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Harpoon gun was used for whaling in 1889

The new exhibition at the German Maritime Museum shows a harpoon gun that was used for whaling during an Arctic expedition. This marked a step towards industrial whaling.

This harpoon gun, built in 1889 by the Bofors company in Christiana (Oslo), was acquired by the German Sea Fishery Association in 1898 to equip the ship ELMA for a sea voyage to the Arctic Ocean as part of a general overhaul. The destination of the voyage, which took place a year later and departed from the Wencke shipyard in Bremerhaven, was Bear Island north of Spitsbergen. This was the second voyage with which the German government sought to take possession of the island. Claims of this nature were highly contested until Norwegian territorial sovereignty over Bear Island was recognized in 1920.
The harpoon gun was part of the expedition's broad research mission and the key not only to whaling in the Wilhelmine era, but also to the eventual establishment of industrial whaling in Germany. Between July 4 and July 15, 1899, five humpback whales, one fin whale and one minke whale were killed with the ELMA's harpoon gun. A total of 65 tons of whale fat was produced during the voyage, which seemed to give reason to hope for an expansion of industrial whaling in the 20th century.
In our exhibition, the harpoon gun marks the beginning of modern whaling, its industrialization, and with it the overexploitation of whale stocks resulting from the use of harpoon guns, steam-powered whaling ships, and ramps on factory ships. The relevant technical standards had already been set in the 1870s by Norwegian whaling captain and inventor Svend Foyn (1809-1894). For the first time, they allowed the capture of numerous different whale species - including much larger and heavier ones than those previously hunted with hand-held harpoons or harpoon guns.


Photo: DSM

Dr. Sven Bergmann

+49 471 482 07 19

As part of the exhibition, the harpoon is intended to stimulate discussion about whaling

The cannon from 1889 is part of the extensive collection of material that has been assembled at the German Maritime Museum on the subject of whaling. It ranges from logbooks and photographs to personal accounts of experiences. All of these documents and objects shed light on the enormous catches as well as the wide range of commercial and household goods that were made from the whales that were killed. These included margarine, bicycle oil, and garden fertilizer.
As the subject of conservation efforts, the cannon presents us with several challenges-particularly because it was used aboard ship, where it was continually exposed to wind and salt water, but also because it has been displayed outdoors on the grounds of the Bremerhaven Museum Harbor since 2000. Moving the cannon inside the museum will not only allow us to preserve it for future generations as material evidence of an early phase of modern whaling. We also hope to use it to initiate discussions about industrial whaling, overfishing, the use of natural resources, and the emotional connection that many people feel to whales today - precisely because they are no longer perceived as marine resources, but as beautiful creatures worthy of protection.

Further literature

Dittmer, Richard
Das Nord-Polarmeer. NachTagebüchern und Aufnahmen während der Reise mit Sr. Maj. Schiff „Olga“
Hannover and Leipzig 1901

Barthelmess, Klaus
The Bear Island Expeditions of the German Sea Fisheries Association as Camouflage for Secret German Government Plans to Occupy the Island, 1897-1900
in: Aspects of Arctic and Sub-arctic History. Proceedings of the International Congress on the History of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Region, Reykjavík
18-21 June 1998, Reykjavík 2000, P. 441-447

Barthelmess, Klaus
Die denkwürdigste Harpunenkanone der deutschen Walfanggeschichte
in: Deutsche Schifffahrt 31 (2009), Heft 2, P. 2-4

Jacobsen, Alf R.
Svend Foyn – fangstpioner og nasjonsbygger
Oslo 1982



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Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum
Hans-Scharoun-Platz 1
D-27568 Bremerhaven


T. +49 471 482 07 0

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