Whaling Home | The Whaling Ships

Steel and Iron Whaling Vessels

Whaling vessels were mostly built of wood. However a few were made of steel or iron. Surgeon Hilliard was aboard the Dundee steamer Narwhal on her maiden voyage. He comments on the demise of one such vessel, the Empress of India, which he first encounters in Peterhead Bay on the outward voyage.

...the beautiful new iron screw whaler, Empress of India. This ship, although sailing to Greenland is not adapted to the trade, she is built of iron, and although said to be strong, yet all our experienced hands shake their heads at the thought of an iron whaler. She is apparently a magnificent vessel and said to have very powerful engines.

[Journal of the SS Narwhal, Dundee. 1859. By Surgeon R.H. Hilliard]

A few days later he again came into contact with the iron ship, this time in very different circumstances.

We found the poor Empress in a state of great confusion, seven pumps working including the donkey engine, and Captain Martin calculated that at least fifteen tons of water was rapidly gaining on them.

[Journal of the SS Narwhal, Dundee. 1859. By Surgeon R.H. Hilliard]

The Empress had been hit by a sea, which smashed her bulwarks and carried away everything forward including the bowsprit. The bow plate seams had opened and allowed the sea to penetrate. Some doubt is cast on the build quality of the vessel and its builder, and Hilliard reflects on how culpable he might be:

...if now it had so happened that instead of help at hand, there had not been a ship in sight, and if instead of this, a hurricane of wind had been blowing such as had been prevailing for weeks back - what would have become of the beautiful Empress of India and her crew of nearly a hundred men; in all probability she would have gone down without a soul being left to chronicle the sad event.

[Journal of the SS Narwhal, Dundee. 1859. By Surgeon R.H. Hilliard]

Skip to Navigation