Feature: A whaling tradition that must go

By Paul Lewis

The history of whaling in St Vincent and the Grenadines is less than 150 years old. The development of the local industry is intimately connected to the arrival of Yankee whalers from the New England coast in the 19th Century. During this expansionist phase in American whaling, it was the custom of lower New England whalers to follow the whales (sperm, humpback and pilot) into the warm Caribbean waters, as these migrating whales made their annual trip to the tropics during the winter solstice. 

map.jpgThe whales leave their feeding grounds off New England and Canada and migrate to the warm waters off St Vincent and the Grenadines, where they mate and have their calves. The warm waters are important in protecting the young calves that are coated with thin layers of blubber, and are unable immediately to withstand the frigid waters of the Arctic seas.

By the 1860s, American whalers were firmly established in the Grenadine islands, and official government statistics note that between 1867 and 1870 the New Englanders had shipped from St Vincent to their home ports 6, 702 barrels and casks of oil, which was the equivalent of 250,000 gallons of whale oil and valued at £28,000. 

The American whalers were interested in the whale oil, including melon oil extracted from the foreheads of the pilot whale. In this early industrialization age, whale oil was at a premium. For example, whale oil was used in the manufacture of soaps, perfumes, varnishes and paints, and tanning in the British textile industry. Moreover, it provided fuel for street lights in New York, London, and many European cities.

Whale oil in 1868 ranked fourth behind arrowroot starch as a leading export earner in St Vincent. But within two years decline had set in, prompting government officials to lament the absence of the Yankee whalers, especially in terms of loss of revenue from export taxes. 

bequia.jpgWhile the increasing absence of the American whalers became more noticeable, their whaling operations, done in full view of coastal populations, soon impacted on the lives of many fishermen. Many Bequia men soon joined the crews of American whalers on their six month sojourn in the Caribbean and to New England where they learnt the trade, and took the opportunity to live and work in the USA. Many however returned to the island armed with the extensive knowledge of the trade and very determined to make a living out of it. William Wallace of Bequia was one such enterprising person.

William “Old Bill” T. Wallace is the father of the Grenadines Whaling industry. Of Scottish ancestry, Wallace and his brother inherited their father’s Friendship Estate. William, however, opted to join a Yankee whaler to learn the trade. He returned to Bequia in 1870 and five years later started the whaling industry. 
Wallace initially owned two 26-footers and one 25-foot whaler boat. Wallace interest in starting the industry may have been motivated, in part, to provide his estate workers with an opportunity to made some additional income since returns to a declining agricultural cash crop was impacting heavily on the lives of the Bequia peasantry; and to help supplement their income during the dry season, especially when the humpback whales made their fortuitous appearances in the waters off Bequia. Wallace subsequently established (1875) the first shore-based whaling station in the region on the New England model. 

Semple Cay, Bequia

As “Old Bill” Wallace engineered these first moves in the industry, Joseph “Pa” Ollivierre, a Frenchman who owned Paget Farm Estate, erected a whaling station on Petit Nevis, transferred later to Semple Cay, and so joined “Old Bill” in not only masterminding the development and expansion of the industry, but helped to transform a moribund agricultural-based economy to an enterprising sea-based one. The growth of whaling activities in the Grenadines, including Carriacou, had resulted in intense rivalry and competition amongst whalers. 

So fierce was the action on the seas that the government was forced to pass legislation to regulate whale hunts, and minimize the risks of deadly chases and competing claims for whales caught in the Grenadine waters. 

The Whaler’s Ordinance of 1887 (St Vincent) aimed at putting greater order into such activities, and became the basis for the Aboriginal Subsistence Ordinance that serves to control the activities of today’s whalers. 

The whaling industry had expanded to six stations by the early 1920s -- two in Bequia: Point Hillary and Semple Cay; two in Canouan operated by Snagg and Lewis; one at Palm Island (Bequia operated); and Richard Mulzac’s station at Frigate Rock near Union island. 

This whaling industry became the single most important employer in the Grenadines. During peak activity in the early 1920s, 100 men were employed and represented 20% of the working male population in the Grenadines. Humpback flesh became an important marketable item and Kingstown, the capital, became its most important market. The proceeds of the catch were divided equally amongst the boat’s owner, harpooner, and crew members, often in equal proportions, after payments were taken out for expenses such as the bomb lances used during the whaling season . It was also customary to give parts of the catch to family and friends. 

But international events challenged the sustainability of the whaling industry of St Vincent. Whaling as a commercial activity fell into serious decline in the mid to late 1920s, from which it never recovered. The excessive whale kills by North Atlantic whaling fleets, especially Norwegian whalers, decimated whale stocks in the region (1925-27), including the killing of cows and calves, and effectively destroyed commercial whaling in the Caribbean. Due to the scarcity of whales, the whaling facilities in Canouan and Palm Island were declared redundant and shut down, and by 1926 Bequia emerged as the only viable whaling centre, and just a few whales were killed after this date. 

Norwegian whaler-early 20th Century
The Norwegian whale massacre was compounded by the general uncertainty and fear of whaling in the Caribbean Sea that was saturated with German U-boats during the Second World War, and this placed additional obstacles in the way of local whalers who attempted to revive the industry. For ten years (1949-57) no humpback whales were caught; and the entrance into the field of young and inexperienced whalers, who exhibited poor judgment and perhaps carelessness, did not assist in this revival. In general, high failure rates of whaling crews were reported right into the 1960s, and the 1965-66 seasons were a complete failure. But there were a few promising spots and optimistic hopes during this period. 

In 1958, three whales were killed, which reinvigorated a dying industry. New boats were built and a new whalers’ group -- “Cooperation Fishers” -- was formed. It was dedicated to cooperative efforts in whale hunting, and to be operated on an “equal-share” arrangement for any whale caught. In addition, there was an attempt to modernize Semple Cay in 1961, when a well equipped shore-processing station on Petit Nevis was established. This was the same site that “Pa” Ollivierre had built his original fishery in 1880s, and the new improvements included a ramp and boilers. 

There is evidence that approximately 1,000 gallons of whale oil were exported annually to Barbados, Trinidad and Grenada at EC $1.30 per gallon. This was a relatively small amount, and due to the limited demand for whale oil, especially at a time when electricity was becoming more common, whalers placed less emphasis on export and more on conservation for home use. Ironically this was a period too when there was relatively good sales in whale beef, and where whales routinely received the princely sum of EC$1,800 for the meat sales of a 2,000-3,000lb humpback whale.

The revival of whaling after the 1958 successful hunt brought to the forefront Athneal Ollivierre, a young harpooner who showed his mettle when he killed his first whale aboard the Trio, a newly commissioned whaler. This success was followed up in 1982 with a catch of five humpbacks that further stimulated the building of another boat, “Why Ask”, which remains a whaling boat today. Athneal, the great-grand son of “Pa” Ollivierre, became the post war’s premier harpooner and left a whaling legacy of whaling skills and boat building techniques. 

Whaling as an early economic activity in the Grenadines was most important in providing a strong livelihood to generations of Bequians who fashioned a living from subsistence agriculture -- the growing of pigeon peas, corn, cassava and the harvesting of marine products. Whaling had helped to provide that extra income to a few families, and to attract visitors to the island, increasingly so in the 1960s and 70s, not only because of the beauty and charm of its lovely beaches, but also because of its unusual whaling history.

But Bequia has moved on, and whaling and the fishing industries in general have been supplanted by tourism. Tourism is the biggest income earner today, and the economic activity that provides employment to most people in Bequia. Moreover, the economic returns from whaling activities are extremely negligible and benefit just a few people. 


While we recognize the contribution that whaling has made to the economy of Bequia in the past, we must be realistic about the sustainability and necessity of the hunt, and the impact of its continuation on the general economy of Bequia. I start on the premise that this economy is based solidly on tourism, and the revenues received for all forms of tourism – cruise, yachting, stay over and local/domestic tourism are what fuel the Bequia economy. 

First, the type and the interests of tourists coming to Bequia and the mainland have changed over the years -- from the general historic /monument type to the more ecologically /environmentally concerned visitor. The main sources of tourist arrivals are from the United States, Britain and other English-speaking countries, including regional visitors. They are from countries with increasingly strong anti-whaling traditions, or from areas without any whaling traditions whatsoever. 

It has become painfully obvious to some observers that many tourists to the Grenadines are increasingly opposed to the whale hunt, and some have voiced not too subtle threats that they will not make a return visit to SVG if it persists in supporting and promoting the whale hunt. The prospect of an international boycott as a result of our whaling practices would have serious implications for the national economy since tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner, and most revenues tourism-related activities come from the Grenadines and not mainland St Vincent.

Carving up whale meat, Bequia, SVG
Second, St Vincent and the Grenadines’ close relationship with Japan in fisheries matters, and in particular its long history supporting Japan’s pro-whaling position in the meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has brought unwanted and unnecessary international attention to this multi-island state, already afflicted with severe political corruption, poor governance, massive political victimization and a political leader infatuated with socialism. This relationship has been further questioned through credible charges of vote buying by the Japanese to support their IWC agenda, which includes support for scientific whaling and ending the moratorium on commercial whaling.

Charges about Japan’s vote buying activities reached a new level when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2005) released a ministerial memo from Patricia Antoine, the Accountant General of Grenada, lamenting on the non-receipt of Japan’s financial contributions to Grenada’s participation in the IWC for the years 1998 and 1999, but verifying that Grenada had received all sums prior to 1998 and after 1999 that Japan had transferred to Grenada.

The behaviour of certain members of many Caribbean delegations at the last IWC meeting in Morocco should concern us. Many lobbied and spoke most vigorously on behalf of Japan, Greenland and Denmark’s right to the whale hunt, and by extension their right to whale –whether or not they actually whale. One Caribbean representative admitted to a colleague that he works as a consultant for the Japanese, and expressed anger that some members of a Caribbean NGO would actually criticize the Caribbean representatives’ position on whaling. He even asked the IWC to financially compensate his country for not whaling! Antigua does not whale.

There were revelations by the international press that the vice chair of the IWC had received monies from a Japanese lobbyist to look after certain expenses while he attended the meeting; and that an African delegate was wined and dined, given lavish per diems, and prostitutes as inducements to attend meetings in the past, and to vote for the Japanese position. But such activities bring the entire IWC into disrepute.

Moreover, the Grenada memo is indicative of what has been happening regionally for a long time . We have sold our souls and integrity to the Japanese in their lust for the whale hunt. To convince anyone that other OECS states have not been involved in the Japanese programme for getting vulnerable island states to attend IWC meetings and to ‘vote the Japanese way’ is inconceivable. And there are rewards for supporting Japan’s whaling agenda. 

In return, Japan has constructed a number of fishery complexes in six member countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean State (OECS): Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis. Japan has also provided young volunteers to those countries in education, tourism and in other areas. Sadly, many of these fishing facilities are either non-functional or suffer from poor management and seldom serve the interests of fisher folk. 

Japan’s approach to the eastern Caribbean’s economic development has puzzled and annoyed many in the Caribbean, none more so than Sir Ronald Sanders, who sees Japan’s aid packages as nothing less than total exploitation of economically vulnerable small states. Sanders has accused Japan of using these vulnerable small states to promote Japan’s own global interests. He has lamented on“…how rich countries can use economic inducements to influence small and poor countries to vote against their own interests in multilateral organizations…” Japan, he argues, is not only aware of the economic vulnerabilities of these OECS states, but has capitalized on their misfortunes through its special aid arrangements with them. 

The Japanese-Eastern Caribbean connection is a special and troubling one that has caught the attention of other outstanding Caribbean statesmen, including Sir Shridath Ramphal, former Commonwealth Secretary-General and member of the Regional Negotiating Machinery, who have condemned the Caribbean‘s support for Japan in its quest to have the moratorium on commercial whaling overturned. 

Lung of whale floating in sea
At an Ocean life Conference in Grenada, May 2010, Sir Shridath slammed the insensitivity of Caribbean governments in supporting a position that would lead to the eventual degradation of the region and world’s marine life: “I am disturbed that some of our smallest Caribbean countries join Japan in resisting global prohibitions in the International Whaling Commission-and not for traditions like those of the Inuit, but for reasons less defensible. Our region would better serve the cause of global conservation, as well as our own economic interests, by distancing ourselves from this lingering defilement of the oceans.” 

The ongoing criticism of whale hunting by Vincentians, ordinary Caribbean people and some outstanding personalities in the region attest to the need for governments, especially St Vincent and the Grenadines -- the only whaling nation in the Caribbean, to re-examine the necessity for the continuance of their whaling practices and support for commercial whaling. 

The time is over for the wanton destruction of these ocean creatures that function as important elements in the maintenance of a stable global biodiversity, and whose presence does not provide any threat to our fish stocks, a myth that is promoted by the Japanese.

The threat, ironically, comes for those who advocate such a proposition; and such challenges to the existence of whales say more about the baser instincts of human nature than about any imagined whale threat to human existence. 

I believe that whaling in Vincentian waters should be phased out as soon as possible. We all recognize 150 years of a whaling tradition; the development of a local appetite, mainly in the Grenadines for whale meat; and the opportunity to make a few extra dollars when luck strikes and a whale is caught would conspire to make the process long and difficult . But aboriginal subsistence whaling in SVG has taken on all the trappings of commercial whaling. So we have to start now! There are a few additional factors which propel us to move in this direction: 

a. Some of the current methods used to hunt and kills whales in SVG are deplorable and non-traditional .The use of speed boats to coral, intimidate and finally kill whales are outside the scope of the regulations governing Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling , or the special aboriginal circumstances permitted under IWC regulations. 


SVG has failed over the past few years to follow IWC reporting procedures and to provide critical information to the regulatory body. For example, there was no report to the IWC in 2010. St Vincent had submitted detailed catch reports to the Science Committee during IWC Meetings over the past few years. 

However, the IWC continues to encourage St Vincent to submit detailed information to the Committee prior to the meetings and via the Annual Progress Report. 

In its most recent report the IWC strongly urged SVG to provide genetic samples and fluke photographs of all harvested whales, and the latter to the appropriate depository such as North Atlantic Whale Archive in the University of Stockholm.

b. While SVG continues to follow /advocate a pro-whaling position it runs the risk of being blacklisted by other countries that have or are currently adopting pro-conservation and anti-whaling policies. These are the same ones that would be in a position to help extricate the nation of its all too frequent economic quagmires. 

c. It is now more profitable to invest in the non-lethal use of whales such as the whale watching industry rather than continue the despicable slaughter of whales. The whale watching industry has far greater economic potential than the killing of whales. The economic spinoffs from such activities : revenue to hotels, restaurants , water taxi operators, land taxis, souvenirs, supermarkets, eco tourism destinations etc, are enormous , and far more than the killing of four whales and receiving merger financial rewards , after extracting expenses for the boat, harpoon supplies, etc. 

d. The survival of a few additional whales each year will not result in any Vincentian starving for the next meal. On the other hand, it will bring some peace and serenity to the mind and a general satisfaction to the wider community that there is some humanity left in us. 

It is time to end the dirty business of killing whales in the waters of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Build museums and honour the past, but let us move on to a more humane existence.

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