History of Europe

When the North Germans went whaling

by Marc-Oliver Rehrmann, NDR.de

It is a great adventure for eleven-year-old Jens Jacob Eschels:in the spring of 1769, the boy from the North Sea island of Föhr is allowed to go whaling in the Arctic for the first time. It's his greatest wish:"Three of my schoolmates, who were only a little older than me, were hired out to Greenland." The mother doesn't want to let her son go so early, but the boy can't be stopped. Jens Jacob Eschels himself calls on a whaling commander who lives on the island. And he says he should leave with the "Greenlanders".

And so the journey began, first to Amsterdam and from there on a whaling ship to the Arctic Ocean near Spitsbergen. But the trip was ill-fated. The ice held up the ship for a long time. "And when we finally got through, the best fishing was over," the boy later wrote in his travelogue. "The ships that came through earlier had caught many whales." But it wasn't the only ride for Jens Jacob Eschels.

Northern German whaling begins in 1643

For around 250 years, thousands of North Germans set out in spring to hunt whales until late summer. At first they only hired on Dutch ships. In 1643, Hamburg and Emden were the first German cities to send whaling ships into the Arctic Ocean. They sensed the big business, after only the Dutch and French had enriched themselves from whaling. In 1675, 75 ships from Hamburg went on "Greenland voyages". Strictly speaking, the term "Greenlander" is wrong. Because they didn't hunt the whales off Greenland, but mainly in the waters near Spitsbergen. To this day there is a "Hamburg Bay" in the north-west of Spitsbergen. Glückstadt had been involved since 1671. Even if the first ship was lost right away, a long era of whaling began for Glückstadt. At the end of the 18th century, the small town on the Elbe was already using 55 ships.

The most valuable thing is the bacon

The whalers mainly hunted the bowhead whale, sometimes also the northern right whale. Both whales were slow swimmers, so easy prey. In addition, they did not sink after their death because they are covered in a thick layer of blubber. Bowhead whales are 16 to 20 meters long and weigh as much as 20 elephants. The tongue alone can reach a weight of 900 kilograms. The most valuable of the huge animals was their blubber, which was boiled and used as a popular means of lighting until the end of the 19th century when whale oil was used. But the elastic whalebone of the whalebone was also in demand - buttons, combs, rulers and crinolines could be made from it, for example.

Storm surge forces whaling

Whale fever had quickly gripped the North Germans. Not only the big cities got involved, small coastal towns also raised money to equip ships for whaling. On board the ships were many men from the North Sea islands. In 1701, for example, 3,600 Frisians went whaling. Around 1,000 seafarers set out from Föhr as whalers in the spring. Often out of necessity. Because the devastating storm surge of 1634, the Groote Mandränke, had allowed huge areas to sink into the sea. Many fields were muddy and salty. The people were starving. And so the exodus of men from islands like Föhr, Sylt and Amrum began every spring from then on.

In 1634, the French king also forbade his Basque subjects to sail for the Dutch as whalers. And from 1661, Dutchmen were no longer allowed to board Hamburg ships. The North and East Frisians jumped in, they now rose to the higher positions on board such as commander, helmsman, harpooner and bacon cutter. Whaling was now the lifeline for the islanders. It was not so much the thirst for adventure that drew the men into the Arctic Sea. It was the prospect of a decent wage.

Legendary whaler from the island of Foehr

Gravestones of seafarers and whalers can still be seen in the Süderende cemetery on the island of Foehr.

The Commandeur was in charge of the ship. The most famous of them is the whaler Matthias Petersen from the island of Foehr, who lived from 1632 to 1706. Within five decades he killed 373 whales in the bays of Spitsbergen - and became very wealthy. Which is why he "accepted the name 'The Happy One' with the consent of everyone," as his stone tombstone in the cemetery of the Church of St. Laurentii in Süderende testifies.

But men from the East Frisian island of Borkum were also often in command of the whaling ships. The island produced more than 100 commanders in the 18th century. The most successful of them was Roelof Gerrits Meyer (1712-1798). On 47 trips between 1736 and 1786, he and his team killed 311 whales. He is buried on Borkum, his descendants still live on the island.

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  • Part 1:North German whaling begins in 1643
  • Part 2:Dangers in the Arctic Ocean
  • Part 3:The Slow End of Whaling