Digging into our whaling past: Addressing the Portuguese influence in the early modern exploitation of whales in the Atlantic

Cristina Brito, Nina Vieira, Vera Jordão, António Teixeira

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Portugal, together with the Basque Country, was an important whaling location where a whale culture developed since the Middle Age. Whaling and the ways of using stranded whales spread with the Portuguese expansion in the South Atlantic in the fifteenth century. In fact, organized whaling and development of related techniques did follow the Portuguese and Spanish expansion in the Atlantic. In the medieval and early modern Portugal, whaling had been an important economic activity. Nevertheless, reliable information for the period roughly spanning from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries is still scarce. Based on historical descriptions our investigation addresses the information available about the techniques used, the species exploited and the transfer of an activity across different Atlantic regions. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries whale use migrated from the Portuguese shores in Iberia to the Atlantic Islands (Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde) and to the new overseas territories, particularly to Brazil. Whalers did use small open boats and hand harpoons to reach and kill the whales. The Basque shore-based model was imported by several Atlantic regions but with significant impact on Brazilian coasts. This is relevant in a context of globalization of techniques and ways of handling whales and their products. Once the activity became established in Brazil, in the early seventeenth century, the Iberian Crowns started a shore whaling business and a Basque crew was hired for the first seasons. So, the beginning of whaling in these new regions was mostly supported upon Basque expertise. For the next couple of centuries, a structured shore based whaling enterprise developed in the coastal waters of Brazil, mainly dedicated to the hunting of right whales (Balaenidae) during the calving season. After the depletion of these the whalers turned to humpback whales. Local whalers in Brazil always stood with a land-based type of whaling in contrary to the Basques who conducted offshore whaling when moving into the North Atlantic and away from their Iberian shores. Basques and Portuguese whalers, and their Crowns played a significant role in the transfer of knowledge and techniques of whaling across the Atlantic in the early modern period.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEnvironmental History in the Making
Subtitle of host publicationActing
EditorsCristina Joanaz de Melo, Estelita Vaz, Lígia M. Costa Pinto
Place of PublicationCham
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-41139-2
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-41137-8
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventWorld Congress of Environmental History: Environmental History in the Making - Centro Cultural Vila Flor, Guimarães, Portugal
Duration: 8 Jul 201412 Jul 2014
Conference number: 2nd


ConferenceWorld Congress of Environmental History
Internet address


  • Whaling
  • Early modern period
  • Atlantic
  • Portuguese Empire


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