Seventeenth-century Spitsbergen whalers’ inadequate clothes

The whale train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg; painting by Cornelis de Man (1639)

In 1614, Dutch whalers established the camp, later village, Smeerenburg on Arctic Amsterdam island close to bigger Spitsbergen island. They especially aimed at killing slow-swimming bowhead whales.

From Groningen University in the Netherlands:

PhD defence Sandra Comis

Excavated Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century whalers’ clothing from Spitsbergen

15 November 2017

A series of archaeological excavations carried out by the Ar[c]tic Centre of the University of Groningen between 1979-1981 uncovered the remains of a Dutch whaling station on Spitsbergen. Hundreds of textile fragments were found in and around the houses and the blubber furnaces, that were exploited from 1614 to around 1600 [sic; 1660]. Amongst the finds were fragments of felt hats, jackets, breeches, stockings and mittens. The men evidently wore their normal winter clothing at work. The remains of textiles were also found in the graves of seven whalers who died during the overwintering attempt of 1634-1635.

In 1980, excavations were also conducted on the island Zeeuwse Uitkijk [now: Ytre Norskøya]. Here the graves of 50 whalers were investigated. The graves contained a total of 33 knitted caps, one fur-brimmed leather cap, eight jackets and four pairs of breeches, either complete or in fragments, as well as several stockings. On the basis of the clothing styles some of the graves can be dated to the period between 1650 to around 1750. This forms the largest collection of workmen’s clothing from this period in Europe.

In an interview with Dutch daily De Volkskrant of 22 November 2017, Ms Comis said these clothes, made for winter in the temperate Netherlands, were wholly inadequate for Arctic Svalbard.

Climate foiled Europeans’ early exploration of North America. ‘A Cold Welcome’ examines how the Little Ice Age and other factors shaped colonial history: here.

6 thoughts on “Seventeenth-century Spitsbergen whalers’ inadequate clothes

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