On the surface of it, the Dutch government opposes the practice of whaling. Established in 1949 to prevent the extinction of whales, the Netherlands was one of the original 15 member states on the International Whaling Commission (IWC). But there is more to the story of Dutch whaling than that.
The Netherlands as the centre of the world’s whaling industry
Five centuries ago, the Netherlands was the center of the world’s whaling industry. It started when the Dutch began exploring the Arctic regions looking for a sea passage to Asia. They ran into whales near a group of unexplored islands. In June 1596, while on his last voyage to the far north, Dutch navigator and explorer William Barentsz discovered and named this newly found Arctic archipelago, Spitsbergen (known today as Svalbard). It was a spawning and feeding ground for whales. Seeing a lucrative business opportunity, the Dutch laid claim to the whaling grounds in and around the islands, ahead of the British who were also scouting the area.
Whale oil became the preferred fuel for oil lamps because it burned bright and clear, while oil from livestock and other sources produced a lot of smoke and stank. But whale oil was expensive. In 1614, the Noordsche Compagnie (Northern Company) was an alliance created by several cities in the Netherlands and became a Dutch whaling trade cartel. The trade in whale products, such as oil, meat, and whalebones, grew rapidly and the Dutch became the preeminent whalers of the 17th and early 18th century. Having a near monopoly on whaling, the Dutch kept the price of whale oil artificially high across Europe.
How did Dutch Whaling begin?
Whaling for survival dates back to prehistoric times. Ancient cultures of Korea hunted whales as far back as 5000 BC, and those of Norway began whaling at least 4,000 years ago. The Basques from a region between Spain and France hunted whales in the 10th century and became experts at harpooning, dismembering and boiling off the whale oil. The first voyages to Spitsbergen by the English, Dutch, and Danish relied on the hunting skills of the Basque specialists.
During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, whaling became a lucrative commercial enterprise. The potential for riches from the trade of whaling products encouraged the Dutch to commit significant resources towards shipbuilding and naval supremacy. The British, French and Danes were unable to keep up with the Dutch, both in finance and capital to support this venture.
The Noordsche Compagnie cartel was dissolved in 1642. The centralized organization started receiving intense competition from Dutch “free traders” and Danish whalers. Whaling was privatized and taken over by the nonregulated sector. Free whaling exploded and was exploited. The Zaan district north of Amsterdam was the center for shipbuilding and the region benefited greatly from the burgeoning whaling industry. Wind-driven sawmills thrived because of the increasing demand for whaling ships. Entrepreneurs had ships built to lease to whaling companies, investors and commanders. Most of these businessmen, whalers, and sailors came from Amsterdam, Zaandam, Jisp and de Rijp, all located in North Holland.
Dutch Supremacy in Whaling:
When the whale population declined in the bays around Spitsbergen because of overfishing and whales learning to avoid whaling ships, the Dutch designed and built ships more suitable for whaling in the open seas. The shipping trade routes were also protected by the Dutch navy, the largest naval fleet in the world. The newly formed Dutch Republic created five admiralties. The main goals of the Dutch navy were to protect shipping lanes all over the world and to repel an enemy naval invasion of Dutch territory. Numerous battles for dominance of the high seas ensued. The Dutch were very successful in defeating most of its enemies in the 1600s, including Spain, France, and England. In the 17th century, Europe envied Dutch wealth and maritime expansion, especially England. Holland supplied all of Europe with oil for lamps and whalebone for corsets and hoop skirts. Eventually, whale oil was also being used in making candles.
Dutch supremacy in whaling over other European competitors like France, Germany, and Britain diminished in the second half of the 18th century. With increasing costs and decreasing success in commercial whaling, the Dutch subsidy system was abandoned. Insurance also became too risky and expensive. In 1863 the Dutch stopped whaling.
Hunting of Whales at an end:
At the end of World War II, during the famine and when the Dutch were rebuilding their war-torn country, there was a lack of oil, grease, and fat for margarine and nutrition. Between 1946 and 1964 whaling occurred around the South Pole, since the northern seas were depleted of whales. By 1960s, the southern whaling seas were also being exhausted. The Netherlands sold the last whaling mother ship, Willem Barendsz II, to Japan in 1964. In 2001 the ship was demolished in China. The hunting of whales was definitely at an end and by that time, environmental activists all over the world had started protesting against the whale hunt.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946 to regulate whaling and prevent overhunting. The Netherlands was one of 15 founding member states. But loose regulations, high quotas, lack of enforcement, and countries that underreported catches weakened its influence. The Dutch left the IWC for a while due to disputes over quotas. It rejoined and in 1982 the IWC called for a moratorium on commercial whaling which, although voted against by Norway, Iceland and Japan, went into effect in 1987. (The International Court of Justice banned Japanese whaling in March 2014.)
This moratorium, along with protected sanctuaries formed in the 1970s and ’80s and the United Nation’s call for a ban on whaling, has allowed whales that were fished to the brink of extinction to begin to recover. At the 2014 annual IWC meeting in Slovenia, the Netherlands called to end the hunting of whales and dolphins entirely as soon as possible. The Dutch government opposes the practice of whaling, and the Netherlands is committed to seeing new and improved binding agreements made within the International Whaling Commission.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 14 January 2019 but was updated for your reading pleasure 24 January 2020.
Feature image: Wikimedia Commons.