The Unequivocal Importance of Animal Histories: Whales

In my Second Year studying History at Birmingham, I was introduced to Animal Histories for the first time. As an enthusiastic supporter of animal welfare this was quite literally the perfect topic for me, and I took to it immediately. The study and research of animals within the narrative of the past should, in my opinion, be an essential topic of human study. Over and over again, historians speak about giving a voice to groups who have been overlooked and undermined. There is no living group that has faced more discrimination and appalling treatment than animals. It is time they were given a voice. Below is a small portion of research I conducted on the history of Whales. I hope in reading their history, in understanding the hardships they endured, people may begin to realise just how much human indifference affects living creatures – and the pains they can enact.

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Scattered throughout history, in literature, artwork, trading documents, captain’s diaries and even court documents, are mentions of sea monsters, cetaceans and great fish, all referring to different species of whales. Unfortunately, the history of these creatures, has been manipulated and determined by human interference.

At its core, the argument against animal welfare dictates that animals, unlike humans, do not have a soul or self-awareness and thus they are automatic subordinates to the superiority of the human race.  Writing in the 1630s, Descartes reasoned that animals were “machines exactly resembling organs and outward form an ape or any other irrational animal”, and as such they could feel no pain and merely acted as if they experienced it when needed. This hypothesis was detrimental to the treatment of animals in the centuries following, until Darwin’s evolution theory highlighted the close similarities between man and beast. Buffon wrote that “To the same degree as man has raised himself above the state of nature, animals have fallen below it: conquered and turned into slaves, or treated as rebels and scattered by force.”

For the majority of the population, perceptions of whales were based primarily on stories, songs, illustrations and rare sightings. As a result – like much of the unknown – they began to be feared. It certainly appears that in early encounters, sailors were deathly afraid of the ‘sea monsters’, Alexander the Great’s commander “ordered his crew to blow trumpets and beat drums as his ships passed the huge beasts…the frightened oarsmen were hardly able to row.” Whilst Captain Edmund Garner recorded his violent encounter with a sperm whale and claimed “Twas favorable I retained my senses” whilst battling the beast.  The fear instilled by the whale’s size, mannerisms and (most importantly) it’s mystery, combined with Descartes’ hypothesis of ‘animal machines’ situates them in a very specific relationship with man-kind. Humans were justified in killing, exploiting and manipulating whales because they are unnerving, because they don’t feel pain and because they are subordinates. 

This does not mean that everyone who hunted Whales killed completely without empathy,  Enoch Cloud emotionally wrote “It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God’s created beings, much more one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale” after hunting a Whale. Rollin sheds light on this, stating “animals in pain experience only pain, without the possibility of anticipating an end to the pain, so that their entire psychological horizon is filled with pain.” It is hard to believe an animal is not truly in pain when you see it dying in front of your eyes, especially when the distress and pain is amplified by its gigantic size like in Cloud’s example of the dying whale. Arctic hunters also held whales in very high esteem, and there were many rituals and mythology surrounding them. Roman explains this mythology; the Inuit tribe specifically held strong beliefs, that “the souls of the whales they killed would return to be reborn” and hunters were responsible for ensuring this passage to regeneration.  In looking at different cultures behaviours we are able to get a more enriched picture of the history of whales.

This case study, of the whale’s manipulation at the hands of man-kind, can be used to understand the situation in present day. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when technology became advanced enough to study whales in depth, did people truly begin to understand the creatures. Rather than the fearsome, aggressive monster that is often portrayed, the public were shown, as James Hudnall described; “gentle, clever, passive, and rational beings”. Unfortunately, with this new found positive reputation, arose a new danger: fascination. Ford wrote that after the improvements from the 60s onwards whales “were being displayed in aquaria around the world” and shown to not be the ferocious beasts many people expected. Despite this positive spin, aquaria and similar parks have proved to be an abysmal and perilous fate for whales and other sea-creatures.

The most famous of all these marine-centered parks is the Seaworld chain, which first opened in 1964. Considering all the brutalities administered by mankind on whales, this is perhaps the worst. These parks put on numerous shows and experiences for the audience, involving both whales and dolphins who perform tricks and tasks to much applause and excitement. Despite early popularity, in the past decade Seaworld and other marine parks have come under enormous criticism for their inhumane and abusive techniques used on the animals in their parks.  The physical abuse of these whales can be seen in the marks inflicted by other whales, frustrated by the enclosed environment, but also in the collapse of their dorsal fin (top fin) which every Orca in Seaworld suffers from. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the collapse of the dorsal fin is caused by “the stresses of captivity or dietary changes…reduced activity patterns, or greater exposure of the fin to the ambient air”. This is a physical manifestations of the neglect of whales in captivity. In the documentary Blackfish, which focuses on Seaworld’s controversies, a news reporter is quoted as saying after a trainer is killed by an Orca Whale “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years don’t you think you would get a little irritated, a little aggravated, a little psychotic?”. This quote mirrors an event that was recorded in 1851 in which Owen Chase wrote of his encounter with a whale who he believed “had attacked the ship deliberately” when it realised the sailors were trying to kill it. In both instances the whale felt threatened by human actions and so acted in an aggressive manner, according to the situation it was put in. It is fascinating that man-kind has not learnt from its mistreatment of the animal: two centuries on and humans are still surprised when an animal reacts aggressively to dangerous situation that they’ve created.

Animals do indeed have a history, not simply a biological or scientific history but a history based upon past events and encounters that have shaped the way they have been viewed and treated. However, this is inexplicably linked to man-kind, as we have dominated, violated and annihilated animals for centuries. Animal history is not only important in understanding how behaviours and patterns of animals have shaped their own independent history, but it essentially in studying the brutalities that certain humans inflict upon weaker groups in order to gain dominance. The abuses inflicted upon the whale species are proof that, not only should animal histories be consider, but that they should be put into practice to rectify and improve lives of animals in modern day – such as the orcas trapped in Seaworld who are subject to the same abuse that their ancestors before them suffered.

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