Plate 1 “Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean Sept 1871” (Sea Horse Islands, Point Belcher, Concordia, Gay Head, George)
One plate of four from the scarce set of hand colored whaling lithographs documenting one of the worst whaling disasters of the 19th century - the Yankee fleet frozen in the Arctic in September 1871.
The Arctic seas had become a popular destination with whalers after explorers in the Bering Straits, discovered an abundance of "new-fangled monsters," (Bowhead whales). From 1846 to 1851, the whaling trade averaged upwards of 650 vessels with a majority of these hailing from Nantucket, New London, Sag Harbor, and the largest number sailing from New Bedford. As catches declined, fleets would move from place to place in the Arctic and South Pacific and in 1871, they returned to fish the Bering Straits.
Although warned by local inhabitants that the ice was closing in, the captains rationalized that the shifting winds would keep a channel open, even late in the season, and besides the whaling was finally good. Very quickly 33 whaling vessels were trapped in icy arctic waters. The sea levels rose and the jagged ice began tearing into the wooden vessels. The captains wrote a resolution stating:
“We, the undersigned, masters of whaleships now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful situation, have all come to the conclusion that…we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning our vessels.”
Upwards of 1,200 mariners and their families barely escaped in small whale boats through narrow and rapidly closing channels in the ice to reach rescue ships 80 miles away. Everyone survived, in spite of a gale they encountered as they reached the rescue ships.
The trapped whalers were left behind in the ice with their American flags flying upside down, a sign of distress. Many of these were owned by New Bedford merchants, ruining the owners financially and forever damaging the 19th century whaling industry. (In today’s conversion the losses exceeded $33 million).
In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the discovery of 2 of the 33 ships that were crushed by the ice near Wainwright, Alaska. The discoveries were possible as climate change had melted ice in the area and made wreck sites more accessible to archaeologists.
Artist John Perry Newell (1831–1898) created a series of five lithographs depicting the catastrophe one year after it occurred, when facts about the ships were still fresh. The lithographs provided finely wrought renderings of the boats, their names, and other valuable information. We are excited to offer this wonderful set of four lithographs which tell such a haunting story and are such historically significant works of art.
Lithograph with original hand color.
Archivally framed measuring 22 x 28 inches.
Very good original condition.