Lecture to the Kendall Whaling Museum on the beginnings of South Georgia Museum by Nigel Bonner, 16th October 1993

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Kendall Whaling Museum 16 October 1993

The South Georgia Whaling Museum

Nigel Bonner

The story of the South Georgia Whaling Museum began in 1989 during an operation to clean up the abandoned whaling stations there. I have described in an earlier talk at this Symposium the development and final collapse of the whaling industry at South Georgia. When whaling activities finally ceased on the island in 1965 the four stations that had been active since the end of the Second World War were left with varying degrees of protection by no provision at all for maintenance. Deterioration was inevitable, and this was greatly exacerbated by vandalism and looting, largely by crews of visiting East European fishing vessels and private yachts.


The fishermen were particularly destructive. Many types of whaling gear were of use on the fishing boats and many domestic products were in short supply in Eastern Europe. It was not unnatural that a great deal of material should have been acquired by the crews of the boats. What was less acceptable was the huge amount of wanton destruction that occurred. Anything smashable was smashed - windows, sanitary fittings and furniture. Almost every door in every building was broken down, whether or not it had been locked.


Besides the fishing fleets, private yachts, many from France, were increasingly cruising the Antarctic. These yachts, like the fishing boats, found the whaling stations a handy source of supply for stores and fuel (a large quantitiy of diesel had been left at Leith Harbour). Once of the yachtsmen actually wrote a booklet for the benefit of his confreres describing exactly where at the stations fuel and stores could be found.


Once buildings had been broken into deterioration caused by the weather accelerated. An abortive attempt to salvage scrap from one of the stations, Leith Harbour, was followed by the invasion and brief military occupation of South Georgia by Argentine forces early in April, 1982. The Argentines had all surrendered by the end of the month and the island was thereafter garrisoned by British troops, to prevent further hostile actions by the Argentines. The successive occupations by two military forces added substantially to the damage at the whaling stations.


Towards the middle of the 1980s concern was being expressed at the state of the stations. Oil storage tanks had sprung leaks (often helped by bullets) and extensive areas of ground were contaminated with heavy fuel oil. These oily areas seemed to attract elephant seals (perhaps because they warmed up quicker on sunny days) and increasingly incidents of oiled seals, and less often penguins, were reported. The administration of South Goergia decided that steps needed to be taken to clean up the stations.


Christian Salvesen's, the leaseholders of Leith Harbour and Stromness stations, had in 1979 acquired also the leases of Husvik and Grytviken for a negligble fee. It is not clear why Salvesen's did this, since they had no intention of resuming whaling, but it was probably with the intention of monopolising the best harbours on the island so as to be in a position to establish a repair base for fishing fleets, should the demand arise.


Salvesen's accepted responsibility for the stations they leased and, on prompting from the South Georgia administration, chartered a firm of marine engineers to carry out a field survey. I was appointed by the Commissioner for South Georgia to accompany this survey and report on environmental hazards and suggest ways of minimising them.


In preparing my report I stressed the importance of the whaling industry to the history of South Georgia and the need to check further depredations and to set up a small museum to preserve artefacts. Rather to my surprise, the Commissioner agreed with my proposal and provided funds to put it into practice.


In 1991 a clean-up party came to South Georgia to deal with environmentally hazardous materials. Over 3000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil was removed, large quantities of asbestos and glass fibre insulation were land-filled, and various other materials such as lead-acid batteries and 75 tonnes of concentrated sulphuric acid dealt with.


The clean-up team was very helpful in collecting artefacts from the various stations which they thought might be valuable to the Museum. Unfortunately, however, one of the terms of their contract allowed them to collect scrap from the stations as a means of off-setting the costs of the operation. This has meant that almost everything made of brass or bronze has been taken from all the stations. An even more serious loss has been nearly all the papers held in the offices at the stations. During the looting of the stations by the fishermen, filing cabinets and plan chests were emptied on the floor of the offices. The clean-up team, in a fit of enthusiasm, gathered all these papers together and, with other rubbish, consigned them to bonfires. Fortunately, many of the more important files had been salved earlier by personnel of British Antarctic Survey and are deposited in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.


The first task in setting up the Museum was to find a building to house it in. It was decided that the Museum should be at Grytviken, since that was the site of Larsen's original whaling station that pioneered the Antarctic whaling industry. It was also conveniently near the garrison quarters, which could provide accommodation for the Museum workers when they were on site. The actual building chosen was the manager's house, or "Villa", as it was known during the whaling days.


The Villa was totally derelict when the project was launched, but during the period of the clean-up operations in 1991 the first of the Museum's workers, a retired Polish fishing skipper named Bob Kluznial, set about renovating it. During three months on site, Bob thoroughly cleaned out the interior, painted half the roof, replaced no fewer than 42 doors, and reglazed the windows (every one of which had been smashed) with plastic glazing sheets.


Nothing was done about an exhibition in that season, though a large amount of material was collected together. The clean-up team, which had their own ship, was very helpful in transporting heavy equipment from the other whaling stations. The Museum was able in this way to acquire a whale claw like the one outside the Kendall Museum and examples of harpoon guns, such as a rare 50mm bottle-nose cannon.


The following season I returned to South Georgia. Besides Bob Kluzniak I had added to the team Ian Hart, a Welshman sho for several years had been compiling a very detailed history of the whaling company that operated from Grytviken, the Compania Argentina de Pesca. Ian knows more about the financial and administrative development of the company than anyone else living. I had spent the six seasons 1956-57 to 1961-62 living at Grytviken and had during that time acquired a good practical knowledge of whaling. Together, we could answer most questions about Grytviken.


Our field trip was limited to two months, the period between reliefs of the garrison, which provided us with transport. The first trip naturally concentrated on getting the Villa ready for our exhibitions. We started on the front reception room, which we named the Fullerton room, in honour of the Comissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Mr W.H.Fullerton, who had provided us with the funding to support the project. We scraped, painted, laid linoleum and finally fixed to the walls a selection of photographs of the station in operation which I had taken during the late 1950s. These, together with their captions, provided a colourful, interesting and informative display which was much appreciated by our visitors.


Tourist vessels, mostly carrying passengers from the States, are now calling at South Georgia fairly frequently. Grytviken is their official Port of Entry for the island, so all ships must call there. The tourists are fascinated by the ruined whaling station and also by the little cemetary, where Sir Ernest Shackleton is buried.


I had provided a descriptive leaflet to help people find their way about the whale factory, but would normally conduct tours to explain the complicated machinery to be seen. Another leaflet gave information about the three whale ships at Grytviken and a reference to the Louise, the original transport that Larsen brought his factory down on in 1904. Louise had been a down-easter, the Jennie S Barker, built at Freeport, Maine, in 1869. Sadly, Louise was burnt to the waterline by a military accident in the late 1980s. A third leaflet, by Ian Hart, provided a brief history of the whaling company.


Tourists, of whom some 480 had signed the visitors book, between 23 January when the first vessel arrived, and 5 March when the field party departed from Grytviken, were very impressed with the display and most enthusiastic about the conducted tours.


Gradually we renovated more rooms and had quite reasonable displays in two large rooms, and prototype displays in two others. We were also gathering together heavy equipment on the area outside the Villa.


Obviously, good labelling was important and I was lucky to have Ian Hart with me, who prepared beautifully lettered labels to my prescription. Ian also took charge of all the specimen registration. We used the register forms provided by the Museum Documentation Association, a quasi-governmental body that sets standards for most central and local-government Museums in the United Kingdom, as well as many private ones.


Our second field visit was made in November-December 1992. During this period three more rooms were decorated and displays prepared in them. One room was used to create a facsimike whaler's bunk room, using bunks and furniture from around the station and contemporary artefacts that might have been found in such a room. Fortunately I had still retained a towel and a boiler suite from my spell at Grytviken in the 1950s and also was able to provide a number of other small items. A colleague from British Antarctic Survey donated a pair of leather plan boots and we had collected a range of newspapers from around the stations going back to 1919. By the end of the operation the room looked sufficiently authentic for a group of tourists going round the Museum to back out sharply, thinking they had intruded on our private quarters.


We had also set up a room, the Larsen Room, devoted to the first decade of whaling at South Georgia. This contains photographs from that era, some photocopies of lease documents, various stoves, and so forth. It also contains some meterial relating to the introduction of reindeer into South Georgia by C.A. Larsen and his brother in 1911. The reindeer, which have thriven, are now something of an embarassment. They are having significant adverse effects on the island's native vegetation, and in the absence of regular effective control measures are destroying their own range.


Besides the exhibition inside the Villa, the Museum team has set up an outdoor display of the exhibits too heavy to be brought inside. These include various harpoon guns, one of which, a Bofors gun, probably goes back to the previous century and may have been the original gun on the first catcher to operate at South Georgia, Fortuna. Or so the story went at the station. Besides this very primitive gun, whose recoil system, if it can be so called, consisted only of a pair of rubber blocks, the Museum has a range of Kongsberg guns with full glycerine recoil systems up to the most modern pattern produced from the Kongsberg Vapenfabrikk. There is also the previously mentioned Gjelstad whale claw, used on one of Salvesen's factory ships for hauling the whales up the stern slip, and a steam-powered bone saw. Perhaps the pride of place has to go to the great cast iron boilers that were found on the beach at Grytviken.


These boilers, "gryter" in Norwegian, were what gave the name Grytviken to the cove, which means "Boiler Cove" in Norwegian. Originally there were at least six (and probably eight) of these pots arranged around a nineteenth century sealers ' tryworks on the other side of the harbour, Regrettably, clearance work and road-building activities have almost obliterated this important historical site. The remains of two pots can still be seen near the military fuelling point and it is hoped that at some time an excavation can be made there.

Away from the Villa, the Museum team has been active in clearing up around the station. Military occupation seems to have generated an enormous quantity of rubbish, much of which was disposed of by cramming it into available buildings. Some of these have now been cleared out. The old bakery, for example, is now clear but, lacking almost all the utensils used by the bakers, it is less interesting than it should be. The blacksmith's shop has also been cleaned up, and here the loss of the tools is a very sad blow. Blacksmiths were of vital importance to the whalers, who had to be entirely self-sufficient for repairs and fabrications of all the iron-ware they used. Harpoons also had to be straightened after being recovered from the carcasses of the whales, and the harpoon smith was a key man on the station.


The factory itself has so far hardly been touched. Some clearance has been made in the meat-meal plant, but much remains to be done. It is hoped on the next field trip, in January next year, to clear the solubles plant, where protein-rich liquors were concentrated for adding to the meat meal, and the separator house, where the oil was recovered from the effluents from the various boilers and extractors about the station.

Three whaling vessels still lie at Grytviken. Dias and Albatross lie semi-submerged alongside the north arm of the main jetty. Dias was built as a Hull trawler in 1906. She whaled briefly off Cap Lopez in the Congo, catching humpbacks, but was sold to Pesca (as the Grytviken company was known) in 1927. She never whaled at South Georgia, being used exclusively for elephant sealing and as a service boat. Albatross was built in 1921 or Pesca. She was one of the last whalers built without the catwalk from the bridge to the gun platform. For most of her life at Grytviken she, like Dias, was used as a sealer.


On the other side of the station at the oiling jetty lies Petrel. She was built in 1928 and whaled for Pesca until 1955, when she was converted to a sealer. This involved removing her catwalk and whale winch. However, she is still an excellently preserved example of a whale catcher of her period. Petrel has been up and down in the water a few times. She was afloat when I was at Grytviken in 1990, sunk by the stern in 1991 and 92 and has now been raised again by a team of Gurkha engineers. I would very much like to haul her out of the water and have her safely ashore, as afloat she is more at the mercy of the elements than when lying on the bottom partly submerged.


Let me show you a few more pictures of some of our exhibits. Although naturally we want to concentrate on the whaling itself, we do not wish to ignore the social life of the whalers. A special treasure at Grytviken is the Whaler's Church, erected in 1913 and still in use when visitors come to Grytviken. The church is provided with a peal of two bells which still ring out to welcome Christmas. The Church also houses the whaler's library. The books are, of course, mostly in Norwegian, though there are some Spanish titles, since the company employed about 40 Argentine workers, mostly expatriate Russians and Poles. Unfortunately there are few interesting titles, most of the books being poor translations of romances and westerns.


The library was in greater use than the church, which apart from the period immediately after its erection was used only for Christmas and funerals. More popular still was the cinema, Grytviken Kino, erected in 1931. Each of the whaling stations had a cinema and films were circulated between all of them. We have the projector from Stromness in our collection.


Long evenings could be filled with skrimshaw, though the Norwegian whalers never brought this to such a stage of perfection as did the Yankee whalers. They had much less time available, working a 12 hour day, seven days a week. However, sperm teeth were carved into crude semblances of whales, seals, and penguins. In an un-curated museum, such exhibits are at some risk from pilfering, but it seems a pity not to put them on show. I am particularly attached to the set of little engraving tools made and used by the second blacksmith, Stanislav Markovitch (one of the Polish Argentine crew), to make his figures.

Until almost the end of the whaling, the stations were officially "dry". This meant, of course, that liquor was distilled illicitly. During the clean-up operation at Stromness several stills were found. This is one of the finer examples.


Let me conclude by summarising what the Museum is trying to do. I want to inform the visitors, by they tourists, soldiers from the garrison, scientists or yachtsmen, about what went on at the whaling stations, particularly Grytviken. Of course, no one approves of the wholesale slaughter of the whales and the destruction of a great resource, but we should not close our eyes to what happened. At the same time we should be aware that the whalers were not ogres. They were ordinary, or perhaps I should say extraordinary, seamen. They were engaged in what was then regarded as a perfectly respectable profession. Indeed, in Vestfold on the shores of Oslo Fjord there was no more respected profession than that of whaling, and a whale gunner was a leading figure in his community. I lived among the whalers for nine years and I was proud to be part of their society.


The South Georgia Whaling Museum will never be a research institution like the Kendall. Our visitors come to us only briefly. We have the opportunity to present our message in a couple of hours, rarely more. This limits our scope, but at the same time clarifies our mission. Displays must be simple and clear. If detailed information is required, it must be in the form of a handout. We keep no great stock of duplicate specimens - no scholars will ever come to South Georgia to work on our collections - and our own opportunities for research are compromised by the need to turn our hands to routine maintenance tasks. Next season we must try to paint the Villa and at some time in the future we shall have to replace the corrugated iron roof.


Organising operations ten thousand miles away from home is not easy. Communications with South Georgia are neither convenient nor cheap. Labour is not a problem. I am fortunate in having a team of committed workers, Bob Kluzniak, Ian Hart and currently Tim and Pauline Carr, who arrived on their yacht for a year's stay at Grytviken. At the moment the South Georgia administration is funding the project in what I must acknowledge as a generous fashion. However, in the future the Museum will be expected to raise revenue through donations and the sale of souvenirs and publications. And even stamps. The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands administration has issued a commemorative series of four stamps, featuring the Whaling Museum.


But the future of the Museum is almost certainly bound up with that of the tourist trade, and that is difficult to forecast. Despite inevitable encertainties I am optimistic. I think we serve a useful function: visitors are obviously interested and, mostly, impressed. If this causes them to think a little more deeply about the whaling industry, the management of natural resources and the society of whalers, I think we shall have achieved our objective.