The Last Whalers – An Azorean Past

No longer practised on the islands of the Azores, but whaling was a big industry. A whale’s cadaver was processed for lamp oil, candles, medicines, perfume and machinery lubricants. The blubber was melted down for oil and the bones tossed aside.

The first type of whaling done was shore whaling along the New England coast, Native Americans sent their boats out and speared one of the passing whales. This practice was followed by European settlers later. The Dutch controlled whaling during the 17th century. The British followed in the 18th century as the chief whalers, followed later by the Americans in the 19th century.

Whaling crews could be found at the Azores. Captains would disembark from New England with a skeleton crew and head for the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands looking for a supply of sailors. They liked the Portuguese because they were hard-working, quiet, and cheap. The Azorean teenage male was waiting to be picked. He was seeking opportunity and a way to the United States, generally because he was fleeing military service.

In the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually worldwide. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling.

At Cais do Pico, there is a commercial port and an old fishing harbour that played a major part in the historical activity of whale hunting. The Museu da Indústria Baleeira (the Whaling Industry Museum), housed in the old Whaleboat Factory in the town of São Roque, which was in business from 1946 to 1984. This museum was opened in May 1994 and is internationally considered to be one of the best industrial museums of its kind, exhibiting boilers, furnaces, machinery and other equipment used in the exploitation and transformation of whales into oil and flour. It offers you the chance to make an interesting discovery about the ancient practices linked to a now extinct activity.

WARNING! You may find this disturbing to watch. This is a vintage film “The Last Whalers” by William Neufeld, 1968. It documents a past way of life on the island of Pico. Produced by WBN Productions in 1968. An edited and subtitled version is currently on exhibit in the Azorean Whalemen Gallery at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“The Last Whalers” a documentary film by William Neufeld from New Bedford Whaling Museum.


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