The Shore Whaling Stations at South Georgia
by Bjørn L. Basberg
Novus Forlag, Oslo
ISBN: 82 7099 394 8
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
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 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