Wales and whales

August 29, 2016 7 Comments

pilot_whale[1]Last week several very unusual sightings of long-finned pilot whales were recorded off the coast of Wales. Pilot whales rarely leave the deep sea, but cetologists think that these examples were following food – they eat squid and small fish – that have also wandered on to the continental shelf.

Today whales and other sea mammals like dolphins and porpoises are almost always treated with respect and affection. Members of the Sea Watch Foundation, based in New Quay, constantly scan coastal seas to capture their visits, and visitors to New Quay and other towns can pay to go out on boats in search of them. Pilot whales, like others, are included in international conservation agreements.


Herman Melville

It was not always so. In earlier centuries – and still today in some parts of the world – whales were seen as prey and hunted with harpoons rather than cameras. Our cultural memory of whaling, conditioned by that mountain of world literature Moby-Dick, tends to centre on Nantucket and other North American ports. But Britain too had its whaling centres – Whitby, Hull and other North Sea towns. It’s never occurred to me before that whaling was carried on from Wales, but I should have known better. For a brief time in the early nineteenth century Milford Haven became a whaling port of some importance. (It makes a brief appearance in Philip Hoare’s wonderful book Leviathan, or The whale (2008), but I’d failed to notice it.) The story of how this happened is remarkable, because it involves early forms of ‘reverse colonialism’ and inward investment policy by government.


Charles Greville

Milford Haven was a planned settlement. It was founded in 1793 after Parliament passed an Act promoted by Sir William Hamilton, the diplomat, archaeologist and vulcanologist. He’d acquired the land through his wife Catherine. The development of the town was left in the hands of Hamilton’s nephew, Charles Greville. Greville’s initial plan was to establish Milford as a centre for the whaling industry and he invited Quaker families from Nantucket and elsewhere to come to the new town and set up a whaling centre there (Quakers dominated the whaling business in Nantucket and New Bedford). Fifteen families arrived in 1792, led by Samuel Starbuck and Timothy Folger (the name Starbuck will be familiar to Melville readers, since it belongs to the chief mate of the Pequod). In 1800 they were reinforced by the arrival of Ben Rotch, another Quaker and well-established whaler, and his ships.

The families had originally requested the British government to set up whaling stations in the UK as early as 1785. The War of Independence, which came to an end in 1783, had interrupted the American whaling business – Quakers refused to fight for either side in the conflict – and many of the whalers sought refuge elsewhere. The Starbucks and Folgers migrated to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Rotch moved to Dunkirk in France, and from there to London after the start of the French Revolution.


Quaker meeting house, Milford Haven

The British government, acting much like the Welsh Government today, offered incentives to the Dartmouth whalers to invest in Milford Haven. The authorities were keen to avoid an over-reliance on American supplies of oil and other products of the whaling industry. As part of their relocation the settlers negotiated the construction of docks and quays, and a Quaker meeting house and burial ground in Priory Road in Milford (both survive). Jane Clarke, who has researched the town’s whaling history, suggests that the architectural style of many of its houses reflects that of the settlers’ hometowns in the New World. Certainly the street names recall the old whalers: Dartmouth Street, for example, and Starbuck Road, Nantucket Avenue and Fluke Street. Clarke has identified most of the six original whaling ships based in Milford; they were joined by at least five more ships brought by Ben Rotch.

Eliza Rotch, Ben’s daughter, recorded the busy activity in Milford after their arrival:

My father began immediately to build stores and a dwelling house and ships began to arrive from America, full freighted with sperm oil. The business attracted the artisans necessary for carrying it on and houses sprang up on every side and Milford became a scene of activity unknown before. The author of so much prosperity was deservedly popular and his prompt pay secured him plenty of workmen. The oil imported from the United States was landed, the casks coopered and then reshipped in small coasting vessels to London. This with the outfitting of his ships for the South Seas made a thriving business for a variety of trades and introduced some new shops into the town.

The ships may have sailed out of Milford to the southern seas in search of whales, but the impression you get is that their main route was directly across the Atlantic, bringing supplies such as whale oil and miscellaneous foodstuffs from the New World (these tended to be cheaper than equivalents sourced elsewhere). Presumably, since the ships were registered in the UK, this trade avoided the usual heavy taxes imposed on whale products entering the country from America.

In 1814, though, Rotch got into financial difficulties and relocated to London. The whaling business was changing and it was no longer economic to use Milford as a port. The town’s future development lay elsewhere, in fishing.

whalers_12e58c9653b3b8cceaf1ca6887454084[1]The Quakers still have their meeting house in Milford, built in 1811, and in 1996 they commemorated their forebears in a tapestry, which includes a couplet from Waldo Williams‘s poem ‘Y tangnefeddwyr’: ‘Gwyn eu byd yr oes a’u clyw / dangnefeddwyr, plant i Dduw’ (‘Blessed is the generation that hears them / the peacemakers, the children of God’). The anonymous author of the Encyclopaedia of Wales entry on Milford Haven makes this comment on the Nantucketers’ way of life, ‘It is paradoxical that so pacific a people followed so bloody an occupation’. This reflects the striking view expressed of the Nantucket whalers by Ishmael in chapter 16 (‘The ship’) of Moby-Dick: ‘For some of these same Quakers are the most sanguinary of all sailors and whale-hunters. They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance’ – though I suspect to most readers Ahab seems to inhabit a Calvinist rather than a Quaker universe.

Starbuck, the Pequod’s chief mate, though, is a very different character from Ahab. ‘A native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent, he was ‘a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well-adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit’ (Chapter 26: ‘Knights and squires’). Intrepid but careful, he tries, unsuccessfully, to oppose Ahab’s mad desire to hunt down the White Whale come what may, and perishes, along with all the ship’s crew but Ishmael, in the fatal encounter with Moby-Dick.

The Starbucks of Milford Haven, meanwhile, still rest in peace in the Quaker burial ground in the town, their graves marked by simple initials: Abigail Barney Starbuck and her husband Samuel, Daniel Starbuck and his wife Alice Vaughan Starbuck, Samuel Starbuck and his wife Lucretia Folger Starbuck.

Comments (7)

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  1. Kate Wright says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I have an ancestor from Tenby who died on Iturup Island Russia in 1850 and wondered if this was one of the places where the whalers went as I can’t think of any other reason why he’d be there. Was it only Melford Haven that had a whaling fleet in Pembrokeshire? Also are there lists of crew members to look at. Kate Wright

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thanks, Kate. I think you must be right about whaling being the reason for being in the Kuril Islands. As far as I know, Milford Haven was the only whaling port in Wales. I doubt whether crew lists survive for this period (Milford crew lists in the Pembrokeshire Record Office start in 1963), but it would be worth making an enquiry in the Record Office.

  2. thanks for the information micheal kemp from Bristol has contacted milford haven council in relation to the nantuckers from cape codand their influence on the early development of milford haven several families forged links with the town between 1892and 1893 staying at robeston hall mr pring is inviting anyone for information on the early settlers in milford haven and a certain captain martin pring who set sail from milford haven to new horizons he is interested in this captain and his experiences thanks

  3. Sara Cutler says:

    On the 30th of July 1800, the Guard ship at the Nore on the Thames Estuary, His Majesty’s Ship Zealand – Captn. William Mitchell – noted in her Captain’s Journal that she had “rec.d [received] sum Imprest men from the Greeland [Greenland] Ships.” By Greeland[Greenland] Ships it meant from off the Whaling fleet, which at that time of year should have been hunting for whales somewhere between Iceland and Greenland -depending where the whales were. [1800 was, apparently, a bad year for Arctic hunting] Although “11 to 12” was stated in tiny writing above the entry, only 10 names are recorded as having appeared on-board on that date. Among them are John Roberts and James Williams, both originating from the Pembroke area. John Roberts was taken into the Royal Navy on the 30th of May 1800 and James Williams was taken on the 5th July 1800.I know that John Roberts was baptised at Langum [now Llangwm] on the 6th of July 1783 and have traced most of his later career. Usually the Royal Navy usually states how a man arrived on board, usually either by a named tender, a recruiting rendezvous or the fact that they were “prest at sea”. Not this time! Could it be possible that these two men were serving on the Whaling Vessels based at Milford Haven when the Royal Navy took them?

  4. Dennis Dwyer says:

    Thank you Andrew for this very poignant piece which enriches my interests both in whaling and Milford Haven. It is interesting that oil imports to Milford started from whale oil – from the sea – and now continues with oil from the earth.

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