I feel moved to write mainly due to the fusion of great seafaring culture that haunts Whitby’s ancient streets. I doubt whether there are more places with a greater maritime heritage than Whitby and forces unseen are clawing at me to write their story. Night brings vivid dreams as the wind howls around the hostel’s windows. The cry of gulls reminds me that I am in my element, like my ancestors before me.
Whitby is famous for one of the world’s greatest explorers, Captain James Cook (More) who was apprenticed in the town as a young man, although a native of Marlton, now Middlesborough. I am also put in mind of a dear friend of mine from my Mediterranean sailing days, Mike Gardner (‘Ishtar Mike’, for those who have read my autobiography) who followed many of the great man’s voyages around the world on his boat ‘Ishtar’ which he registered in Whitby in honour of the Captain. I know Mike will be reading this, so blessings to you kidda over there in Madagascar!
Since I have been in Whitby, my very soul was brought to the attention of another remnant of history that is not as positive as the exploits of the Captain Cook. It has lurked in the shadows of the great man’s navigational genius. In fact, many are not even aware of Whitby’s dark past until coming across the gruesome reminder, the ‘whalebone arch’, made from the jawbones of a whale. This was a dubious gift from Alaska, to celebrate a shadowy partnership in slaughter between the two nations.
For me, however, it is not quite as simple as condemning the whalers out of hand, for were they not skilled, courageous sailors as well? They ventured far into the ‘big blue’ in pursuit of their prey, in great peril to themselves. Often they landed on remote islands yet to be discovered and named, and many were lost, leaving families behind them to starve in poverty. As with most things in this world there are always shadows of grey, and although I can never condone whaling, especially the modern version – which to my mind is cowardly, vicious, industrialised slaughter – the undoubted courage of the old sailing men cannot be questioned.
These days money has become the raison d’être for a system that will eventually choke in its own greed; but for the whaling men of Whitby, their way of life was far more elemental than their modern day contemporaries. In fact I would term it an insult to make a comparison.
As I stood alone late at night next to the whalebone arch, I felt a huge connection across the years and was moved to pen a poem and offer a healing prayer to those brave men, caught in a situation beyond their making, and to those beautiful, graceful creatures which I have come to love…
Contemplating the abyss,
Uncharted oceans, giant beasts,
water vast, almost meaningless,
but not for the Whitby men,
with blood running through scuppers,
savage contest in the void.
For them fear is no option,
dimmed memories of loved ones left behind,
just silhouetted cameos.
Hoping to see again, love’s light.
But that was then,
for Whitby’s whaling men.
Storms, blood and blubber lie before them.
Candles flicker in cottage windows…