I want to write about men out doing whaling and fishing with the type of technology similar to that of early 1700s boating. They are going to have a blunderbuss, use old harpoon fishing, sail boats made of wood etc. However, I don't know as much about this subject as I would like to. Where could I learn more about how the men on the boat worked, what they did, how they whaled, etc?

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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia is a good start: History of Whaling $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for not demanding that we answer the question for you. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ I love seeing questions of "Where do I find this information" because they are invariably useful to someone else later. And while they're not particularly common, resource questions are definitely on-topic here. They even have their own tag. $\endgroup$
    – Andon
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ History of fishing - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_fishing $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 23:00

3 Answers 3


Use Moby-Dick

There was an American author, Herman Melville, who, sometime around the middle of the 19th century, wrote a thousand pages book about whaling. While this is 1850 instead of 1750, the characters live and work aboard a ship, the Pequod, which is described as "a ship of the old school", "long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans". Since it is unlikely that the readers will know the difference, if there is any difference, between the whalers of 1750 and those of 1800, I believe that Moby-Dick would do very well indeed.

Queequeg Final Chase

An artists impression of the boats and whalers described in Moby-Dick. (Pictures from Wikimedia, public domain.)

For those readers who don't have a personal acquaintance with Moby-Dick: Melville likes to engage in long and loving descriptions of technology, processes, and culture. One can safely use Moby-Dick as a guide on how to hunt sperm whales. One can safely use White Jacket as a guide to the life aboard an early 19th century warship. While Moby-Dick is notorious for dedicating a whole chapter to the description of the harpoon line, White Jacket has an equally entertaining description of mast and spar technology.

But wait there’s more

There is an entire site, The Plough Boy Anthology, dedicated to 19th century American whaling; I would recommend Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, London, 1839. Containing: Its anatomy and physiology – Food – Spermaceti – Ambergris – Rise and progress of the fishery –Chase and capture – "Cutting in" and "trying out" – Description of the ships, boats, men, and instruments used in the attack; with an account of its favourite places of resort.

Boats attacking whales
(source: mysite.du.edu)

Boats attacking whales, from the Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale, 1839, available at the Plough Boy Anthology.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I was already thinking about reading Moby Dick for learning about this but was a bit hesitant to do so because of the length of it. but I guess I'll be reading it then $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ @PaneShantone: You don't have to read it as a novel if you don't want to. What I'm saying is that Melville includes long and detailed descriptions of technology etc. For example, there is a long and detailed description of whaling boats, their construction and their use. Get an electronic copy of the book from Project Gutenberg and skim looking for items of interest. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @PaneShantone: For an example, see chapter 62, "The Dart". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ @PaneShantone: I have added a link to a non-fiction book about early 19th American whaling, at the Plough Boy Anthology. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 19, 2018 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ Not useful or constructive in any way (sorry) but there probably is fairly large difference between early 1700s and 1850. There is lots general technological development and industrialization there. Which is why industrialized whaling was a thing. Also the Napoleonic wars and various colonial wars that led to much effort being spent on building better and larger ships and improving navigation and mapping. Some of that would have trickled down. Again not in the least a useful comment but... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 23:36

The Wikipedia article on the subject of sailing ships battle tactics is quite elaborate and detailed - definitely check it out : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailing_ship_tactics

Do note this concerns mostly battle tactics. For specific tasks such as whalinh you might want to check out other articles.


Wind and water haven't changed

This means that you can hop on a modern sail-boat, and learn some things about 17th century sailing. Even on a dingy you can learn the difference between tacking upwind and running downwind. After a couple weeks you'll learn to see the pattern of wind upon the water and be able to predict when a gust will come.

If you're even more dedicated, it turns out there are even 'tours' for sailing tall-ships: http://www.maybe-sailing.com/

Why do this as opposed to just reading? There's a big difference between reading about the amount of force on a ships sail and realising that even a square meter or two of cloth can exert more force than any human can hold....

But some things have changed

Things like navigation, and the sail-rigs of the ships. For finding what these differences are, I'd suggest reading books, both fiction (As AlexP suggests) and non-fiction. If you live in a country settled via ships (Eg America, Australia, New Zealand) you can probably go to your local library and find first-hand accounts of the voyage written by the settlers who spent at least a month or two onboard those ships. Many of these diaries aren't publicly available online, so tracking those down will probably require some legwork.

Finally, here's a video from sailing a square-rigged ship: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96cRjLkIKlE


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