A requiem for the Whitby men.

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.

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Captain James Cook’s statue surveys the ‘big blue’ above the town of Whitby.

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!

'Ishtar Mike'

‘Taking five’ with Mike on his beautiful Whitby registered yacht, Ishtar, back in Turkey, 2007. He was a great influence in my life.

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.

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The gruesome whalebone arch, a reminder to the Whitby whaling men.

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…

Whalers

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…

In memoriam.

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About Viking Queen

I am a sailor and I live on my boat 'Free'. I have no home but originate from Tyneside. I have no allegiance, just a desire to do no harm and live with courage and an open heart.
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11 Responses to A requiem for the Whitby men.

  1. Roger Lundqvist says:

    Nice to read your post again, interesting story about the men in the whalers.
    Whitby seams to be a nice place, and a interesting history.
    Thanks for sheering.
    I have seen whalebone like this in Hals Denmark.

    • Viking Queen says:

      Welcome Roger… Yes, the two weeks here have been like a retreat. Meditation, tranquility, and creativity written and poetic. It has been an unexpected delight. Tomorrow I will visit my home town for the first time in 25 years, which may be quite traumatic, so it’s best to be rested and prepared. Regards to you and the boys in Gävle.

  2. I remember that arch only too well.
    I stayed in that hostel too. I have a photo somewhere of the town’s tumbling streets and red tile roofs seen from the hostel. Then the cliff top path to Robin Hood’s Bay.
    The size of the town brings home the reality of fisher lives:people you could count on, say, two hands, and then that wait to see if they make it home again.
    Orkney writer George Mackay Brown caught that precariousness well in his writing.

    • Viking Queen says:

      It is very poignant, for sure. This life was the life of generations of my ancestors as it is now mine in a strange sort of way.

  3. To think of whaling in the past, makes me feel melancholic! Sad for the whale demise, the whales themselves, and the men who battled the sea. Your poem evokes that melancholic feelings well.

    • Viking Queen says:

      Thanks. I was profoundly moved and felt the connection in all things while I was there. I pondered on the possibility of having my relative’s genes from those days. Nothing is unconnected. The thing is to learn from this and evolve, I feel.

  4. herbwormwood says:

    Whitby wealth built on whaling for sure. Those days a whale was the difference between starving to death or not, for afishing port they didn’t have much choice about occupations.

    • Viking Queen says:

      Absolutely. I fully agree. I was trying to create a balance about the dilemma of living from the sea, and not laying blame from the modern perspective. That’s why I wanted healing for the men and the whales with no blame intended. Thanks for your valuable contribution.

  5. herbwormwood says:

    Had some more thoughts on this, I know Whitby very well and anyone familiar with the town’s deep history will be aware that up until the later part of the 20th century it was extremely remote and not that easy to get in and out of by land. Occupations tended to be what your parents did. There was a class divide, with the East side being fisher folk and the West side…not!
    http://www.wonderfulwhitby.co.uk/eastside.html

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