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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

The Shore Whaling Stations at South Georgia

by Bjørn L. Basberg

Novus Forlag, Oslo
ISBN: 82 7099 394 8
Price: NOK298.00/€36.17

By the end of the nineteenth century the Arctic was almost denuded of whales as a result of relentless hunting over several centuries. By that time the whaling industry had become highly commercial and profitable, and so you might think that the whaling companies would realise the need for conservation and restraint if only to ensure a continuing supply of whales for the future of their industry. Far from it - when the supply of Arctic whales ran low, the companies simply turned their attention to the Antarctic, with the concept of conservation not even crossing their minds.

During the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, the infrastructure for the whaling industry was set up in the south Atlantic. No fewer than six shore whaling stations were established on the shores of the remote and desolate island of South Georgia. These were complete 'state-of-the-art' industrial communities, and there is no doubt that their establishment in such an inaccessible location was a remarkable feat of logistics. The last of the stations was abandoned in 1966, and since then these unusual industrial archaeological sites have been slowly decaying.

During the 1990s small teams of industrial archaeologists from Norway made expeditions to the island to survey and record the remains, and the result is this excellent and beautifully illustrated book in which Professor Basberg provides us with a clear picture of the surviving relics of these isolated installations.

The reader soon becomes familiar with whaling jargon - the flensing plans, guano mills, bone cookeries, blubber boilers and many more, in both English and Norwegian which were the two principal languages of South Georgia whaling. The comprehensive survey photographs (where did they get all that sunshine?) and measured drawings show the detailed construction and character of the buildings and artefacts. The variety of processes involved in ensuring 100 per cent productive use of the whale carcasses are explained, and archive photographs show items of plant actually in use. Many features were common to all six whaling stations, but there were differences in detail, and these distinctive characteristics are identified and explained. The book's contents are structured logically but this doesn't excuse the unfortunate omission of an index.

The whaling stations were complete communities, albeit male orientated. As well as the complexities of the processing plants, the survey describes the sleeping quarters, medical centre, library, cinema, church, pigsty, bakery, and all the other necessities of a small town, culminating in the cemetery.

The author is very focussed on the subject, so for a full appreciation of the island of South Georgia, and indeed the broader picture of Antarctic whaling, the reader must look elsewhere - The Island of South Georgia (1984) by Robert Headland of the Scott Polar Research Institute makes the ideal companion to understanding the context.

Bjørn Basberg's book gives a clear and comprehensive picture of these decaying ghost towns of rusting corrugated iron. All that is missing to complete the image of South Georgia whale processing is that awful, all-pervading stench!

Reviewed by Ken Catford


 

 

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