The harpoon was central to the whale fisheries of the world. Harpoons have been used for at least a thousand years to capture whales and large fish. The Basques of 900 A.D. were among the earliest whalers. Their word arpoi, meaning to fasten or hold, became arpon in Spanish, and harpoon, or harping iron, in English.

The harpoon, or as it was commonly called by whalemen, the iron, was meant only to fasten to the whale and act as a hook to fasten the whale to the whaleboat. It was not normally meant to kill the whale, except for some experimental designs. Killing was done by the lance. Because the harpoon was the single item that determined the success or failure of a whaling voyage, and in fact the whaling industry, it was the central item in the study of improvement.

The need to improve the harpoon was obvious. Even when darted properly, it could too easily draw, or pull out, resulting in the loss of a whale. Two harpoons were always attached to the whale line to improve the chances of saving a whale that was struck. The harpooner tried to dart the second iron immediately after the first. If conditions prevented the second iron, it was thrown overboard to trail behind the whale, out of the way. The harpooner was always called boat steerer because after the whale was fast, he changed places in the whaleboat with the mate who was heading the boat (boat header) and then he steered the boat while the officer lanced the whale. Only officers could lance a whale.

The number of harpoons carried on a whaler indicated the need for improvement. In 1856 the inventory for Bark Louisa included 84 common harpoons (two flue and single flue) and 100 toggle irons. Normally an average of 27 sperm whales could be expected to be taken on a four year voyage. That means 184 harpoons were required to take 27 whales, or about 7 harpoons per whale. And the second iron was reused. Improvment was obviously needed. In “The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States” by George Brown Goode, Washington, 1887, page 251:

“To convey some idea of the magnitude of the harpoon trade, I should say that the books of Mr. James Durfee, the veteran harpoon-maker of New Bedford, show that from 1828 to 1868 inclusive, he made and sold 58,517 harpoons. Of this number 45,103 were the old-fashioned irons, including both the double and single barbed, and the remainder were the improved toggle-irons. We should also take into consideration that during this time there were about eight or ten harpoon-makers at work in New Bedford.”

Three types of hand-darted harpoons were basic to the whaling industry: the two-flued iron, the single-flued iron, and the toggle iron. The two-flued irons and single-flued irons were often listed together as “common irons.” Preferences in harpoon types changed over the years, as attested to in the records of Swift and Allen, agents for Bark Louisa of New Bedford. The summary below shows the number of harpoons of each type carried on each voyage beginning in 1850 when Louisa was purchased from Baltimore.

Year of sailing

 HARPOON TYPE  1850  1853  1856  1861  1865  1869  1874
 Common Irons  150  130
 Two Flue  42  44  36  23  10
 Single Flue  42  33  20  21  3
 Toggle  50  100  100  100  139  120

The toggle iron must have been tried experimentally during the 1853 voyage and found to be successful, for later voyages carried mostly toggle irons. The number of common irons therefore decreased, though they continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century. From the above table it would appear that on Louisa the two flue iron was slightly favored over the single flue iron, but this is not always the case on other vessels.

Mounting an ironHand-darted harpoons were mounted on large poles, usually cut from hickory, oak or other hardwood saplings. They were mounted on board the whaleship just before they were needed. These iron poles, as they were called, were heavy, to give momentum to the darted iron, and were left rough, with the bark on, to provide a gooMountingd grip, never smoothly finished. They were five to six feet long and two or more inches in diameter, with the forward end pointed to fit into the socket of a harpoon. The pole was tightly wedged into the socket so it would not easily come out. Usually a double hitch was tied around the socket of the iron using a short length of line, and the other end was tied around the windlass. The butt end of the pole rested against a solid support. Pressing down on the pole would draw the iron socket back over the pointed end of the pole forcing the socket on tightly. The socket seam expanded to ensure a very tight fit. There were no screws, pins or nails through the harpoon socket to secure it. The pole was meant to pull out after the whale was struck. The socket was served with marline to prevent chafing of the whale line.Short warp attachment

To complete the assembly of the harpoon, a short length of line called the “iron strap” was tied to it, normally secured around the shank or iron shaft by means of a double hitch and splice, to prevent it from sliding off over the socket.

Author’s collection.

The iron strap was laid along the pole and stopped, or tied, to it at two points with light line and ended in an eye splice made slightly forward of the butt end of the pole. To the splice of the first iron was tied the whale line or “main warp,” tied with a bowline. The second iron was hitched with a “short warp,” the after end of which was loosely tied around the main warp with a bowline.

The whale line itself was a two-inch circumference loose laid rope of three strands, made especially pliable and strong. It was made of Russian hemp until at least 1830, when manila was first imported into the United States. To help prevent rot the hemp was lightly tarred.

Whale line was manufactured in a number of smaller rope walks in the whaling ports, but increasingly by the Plymouth Cordage Company and, after it was formed in 1842, the New Bedford Cordage Company. Plymouth made its whale line of thirteen yarns to the strand, while New Bedford, using a lighter fiber, used fifteen yarns to the strand. Both whale lines would sustain a tensile load of about 6,000 pounds. During manufacture the ropes were lubricated, usually with whale oil, animal tallow, and other ingredients, to prevent internal chafing of the finished line.

Coiling whale lineThe length of the rope walk where the whale line was made limited the length of the line to 75 fathoms (450 feet). Whale line was sold in a package containing two coiled lengths. On board the whaleship these pieces were spliced together to form the length required, and after removing all kinks and extra twist to the rope, it was carefully laid in wood line tubs in Flemish coils so it could run out freely. In later years, after 1850 when two line tubs were carried in the whaleboat, the large tub contained 225 fathoms, or three 75-fathom lengths spliced together, while the small tub contained one 75-fathom length. Both ends of the line hung outside the tub so the smaller length could be tied off if the 225 fathoms were not sufficient.

The line from the large tub passed aft to the stern of the whaleboat, made two turns around the loggerhead then passed forward, over the oars, through the chocks at the bow. Ten to twenty fathoms of line were coiled at the bow and the end was tied with a bowline to the iron strap as previously described. The short warp of the second iron was then tied loosely around the main warp with a bowline.

The complete harpoon was darted directly into the whale when the bow of the whaleboat came on or close upon the whale’s back, “wood to blackskin.” A harpoon was normally pushed into the whale, but could be darted a maximum of three fathoms (eighteen feet) if the boat could not get closer to the whale. Blubber was not easily penetrated and a long dart might not go far enough into the blubber to hold fast.

After the harpoon was darted and the iron had penetrated fully, the whale ran, causing a tension to be applied to the whale line. The tension acted on the whale iron, causing the barbs of the iron to catch in the flesh and act as a hook or anchor to hold the harpoon fast.

The harpoon pole generally acted as a lever forcing a bend in the harpoon’s shank near the socket. The effect is described by Jacob A. Hazen, who sailed on Ship Hudson of Sag Harbor in 1837:

“When the iron is struck into a whale, the hand-pole is mostly in an upright position, but as the fish darts away and a strain is permitted to rest on the loggerhead, the pole is drawn over and the shank being the weakest part of the instrument bends down lengthwise with the whale. In this position it would be next to impossible for the iron to draw out.”

Thereafter, the pole served no further use and, if not shaken loose, may have had an adverse effect. In 1820, the famous English whaleman William Scoresby explained that after darting, the pole

“… is liable to be disengaged soon afterwards; on which the harpoon, relieved from the shake and twist of this no longer necessary appendage, maintains its hold with better effect.”

The detachment of the pole from the harpoon after darting was an important feature and two United States patents for harpoons described a positive means for accomplishing this.

There were many types of harpoons developed in the quest for an optimum design; many were complete failures while others had merit that contributed to the overall development of this most critical item of whalecraft.

If you found harpoons interesting you can look up even more specifics here.


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