Thar she blows!! Whaling in Chacachacare

As one door closes, another opens. With “King” Cotton in decline the Western Isles of Monos, Huevos and Chacachacare became the centre of the whaling industry. Whaling? In the tropics? In Trinidad waters? It seems unbelievable in these days when Newsday photographers rush to get pictures of volunteers rushing to rescue pilot whales stranded on East coast beaches – but the photographs on this page bear witness to the fact that once fishermen in pirogues hunted whales in the Gulf and the Bocas and dragged them onshore to make whale oil and, perhaps, stays for ladies’ corsets. In fact when Christopher Columbus sailed into the Gulf he saw so many whales that he called it “Gulf of Whales,” but shortly afterwards the Indians told him the land (the West coast of Venezuela) was called Paria, so it became the Gulf of Paria.

From 1498 to the late 18th Century whales were a common sight in the Gulf. It’s possible that some were hunted for meat and for oil but it appears that Richard Joell was first in the field of commercial whaling. Joell and his brother were successful merchants who lived above their stores in St Vincent Street. Richard was known to own two rowboats (pirogues) and had slaves trained to man them. One can see, from the Cazabon painting, that whaling in the Nineteenth Century was as dangerous as it was exciting. Whaling today is no contest for the whales. Harpoons shot from guns are fitted with explosives that release compressed air preventing the whale from “sounding” (diving). The whale floats to the surface to be towed to the factory ship where the carcass is butchered and processed.

Whaling in Trinidad waters was not a job for the fainthearted. To keep your balance standing on the prow of the pirogue in choppy seas, to launch the harpoon as hard as you can at the whale, and hang on as the creature dives, twists, thrashes, takes skill and great courage. The lives of every one of the men on the pirogue are at risk as the whale dives, dragging the pirogue behind as the line is paid out. One harpoon may rarely be enough to kill the whale. You stand on the prow waiting to launch another harpoon when the whale comes to the surface to breathe. You may have to harpoon the whale many times before it is killed. Even death is dangerous for the hunters when, with a last, despairing effort a blow from the enormous flukes (tail) could overturn or smash the pirogue to smithereens.

Fr de Verteuil records that sometimes the whale was so huge it might take the best part of day to tow it to the whaling station where, as you may imagine – as we did – the bodies of the whales being dragged up the rails to the flensing room where the blubber (fat) was cut into sizeable chunks and taken to what we surmised might be the boiling room (see photograph) to be rendered down to the whale oil advertised in the cuttings from the Port-of-Spain Gazette. Twenty years (give or take a year or two) after Richard Joell began commercial whaling, the station on Chacachacare was advertised for sale on the death of (presumably) a relative, Henry Joell. The Carry family joined forces with the Tardieus to buy the station. It appears the venture, aided by the marketing skills of Gerold and Urich, was so successful that . . . but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The whaling industry wasn’t confined to Chacachacare. Fr de Verteuil quotes a notice advertising the sale of a whaling station on Monos which gives one some idea of what the industry entailed. Land, a new Dwelling House, two Boat Houses, also new, the oil Manufactury, with Boilers, Cisterns, Store, Harpoons, Lances, Axes, Saws, Knives etc. . . . a large Store for ropes and other fishing utensils, all in perfect order, a new Building for the boats’ crew etc.” C Tardieu, named in the advertisement for whale oil had whaling boats and crews on Monos, possibly financed by the compensation received for 35 slaves employed in growing cotton and in fishing.

In 1826 Captain C A White bought the land on Gaspar Grande (Gasparee) now known as Point Baleine “Whale’s Point” and set up a whaling station – but he didn’t last long. He sold the business to Richard Joell; when Joell died the Tardieu family took it over. When Newsday photographer Enrico Matthews and I toured the island doing research for this series, our boatman told us he was born on Monos and is related to the Tardieu family. The name “Tardieu” seems to have been synonymous with whaling. However, news of the Trinidad whaling industry and the large schools of whales congregating in the Gulf of Paria every year between February and May spread to North America. Captain Chadwick of the American whaling schooner “Harmony” petitioned the Governor for permission to take whales in the Gulf. He didn’t get it, but occasionally a Yankee whaler defied the ban with impunity. The whaling industry was a victim of its own success.

By about 1880, a mere 60 years after Richard Joell began whaling in earnest, there weren’t enough whales left to make it worth while to go on whaling. Overexploitation had killed the whaling industry as whalers hunted their prey to the edge of extinction — as they still do today in the Antarctic. With such a lesson, you’d think we’d make sure that, today, foreign shrimpers and fishing boats using the latest technology (and our facilities) would catch no more than was reasonable to sustain fish stocks, yet here, and worldwide, fish stocks are declining. In the days before miracle drugs and vitamin “shots” anyone recovering from a serious illness needed a period of convalescence before resuming normal, day-to-day activities. It was Dr L F Chittenden who, realising the potential of Chacachacare as the ideal place for a sanatorium and convalescent home, bought 39 acres of land along the coast, so setting a trend, a fashion for vacation houses and rooms on Chacachacare. Реклама: Spintos, Slankiosios sistemos, Biuro, Stumdomos durys, Miegamojo, Prie?kambario, Vonios kambario baldai ir virtuv?s bald? gamyba Vilniuje -

The Rusts, Stollmeyers, Pegus and Lyons all had houses there. By 1910 there was a flourishing business in holiday houses for lease or short-term rentals in La Tinta, Boissiere, Rust’s and La Haute. These were the larger landowners. Others — probably descendant of slaves — had small parcels of land where they grew cassava, sweet potato, corn, melon and sugar apples — provided they had sufficient water. In the days of cotton large landowners dammed the ravines to trap water to see them through the dry season. Those who had no water relied on fishing and an ‘illegal’ garden across the Gulf on the mainland. Lack of water in the dry season was always a problem on Chacachacare. Fr de Verteuil quotes a schoolteacher describing life on the island in 1903.

THE DRY SEASON Chacachacare is destitute of water – everybody depends on rain. A few barrels are the only vessels for reserving water and when the contents of these are exhausted the men have to go by boat eight miles to get the precious fluid. One will often see a child with a goblet in his or her hand passing from house to house begging for water, and oftener than not will return with it empty. Finally, this week, a warning to all who bathe at La Tinta Bay. Even at the height of the dry season, picnickers and bathers should beware of the wide-spreading branches of the poisonous Manchineel tree Hippomane mancinella that shade the beach of La Tinta. All parts of this tree are poisonous. While some come to no harm as they sit under the trees on the stony beach, others who bite the fruit dice with death and, more often than not, lose since there is no known antidote to the poison. Children who get scratched while playing with the branches scream, crying they’ve been burned: next day a huge blister appears . . . you have been warned. Next Week The Leprosarium – Then and Now.


"Thar she blows!! Whaling in Chacachacare"

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