▲ Whalers fitting out, New Bedford, Mass. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection
Prior to the 1882 American-Korean Treaty, many of Korea’s earliest Western visitors were whalers. Some were shipwrecked, others deserted their ships, and still others were members of foraging parties charged with providing their ships with water and game. In the beginning, most of the whalers were French, British and Americans operating from ports in the Southern Pacific – primarily Hawaii (for Americans). Russia, despite its location, was a relatively minor player in whale hunting in the Northern Pacific but it did later play a key role in Korea’s whaling industry.
In 1864, Otto Lindholm, a Finnish-Russian, and two companions established a modest whaling company in the Russian Far East. Their operation was fairly primitive and was confined to the immediate vicinity of their port but they managed to make a very good profit despite only harvesting 65 whales during their first nine years of business. By 1877 they had managed to purchase a small steamship and had extended their area of operation to the East Sea. Most of the whale meat and products were sold in Japan.
Although the company enjoyed the advantage of its superior logistical position (nearby Vladivostok), it was unable to compete financially with other Western fleets – especially the Americans – and failed in 1885. But finances weren’t the only reason why the company went under.
In 1885, Akim Grigorevitch Didimoff (pronounced Dydymov), a former Russian naval officer, used his influence in the government to impede Lindholm whom he allegedly despised because of his Finnish ancestry. Obviously racism was not the only factor. When Lindholm’s company failed, Didimoff applied and received a 50,000 rouble (5,000 pounds) grant and set up whaling operations at Gaidamak – about 180 km east of Vladivostok. Didimoff’s operation was far more modern than Lindholm’s.
In 1889, Didimoff bought the Gennady Nevelskoy, an 84-foot-long 42-ton modern whaling steamer built in Christiania, Norway. Didimoff was smart enough to realize that the Norwegian whalers were the best in the world and that much of modern whaling owed its existence to Svend Foyn. Didimoff promptly hired Captain Foyn – a relative of Svend Foyn – and a 12-man crew of Norwegians to bring the Gennady Nevelskoy to the Far East and to teach his Russian crew how to properly operate it.
The Gennady Nevelskoy, departed Christiania sometime in late July or early August and, steaming at about 10 knots, arrived in Shanghai only 57 days later. Its arrival caused a great deal of interest in Shanghai, where some people had speculated that it was a new Russian warship, but this misconception was soon put to rest.
Captain Foyn granted an interview to the local reporter for The North China Herald (an English language newspaper in Shanghai) and patiently answered his questions and explained the modern Norwegian equipment and techniques used to kill the whales.
According to him, the primary weapon was the harpoon gun, which was about five inches thick with a bore of three and a half inches. “We use a charge of 24 grammes of powder [to fire the harpoons], which is sufficient for a distance of 15 or 20 fathoms,” he explained. He further went on to say that the head of the harpoon had “a charge of gunpowder, which [was] exploded by the breaking of a glass tube filled with nitroglycerine, when the weapon hit the whale.” The whale line, a huge hemp rope nearly five inches in diameter and 400 fathoms long was “hung on a wire loop outside the gun. When we have struck a whale, we make steam after him so as to make the strain on the line as slight as possible, and when he is exhausted we can haul him in by means of a Foyn’s patent steam windlass.”
Noticing a large number of bags scattered around the deck, the reporter asked the captain as to what their purposes were.
“Coal, we burn 3 tons a day, and our bunkers are to small to hold all our supply. Then we have to find room for four boats and a crew of 12 men, all told, so you will see that we have not much room to spare.”
After a short stay in Shanghai, the Gennady Nevelskoy resumed its voyage and arrived in Vladivostok on Oct. 31, 1889.
Almost immediately the ship was put to work, and the first whale was killed on November 10 – the modern harpoon fired by Didimoff’s own hand – he was somewhat of a vain man. Afterwards he left the whale killing to his Norwegian and later the Russia crew. Judging from contemporary newspapers in China and Japan, they were somewhat successful.
During the summer months the company hunted whales in the East Sea and along the Korean coast where, according to an 1884 newspaper report, at least 50 whales per month could be easily caught. Most of the whales caught along the Korean peninsula were cut up into blubber and flesh, salted, and then taken to Nagasaki where the Japanese apparently could not get enough of them. In 1890 alone, Japan imported more than 2 million pounds of whale blubber and meat. Didimoff’s company contributed greatly to that number.
In January 1890, Didimoff sold whale blubber and bone taken from six large whales for about $7,000 or $8,000 at Nagasaki. Within four months the Russians had managed to catch 23 whales, netting the operation 20,000 roubles (about US$15,000) in profit, and by the end of 1890, 73 whales had been taken from the Northern Pacific and along the East Coast of Korea.
In addition to the Gennady Nevelskoy, Didimoff also had the schooner/tender Nadejde, which was used to transport blubber and meat to Japan. The Nadejde’s captain was Fridolf (pronounced Fabian) Kirillovich Gek, who had lived for a great many years in the Far East and was commonly referred to as Captain Hook. Circumstantial evidence seems to indicate his nickname had something to do with the Chinese bandits who had attacked and killed part of his family – leaving a son hanging from a hook.
It appears that greed was Didimoff’s undoing. The winter of 1890/91 was especially harsh, and despite the bone-numbing cold and the fierce storms, Didimoff insisted that his crews continue to hunt whales along the coast of Korea. Apparently his Russian crew, the Norwegian crew having been dismissed earlier, was not as prepared for the ferociousness of the stormy East Sea.
On Dec. 31, with only two days’ worth of coal aboard ship, the Gennady Nevelskoy departed from a port in northern Korea bound for its homeport east of Vladivostok. Didimoff, the Gennady Nevelskoy and his crew of 14 Russian sailors were never seen again.
Didimoff’s demise left the door opened for another Russian whaling company to establish itself – one that was more successful and played a bizarre role in Korea’s history but, as Prof. Andrei Lankov likes to say, that is a story for another time.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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