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Ross W, Gillies.

Toronto, Irwin, c1985. 263pp, cloth, $34.95, ISBN 0-7725-1524-7. CIP

Grades 7 and up
Reviewed by Adele Case

Volume 14 Number 2
1986 March

Arctic Whalers, Icy Seas is not a cheerful book. It is, however, an expertly researched and meticulously written documentary of the dauntless courage and zeal of the seamen who sought all species of whales in the eastern Arctic. In the early nineteenth century the whales were numerous and the rewards great; this commerce continued until about 1917. Whale oil was then increasingly in demand, and a myriad of products were manufactured from the baleen (bone) of the Greenland whales: corsets for fashionable ladies, umbrella parts, toilet articles, and even bone-carved jewellery items (scrimshaw). The ships used were not the specially strengthened behemoths that today ply the Davis Strait, but wooden cockleshells that could be crushed by the ice as easily as an eggshell. Seamen, too, had to be tough to survive. Often, they were recruited from the hardy sea-wise stock of the outlying Scottish islands, or seaports of northern England. They lived in overcrowded, cranky, zero-cold ships, constantly battling the weather and frequently being ill-supplied with fresh food. Frostbite, gangrene, or scurvy could signal a lingering death, as could consumption or any illness beyond the skill of the ship's surgeon, himself perhaps an inexperienced, not-quite-qualified medical practitioner.

W. Gillies Ross, the author, writes of the endurance of the successful whaling captains. In many instances he includes sections of ships' logs, or quotes from the personal journals of ships' officers; many times he draws from recollections of the surgeons, who had fewer shipboard duties than the other officers. The first-hand testimonials tell in the clearest terms of the truly amazing efforts made by seamen to save their ships when the vessels were beset or besieged by moving ice. In the stormiest years, and despite the "ice docks" so laboriously hand-cut to secure the ships, many vessels were nipped, pinched, or crushed. Crews were decimated by sickness, exposure, and exhaustion. Some of the tales are moving and pitiful, and the book can be read not only for its historic value, but for the human drama contained throughout each section. Chapters deal realistically with unlucky and fortuitous trips, tragedies, and near miraculous deliverances. Apart from such drama, the author writes with consummate skill about the techniques used to chase and harpoon the whales, and various methods employed to prepare the blubber, hair, and other whale products. Portions of the book also deal with the native Eskimo people, who were studied and traded with by the whalers.

Throughout this handsome book there are large and small black-and-white illustrations, some from drawings and others from photographs, of selected captains, crew members, ships, icebergs, hummocks, and whaling operations. There are, too, ample charts and geographic details to enable a reader of maritime history, or an armchair adventurer, to satisfy his or her curiosity. Drawings and prints of tools used, shipping company notices, and excerpts from diaries give the book authenticity. In every chapter, Ross has sifted and culled his findings to give us an insight into the struggle for survival by plain seamen who were quietly intrepid. Wisely, the author has chosen not to discuss the moral question of the rightness or wrongness of harvesting a diminishing resource. Here, we see only the epic test of men against hostile currents, winds, and conditions. The book jacket, showing a painting by Charles E. Alien (a whaling ship master in the 1860s) will evoke some of the majesty of the icy lands in any landlubber. Truly, the icebergs posed an ever-present threat of disaster to tiny ships, even though they were a source of fresh water. The mountainous bergs progressed according to the ocean currents, at times achieving speeds over two knots. We are sobered by the poetry on the epigraph page, which reminds us that "ice is stone. . .Not less solid than if it were/A land of granite."

Adele Case, Britannia S.S., Vancouver, B.C.
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