Posted by: Rob Viens | February 26, 2014

Sealing the Fate of Seals

It was not unusual to encounter other ships in the straits, and everyone had a story to tell.  The sealer who shared tales of the Falklands also shared stories of the weather:

“This Sealer has been this summer at anchor for six weeks under the Diego Ramiroz islands; & without a gale of wind! — The very time during which last year we had a gale of a month. — He was last year at these same islands. — during the gale of the 13th his deck was fairly swept, he lost all his boats &c &c. — At this time two of his men were on one of the Diego rocks, where they were left miserably to perish, as he was obliged to run for the Falkland Ids.” (Feb 11)

Newfoundland sealing steamer S.S. Kite (from

sealing streamer

Although sealing had been conducted for thousands of years by indigenous people, commercial sealing is said to have gotten its start in 1521 when a load of fur seal skins was sent back to Spain from Spanish settlements in Uruguay. However, most early commercial sealing was done in the North Atlantic, escalating in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  By the late 1700’s serious operations started to move into the South Atlantic where fur seals and elephant seals where abundant. One site notes, “According to Dr H. R. Mill, English sealers brought back from the Isle of Georgia and Magellan Strait as many as 40,000 seal skins and 2,800 tons of elephant oil in 1778. In 1791, no less than 102 vessels, averaging 200 tons burden and manned by 3000 sealers, were engaged in securing fur seals and oil in the southern ocean.” (from A History of World Fur Sealing) Hunting was so intense that by the 1830’s when Darwin was in the South Atlantic, sealing was already in decline.

Seal hunting in Newfoundland, Canada, around 1883 (from Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony by Hatton and Harvey)

Seal hunting in Newfoundland

Seals were hunted for their skins (valued in clothing) and meat.  In addition, much like whales, seals fat was processed into oil that was used for lamps, cooking, lubricants, soap and processing other materials.

By the late 1800’s mechanized ships, essentially floating processing factories, upped the ante and greatly increased the annual “take” a single ship could process. Again, like with whales, some seal populations faced potential extinction if hunts continued at this accelerated rate. Ironically, it was a conversion to “rock oil” (petroleum) that helped “save” the seals and whales from utter annihilation. However, their soft fur is still coveted by some markets, and sealing continues today.

Although it is nowhere near as extensive as in the past, there is still a lot of criticism for countries that still hunt seal today – including Canada, Namibia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia.

As tragic as the massive seal harvest where, far more unforgivable was the near extermination of the indigenous people of Patagonia. As in earlier entries, Darwin’s diary provides us with some lasting record of the peoples of southern South America.  I’ll let Darwin speak for himself and share some of his observations from mid February:

“With very baffling winds we anchored late in the evening in Gregory Bay, where our friends the Indians anxiously seemed to desire our presence. During the day we passed close to Elizabeth Island, on North end of which there was a party of Fuegians with their canoe &c. — They were tall men & clothed in mantles; & belong probably to the East Coast; the same set of men we saw in Good Success Bay; they clearly are different from the Fuegians, & ought to be called foot Patagonians. — Jemmy Button had a great horror of these men, under the name of “Ohens men”. — “When the leaf is red, he used to say, Ohens men come over the hill & fight very much.”  (Feb 12)

“Early in the morning we paid the Indians a visit in hopes of being able to obtain some Guanaco meat. — They were as usual very civil: there is now married & living amongst them a native of M: Video (by birth I should think 2/3 of Northern Indian blood) who has been four years with them. — He tells us that they will remain here all the winter & then proceed up the Cordilleras; hunting for ostrich eggs; but that Guanaco meat never fails them in these parts. — The Captain is thinking of exploring the R. Santa Cruz, & this man gave us some good news, viz that there are very few Indians in that part & that the river is so deep, that horses can no where ford it. — In the R. Chupat, much further North, there are very many Indians; enemies to this tribe. — But that all the Southern Indians 900 in number are friends. — At this present time there were two boat Indians paying the Patagonians a visit (the men whom I have called foot Patagonians); they do not speak the same language; but one of this tribe has learnt their dialect. — These Indians appear to have a facility in learning languages: most of them speak a little Spanish & English, which will greatly contribute to their civilization or demorilization: as these two steps seem to go hand in hand. —

At mid-day we passed out of the first Narrows, & began to survey the coast. — There are many & dangerous banks, on one of which we ran a very good chance of sticking; to escape it was necessary to get in three Fathom water. (Feb 13)

If you are wondering how Jemmy is doing, hold on – Darwin will pay a visit to his former shipmate later this year… (RJV)

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