Language Language Language
Hovedside > Article

Whaling through the ages

Dutch whaling expeditions began to explore the waters of Finnmark in the 16th century, and the name Hollendervika (“the Dutchman’s cove”) north-west of Gamvik, may date from this era.

All parts of the whale could be used, but the blubber was especially important. The oil that was extracted, could be used as fuel, lubrication and for lighting. The blubber was cut from the whales with knives like the one leaning on the jawbone in the exhibition. This bone is most probably of a Fin whale, the second in size of all whales. Bones were used to make heddles, knitting needles and shuttles for weaving fishing nets, or it could be grounded and used as fertilizer. Some of the meat was eaten, but much of it was dried, grounded and mixed with bone meal.

Industrial Whaling in Finnmark 1864 - 1904

In the days of the sailing ships, technology limited the efficience of the hunt, and the whale populations were not really threatened. This was to change in the latter half of the 19th century. Svend Foyn has wrongly been ascribed the invention of the harpoon grenade, but he was the first to combine this effective weapon with the steamship, and is commonly held as the founding father of modern whaling. He established his first whaling station in Finnmark on Vadsøya island in 1868, and built another factory in Mehamn in 1884. Foyn enjoyed a monopoly on whaling in Finnmark from 1873 to 1883. When whaling was liberalised, many companies was founded to participate in what was still a profitable industry. In the late 1890’s, numbers of whales rapidly declined, and several populations were on the brink of collapse. At the same time, anti-whaling sentiments were growing amongst the fishermen of northern Norway.

The Mehamn Rebellion

The background for the Mehamn rebellion was a period of miserable cod and capelin fishing. The fishermen blamed whaling. They believed that the whales chased the fish towards the shore. With few whales left, the fish stayed out of reach. Frustrations were growing by the day during spring of 1903. By Whitsun, about 2000 angry fishermen were in harbour in Mehamn. At the time, the village had 123 permanent residents.

When the new manager of the whaling station denied help to a fishing boat that came from sea with a broken helm, the fishermen had had enough. On the 2nd of June, a large number of them gathered outside the factory. During the following two days, machinery was destroyed, chimneys were teared down and the large steam-boilers were sunk. The guard and the single police officer could do nothing but watch. Military forces from Vardø and Harstad were mobililized, but did not reach Mehamn before the factory was completely destroyed and the situation was calm again. Only 18 of the participants were arraigned for vandalism. Of these, 11 were found guilty, and received rather light sentences of between 10 and 20 days in prison. The following autumn, general elections were held, and the Labour Party, which had fought for the protection of the whales, entered parliament for the first time with four MPs. They all represented the three northernmost counties of Norway. They were said to have “ridden to Parliamnet on a whale’s back.” In December, a law was passed ensuring the preservation of the whales in Norwegian waters off the coast of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark.