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Durban’s whaling history: A colourful story of a bloody different time

The ’Abraham Larsen’ in Durban Harbour

The ’Abraham Larsen’ in Durban Harbour

Published Oct 2, 2021


“The past is a foreign country ‒ they do things differently there.”

This quote by author LP Hartley is in the epilogue of a new book, A Whale of a Time, by former general manager Peter Froude, 82, telling the story of Durban’s Union Whaling Company (UWC) that reminds readers that practices, attitudes and values from the past must be measured by what was judged acceptable at that time.

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Author Peter Froude has written a history on the story of whaling in Durban

The book traces early whaling operations off the KwaZulu-Natal coast and the “Gold Rush” of companies establishing whaling operations, the story of the company and all the colourful characters, the heyday of the whaling industry in the 1950s and its journey into the 1970s, until it was sold.

Whaling had taken place for centuries, whales hunted for meat, bones and oil, with whale oil becoming a multimillion-dollar industry. Froude said that even as a teenager he would visit the whaling stations and watch the whale catchers coming into the Durban harbour.

He joined the company in the late 1950s when there were still 22 expeditions a year into the Antarctic, as well as whales being caught off Durban as pods moved up the coast in the annual migration. Durban had come to be known as having the most consistent whale population passing by, compared with anywhere else in the world. The whaling industry was dominated by Norwegians, who brought many Norwegian families to Durban.

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UWC (Union Whaling Company) was started by Abraham Larsen while other big players were Grindrod and Lever Brothers with Sperm and Baleen oil being used in many products from lubricant oil, soap and margarine, among others.

Up until the late 1960s, whaling was regarded as big game hunting and very few people saw anything wrong with it. The whaling gunners were regarded as tough heroes to be celebrated.

Froude started in the UWC laboratory as a university student during his holidays and worked up until he became factory manager. Although he had studied chemistry, he also completed an engineering degree during his career.

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A newly painted catcher at the start of the whaling season heads out to sea.

He also joined four Antarctic expeditions which generally included a fleet heading out to sea with a factory ship, 11 catcher ships and a tanker to provision the catchers.

“The gunners were much like the footballers of today and the captains were usually the gunners. They were paid enormous amounts of money. In the industry, the profits were huge,” said Froude, saying that in 1952, a gunner earned £25 000 for three months’ work, while senior personnel on the factory ship enjoyed every comfort.

“On my last trip, we had a Japanese expert at finding whales. We would get up, sniff the wind and head in a direction, but the Japanese had a four-year university course in finding whales. They would measure the temperature of the water, the upwelling and the currents. It was a real science and they were very skilled at it,” said Froude.

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He added that the Japanese expert would plan a course two weeks ahead of schedule and would arrive in a spot ahead of the whales. He said the upwelling was important because this brought nutrients to the surface which plankton fed on and in turn, would attract whales.

The book also includes a chapter on Zulu staff, who by 1970 were often third-generation workers in the whaling industry, with many coming from the South Coast. This was because the very first whaling operation had been established at Park Rynie by John Grindrod, but closed down after World War I. These included Johannes Msomi, who was not only a senior company official, but also of Zulu Royalty who “had a deep, resonant voice and was recognised by both black and white as a man of integrity”. Also recalled is Thomas Buthelezi, who although he was known for his jokes and booming voice, gave most of his instructions using hand gestures.

During the 1960s, conservationists raised alarm over the massive reduction in whale populations, causing widespread condemnation. Commercial whaling in the Western world came to an end in 1968 and in South Africa in 1975, while Russia and Japan continued whaling operations.

As Froude writes: “Despite being internationally controlled, the inevitable exploitation of whales occurred. This has been the case with almost every resource on the planet. Man’s greed has always been his downfall. If whaling had been controlled at a sustainable level, it would have remained a rich source of food for the world.”

  • A Whale of a Time

The Independent on Saturday

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