Certain veins of historical study are “sexier” than others.
When people ask me about my graduate work and find out that I’m a medievalist by training, they inevitably ask questions about the flashier parts of medieval history- things like the Battle of Agincourt, Viking invasions or the Black Death.
Indeed, I have studied these things in no little depth, but when I say that my personal research focused on the history of English common law, the faces of the eager inquirers inevitably fall into a look of disappointment. Legal history, I have found out, is not generally considered “sexy.”
In my work at the Maritime Museum of B.C. too, certain topics are a lot more popular than others. Shipwrecks, of course, always get people interested. Some folks are fascinated by military and naval stories. Others still are engaged by tales of adventurous gold miners and fur traders on the wild west coast.
The topics that people shy away from rather ironically tend to be the stories that shaped the economy and everyday lives of British Columbians for the last 170 years. Industries like fishing and sealing put food on the tables of thousands of people, and provided jobs for many early residents of the province.
What we know today about the dire state of our coastal ecosystems and the incredibly wasteful and reckless way in which we practised these industries has cast an awkward pall over their discussion. Our fish stocks have been gutted, our oceans are warming and polluted, and let’s be honest: killing seals is an unpopular topic.
The historical topic that is the most uncomfortable of all though, has to be that of whaling. I grew up in Victoria in the 1980s and 1990s and never once realized that the mass slaughter of whales had been an economic lynchpin for B.C.
Given what we now know about the immense intelligence of whales, the complexity of their familial bonds, the depths of their emotional capacity and the simple fact that they are far more human than one would ever imagine, I suspect that we are a little bit embarrassed about that brutal part of our history.
That does not mean these stories should not be told.
Whaling has been practised by indigenous coastal peoples for millennia, but in a small, sustainable way. The European technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made it possible on an industrial scale.
By 1900, there were already relatively few right and grey whales left in the North Pacific. Their numbers had been decimated by whalers who came up from American whaling stations. They were also partial to sperm whales, as these three species moved relatively slowly and could be caught via sail powered ships and hand harpoons.
At this time they would drag the whales to shore and rend the blubber into oil in whaling way-stations on Texada, Hornby and Cortes Islands.
Nonetheless, it was in 1905 that commercial whaling took hold in B.C., with modern harpoons and faster ships. That year the Pacific Whaling Company was established, with a head office in Victoria, to target the remaining five major species that inhabited our coast: blue, humpback, fin, sei and sperm whales.
They built four whaling stations on Vancouver Island: one at Barkley Sound called Sechart, one at Kyuquot, one at Coal Harbour, and one at Piper’s Lagoon in Nanaimo, which had to be closed after only two years when the entire regional population of 95 humpback whales had been completely slaughtered.
Sechart and Kyoquot were closed by 1925, but two other stations, Rose Harbour and Naden Harbour, were opened in Haida Gwaii and didn’t close permanently until the Second World War. The last station operating was at Coal Harbour, and that remained until whaling was banned entirely in 1967.
Between 1905 and 1967, these stations processed approximately 25,000 whales.
Some whale populations today have shown recovery, but it is slow. Others have not rebounded at all.
Most positively, the Northern Pacific humpback population is estimated at around 5,500. This is up from the approximately 1,400 remaining when the moratorium on whaling came into place, but a drastic reduction from the up to 20,000 strong that existed 150 years ago.
On the other hand, the last right whale seen in B.C. waters was in 1951. It was accidentally killed by a whaling vessel seeking other prey and then rendered at Coal Harbour.
Uncomfortable reading, isn’t it?
The purpose of history is not to allow us to pick and choose which stories we like and therefore which stories we tell, though that is inevitably what occurs. History happened. There is nothing we can do to change it.
All we can do is be aware of it, so that we make the best decisions in the present, for the sake of the future. Filtering out the uncomfortable parts of our past does no favours to anyone. It may make us more comfortable, but it also makes us complacent and ignorant.
Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Questions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.