Absorbing, dispassionate history of whaling in western Arctic

Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, by John R. Bockstoce. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 400 pp. $29.95. During the past few decades, historical accounts of commercial whaling have been written with less than pristine objectivity. Many contemporary studies seem colored by a subjective approach ranging from romanticism to outrage, and in fact there might be some justification for so recording an industry of such dramatic aspect.

This is not the case in the latest treatise on what the author convincingly sets forth as an extraordinarily complex subject. ``Whales, Ice, and Men'' is a dispassionate, thoroughgoing study by an ethnologist who acquired his monumental credentials the hard way. He spent 10 years exploring archaeological whaling sites along the serpentine icebound coastline of the western Arctic in a walrus-hide umiak. During that decade he hunted bowhead whales with Alaskan Eskimos, whose culture has subsisted on the stocky sea mammal for nearly 1,000 years. That rigorous research was augmented by exhaustive surveys of logbooks, shipping newspapers, charts, manuscripts, and holograph documents from archives throughout the world. From these was gleaned possibly the longest continuous body of historical data compiled on any mammal species.

The weight of the research alone would leave little room for anything but a straightforward portrayal of an economic endeavor that represented the industrial revolution's expansion into the most remote waters of the globe. It occurred, of course, at a time when the unrestricted harvesting of natural resources was considered a God-given right.

These simple facts comprise the self-imposed parameters of Bockstoce's fascinating story. It is vigorously written in almost mind-boggling detail, and as might be expected, beautifully designed by the University of Washington Press.

It begins with the discovery of the bowhead whaling grounds above the Bering Strait. Subsequently the Arctic whaling industry laid the foundation for the annexation of Hawaii and acquisition of Alaska, and indirectly led to discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay.

One amusing chapter deals with the little-known subject of the Confederate Navy's almost comic-opera final stand in the Bering Strait. Comic, that is, were it not for the physical and diplomatic mayhem inflicted by a bellicose Confederate officer who refused to acknowledge that the American Civil War had ended.

The text and an amazing collection of photographs, 141 of them, also show the whalers' effect on the natives, who quickly moved in to assume their share of the profits. The discovery in the Arctic of the enormously productive bowhead, or ``Greenland right whale,'' also set off the bitter controversy between conservationists and Eskimos that persists to this day. Before the ``whale rush'' of 1848, literally a nautical counterpart of the California Gold Rush, an estimated 30,000 bowhead whales roamed the sea above the Bering Strait. Today, perhaps 4,500 remain, and the International Whaling Commission's ``rolling quota'' allows Eskimos to take approximately 18 bowheads annually.

``Whales, Ice, and Men'' is replete with adventure on the high and icy seas, the lore of proud sailing vessels, and incredibly cruel hardships in relentless icepacks, proving beyond doubt that Arctic whaling was not a romantic excursion into northern waters to test the mettle of the men and women (even children) who ventured there. What it was, in fact, was strictly business, very profitable for a time, on behalf of ladies corsets and oil lamps.

Conservationists and history buffs alike will be totally absorbed by this engrossing account that puts one of today's most serious environmental issues into a clearer perspective.

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