Whalers, Tuckwell Press, 2003
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