New Brunswick

'Butcher shops adrift': 185-year-old ledger depicts N.B. ship's right whale hunts

Researchers are celebrating the addition of seven new North Atlantic right whale calves this spring to a critically endangered population. But there was a time when a single Saint John whaling ship would kill as many as a dozen of those same whales in seven days and it was considered "a good week." 

'Scum of the earth' travelled the globe harvesting whales, visiting Napoleon, eating tortoise

A whaling ledger from the James Stewart describes the harvesting of dozens of right whales and sperm whales for oil and blubber from May 1834 to 1835. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Researchers are celebrating the addition of seven new North Atlantic right whale calves this spring to a critically endangered population. 

But there was a time when a single Saint John whaling ship would kill as many as a dozen of those same whales in seven days and it was considered "a good week." 

Several pages of a nearly 200-year-old whaling ledger from a Saint John-built-and-operated whaling vessel are being kept and studied at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

The ledger shows, in great detail, whales spotted, killed and harvested each day of an approximately two-year voyage. 

A vessel called the James Stewart, took a Saint John crew as far as the Indian Ocean and back, harvesting dozens of whales for oil, blubber and possibly bone along the way. 

"It's hard to say how many whales they took," said Joshua Green, a photo archivist who has been exploring the document. "But if we look at some of the pages, we can see weeks where they caught nine, 12 whales, caught and processed in one week." 

Joshua Green, photo archivist with the New Brunswick Provincial Archives, has been recently looking into a 185-year-old whaling ledger and a journal kept by its shipmaster, Joseph Godfrey Kenney of Saint John. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

During that time period, before the widespread use of petroleum or electricity, whales were harvested for whale oil, which, when lit, was used for lighting. 

Whale detail 

The journal was gifted to the archives several years ago. It's missing pages and its cover. The information inside is all inscribed by quill and ink, likely by the listed shipmaster, Joseph Godfrey Kenney. 

It details the daily whaling, weather as well as the daily harvest listed in longitudes and latitudes of each whale kill between May of 1834 and 1835. 

200-year-old whaling ledger details killing of right whales

4 years ago
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There was a time when a single Saint John whaling ship would kill as many as a dozen of those same whales in seven days and it was considered "a good week."

Along with the 185-year-old written accounts are images of each whale species that was harvested. They include right whales, sperm whales and likely bowhead whales. Each image includes a tally of what Green said is most likely the number of barrels of whale oil taken from each animal.

Whale tail images were used to indicate when they were simply spotted. And images of whale heads often show up in the ledger when a whale was killed by the crew but wasn't able to be harvested. The ledger often recounts whales "sunk" and "lost" before they were able to be affixed to the hull of the ship and carved up by crew. 

"They had three or four small boats," said Green. "These essentially were row boats with crews on them and they would pursue the whale and harpoon them until they were dead and eventually then haul them back to the ship and tie them before they were somehow swept away." 

Joshua Green, photo archivist with the New Brunswick Provincial Archives, points out the numbers associated with each whale kill. He says it's likely the amount of whale oil harvested from each animal. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"In some cases, it looks like they were sunk somehow," said Green. "It says sunk, 'killed and sunk' and, in cases where they sunk, it looks like they were not cutting and boiling so that means sunk for good I would say." 

Looking through the document, Green said it shows the stark difference of attitudes toward whales between then and now. 

"It's really interesting to see how far we've come," said Green. "We've done more than a 180. It's a rehabilitation effort where it was, it wasn't an extermination effort, but it was definitely hunting with extreme prejudice.

"They were just a resource to be harvested like wood, like lumber was, so trying to clear-cut the whales."

Cash for cetaceans

During the time, the indiscriminate hunting of those whales was worth big money and at its peak. 

A Telegraph-Journal article from Oct. 29, 1948, recounts the exploits of the vessel and its profits for whaling. 

A 2017 picture of two North Atlantic right whales near Cape Cod, Mass. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #19315)

It stated before the James Stewart shipmaster Kenney "in a single day took three whales which yielded more than $10,000 worth of oil and whalebone." 

The article stated: "the James Stewart grossed an estimated $1,500,000 in 12 years in the trade." 

The James Stewart

CBC News wasn't able to located any paintings or renderings of the James Stewart. But the New Brunswick Museum was able to find written descriptions of the vessel. 

According to a newspaper provided by the museum, "... the beautiful coppered whale-ship 'James Stewart' ..." is described as launching on a Thursday,

Paintings, photos or renderings of the whaling ship, the James Stewart, may not exist, according to the Provincial Archives and the New Brunswick Museum. It would have looked similar to the whale vessels depicted in this 1840 painting. (Submitted: Joshua Green Credit: American National Gallery of Art, The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund)

"According to the Shipping Register it was a Ship, built 1833; had 2 decks, 3 masts, 109 feet in length, 28 for width and 7 for depth; with a gross tonnage of 386," wrote Jennifer Longon of the museums Archives and Research Library.

"All 64 shares were owned by Charles S. Stewart. The vessel registry was transferred from the Saint John port to San Francisco in 1853 when it was sold." 

Salty Crew 

The Saint John whaling crew was not well regarded in the shipping world.

The Telegraph-Journal article stated, " authority claims these men were recruited from 'the scum of the earth'..." 

It details the whalers as "spouters," "blubber-hunters" and "butcher-shops adrift," but it does state those terms likely stemmed from "prejudice" and credits the crew for being able to "handle their vessels ably in strange waters, in all kinds of weather." 

Whale tale

Green has cross-referenced the ledger with a journal Kenney kept, as well as newspaper articles. 

Altogether, it paints a vivid picture of the Saint John crew, their adventures at sea and what they had to do to survive. 

"It's kind of like right out of Moby Dick," said Green. 

The whaling ledger of the James Stewart depicts images of whales with numbers inscribed in them to identify a successfully harvested animal. Whale tails indicate a spotting. Whale heads poking above the water, or 'spyhopping,' are listed when a whale was described as killed but sank before it could be harvested. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Kenney had his first, third and fourth mates and three other crew members "kidnapped and held for ransom by a renegade Spaniard who led a band of natives." His solution was to lure aboard and capture locals in order to create a hostage exchange. It worked. 

The journal also recalled an 11-day shore leave on Saint Helena, the island off western Africa where Napoléon Bonaparte was exiled and eventually died.

The journal read, "...all onboard having visited the tomb of the great warrior Napoléon..." 

"They were everywhere," said Green. "All over the world, just doing really crazy stuff."

A hand-coloured engraving of the Saint John harbour from Martello Tower in 1841 — where the James Stewart would have called home. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Provincial Archives)

The article also credited shipmaster Kenney with taking advantage of another, now endangered, species to feed his crew while they hunted whales all over the globe: Galapagos tortoises.

"There (sic) creatures were most remarkable. They would live for six months without tasting food or water and are most excellent eating. We pilled them 'tween decks wherever there was space, five or six, one on top of the other.

"We let them remain there for a week, then we took them out on deck and gave them a little exercise. They were most useful, as they provided us with fresh messes two or three times a week, and thus there was no danger of scurvy among the crew, so we could remain at sea perhaps nine months."


Shane Fowler


Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.