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International Journal of Maritime History
Int J Marit Hist. 2017 May; 29(2): 261–275.
Published online 2017 May 9. doi:  10.1177/0843871417694001
PMCID: PMC5518980

Sailors in wonderland: Dutch sperm whaling during the nineteenth century, 1827–1849


The Dutch engaged in whaling between 1612 and 1964, with intervals of non-activity in the last quarter of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Under varied circumstances, the Dutch have relied upon the expertise of foreign whalemen. The involvement of Basque whalers in the foundation and organisation of Dutch whaling expeditions during the first half of the seventeenth century is fully documented. Less well known is the collaboration between the Dutch and whaling experts from the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. This article relates to a number of expeditions undertaken by Dutch and American whalemen, who headed for hunting grounds unfamiliar to the Dutch. It examines the political and economic contexts within which American involvement should be considered, and identifies the results of this involvement.

Keywords: Dutch East Indies, globalisation, Pacific Ocean, whaling


Dutch sailors and entrepreneurs conducted whaling for roughly 350 years – between 1612 and 1964.1 During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they sailed to the whaling grounds near Iceland, Jan Mayen Island, the Spitsbergen archipelago and into the Davis Straits. During the post-war years –between 1946 and 1964, to be more precise – technological developments and environmental circumstances respectively enabled and forced Dutch whaling fleets (consisting of one factory ship and a large number of catchers) to try their luck on the Antarctic grounds. Dutch whaling, therefore, is often associated solely with cold and icy regions.

Whaling was a complex business – domestically, on the various shores near the whaling grounds, and obviously afloat as well. Whalemen frequently worked under extremely difficult circumstances: they dealt with harsh climates, stormy seas, and enormous creatures manifesting various levels of aggression once harpooned, and, after having been killed, causing problems of how to keep the dead animal afloat. Also, whaling entrepreneurs and the men ‘on the factory floor’ needed to take into account how the business was to be conducted: where were the whales to be processed? How much time can one spend on the whaling grounds and how are the products to be transported to the home country?

From the outset, the Dutch never shied away from recruiting experts to train green hands from the Low Countries how to harpoon, process (flense), or try out whales. While Basque whalemen were contacted and contracted as instructors by Dutch entrepreneurs in the early decades of the seventeenth century,2 200 years later whaling firms in the Netherlands turned to other experts in the field – American and British sailors mainly. A century later still, Norwegian whalemen were hired at enormous expense to instruct the Dutch how to operate the business and kill the whales.3

Dutch whalemen, then, had long familiarity with Arctic and Antarctic waters. Their story is fairly well known. This article sheds light on a different and hardly charted area – geographically, but also regarding whaling techniques and business operations. From the late 1820s the Dutch embarked on an adventurous journey destined for unfamiliar waters and prey: they went after sperm whales in the temperate waters of the Pacific Ocean. So far, Frank Broeze has been the only one to pay significant attention to Dutch involvement in sperm whaling in a number of regions.4 He has offered a valuable discussion of the various whaling companies, the background to King William’s decision to support initiatives related to sperm whaling in (Dutch East) Indian waters, and of the absence of both expertise and interest of directors of the company.

Much less, however, has been said about interaction between Dutch and international (i.e. American and British) crews. The first contacts between the Dutch government and American whaling experts occurred in the 1820s. Here, an attempt will be made to evaluate the character of this collaboration.

Similar start

During the decade between the Peace of Amiens (1802) and the installation of monarchy in the Netherlands with the arrival of King Willem I (1813), Dutch whaling came to an almost complete standstill. At the same time (1812), the United States fought a costly and bloody war with Britain, with serious consequences for its whaling fleet. Both wars may have drained entrepreneurial spirit, but surely had devastating material effects on the respective whaling fleets.

These harsh, demanding circumstances called for new entrepreneurial boldness. For the Dutch this meant a need to recognise their backwardness with regard to whaling in general, and their particular need for expert instructors from abroad. For various reasons, the Americans were the most suitable party to turn to for advice and expertise. Before focusing on the nature of their involvement with Dutch nineteenth-century whaling, we will briefly sketch out the considerations that made American whaling enterprise an attractive model to follow with respect to business organisation and the conduct of the fleet.

The United States and its whaling fleet

Between 1794 and 1799 the entire American whaling fleet contained an annual average volume of around 3000 tons. By 1803 this figure had quadrupled. In 1814, however, the American fleet had collapsed to only 562 tons, with only one vessel registered in New Bedford.

For the American whaling ports, peace fostered a drastic improvement in fortunes. The half-century after the conclusion of the War of 1812 is considered the ‘Golden Age’ for the American whaling industry. In 1815, 68 vessels left American ports. Ten vessels sailed from New Bedford; a notable increase on the previous year. Between 1816 and 1820, over 31 vessels on average annually left New Bedford for the whaling grounds. A peak was reached during the second half of the 1850s when more than 320 vessels set out each year.5 After around 1850 the American whaling industry contracted. The discovery of gold in California in 1848–1849 tempted numerous New England whalemen to pursue gold rather than oil, baleen and ivory. Shipowners consequently lost a portion of their experienced labour force, and occasionally their largest capital investment – the vessel – as well.

Demographic developments both in the United States and in Europe led to an increase in the demand for whale products. This rising demand could only be met by a new generation of vigilant, adventurous and enterprising American whalemen (or better: whalemen in America),6 opening up new grounds. Exploration revealed abundant whale stocks off the Peruvian coast (in 1818), off Japan (1820), in the Gulf of Alaska (1835), with the opening up of the Sea of Okhotsk (1843) and, finally, following the discovery of the passage into the Behring Sea (1849) which brought access to the mighty bowhead whales. Meanwhile, Yankee sperm whaling in the South Pacific had undergone enormous growth. Comparative catch figures for the periods 1815–1819 and 1855–1859 are striking. It has been calculated that ‘American output of sperm whale oil increased almost fivefold, of whale oil more than eleven fold, and of whale bone more than fortyfold. Over a similar period, the real value of the industry’s output rose by more than a factor of eleven’.7

Not only did the number of vessels increase, the tremendous growth of the industry had consequences for its organisation and for the size of whaleships too. Sperm whales have a tendency to migrate globally. Whalemen, in their pursuit of prey and profit, subsequently travelled all over the globe as well. Most American sperm-whaling voyages lasted three years or longer. A network of ports of rendezvous including Valparaiso (Chile) and Lahaina in West Maui (Sandwich Islands, later Hawaii) enabled vessels to discharge their cargoes for transport home by other ships and then return to the hunt without undue delay.

During the previous century American whalemen had relied on smaller types of vessels such as sloops, schooners and brigs. More lengthy and prolonged voyages demanded larger ships. The resulting fleet was rather varied in composition. In 1849, for example, the largest American whaler on the high seas was the ship South America from Providence, Rhode Island, at 616 tons; the smallest at hand was the schooner Atlas of New London, Connecticut (81 tons). Later, barques replaced the ships. From all this it is quite clear that, despite the losses sustained during the War of 1812, the American whaling fleet was – if not modernised – rebuilt and expanded remarkably quickly.

Europeans marvelled at the achievements of Yankee whalemen – both in the Arctic and in the Pacific sperm-whaling industry. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as during the first two decades of the nineteenth, whaling expeditions under the Dutch flag headed for the Arctic. Encouraged, however, by the impressive revenues and profits gained by the Americans, the Dutch were inclined to open a second ‘theatre’ of whale hunting in the Pacific for which they pragmatically sought American expertise. Between 1815 and 1830, the Dutch authorities received a number of approaches from private entrepreneurs requesting state subsidies for venturing into East Indian waters: it was not until 1827 that the first voyage with government backing cleared from its home port.

An American in Rotterdam: The Logan (1826–1830)

In 1824 King Willem I established the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (NHM), a large trading company which did not own ships but possessed a monopoly in the assignment of commissions to shipowners to transport commodities for them. Initially, the NHM was established to revive trade with the Dutch East Indies in response to the problems posed by French occupation from 1795 to the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC’s) already dwindling trade. This initiative followed attempts, from 1816, to restore a number of traditionally successful maritime industries like whaling, the herring fishery and shipbuilding, using Royal Decrees (Koninklijke Besluiten) to create subsidies to encourage private investment in these areas of business. Arctic whaling was resumed shortly thereafter. In the case of southern-hemisphere whaling, the king, who was one of the NHM’s main investors, compelled the board of directors to take the lead.8

It soon became obvious to the NHM that no suitable ships were available in the Netherlands; nor could they be built quickly. In 1826, the NHM’s agent in the United States, Captain P. Landberg, managed to arrange for a brand-new vessel to be constructed in accordance with the latest technological and naval architectural know-how. The result was Logan (302 tons), built at Dartmouth, Massachusetts and commanded by Reuben F. Coffin from Nantucket.9 Charter contracts concerning ship and crew were signed between representatives of the NHM and the New York and New Bedford-based whaling firm of John Howland & Co. NHM did not buy the Logan, but leased it. In other words the vessel would remain property of its American owners and subsequently flew the American flag. On its first voyage, Logan received a charter for the crossing from the United States to Rotterdam. Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and, above all, the Japanese Sea were to be visited and explored. Vessel and cargo should eventually return to Rotterdam.10

This American–Dutch chapter in nineteenth-century whaling enterprise is most bewildering and can be characterised by misconceptions, misunderstandings, mistakes and mischief. Logan made the Atlantic crossing during the winter of 1826. On 11 January 1827, Coffin and his skeleton crew reached Hellevoetsluis, southwest of Rotterdam where the vessel was fitted out by the NHM; not only with extra gear, but particularly with crew. As Frank Broeze noted:

[at] the same time a full complement of Dutch sailors was engaged; [master] Coffin was willing to sail with an inexperienced crew and train them during the voyage. All agents of the N.H.M. and the Kweekschool voor de Zeevaart (Navigation School) of Amsterdam were informed, and apparently there were no difficulties in signing up a native [i.e. Dutch] crew.11

Dutch sailors were engaged and entered onto the payroll of NHM.12 In the recent past, pupils from the Kweekschool had been deployed on Arctic whaling voyages, however, the directors of the Navigation School refrained from providing pupils – as Logan was supposed to sail under the American flag, and it was forbidden to prospective naval officers to serve under a foreign flag.13 A few weeks later Logan and its international crew departed for the East Indies and Japan, solely, it seems, for the purpose of whaling, and not – as often happened with NHM-chartered ships for the Dutch colonies – for the transport of armed forces.14

Broeze’s remark about Coffin’s refusal to enlarge the expedition’s objectives is an interesting one. First, it suggests that NHM may have asked Coffin to transport troops to the colonies. Second, it could be interpreted as an indication of the state’s customary use of men-of-war and merchantmen for conveying troops. Third – and oddly enough neglected by Broeze – Coffin, being a Nantucket Quaker, may have been against the idea because of his beliefs.

Be this as it may, during the ensuing months NHM suffered from a complete lack of information regarding the activities of Coffin and his crew. First-hand information about the voyage is scarce. The Kendall Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum contains a journal, kept by a Lyman B. Cook, probably the ship’s carpenter.15 This journal pertains to only a very small portion of the voyage.16 Cook began writing his journal on 24 March 1828 when he was on or close to Pleasant Island in the Pacific. In retrospect he refers to activities from the past fortnight, including the repair of a whaleboat and one of the crew falling overboard. On 27 March one sperm whale was caught (‘we had ought to have 3 but lines parted and irons drowd so we lost them’). The whale yielded a modest 25 barrels of oil. Via Woohoo/Wahou, Caroline Islands, and Guam Logan set sail for Japan.

Cook’s complaints about disappointing catches are frequent. He noted on 21 May: ‘I believe the old man dont calculate to get any more whale for we dont doo any thing but look for Islands and have done not much else the voyage’. That same day a Mr Hildreth went with his boat. Cook did not specify whether or not this implied the loss of a full boat’s crew. Four days later (25 May) he continued in pessimistic fashion: ‘No whales except finbacks. Its really hard luck. Out almost 18 months with seven hundred barrels but it cant be helpt’. On 15 June Coffin apparently decided to leave the Japanese grounds and go back from where they came, passing, as Cook writes, ‘within a few miles […] the famous city of Eddo. I suppose the largest city in the world’.

The whaling carried out on 5 July brought a glimmer of optimism. The boats were lowered at ten o’clock in the morning; eight hours later they had ‘an old soghead’ in the blubber room. Cook continues: ‘It’s the largest we have caught the voyage. I should say he would make ninety bls [barrels] by the looks of him. We struck him with our boat and the boatsteerer kild him with his iron’. The cutting in continued for a number of days, as Cook reveals to us on 6 and 12 July respectively: ‘The decks are full of cask some full of oil and some full of Blubber’; ‘Stowed down about 150 bls of oil. With two more large whale alongside (circa 150 bls in total)’.

On 2 August, Cook remarked that on the Japan grounds about 400 barrels were filled in one month. Though not a very impressive result, he observed that it was much better than what had been achieved by the crew of the Mary Mitchell.

Cook’s roller coaster of emotions dipped again on 13 August. He wrote then how he had given up hope of further success; but within just over a week, on 22 August, he revelled in the enormous abundance of whales – ‘About 10 oc there was ten thousand whales all around us’. In the end the hunt was unsuccessful due to the wild behaviour of the animals. On 31 August, Cook vented his frustration: ‘We shall be edging off for the Islands [Sandwich Islands?] now pretty shortly with a damnd bad seasons work or I may say two of them if we dont get some more pretty shortly’.

The last entry in the journal was made on 8 September. Meanwhile, the helmsman of Cook’s boat had made one more attempt to catch a large whale. In whalemen’s idiom he wrote down on 3 September:

We chase a large whale. Got so nigh to him that the Boat Steerer got up to dart his iron but he was to [sic] late. The old fellow shut the door to quick for him. I expect he had seen Boats before.

Regrettably, Cook did not comment on the presence of Dutch crew or the interaction between Dutch and Americans. His journal stops as abruptly as it began. No official log for Logan has survived.

The results of the voyage are somewhat easier to track. In 1827 and 1828, prices for sperm whale oil were higher in New York than in the Netherlands. Though an experimental whaling voyage – both for the Americans under Dutch management and for the inexperienced NHM – the Dutch company thought it wise to deviate from their original plan to sell off the oil in the Netherlands, and ordered Coffin to New York instead. Logan arrived there in July 1830, and left for New Bedford on 21 October.17

Due to the price differential it was logical to have Coffin sail Logan to the United States, sell off the cargo and transmit the money to NHM. Matters did not run smoothly in New York, however. Though built in Massachusetts and still owned by New Bedford entrepreneurs, the largely foreign crew made Logan a foreign vessel in the eyes of American law. The importation of whale oil in foreign bottoms attracted substantial customs duties. Laxity on the part of New York’s customs officials saved the ship and cargo from confiscation,18 but the Dutch never saw the proceeds of the voyage.19 Because of their naivety, NHM’s directors missed out on an estimated ƒ120,000 (about US$48,000).

Moreover – and possibly more important for the long run – the Dutch whaling community missed out on an opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade annually performed by many thousands of Americans. Also, as Broeze observed, NHM ‘squandered her chance’ to acquire a state-of-the-art American whaleship from which Dutch master shipwrights could have benefited enormously.20

Eersteling and Proserpina, 1832–1838

A new and fascinating chapter in Dutch southern-hemisphere whaling was written in 1832. In December of that year, the Dutch government received an application from the Rotterdam merchant house of St Martin & Co. In their request, compiled on behalf of themselves and the merchant houses of N. J. de Cock & Frère, based in Ghent (present day Belgium), and C. & A. Vlierboom, these gentlemen introduced themselves as directors of De Vereeniging tot Walvischvangst om de Zuid (‘Association for Whaling around the South’).21 Established only a few months earlier, this whaling company had managed to issue 55 shares with a nominal value of ƒ900 each, thus providing a working capital of ƒ49,500 (roughly US$20,000).22

With their first whaling expedition to the East Indian whaling grounds already under way, the applicants asked the government for substantial financial support. Apparently there was no lack of confidence or impatience among commercial circles in the city of Rotterdam. No fewer than about 30 merchants and shipowners invested in this South Sea whaling expedition. Their whaleship, the barque Eersteling (289 tons) under command of merchant navy captain H. F. Horneman from Groningen, arrived in Batavia roadstead on 6 September 1833.23 The diplomatic fallout from Dutch claims to Belgium – namely a Franco–British embargo against the Dutch – meant that Eersteling was forced to cut short its time on the whaling grounds. On 22 October the vessel left Batavia for Rotterdam, arriving at Hellevoetsluis on 12 February the following year, after an absence of about 15 months. Some 20,000 litres of black oil and another 7000 litres of sperm oil were auctioned off. St Martin & Co. estimated the total loss of their first whaling expedition to be ƒ27,000 (US$11,000). They were quick to ascribe their failure to the inexperienced Dutch crew, to the embargo which had forced them to leave prematurely, and to their own ignorance of working and living conditions on the whaling grounds.

The loss on this first venture did not drive away the investors from South Sea whaling. A second expedition was set out, again with H. F. Horneman in command of Eersteling. Beforehand, Horneman had visited the United States where he recruited highly skilled officers.24 The barque departed from Hellevoetsluis on 17 August 1834. Following its return some 20 months later (20 April 1836) and the subsequent sale of its cargo (150,000 litres of whale oil and 10 bundles of baleen) the firm’s account books showed a substantial profit of ƒ34,000 (US$14,000). Around that time, whale oil, and especially sperm whale oil, commanded very high prices.25 The result of the expedition might have been even better had it not been for the loss of one whaleboat and its crew. Morale was also low because eight whales out of 24 caught had been lost. In February 1835 Horneman went to Cape Town to recruit replacements: the newly hired Englishmen, however, did not mix too well with the rest of the crew, who were mostly Americans. Poor collaboration between the various nationalities forced Horneman to discharge the rowdy Englishmen to the local authorities on St Helena.26 After this second expedition Eersteling was sold off in its homeport of Rotterdam.27

With financial assistance from NHM, the whaling company bought the 15-year-old bomb-ketch Proserpina (c.370 tons) from the Dutch Royal Navy. The vessel was quickly fitted out for the company’s third South Sea expedition, which left Hellevoetsluis in July 1836 under the command of J. P. Smith.28 The voyage suffered from some of the same problems as its predecessor, and its overall outcome was disappointing.29 On its return in May 1838 the expedition was found to have caught 19 whales in total, yielding 10,000 litres of sperm oil, 140,000 litres of black oil, and 5000 kilograms of baleen. Heavy losses at auction led to the firm’s liquidation in the late autumn of 1838. Proserpina and its gear were sold.30

Reelfs Brothers

Dutch whaling to the South Seas received a new impetus from two German brothers. Johann Anton and Johann Hayen Reelfs were both born at Heppens in Oldenburg (northwestern Germany). Shortly after 1815, upon their arrival in Amsterdam, the brothers first concentrated their commercial activities on Suriname and the island of Madeira. Within a short period of time they had managed not only to settle well in the Dutch capital, but also to establish a blossoming trading company.31 By the early 1840s, whaling had captured their imagination. The Reelf brothers initially assumed that a fleet of five ships would suffice in order to achieve their goals. They estimated a required capital of ƒ566,000 (US$226,000), and anticipated two whaling expeditions: one in 1843, involving two vessels, and one in 1844 with three ships heading for the South Seas. As a result of the Royal Decree of 23 June 1843, stipulating a subsidy of ƒ5000 per ship (half paid upon departure, the other half upon return), the Reelfs received ƒ25,000 in subsidies.32

They now had at least some starting capital for the establishment of their ‘Reederij voor de Zuidzee Walvischvangst’ (Company for the South Sea Whalefishery). Despite their strong ambition, sound plans, and solid commercial experience, Reelfs Brothers from the outset were confronted with problems. In the autumn of 1843 they laid out ƒ19,200 for the 17-year-old, two-decked frigate Anna & Louisa (320 tons). After repairs and re-rigging as a barque – adding another ƒ34,500 to the cost – Anna & Louisa left Amsterdam on 3 April 1844.33 In the Nieuwediep, the Scotsman George Gray was commissioned as master. An experienced Peterhead whaleman himself, Gray worked with English officers and harpooners. The rest of the crew were Dutchmen.34

The barque left Texel roadstead on 21 April. Initially all went well. After an uneventful outward voyage, in October 1844 Anna & Louisa arrived at Kupang on the island of Timor. In July 1845 a sperm whale was caught. In October they called at Kupang once again, around which time the relationship between the English officers and Dutch crew was disturbed to such an extent that fighting broke out on board. While in Kupang, Gray met an English captain he had encountered before. This Englishman was accompanied by another unknown traveller who published his account of his meeting with Gray and his English and Dutch crew several months later in an Australian newspaper. The anonymous traveller’s story provides information regarding various matters concerning the Dutch and (sperm) whaling in southern waters:

The common seamen and chief officer were Dutchmen, while the second and third mates and all the headsmen were English. This mixture did not at all harmonise them, and instead of catching whales they were constantly quarrelling, wrangling, and sometimes fighting. From what we could learn there was not the most remote chance of their taking any fish during their voyage. Under all circumstances, it is to be feared that unless the Dutch Company [sic] make a more judicious selection of men and masters for their ships than they had in this case, they will get but a sorry account of their capital, not to speak of dividends. During our stay here we had seen a good deal of the manner in which the Dutch manage their whaling concerns, and left with the impression that the failure of Dutch whaling is likely to be quite as certain as that of all the colonising schemes they have hitherto tried.35

A few months later, the ship lost its first mate and part of its crew under unclear circumstances. Master Gray died at Kema, on the island of Celebes (present-day Sulawesi). A. F. J. Jansen, the Dutch resident of Menado, appointed second mate S. Ward captain of the vessel, and had the whaleship assigned to transport troops. This must have happened after April of 1846. Technically speaking the whaling voyage had now ended. Anna & Louisa carried a cargo of cordage, copper coins and textiles and a small cargo of spermaceti, taken from the one whale the crew had caught. The vessel was sold around late November 1846.36

Reelfs Brothers found themselves in heavy weather. In order to make up for lost time and money – and in order to please their investors – they desperately needed a second ship. King Willem II came to their rescue: he granted them the money to buy none other than Proserpina, renamed Zuidpool by its new owners, which was completely refitted and enlarged to 536 tons at a cost of ƒ87,000 (US$35,000).37 This made it by far the largest vessel in either the Dutch Arctic or South Sea whaling industries. With its new capacity, Zuidpool could hold some 500,000 litres of whale oil (roughly 4000 barrels) and 40,000 kilograms of baleen – the equivalent of about 50 whales.38

With the acquisition of this relatively large whaleship, Reelfs Brothers added the last chapter of active Dutch involvement in South Sea whaling. In fitting out its second vessel, influenced by the initial success of Anna & Louisa, the company was minded to again recruit foreigners and Dutchmen. On 21 August 1845, Zuidpool left Amsterdam under master T. A. Brunn. Five days prior to this, the crew had entertained the city’s inhabitants with a final demonstration of their whaleboats. Broeze supposed that Brunn may have been recruited from the East Frisian Islands and that the major part of his 36-strong crew would have been Dutch. So far, we have not been able to corroborate this assumption.39 The vessel set its course for the town of Hobart, Tasmania. En route, Brunn lost one whaleboat with all hands. Zuidpool arrived at its destination on 21 December, and five new crew were engaged. We shall never know whether the boat’s loss was seen as a bad omen for what turned out to be yet another instance of failure.

Zuidpool left Hobart for the whaling grounds in the Pacific Ocean. The vessel was hailed by the crew of the American whaleship William Hamilton on 17 May 1846, at 52°45’ North, 156°60’ West.40 In his journal, presently held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Abraham Wilcox Pierce notes: ‘Spoke the Zuid Pool of Amsterdam 8 Mos [months, JS] out Clean’.41 The vessel’s arrival at Honolulu about three months later, on 7 August 1846, was announced in the locally published Seamen’s Friend. The ship then carried a meagre 300 pieces of whalebone (baleen). In the meantime another whaleboat and crew had been lost, this time with the master. A. J. Meyer was appointed as Brunn’s replacement.42 On 10 December, after about 15 months of sailing, Zuidpool dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour. Up to that moment the catch can be considered mediocre at best: the ship carried 370 barrels of black oil, 130 barrels of sperm, and a modest 1000 kilograms of baleen. While in Sydney, Meyer tried to recruit new crewmembers. He spent over five weeks in search of suitable hands. The results of his quest are unknown. Zuidpool left on 19 January 1847, bound for the Samoan Islands, catching two sperm whales during this trip.43 Later, Zuidpool headed for the Bay of Kamchatka. On 30 August 1847, Meyer and his crew arrived at Honolulu from Magdalena Bay with 1200 barrels of black oil and 360 barrels of sperm oil. From there it sailed for the northwest coast.44

Information about the crew’s activities regarding sperm whaling is scarce. Honolulu’s The Seamen’s Friend mentions the arrival of Zuidpool on 14 March 1848.45 By this point it had been out for 28 months, and was loaded with 300 barrels of sperm oil and 1080 pieces of baleen. Another 2000 barrels of oil are registered in early 1849. Zuidpool discharged its cargo at Valparaiso, Chile, on 4 April 1849. The next call was San Francisco, where it arrived on 6 July 1849. Shortly afterwards the ship was sold.46 The crew was never to be seen again. Perhaps they were enticed to join in the California gold rush.

Both Anna & Louisa and Zuidpool must have felt like millstones (or rather, anchors) around the probably white-collared necks of Reelfs Brothers. Fitting-out costs had been sky high, and revenues low. The brothers had benefited from the setbacks they had endured, if only by realising that their business should be organised differently. As Frank Broeze put it:

After the Zuidpool had left Holland, they [Reelfs Brothers] had finally arrived at the correct conclusion that it would be cheaper in the long run to buy new ships in the United States than to try and patch up old Dutch ones. The government fully agreed with them on this point, and undertook to grant them Dutch registration for any foreign whalers they choose to import. The only conditions they imposed were that the ships were fitted out in Holland and only used for whaling purposes.47


The Dutch South Sea whaling adventure – if that is an appropriate term for these scattered, over-expensive and meagrely supported initiatives (see Appendix 1) – lasted for a little over two decades (1827–1849). Initial American involvement must have been appreciated and respected, or else why would the Dutch have gone to the trouble and expense of drawing on their experience and expertise? Not least, through his interest in NHM, King Willem I was in a sense personally involved in establishing contacts with American experts from Nantucket and New Bedford to give sperm whaling a head start.

Several problems, common to much of the effort, conspired to blunt ambitions in this enterprise. They included unfamiliarity with sperm whaling, miscommunications between whaling companies and crews or among crew, and the unspecified division of responsibilities amongst Dutch and foreign crew. The total results of the six whaling expeditions, which varied in duration from 15 months to four years, can be characterised as mediocre at best: the catch results (around 140,000 litres of sperm whale oil; 172,000 litres of ‘black’ oil; 170,000 litres of unspecified oil; and, finally, 5000 kilograms + 100 bundles of baleen) do not exceed the average yield of any single American whaling expedition around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Generous subsidies postponed the actual downfall of Dutch South Seas whaling enterprise. While Broeze’s remark about Reelfs Brothers’ ‘correct conclusion’ held out the promise of a future for the trade, in the event Zuidpool’s voyage seems to have been the last of its kind. After 1849, and indeed down to the 1870s, there were certainly thoughts of reviving the trade, but government support was not forthcoming.48 Without subsidies, then, future commitment would be a test of entrepreneurial resolve. Yet it was not so much lack of private or public money or a scarcity of talented masters and officers, but lack of foresight amongst entrepreneurs to import shipbuilding techniques or take over American business models regarding setting up global networks and discharging cargoes in relative vicinity of the whaling grounds that caused the failure of Dutch involvement in sperm whaling.49 In other words, it was not curiosity that killed the cat, but conservatism.


This article is partly based on information gathered during the writing of my PhD dissertation: Joost C. A. Schokkenbroek, Trying-Out: An Anatomy of Dutch Whaling and Sealing in the Nineteenth Century, 1815–1855 (Amsterdam, 2008). Much additional information is based on data from the journal of the whaleship Logan, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Kendall Collection, Ships’ Journals and Logbooks, #680.

Author biography

Joost CA Schokkenbroek is Chief Curator at Het Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam, and Professor of Maritime History and Maritime Heritage at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Having been awarded MA and PhD degrees in Maritime History at Leiden University, he has published on whaling, the Spanish Armada of 1588, trading companies and admiralties. He was Senior Editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History (4 vols., Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), and is President of the Netherlands Association of Maritime History.


Appendix 1.

YearOwner/CompanyMasterVessel nameTypeDestinationRemarksResults
1827NHMCoffin, Reuben F. Logan Ship (built in Dartmouth, 1826; 302 tons)Pacific Ocean (dep. April, 1827)Voyage lasted over three years (April 1827–July 1830)32,569½ gallons of sperm oil; 3222 gallons of whale oil
1832St. Martin & Co., RotterdamHorneman, H. F. Eersteling Barque (291 tons)South Atlantic Ocean/Indian OceanVoyage lasted fifteen months (November 1832–February 1834)7000 litres (c.1550 gallons) of sperm oil; 20,000 litres (c.4200 gallons) of whale oil
1834St. Martin & Co., RotterdamHorneman, H. F. Eersteling Barque (291 tons)South Atlantic Ocean/Indian OceanVoyage lasted 20 months (August 1834–April 1836)150,000 litres (c.31,500 gallons) of oil (not specified); 100 bundles of baleen
1836St. Martin & Co., RotterdamSmith, J. P. Proserpina Korvet (184 last = c.370 tons; built in 1818–1821)Pacific Ocean (‘Stille Zuidzee’)Voyage lasted 22 months (July 1836–May 1838)10,000 litres (c.2100 gallons) of sperm oil; 140,000 litres (c.29,400 gallons) of whale oil; 5000 kilograms of baleen
1844Reederij voor de Zuidzee Walvischvangst (Reelfs Brothers), AmsterdamMey, J. van der (first mate)/Gray, George (master) Anna & Louisa Two-decked vessel (built in 1827; 319 tons)Pacific Ocean (‘Stille Zuidzee’)Voyage lasted over two years (April 1844–November 1846); taken out of service due to bad condition160 barrels of oil (not specified)
1845Reederij voor de Zuidzee Walvischvangst (Reelfs Brothers), AmsterdamBrunn, T. A./A. F. /late 1846 replaced by Meyer, A. J.Zuidpool (ex-Proserpina)Barque (536 tons – Broeze/509 tons – V. Sluijs)Pacific OceanVoyage lasted four years (August 1845–August 1849). Sold in San Francisco?Unknown

Dutch whaling expeditions to the South Seas, 1827–1849.

Note: One gallon = 4.55 litres.


1.It should be noted that Dutch whaling came to an almost complete halt during the French wars (1792–1815), and was also discontinued between c.1880 and 1946.

2.See J. C. A. Schokkenbroek, ‘Co-operation in Times of War? Basque Expertise and Dutch Entrepreneurship in Arctic Whaling, 1612–1642’, Arte Nuevo: Revista de estudios áureos, 1 (2014), 85–95.

3.See, for a treatise on the Dutch involvement in modern post-war whaling, Jaap R. Bruijn and Joost C. A. Schokkenbroek, De laatste traan: Walvisvangst met de Willem Barendsz, 1946–1964 (Zutphen, 2012).

4.F. J. A. Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans: The Dutch Quest for Southern Whaling in the Nineteenth Century’, Economisch- en sociaal-historisch Jaarboek, 40 (1977), 66–112. Broeze does not include information from the Logan journal. Very old, but still quite useful is S. J. C. W. van Musschenbroek, ‘Cachelot-Visscherij in den Nederlandsch Indischen archipel’, Tijdschrift ter bevordering van Nijverheid, XVIII, part 11 (Haarlem, 1877). Van Musschenbroek, however, focuses on the development of sperm whaling in one specific geographical area, whereas whalemen followed the sperm whales’ global migrations.

5.Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman and Karin Gleiter, In Pursuit of Leviathan: Technology, Institutions, Productivity and Profits in American Whaling, 1816–1906 (Chicago/London, 1997), 243.

6.Crew lists are unambiguous about the cosmopolitan character of American whaleships. See, among others, Mary Malloy, African Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England (Sharon, MA, 1990; reprinted 1993); and Donald Warrin, So Ends This Day: The Portuguese in American Whaling, 1765–1927 (North Dartmouth, MA, 2010).

7.Davis et al., In Pursuit of Leviathan, 38.

8.In his recent dissertation on the NHM, Ton de Graaf does not mention the company’s link with whaling at all. Ton de Graaf, Voor handel en maatschappij: Geschiedenis van de Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, 1824–1964 (Amsterdam, 2012).

9.Logan was originally built as a Boston East Indiaman of 400 tons. See H. W. Thomspon, ed., The Last of the Logan: The True Adventures of Robert Coffin, Mariner in the Years 1854 to 1859 etc. (Ithaca, NY, 1942), 30. This concept of hiring American crew and/or using American-built ships was not entirely new. In his attempt to revitalise French whaling with the port of Dunkirk as main base, King Louis XVI was forced to recruit American whalemen from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Apparently, no experienced men or suitable ships could be found in France. See van Musschenbroek, ‘Cachelot-Visscherij in den Nederlandsch Indischen archipel’, 3. In their turn, whaling entrepreneurs from Bremen bought American whaleships during the 1840s. Of a fleet of eight vessels, seven were built in New England. See Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 110; O. Höver, Von der Galiot zum Fünfmaster: Unsere Segelschiffe in der Welschiffahrt 1780–1930 (Bremen, 1934; reprinted Norderstedt, 1974), 198–9. Finally, see C. de Jong, Geschiedenis van de oude Nederlandse walvisvaart (3 vols., Pretoria/Johannesburg, 1972, 1976–1978), II, 463–5, for more information on NHM’s involvement, and the obscure story about the Logan.

10.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 79.

11.Nationaal Archief (National Archive), The Hague (hereafter NA), Sch. NHM 28/10 (PVG), 3 February 1827, N1; and 13/1830 G, letter from F. Gebhard, New York, 19 July 1830. Quoted in Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 80, n. 48.

12.De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 464–5.

13.Stadsarchief Amsterdam (Municipal Archives Amsterdam), inventory number 949 (archief Kweekschool voor de Zeevaart), nr. 27 (minutes of meetings of Directors, 1824–1827), folios 227 (meeting 31 January 1827) and 229 (meeting 7 February 1827).

14.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 78.

15.New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts (hereafter NBWM), Kendall Collection. Ships journals and logbooks, #680. On 11 June 1828, the journal reads: ‘The old man keeps me making chests and trunks all the time when its my watch on deck’ – hence my assumption.

16.Cook’s journal covers almost nine months, irregularly, the period from 12 March to 8 September 1828.

17.Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery (Secaucus, NJ, 1989; facsimile edition), 269 mentions F. Gebhard as managing owner or agent. Logan discharged 1200 barrels of sperm oil.

18.NA, Sch. NHM 13/1830 G, letters from F. Gebhard, New York, 15, 19, 23 and 31 July, and 30 October 1830.

19.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 81–3.

20.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 79. After its Dutch service, Logan made eight more voyages. The ship was lost on Sandy Island Reef on 26 January 1855. Four men were lost. See Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery, 258, 276, 306, 344, 388, 410, 444, 480 and 514. Also, Robert Lloyd Webb, On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest, 1790–1967 (Vancouver, 1988), 47 and 310, n. 53.

21.Nicolaes de Cock and Etienne St. Martin had been co-owners of Louisa Augusta from Antwerp. This vessel had preceded Jacob Boelen by about a year with his visit to Hawai’i (1827). F. J. A. Broeze, A Merchant’s Perspective: Captain Jacob Boelen’s Narrative of his Visit to Hawai’i in 1828 (Honolulu, 1988), xxi and 103, n. 1.

22.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 88.

23.Van Sluijs, Nederlandse Koopvaardijschepen 1800–1860 (n.p., n.d.), 57, mentions a tonnage of 291.

24.The presence of American crew is firmly stated by Broeze as well as by De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 466. Unfortunately, we do not have any more specific information regarding place of recruitment, how many crew, and social background of the hands who joined the Eersteling.

25.See N. W. Posthumus, Nederlandsche prijsgeschiedenis. Deel I: goederenprijzen op de beurs van Amsterdam, 1585–1914. Wisselkoersen te Amsterdam, 1609–1914. Internationale wetenschappelijke commissie voor prijsgeschiedenis (Leiden, 1943), 84–5, Table 43. In his overview of prices of whale oil (1818–1851), Posthumus quoted no less than ƒ45.75 per barrel for 1836. This was an all-time high for the period 1822–1851, and is substantiated by Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 108, Graph 1 and n. 160.

26.NA, Report by J. T. Netscher, Staatssecretarie 4165, 18 August 1836, N10.

27.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 91–3. See also Algemeen Handelsblad, 15 May 1836; 31 May 1836. De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 466 suggests that Eersteling was sold after complaints filed by American officers who regarded the ship a slow one, not suitable for whaling. In later years, H. F. Horneman commanded the ships Doggersbank, Johanna Cornelia and Diligentia on non-whaling voyages.

28.The Proserpina was built between 1818 and 1821 in the naval dockyard of Rotterdam. The NHM invested ƒ12,000 in its fitting out. Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 93.

29.De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 466, hints at these two detrimental factors.

30.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 93–4. Proserpina was sold at auction in Rotterdam on 23 October 1838. See Algemeen Handelsblad, 12 October 1838.

31.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 98, n. 115.

32.De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 467.

33.Total expenditure on purchase, repairs and fitting out was ƒ113,200: Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 101.

34.Algemeen Handelsblad, 23 April 1844.

35.Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List, 3 January 1846, 5.

36.De Jong, Oude Nederlandse walvisvaart, II, 468.

37.Van Sluijs mentions 509 tons.

38.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 103–4.

39.Van Sluijs, Nederlandse Koopvaardijschepen, 126; Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 104.

40.American whalemen cruised Dutch East Indian waters in very large numbers during the nineteenth century. See for instance J. G. V. Smit, ‘Whales, Wood, and Water: American Whalers in the Dutch East Indies, 1830–1880’ (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leiden University, 1989).

41.Abraham Wilcox Pierce, manuscript journal aboard the ship William Hamilton of New Bedford, Massachusetts, Captain Lorenzo Fisher, 1845–48; entry of 17 May 1846. NBWM, Kendall Collection, #548. Cited by Webb, On the Northwest, 63. Here, the name of the master of the Zuidpool is misspelled as Braun.

42.Seamen’s Friend, 15 August 1846, 127.

43.Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List, 12, 19 and 26 December 1846, and 2, 9 and 23 January 1847.

44.Honolulu Archival Records (HAR), Harbourmaster, whaleships 1847. The author expresses his gratitude to Susan Lebo, Honolulu, Hawai’i, for drawing attention to this source and for providing related information.

45.Seamen’s Friend, 1 April 1848, 32.

46.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 104–5.

47.Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 106.

48.There were various initiatives to revive Dutch sperm whaling, the most intriguing one being presented by S. C. J. W. van Musschenbroek, former resident of Menado (capital of North Celebes/Sulawesi Utara). In 1877 Van Musschenbroek published an article on American sperm whaling in Dutch East Indian waters. The innovativeness of his approach regarding Dutch sperm whaling lies in the fact that he suggested building ships in or near the East Indian Archipelago (Java and Singapore are mentioned). A cheap, experienced, indigenous crew of 30 to 40 hands could man these small vessels – preferably schooners of about 80 to 100 tons. Cargoes of whaling products could easily be disposed of in the numerous harbours in the area. Foreigners (i.e. Americans) should be hired for a brief period to instruct both indigenous and Dutch sailors. His plans, however, were never met by the crucial combination of enthusiasm and finance. Van Musschenbroek, ‘Cachelot-Visscherij in den Nederlandsch Indischen archipel’, 21 passim; 34–5.

49.Frank Broeze went so far as to argue that opportunities were ‘squandered’. Broeze, ‘Whaling in the Southern Oceans’, 112.

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