A life among blubber, fat and oil

The smell must have been awful! The smoke lay thick across the landscape and made it impossible to see anything. The fat and oil from the blubber must have penetrated into all one’s pores and impregnated all the clothes. Imagine working, eating, drinking, sleeping and living in the middle of all this!

It is difficult to imagine a way of life and an attitude towards it that differ so much from our own. The workers on the whaling stations worked in all types of weather conditions. They kept going for as long as necessary to finish the job of making oil out of whale blubber. Everyday life took place among the remains of rotting whale corpses, waste and mud from rain water, meltwater and dirt that could not penetrate into the ground because of the permafrost.

But the whalers were typically accustomed to terrible smells from drains, rubbish, dirt and waste in many cities throughout Europe. Most of them came from poor backgrounds, and it is unlikely that the stench from the whaling stations would have bothered them. Thoughts of riches, prestige, honour and fame among and the idea of the adventure of the north tempted people to come to Svalbard. The pay was good, and food, drink and shelter were provided. If the whaling went well one might even be lucky enough to benefit from a bit of the profits. In its day, life as a whaler must have been pretty good. The many loose objects that have been dug out of the ground at whaling stations also confirm a picture of people who knew how to relax and have fun in the midst of all the smells, smoke, fat and oil. The clay pipe was often in use and homemade wine regularly consumed. In their spare time people occupied themselves playing games.

The clothes they wore were valuable, and patches were sewn on to mend rips or worn areas. Nevertheless, some jackets, trousers, hats and shoes were thrown out before they were beyond repair. In Smeerenburg many remains of clothes that had obviously been discarded have been found. This is perhaps not so strange, given that the clothes were full of blubber and fat –  centuries of natural decomposition have not had much of an effect. They are in the same condition, and the colours as vibrant, as the day they were thrown away.

Updated December 2008

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Norwegian Polar Institute
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