A hunting party brings back a bowhead whale during the spring whaling season near Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. Photo by Kate Orlinsky/National Geographic

Animals and humans

A hunting party brings back a bowhead whale during the spring whaling season near Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. Photo by Kate Orlinsky/National Geographic

Turn and live with animals

The slaughterhouse ethic of Soviet and American whalers tells us we must look beyond communism and capitalism to survive

Bathsheba Demuth

A hunting party brings back a bowhead whale during the spring whaling season near Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. Photo by Kate Orlinsky/National Geographic

Bathsheba Demuth

is an environmental historian at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She specialises in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic, and is the author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019). 

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In the spring of 2017, a bowhead whale swam north through the Bering Sea. She kept, like all bowheads, near the sea ice, shadowing the white verge as lengthening days pulled it toward the Bering Strait. The whale was swimming into a season of bountiful eating, her preferred meal of miniscule crustaceans about to breed into reddish clouds of fatty bodies fed on the phytoplankton that bloomed under a returned sun. The bowhead made her body from this krill, sieving them from the sea with the comb-like baleen hanging from her jaws. She was nearly 60 ft long and perhaps 80 tons of fat, muscle and oil-saturated bone.

Trailing the ice took the whale near St Lawrence Island, an oblong of United States-claimed territory in the Bering Sea. On 17 April, she swam past the Yupik village of Gambell, on the island’s northwestern point, less than 40 miles from the Russian coast. Standing on the low hill that rises from Gambell’s beach, its round pebbles still covered in snow, several girls saw the whale rise to breathe. Everyone in Gambell knows the V-shaped spray that rises when bowheads exhale, and the shape they make in the water, their backs a black arc uninterrupted by a dorsal fin. People know because they depend on whales. Bowheads die so people can live, along the Bering Strait, sustaining both human bodies and Yupik culture. The girls ran to tell Gambell’s hunting crews.

A few hours later, the bowhead died from a well-placed harpoon. She was around 200 years old. Whales have been dying at human hands along the Bering Strait for 10 times that long, making the human pursuit of bowheads, sometimes unto the death, the norm in relations between our two species. But this whale’s two centuries were unlike any before them in bowhead history. She survived decades of slaughter – brought first by commercial whalers, then echoed by Soviet factory ships – so punishing that bowheads and some other whale species have skirted extinction. Her life holds a set of questions. How do we explain the scales of death and harm visited on bowheads? What has the act of killing them meant to people, and to their communities? And, a question that resonates beyond the Bering Strait, what are the ethics of killing to live – of dependency?

Some 60 miles northwest from Gambell, just off the Russian coast of the Bering Sea, sits Yttygran Island. Lines of bowhead ribs stand vertically in the tundra, next to carefully placed vertebrae. Their arcs of crumbling, grey-white bone make clear the critical place that whales have long had in human lives. Bowheads are so potently rich – they are nearly 50 per cent fat – that they allowed people to forgo nomadism at latitudes too northerly for the agriculture that feeds most sedentary societies. A thousand years ago, a civilisation called the Thule spread across the high Arctic on the power of their whaling technology – boats and harpoons – and skill. In the Bering Strait, to hunt bowheads is a world-historical ability.

By the early 19th century, hundreds of years after the Thule civilisation fragmented, the Yupik and the Iñupiat, and the other societies who inherited the high Arctic, still used versions of Thule whaling boats. The Iñupiat hunted whale from the northern coast of Alaska down toward the Seward Peninsula, while the Yupik pursued bowheads on St Lawrence Island and up the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula, Eurasia’s mirror of Alaska. Not all Yupik and Iñupiat lived in whaling communities, and whaling communities, over the course of a year, relied on many other kinds of life – walrus, birds and their eggs, berries, greens packed in seal oil. But when the bowhead killed in 2017 was born, she would have dodged harpoons from hunters who lived in communities where her flesh was essential. Villagers consumed a whale from intestines to skin. Jawbones and ribs became rafters spanned with walrus hide, so that people lived inside the heads and chests of whales.

For a whale to be shelter and sustenance, it must die. Yupik and Iñupiaq hunters in the 19th century spent the months between migrations building or repairing their walrus-hide boats, the open oblongs that took six or eight men to sea, and testing the soundness of their harpoons, ropes, spears, and the floats they made from inflated seal skins. This physical kit was paired with knowledge of the whales. In migration seasons, hunters often moved to camps on the pack ice, living for days or weeks around the open leads where whales surfaced to breathe. They didn’t cook or light fires, knowing that bowheads could smell. Conversations were few and low, out of respect for whales’ ears. The men wore light-coloured clothes so that they would seem to underwater eyes like part of the sky. On St Lawrence Island, women sent their husbands to sea with a prayer ‘that the hunters would go out as if transparent, casting no shadow’.

It is whale action, in part, that dictates the world-historical capacities of people

Knowing bowheads was not just a matter of understanding their senses, or learning how far they could submerge between breaths. The knowledge passed from elder hunters to younger men held bowheads as one being among many in a world with no hard line between humans and other persons, between subjects and objects. Land and seas bristled with sentience. Bowheads were attentive to human actions and vigorous in their moral judgment. Asatchaq, an Iñupiaq man born in the 1890s, explained to visiting researchers that whales watched people throughout the year. ‘Those who feed the poor and the old, we’ll go to,’ the whales would say. ‘We’ll give them our meat.’ Whales knew if people were angry or deceitful, if they spoke ill of the animals they killed, or if they wasted meat. Hunting began by being a good person.

Part of being a good person involved hearing what, as the hunters took to their boats and readied their harpoons, a whale spoke. On St Lawrence Island, generations of whalers described how a bowhead could keep close, in sight even when submerged, but always just out of harpoon range. Sometimes, the pursuit lasted more than an hour. Eventually, the bowhead would choose either to swim away or to surface close to the right-hand side of the boat, the side where the harpooner sat waiting. The Yupik word for this behaviour is angyi, from the root ang-, which signifies the act of giving. After a period of deliberation, a bowhead chose to give itself to its hunters, speaking through her movements her consent to die.

Over the past two centuries, much as has changed in Yupik life, but angyi as word and concept remains. Thus, on 17 April, the killer of the 200-year-old bowhead spotted by the girls on the beach described how she surfaced directly before him. We cannot ask that whale, or any bowhead, in spoken language what their actions mean to them, or if they have any meaning. But angyi is an interpretation of the whales, and the world, with ethical force. It allows that bowheads who give themselves can refuse their hunters; meaning it is whale action, in part, that dictates the world-historical capacities of people. It is an acknowledgement of human dependence. People have no innate superiority, no grand view from the top of an evolved hierarchy of being. Instead, bowheads help to make existence, both in dying to feed people and in life, when their moral presence gives meaning and resonance to human conduct. A world without bowheads would be diminished, not just in a material sense but in a social and moral one. Bowheads are part of the order of the world, and they are valuable both when they are alive and when they die.

When the bowhead killed in 2017 was young, an adolescent without her own calves, a new kind of hunter sailed into the Bering Strait on tall ships from New England. By the early 19th century, American demand for whale products led commercial whalers to hunt sperm and right whales to rareness in the Atlantic. In search of new prey, the New England fleet rounded Cape Horn, reaching Hawaii by 1819. Thirty years later, market hunting arrived in the Bering Strait.

Commercial whalers in the 19th century did not kill bowheads to eat, or to live under their ribs – or not directly. They came to turn bowheads into light, as the refined oil in whale blubber burned with a clean, bright flame. The pliable fronds of baleen became corset stays and umbrella spines. In Boston, New York, Providence and other cities on the eastern seaboard, whale parts were, for the upper classes in particular, ubiquitous. Whale fat lit family meals and bedrooms. Women seeking 18-inch waists wore baleen close to their skin. An intimate, daily part of life: and an invisible one. Most consumers never saw a bowhead, let alone participated in their deaths. They were not aboard ship to witness the whaling crews throw tons of meat and bone – parts of the whale with no commercial value – overboard, left for the seagulls and sharks.

Like Yupik and Iñupiaq hunters, 19th-century commercial whalers amassed knowledge about the animals they pursued. In the Bering Strait, they learned the shape of a bowhead spout as distinct from grey or humpback whales. They learned how the whales were attracted to reddish patches of krill. They described calves playing and the nurturing attention of their mothers. And, in the first few years the market fleet killed bowheads, they observed how unlike they were to other whales. Sailors called grey whales ‘devil fish’ for their habit of attacking boats. Sperm whales were legendarily dangerous. Right whales could be canny and violent. But bowheads were curious and docile. They swam close, ‘moving leisurely’, one captain’s son wrote in the 1850s, ‘spouting with a regularity that indicated a peaceful state of mind’.

However, within a few years of commercial hunters arriving in the Bering Sea, bowheads no longer seemed peaceful. When they saw a ship, whales swam into ‘loose, floating ice into which they shortly went and disappeared’, as one whaleman told. When cornered, the animals dived quickly, or swam backwards under the harpooner’s boat. If struck, ‘the bowhead whale rubs that part of its body – in which the harpoons have been placed – against the ice,’ said another whaler. Whales that had escaped a harpoon strike were especially wary; one evaded whalers for years because he ‘always seemed to know when a boat was close to him’ and would dive out of range. Whalers composed a new shanty, about bowheads ‘like spirits though once they were like snails / I really believed the devil has got into bowhead whales’.

Whalers interpreted bowhead actions as full of sentiment, from tenderness and maternal love to self-sacrifice

In the terms of Yupik and Iñupiaq hunters, the bowheads had revoked their consent: they would not gift themselves to the market. Yet whalers kept on killing, learning new ways of navigating the ice and anticipating bowhead movements. In their logs and memoirs, whalers left evidence that this labour had a toll. Some worried that ‘the poor whale’ was doomed by commerce ‘to utter extermination, or at least, so near to it that too few will remain to tempt the cupidity of man’. Others found the deaths ‘extremely painful’ to watch, as the whales gave a ‘deep, heavy agonising groan, like that of a person in pain’ when harpooned. The suffering was made worse, for whalers, when the animals showed ‘sympathy for each other’, choosing to ‘remain, usually for some time, with their dying companion’ after a harpoon strike. Whalers, in short, interpreted bowhead actions as filled with sentiment and a kind of morality, from tenderness and maternal love to self-sacrifice.

But such knowledge of whale feelings and actions, like the whalers’ own sentiments and observations, had no value to the market. No oil buyer on the New Bedford docks paid for emotion. They sold light to people who could burn it with no knowledge of pain. Whalers were part of a society that gave their labour value only after whales became commodities. All the men on a ship knew that they were paid – for voyages that could last years – only as a percentage of the oil and baleen sold back at port. From the captain down through the mates and stewards to the greenest deckhand, there was no pay without dead whales. Every incentive given to whalers was to kill more. Only with enough profit would whales provide food and shelter on return to shore – or perhaps something more. Through this abstraction of currency, whales enabled commercial whalers to eat and shelter themselves.

Some whalers lamented this. ‘I wanted [a] little money,’ the log-keeper of the Lydia wrote, ‘but I did not want it enough to come here and go through what I am now for it.’ Others etched their commitment to the market into scrimshaw: ‘Death to the living, long life to the killers, Success to sailors wives & greasy luck to the whalers.’ Greasy: whaler slang for money. In New England, investors in whaling ships made fortunes from whale grease, and lent out their capital to shipping, railroads, textiles, investing in the ‘manifestation’, one booster wrote, of ‘enterprise and progress’. There was no space, in this society, to value living bowheads.

As a result of the great value the 19th-century American market gave dead whales, bowheads were hunted to near-extinction. By the turn of the 20th century, the bowhead that was to die in 2017 was one of perhaps 3,000 remaining, from a population once over 20,000. The discovery of petroleum in 1859, replacing whale oil as fuel, marked the beginning of the end of commercial whaling. The manufacture of spring steel in 1907, supplanting baleen in corset stays and buggy whips, finally made bowhead parts commercially obsolete. For the first decades of the 20th century, bowheads were again hunted only by Yupik and Iñupiaq crews.

The world, however, was not done with whaling. In the 1920s, Norwegian engineers built a new kind of ship, a floating factory able to pursue species – blue and fin whales particularly – that had been too fast for sailing vessels. New refining techniques turned whale fat into margarine and cosmetics. Britain and Germany built fleets. And, in the 1930s, so did the Soviet Union. Their programme began in the Bering Sea, but would expand, by the 1950s, to Antarctica. Bowheads were not the main Soviet target; their numbers were so diminished that they were rarely killed. But when bowheads did die, they died for the plan.

The Soviet fleet was a maritime expansion of the socialist promise to overtake capitalism and replace it with the utopia promised by Karl Marx and given a state by Vladimir Lenin. It was a vision of radical freedom sustained by material bounty, the plenty that would eradicate the exploitative inequities of capitalism. Soviet whalers didn’t work for a percentage of profits, like 19th-century whalers, or for wages, like capitalist crews in the 20th century. Instead, they killed for the plan. The Soviet Union hunted whales to make their bodies part of human liberation.

Marx was not, however, so clear on what precisely utopia would look like. By the 1930s, the Soviet solution was to plan production: in quotas met and exceeded they saw the evidence of progress turned into solid facts. Gosplan, in Moscow, set targets for the number of whales each ship should kill. Exceeding this plan – killing 20 whales where 10 would have done – meant that socialism would arrive more quickly, and made the harpooner a hero of socialist labour. The next year’s plans were larger than those of the preceding season by a percentage ambitious enough to demonstrate progress. The greater the goals of the socialist plans, the more whales lost their lives.

‘If whales could scream out in pain like people, we would all have gone mad’

Plan statistics, on their smeary newsprint, made death an abstraction in Moscow and to Soviet consumers of whale-fat cosmetics and whale-organ vitamins. Yet, Soviet industrial killing brought whalers as close to their prey as the commercial fleets a century before. Sailors described whales as acting out of ‘love’ for each other, or ‘to help’ the wounded. One described a female humpback that, ‘with danger looming over her, only pressed closer to her calf, protecting him with her body … she hugged the little whale, their spouts mixing’ through the hours-long ordeal of killing both. Cetacean biologists, their reports published in fleet newspapers, explained how sperm whales circled in complex forms to protect their young, and noted that humpbacks called like birds to bring help when injured. This confirmed harpooners’ observations of similar refusal on the part of many species through their ‘increasingly cautious behaviour’.

Like their capitalist predecessors, some socialist whalers recalled the toll of slaughter. ‘If whales could scream out in pain like people,’ one remembered, ‘we would all have gone mad.’ But whales did not scream. Officially, there was no more a place in the Soviet plan to acknowledge whale suffering or its human cost than there had been in the commodity price of whale oil. So some Soviet whalers learned to use young whales as lures and to tie carcasses to their ships as ‘fenders’ to insulate contact between vessels. For commodities do not suffer, even when nursing calves paddled up the slipways after their mothers’ corpses.

The Soviet whaling fleet continued its merciless havoc in the North Pacific until 1979. By then, 3 million whales had died, globally, in the 20th century. The Soviet Union had killed between a fifth and sixth of these, but there were no longer enough cetacean bodies to substantiate a growing plan. While it lasted, Soviet whaling tried, like the rest of the Soviet project, to save workers from capitalist alienation. Given a state, Marx’s moral vision was supposed to overcome the powerlessness of a 19th-century whaler, the crew robbed of the value of their work, unable to assert the meaning of their labour on their own terms. But labour on a Soviet whaling ship also turned cetaceans into things, and demanded that their killers not notice. It required its own kind of alienation. And, just as there was no recourse for the sentiments of socialist whalers, there was no more space in the Soviet plan to value live whales than there had been in the tallies of a Yankee logbook.

On Gambell, the jaws of the whale that died in 2017 stand among those of generations of bowheads. The oldest have gone spongy from seasons of damp and wind. The smell of the oil within them gently decomposing is part of the village. Death is not an abstraction, in the Bering Strait, or something that can be rendered invisible. In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, there is no blindness to the necessity, and the mortal remains, of consuming the world.

And there is no true escape, anywhere, from this world. Any being that does not photosynthesise, which is to say all human beings, must consume – we do not produce any new raw stuff, only rework what plants make first. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the whalers that came to the Bering Strait came from cultures disinterested in acknowledging dependence on what might be called, broadly, nature. Market whalers and socialist whalers, separated by 100 years and by the ideological division that dominated the 20th century, both killed for consumers too distant to see their work. And they killed for economic ideals that saw the trajectory of human history as, essentially, independent from the nonhuman.

Thus there was no moral reckoning with the cost of destroying all whales; as commodities, they were no different than the petroleum and steel that replaced them. The Soviet Union, while rejecting the human exploitation and inequity of capitalism, kept the fundamental separation between human action and the nonhuman world. Capitalism and communism both presumed that change will bring improvement, and tried to obscure death with expanded consumption.

The logic of expanding consumption, of the commercial whaler and the factory ship, is the logic of the slaughterhouse: one that conceals death from the people who take it into their homes, or eat it, or wear it. Doing so sloughs off moral harm upon the proximate few, while many of us, the relatively wealthy in particular, stay at a distance, indulging in the illusion that humans are not dependent on others – on the gift of the whale, in Yupik terms, or on healthy populations and habitats, in the language of ecology.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, this slaughterhouse logic defined the relations between whales and people. Angyi was not the patrimony of either sort of foreign whaler, capitalist or socialist, but from their labour both developed conceptions of cetacean emotions, perhaps even moral action. Some described a kind of ethical injury done by ignoring the sentiments and sentience of whales. Yet the societies that sent market and socialist whalers to the Bering Strait left their labourers no space to act on such experiences. The term for this might be dehumanised work or alienated work, except it is more. Labour that reduces the world only to the tallied commodities of profit or plan impoverishes a society’s moral imagination. It is blind not just to the death necessary to sustain life but to the wills, emotions and even ethical judgment of other living beings.

Bathsheba Demuth

is an environmental historian at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She specialises in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic, and is the author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019). 

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