The Last Whalers.

NEUFELD William (1969.)


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81 black & white photographs measuring 200 by 255mm and smaller on 54 leaves (three photographs removed at rear). The images are captioned. Ring-bound oblong 4to album. N.p, n.d., c.

This work is a selection of stills from William Neufeld’s similarly-titled documentary on whaling off the Azores. The photographs are crisp and unfaded, their composition shows both great care and technique. The captions are quotes taken from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Together they create an extraordinary record of a now lost way of life. The quotes adding much resonance.


Whaling in the Azores is of especial interest as it was conducted in a manner essentially unchanged from the late eighteenth century, when New England ships sailed to the “Western Islands ground” in pursuit of sperm whales. The boats used in the Azores were essentially unchanged. They were a little longer, carved instead of clinker-built, and held seven men instead of six.


The whalers featured were based on Pico, the southernmost island in the central Azores group. They operated in radio contact with a spotter onshore, who gave directions. This was part of a large advance on the old techniques being the introduction of motor boats to tow the open canoas. This method was first recorded in 1909 and had the immediate advantage of being able to take two or three whaleboats into the vicinity of the whale. It had the surprising effect of the whalemen abandoning the occasional use of firearms and returning to more traditional hand-harpoon and lance. The last whale in the Azores was killed in 1987 and so this is a beautiful and important record of a now lost way of life.


Commencing with an appropriately existential line from chapter 111 of the book: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul underneath”, the first several pages’ quotes generally reflect the action taking place in the images. The sequence adheres to the documentary's and follows the spotting of a whale and subsequent hunt. All are apt, many are witty. Yet, as the album progresses, the captions become more introspective - “With other men, perhaps, such things would no have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” And later: “... but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever present perils of life.”


The New Bedford Whaling Museum has a section dedicated to the Portuguese whalers in the Azores, noting the contributions a the "vibrant Azorean community in New Bedford." Their website features a nineteen minute edit of the documentary can been seen here:


OCLC locates a copy at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, but the Peabody Essex and New Bedford Whaling Museums probably also have copies. Clarke, Robert, “Open Boat Whaling in the Azores” in Discovery Reports. Vol. XXVI. (Cambridge, 1954), pp 281-354; Housby, Trevor, The Hand of God. (London, 1971).   


Stock Code: 233442

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