Trouble at Sea

Hello all

It is Sergeant Mendick again, stealing a few moments of your time to tell you about another case I found interesting. I was not involved in this one but my young colleague, George Watters, had to read up on maritime law and came up with this one. It is a whaling case, which is not unusual as the whaling men – the Greenland men – are a rowdy, truculent lot!

In the first half of the 19th century Aberdeen was a major whaling port. One of her chief rivals was neighbouring Peterhead. Both ports sent ships north to the Greenland Sea and Davis Straits to hunt for whales and seals. Although both these areas are vast, the actual whale hunting grounds could be quite limited, and ships tended to hunt within easy view of one another. Most of the time that did not cause any problems, for mutual support was welcome, particularly if the ice closed and a ship was sunk, when having another vessel close by to rescue the men could only be good. However there was always the possibility of more than one ship harpooning the same whale, which caused some ownership problems.

In the summer of 1856 the Aberdeen vessel Alibi and the Peterhead ship Clara sailed to the Cumberland Straits, off Arctic Canada. On 13 October both vessels were part of a group of whaling ships at anchor in the Bay of Niatilick on the west side of the Straits. This was a favoured spot for whaling ships, having a fairly safe anchorage, and an island to shelter behind. The island was also called Niatilick and had the added advantage of a prominent hill. The ship masters often climbed the hill and scanned the surrounding icy seas to search for whales. Shortly after six in the morning Captain Sutter of Clara was on the hill and he saw signs of a whale in the distance. He alerted an Inuit named Bullygar, who commanded an Inuit manned whale boat, and told him to approach cautiously so the crew of Alibi did not realise the whale was there.

Bullygar was an expert and came up astern of the whale, threw his harpoon and got fast to the whale without too much difficulty. The whale at one sounded – dived- but Bullygar knew all about whale hunting and kept the harpoon attached as the whale pulled her through the icy water. Eventually the whale lines ran out, so Bullygar attached what was known as a drog or drogue to the end of the line and cast it off. A drog was an inflated sealskin float of indeterminate length, but they could be as little as two feet long and as much as five feet, with a circumference about the same. They had three functions: they slowed the whale down; they tired it out and they marked where it was.

Following the float, Bullygar steered his boat north west, with another of Clara’s boats rowing beside him. About two miles from Niatilick island, both boats landed on a small rock and watched the progress of the drogs. They had barely taken sightings when the whale surfaced, and they rowed hard toward it, but before they reached it two of Alibi’s boats appeared from behind an ice floe and had plunged their harpoons into the whale, and a boat from a third ship also came and thrust in the killing lance. With the whale dead, the boats united to tow it to the island of Niatilick, where the mother ships were.

Once they arrived at Niatilick, Bullygar and the other Clara boat tried to tow the whale to Clara, but the men from Alibi objected. The boat’s crews began to argue, but mere words escalated into something more serious as the excited whaling men saw their oil money bonus slipping away from them. Men on both sides lifted the lances, long, sharp weapons designed specifically to kill wounded whales, and tail knives, six foot long blades that could easily cut a man’s arm off. There was a fight; a man was slashed, and things could have developed into a full scale Arctic battle until Captain Sutter of Clara intervened and called a halt.

The whale was towed to Alibi, whose crew flensed it – stripped off the blubber- and claimed both ownership and profit. With the hunting season over and the ice closing in, all the whaling ships returned to Scotland, but the owners of Clara instigated legal proceedings to claim what they said was their whale. They estimated they were owed £1200, for loss of profit and damages, with interest for ‘the illegal seizure of a whale’. Captain Stewart of Alibi contested the claim vigorously.

It was not the first case of its kind, and centred on the legal rights of ownership: was the whale owned by the first ship to see and harpoon her, on by the ship whose men actually killed her? The law in the Arctic was a bit vague, so that even if a boat had harpooned a whale, if the lines broke, or became unattached from the boat, the animal was termed as a ‘loose whale’ and was fair game for any other vessel to claim. If this law was followed, then the whale was loose as Bullygar had either tossed the lines overboard, the line had run out or had broken. In either case, there was no line attaching the boat to the whale, and the drogue was doing the work of the boats in tiring the whale. If that argument was correct, then Captain Stewart of the Aberdeen ship was legally correct in claiming the whale.

However the owners of Clara claimed that as Cumberland Inlet was a new area for whaling, the old law did not apply there, and the ships should abide by the law of the native Inuit. The local law, which applied particularly to drogue fishing, stated that the person who first struck the whale owned it. If that argument was proved correct, then Bullygar and Clara were undoubtedly the owners.

Captain Sutter brought over an Inuit harpooner named Tessuin from Niatilick Island , who spoke to the court through an interpreter to tell them that this was the case when the Inuit hunted, and to remind them that the first harpoon had been made fast by a local Inuit. Captain George Brown, another whaling man, acted as interpreter.

Despite all the trouble Sutter had gone to, the Court of Session found in favour of the Aberdeen Arctic Company and Captain Sutter of Clara lost his case and his money.

What do you think? to whom would you have awarded the whale? It’s a tricky one!

http://www.malcolmarchibald.com

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