The Demons of Macquarie Island

Today on The Unravel we ask the question; Did 19th century sealers suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome?

An 1859 etching published in the German newspaper Die Gartenlaube depicts battle between sealers and elephant seals somewhere in the southern ocean. Unknown /

Of all the creatures that I encountered on Macquarie Island it was the seals that made the biggest impression on me. Wandering amongst the pups on Sandy Bay I found myself grinning from ear to ear. At the risk of insulting these majestic beasts I think it’s because the young ones all look a little dim. Fur seals and sea lions have a sort of sleek, predatory look about them which can be intimidating. Elephant seals, on the other hand, look like overgrown slugs. The pups are especially cute when they’re scratching themselves or making fart noises (and they’re always scratching themselves and making fart noises).

As they grow older elephant seals are, admittedly, a little harder to fall in love with. While moulting, young elephant seals lose most of their baby fat and their fur peels off in bits and pieces – temporarily giving them a zombie-like appearance. The full-grown male elephant seals – identifiable by their elongated snouts – are also pretty grotesque. Adult males can grow to almost six metres long – by which point they weigh somewhere between three and four tons. These big bulls lay about on the shore virtually immobile until they feel compelled to defend their territory – at which point they rear up and slam their body into the challenger. The two big beasts take bites out of one another until one of them gives up. Even when witnessed from a distance these contests are intimidating to watch and when the big males bark or snort you can see the condensation burst into the air like a tyre blowout.

But, regardless of their age, their belligerence, or the state of their fur, elephant seals remain awe-inspiring creatures. On land they might lack grace, but in the water they are fearsome predators and astounding swimmers. They spend eighty percent of their lives in the ocean and they’ve adapted to eat almost anything that swims. Adult seals are able dive for two hours on a single breath – venturing hundreds of metres down to seek out their preferred prey. Some male elephant seals have been recorded diving to depths below 2,000 metres – presumably to feed on those nightmarish fish with lights growing out of their heads. 

Macquarie Island is currently home to about 80,000 southern elephant seals but up until the 19th century it was also home to somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 fur seals. When the captain of a Sydney based sealing ship, Frederick Hasselborough, discovered the island in 1810 it would turn out to be one of the last landmasses to be added to the map of the world. Hasselborough named the island after the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie and, after a brief survey of the east coast, he landed a small group of sealers and headed back to Sydney to resupply. He tried to keep his discovery a secret but rumours of an untouched island teeming with sea life reached other sealing companies – setting off a race to exploit the island. 

Between 1810 and 1820 Macquarie Island became the epicentre for sealing operations in the southern-most reaches of the pacific ocean. During this brief period sealing ships made almost a hundred and fifty voyages to the island but, without a permanent harbour, the task of loading and unloading cargo was always treacherous. A dozen ships were wrecked or grounded during the first decade of sealing operations but the loss of men and vessels did nothing to discourage the sealers. 

The impact of the industry on the local wildlife was nothing short of catastrophic. In the eighteen months following Hasselborough’s discovery at least 120,000 fur seals were killed for their skins. By 1820 the species was virtually extinct on Macquarie Island. In their absence, the sealers turned their attention to the much larger elephant seals which they carved up and rendered down in situ for their oil. By the mid 1840s the sealers had managed to wipe out roughly seventy percent of the elephant seal population.

I fell in love with the elephant seals and penguins during my brief visit to Sandy Bay and I certainly didn’t want to think too much about this industry but it was hard to ignore the remnants of the sealing trade scattered amongst the rocks. On the isthmus near the Antarctic research station you can still see winches and bits of timber and giant steel capsules covered in bird shit rising out of the tussock grass. Some combination of righteous indignation and morbid curiosity kept drawing me back to this grim period of Macquarie’s history. I wanted to know how the men who slaughtered these animals managed to stomach the work. How did they justify it to themselves? Did they even feel the need? When I tried to imagine shooting an elephant seal I felt vaguely ill. The thought of having to kill and butcher hundreds of them seemed downright horrific. Were our ancestors just ‘built different’ or did they find their work as traumatic then as I would now?

On some level I recognise that I’m the weird one for feeling squeamish about slaughter. After all, killing and butchering animals has been a routine part of daily life for most people throughout history. In most traditional societies life still revolves around hunting and fishing and I can’t imagine these tasks warrant much guilt or reflection. If I asked someone living in the Papuan highlands how they felt about killing animals they’d probably be as confused as I would be if someone asked me how I felt about mowing the lawn. 

At the same time, I recognise that it’s somewhat hypocritical for me to cast judgement on anyone – now or in the past – who hunts wild animals or slaughters livestock. I eat meat and I own leather shoes but I’ve always assumed that if I had to kill a chicken to eat a parmigiana I’d probably decide to become a vegetarian. Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps, like my ancestors, I’d overcome my discomfort. I was curious about that process too.

On big online forums like reddit and quora people often ask how farmers relate to the animals they’ve earmarked for slaughter. Naturally, there are a range of responses from cattle farmers. Some are understandably defensive about that aspect of the job and are keen to push back against any perceived judgement with accusations of hypocrisy. Others are more ambivalent about killing the animals they’ve raised and cared for (some farmers swap animals intended for slaughter with neighbours). The majority say that they take pride in the fact that they can give their animals a comfortable life and a painless death.

I imagine that there would be a similar range of opinions on killing amongst the sealers of the 19th century (there are modern sealers in North America, Scandinavia and Southern Africa but they generally avoid giving interviews). Nevertheless there’s obviously a limit to how much you can infer about the attitudes of sealers by asking modern farmers how they feel towards their livestock. It seems to me that the wholesale slaughter of wild seals would have been much more confronting than saying goodbye to the occasional cow or pig. The sheer scale of the exercise must have made an impression on anyone new to the trade. In the space of a few hours small groups of men on ice floes or black-sand beaches would typically kill hundreds of seals with metal clubs and muskets. The task of removing skins, collecting the flesh and boiling tons of blubber must have been exhausting and nauseating in equal measure.

The Sealers

So how did the sealers feel about this exercise?

Given the sources we have to work with it’s not easy to get inside the mind of a typical 19th century sealer. The men who wielded the clubs were mostly illiterate and the officers and overseers who employed them rarely attempted to canvas their opinions. Fictional sealers and whalers were occasionally brought to the foreground by writers like Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper but the actual men who did the work existed at the very fringes of ‘civilised’ society. Most would have been members of Europe and North America’s poverty-stricken working class but sealing companies based in the South Pacific also supplemented their crews with former convicts and outcasts from tribal societies in Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia.

While very few of these people were in a position to record diaries or publish memoirs there are many accounts of sealing voyages written by those slightly higher up the social ladder. Early explorers, gentlemen scholars like Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, ship’s officers and literate sailors who joined sealing expeditions out of a sense of adventure all contributed to the historical literature of sealing and whaling in the 19th century.

The main thing that stands out from these accounts is how dangerous the voyages themselves were. Before they could even begin collecting skins and oil the sealers had to survive long and perilous journeys into Arctic or Antarctic waters. The daily routine onboard the ship – setting and mending sails, swabbing decks and keeping watch – was experienced as weeks of boredom, punctuated by moments of sudden terror. Men who fell from the rigging or were swept overboard stood no chance of being rescued and entire ships often disappeared without a trace. Hasselborough himself was drowned in a sudden storm a few months after discovering Macquarie Island. According to the Australian Antarctic Data Centre between 1796 and 1854 twenty sealing ships were lost in the southern ocean alone and the names of certain islands in the sub-antarctic region – like the Snares and the Traps – speak to the hazards faced by early mariners.

To some extent, the question of how these men coped with the slaughter is overshadowed by the question of how they managed to cope with the journey to and from the sealing grounds. After reading numerous accounts of storms, shipwrecks, starvation and casual brutality from overseers and hostile ‘natives’ you get the sense that the bloody work of actually killing seals probably wouldn’t have made it into the top ten most unpleasant aspects of being a sealer. At Macquarie the most arduous part of the job was undoubtedly the loading and unloading of cargo. The lack of any deep or sheltered harbour meant that seal pelts and oil barrels had to be tied to rafts and towed to ships anchored hundreds of metres offshore – often in heavy seas and high winds.

When sealing grounds were discovered, small gangs of sealers were generally left on their own to complete their grisly work. These men were given assurances that they would be picked up in the near future, but unpredictable weather, urgent repairs and the challenge re-locating these small islands in uncharted waters meant that sealers were often left stranded for months at a time. In the meantime the sealers hunkered down in overturned whaling boats or makeshift huts surrounded by the stench of rotting seal carcasses. Provisions would only last a few weeks – after which the men were expected to live off the land. In the windswept islands south of New Zealand that meant subsisting on a diet of seal meat, sea birds and penguins.

The men nominated to stay behind were rarely in a good state of health or hygiene when they started these long orderals. The captains of whaling and sealing vessels were notorious for putting their crews on limited rations to save money and extend the time that they could operate at sea and months spent living on hardtack and salted beef left crews weak and susceptible to scurvy and other diseases.

If these expeditions found good sealing grounds early in the voyage while the crew were still relatively healthy the actual slaughter didn’t pose much of a challenge. Writing in 1874 the whaler turned naturalist Charles Scammon described a typical seal ‘hunt’.

“In former times, when Fur Seals abounded, they were captured in large numbers with the ordinary seal-club in the hands of the sealer, who would slay the animals “right and left” by one or two blows upon the head. A large party would cautiously land to leeward of the rookery, if possible; then, when in readiness, at a given signal all hands would approach them, shouting, and using their clubs to the best advantage in the conflict. Many hundreds were frequently taken in one of these ‘knock-downs,’ as they were called. 

Perhaps to alleviate some sense of guilt, accounts by sealers sometimes described these slaughters as contests between men and beasts. Words like ‘battle’ and ‘combat’ occur frequently in the literature but there are very few accounts of sealers being injured by animals. Some observers were willing to admit that the animals never posed any real threat and sealers on Macquarie even commented on the way elephant seals tended to ignore the gunshots as the sealers worked their way up the beach. Nevertheless, over-enthusiastic illustrators in Europe and America favoured the more dramatic descriptions of the hunt and these artists produced a steady stream of woodblock prints and etchings which depict monstrous elephant seals menacing hapless sealers.

An 1859 etching published in the German newspaper Die Gartenlaube depicts battle between sealers and elephant seals somewhere in the southern ocean.

After describing the actual slaughter Scammon goes on to outline the process of flensing (removal of the blubber) and flaying (removal of the skin) that followed.

“As soon as the killing was over, the flaying commenced. Some sealers became great experts in skinning the animals; and the number of skins one would take off in the course of an hour would be a decidedly fishy story to tell. However, to flay fifty seals in a day would be regarded as good work. It will be readily seen that a sealing-ship’s crew, numbering twenty or more, would make great havoc among a seal rookery in very short time; and it is no matter of surprise that these valuable furbearing animals soon became comparatively scarce.”

But the seals weren’t the only ones being fleeced. In a paper published by the journal of Labour History historian D. R. Hainsworth outlined the exploitative contracts that sealers operated under. Officially, the men were paid a weekly wage as well as a share of the proceeds from any expedition but, in reality, companies often withheld wages and charged the crew for provisions while at sea. Some sealers even returned from lengthy expeditions in debt to their employers after purchasing alcohol and tobacco on credit. Given the fact that men could reliably earn more by working in shipyards or in the timber industry, Hainsworth supposes that:

“..their motive was not based on any rational expectation of gain, but more akin to the gambler’s instinct which lured so many men into gold prospecting at a later date. If a lucky gang found an untapped ground, and took a huge catch, the individual returns might be very substantial. … The far-sighted might reckon that one or two good seasons on the grounds could earn them enough capital to establish a business or buy a farm. Meantime the sealers could console themselves with the thought that they were being kept and, while on board ship, housed at their employers’ expense. Unquestionably some men embarked with an enthusiasm bolstered by ignorance of the conditions they were to encounter”

One of the few places where you can find firsthand accounts by regular sealers is in the court records of port cities like Sydney and Hobart. On those rare occasions when sealers managed to sue their former employers for unpaid wages or wilful neglect the court transcripts offer a rare glimpse of a typical sealer’s attitude. One former employee of the sealing company testified in 1807:

‘I can scarcely depict the hardships endured by these unfortunate [sealers], more especially on the Island [Antipodes] where I was left an island where there was no wood to cook provisions (provided I had any to cook). The only substitute we had for fuel was the Fat of Seals; and the only sustenance that many had was no more than the insides of seals and birds. Consider, Gentlemen, that on such occasions, humanity is set apart, and that the owners have no commiseration for their fellow creatures. No, they have none. They enter into engagements with Individuals that they consider unworthy of notice – and after enticing them into an Engagement under pre tended firm principles and sending them to desolate Islands to heap up riches for themselves – the Unfortunate Victims are then unknown and not thought of, and Galley Slaves have a preferable life.’

After numerous incidents in which sealers had to be rescued or resupplied by passing ships, the Governor of NSW – Philip Gidley-King – put the sealing companies on notice that they needed to provide adequate provisions so as ‘to relieve the people they employ from the Danger of being starved on the Isolated places.’ However King did not have any real means of enforcing this pronouncement and sealing companies continued to neglect their employees for long periods of time. On several occasions sealing gangs were simply left for dead. In 1817 an American whaler picked up three survivors from a four-man gang who had been stranded on one of the Snares for seven years. 

Despite the hardships they endured on the job, sympathy for sealers was always in short supply. In 1822 the captain of the trading ship Mariner recorded his rather low opinion of Macquarie Island and the men who worked there.

“As to the Island, it is the most wretched place of involuntary and slavish exilium that can possibly be conceived: nothing could warrant any civilized creature living on such a spot, were it not the certainty of industry being handsomely rewarded; thus far, therefore, the poor sealer, who bids farewell, probably for years, to the comforts of civilized life, enjoys the expectation of ensuring an adequate recompense for all his dreary toil. As to the men employed in the gangs, the most appalling account is given:—They appear to be the very refuse of human species, so abandoned and lost to every sense of moral duty. Overseers are necessarily appointed by the merchants and captains of vessels to superintend the various gangs, but their authority is too often invariably contemned [sic], and hence arises the failure of many a well-projected and expensive speculation. The overseer is clothed with no other power than that of mere command, a compliance with which is quite optional to those under him.”

Writing at roughly the same time, British chronicler Peter Cunningham provided his own vivid description of the Macquarie island sealers and their ongoing turf wars.

“Gangs of men remain on the island throughout the year, to kill the sea-elephants that frequent it, and to boil down the oil. Parties belonging to two or three individuals [companies] are frequently living here at one time, and as keenly contested wars have occasionally raged among them for the dominion of a half mile of coast of this dreary purgatory, as ever took place between the rival heroes of Rome for the dominion of the world; and the combatants, in their long beards, greasy seal-skin habiliments, and grim, fiend-like complexions, looked more like troops of demons from the infernal regions, than baptized Christain men, as they sallied forth with brandished clubs to the contest. Their provisions are supplied from Sydney, the fire for cooking, and the light for their study and their toilet, being all derived from the oil, which is kept burning in a dish with an ample wick; and the wretched stone and turf-walled and grass-roofed hovels they inhabit, are rendered as dingy and dismal thereby as the interior of an Esquimaux palace, and send forth an odour to which that of nightman’s museum of foul abominations is myrrh and frankinsense. They are paid according to what oil they procure, and expend their earnings chiefly on the island in such necessaries as they may want, but principally in wines, spirits and tobacco.”

The Peculiar Convenience of Mankind

So how did the sealers rationalise this immense bloodletting? The promise of a substantial payday surely helped soothe a troubled conscience but perhaps the sealers didn’t feel all that guilty in the first place. After all, the prevailing opinion at the time was that wild animals – including fish, whales and seals – had all been put on earth by God to provide for mankind. A long theological tradition with its foundations in the old testament taught that humans had ‘dominion’ over the animal kingdom. In the book of genesis god tells the survivors of his apocalyptic flood that ‘The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you’.

This idea of animals as gifts from god had a profound impact on Christian thought in the age of exploration. As the English physician and philosopher George Toulmin wrote in 1780.

“Ask any one of the undistinguished mass of people, for what purpose every thing exists? The general answer is, that every thing was created for our practical use and accommodation!… In short, the whole magnificant scene of things is daily and confidently asserted to be ultimately intended for the peculiar convenience of mankind. Thus do the bulk of the human species vauntingly elevate themselves above the innumerable existences that surround them.”

In 1838 the sealer Henry Acton praised god for providing the indigenous people of North America with the means to live in the frozen arctic. In the introduction to his book ‘Catching of the Whale and Seal’, Acton writes.

“What a striking display of the goodness of the all-wise Creator do we find in giving the Esquimaux, who are denied the opportunity of deriving their subsistence from animals which depend upon the vegetable kingdom for nutriment, the abundance of seals, supplying to them the place of flocks and herds, without requiring from those fed and clothed by them any provision for their maintenance.”

Acton’s perspective would have been typical of Europeans at the time but, as historian Keith Thomas documented in Man and the Natural World, by the late 18th century this ideology was becoming increasingly difficult to defend as new discoveries in the natural sciences undermined Christianty’s anthropocentric view of the world. Emerging scientific fields like palaeontology and geology revealed a world that was far older than the bible suggested and new theories of biology put forward by Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin dethroned humanity and placed our species in its proper context alongside the other primates.

According to Thomas; as these discoveries gained acceptance amongst the general public there was “… an increasing tendency to credit animals with reason, intelligence, language and almost every other human quality” and this blurring of the line between man and beast forced people to consider the idea that they might have moral obligations to other species. 

Young elephant seals and Royal penguins at the south end of Macquarie Island

Martin’s Act

In England, the idea that cruelty towards animals might constitute a punishable offence started to gain traction in the early 19th century. The first conviction for abuse of an animal was secured in 1822 after Irish politician Richard Martin pushed through a law which outlawed the ‘ill-treatment of cattle’. Martin was a staunch abolitionist and an early proponent of what we would now call ‘animal rights’ but he was not alone in his sympathy for other creatures. Public disgust at blood sports like dog-fighting and bear-baiting had been simmering away for many years and the harsh treatment of animals in London’s Smithfield Market convinced many that laws were needed to protect livestock from their owners. Legal protections were soon extended to other creatures and the first dedicated animal welfare organisation – The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) – was established in 1824. 

It’s safe to say the sealers living hand-to-mouth in the sub-antarctic were a long way from London and the RSPCA. But even though these men were far removed from the high-minded debates over man’s status in the natural world they still felt the ripples of this change in public opinion. When English sailor Cyrene Clarke was writing about the sealing industry in the 1850s he reiterated Acton’s sentiments while leaving some room for a little uncertainty. 

“The man who acknowledges an infinite prescience, beholds the wintery antipodes of this globe on which we dwell, the wisdom, power and majesty of that being whose presence is universal, who has fitted up the globe as the habitation of man, and made depths of the sea, and the icy regions of the polar North and South contribute to his wealth. Is all this splendour and beauty which is found in these solitudes of earth and sea, the work of chance?”

Nevertheless, the traditional notion that all animals were gifts from god persisted on the frontiers of the British empire well into the 20th century (and there’s undoubtedly people alive today that still see the world in these terms). In the 1980s Canadian historian Shannon Ryan recorded interviews with Newfoundlanders who killed seals during the 1930s and 40s. By that point sealing was more of a seasonal job undertaken by fishermen to supplement their income but these men used the same justifications as their grandfathers had in the 19th century. As one interviewee reflected.

“…I admit they do look pitiful when you go up and look at it—the little whitecoat looking up at you. [but] what do you think they were put there for? That’s what they were put there for, for man to kill and for the use of man. It’s the same thing as the fishes in the sea.”

But even if sealers felt justified harvesting seals it’s hard to understand how they overcame what most of us nowadays would assume to be a natural aversion to killing defenceless creatures. After all, sealers had plenty of opportunity to observe and appreciate seals and other marine mammals. How could they not feel some sympathy towards all those dopey-looking pups and their gassy parents? How could they not notice the similarities – in both manner and appearance – between young seals and domestic dogs?

But sealers did recognise these similarities. In his memoir, Glances at Life upon the Sea, Cyrene Clarke recalls the first time he encountered tame seals in a Paris zoo. He comments on their playfulness and marvels at their ability to recognise their keeper amongst the crowd of onlookers. He even relates the story of a tame seal adopted by the crew of a whaling ship that was allowed to swim alongside the boat. When the French sailor Rallier du Baty tried his hand at sealing in Antarctica’s Kerguelen Islands in 1907 he also wrote about elephant seals with open admiration.

“However awkward they were on shore, they were magnificent in their strength and grace in the water, swimming with the force and directness of a torpedo, and careless of breakers that would smash a boat to pieces. It was a great and glorious thing to watch one of those huge breakers rolling in, and to see the seals facing them unmoved with dauntless strength and courage, not shifted out of their position by the full force of the hurtling sea.”

Like Clarke, and others before him, du Baty reserves his most loving description for the elephant seal pups:

“… the little ones were the jolliest things to watch, so mirthful and full of pranks and the sheer joy of life… They have the best of fun learning to swim in the shallow streams where all day long they play, frisking and barking like young dogs, so that the noise of a seal nursery may be heard for miles. They roll each other over and play all kinds of pranks in the water and on the shore, scuffling, crawling, leaping, darting all together, until they get tired and go to sleep on the black sand under the basalt rocks, to wake again in a little while and begin the game again.”

Raymond Rallier du Baty (right) and Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot enjoy a glass of Champagne on a expedition to Antarctica in 1904. Three years later du Baty returned to Antarctica to try his hand at sealing. He documented the voyage in his book 15,000 Miles in a Ketch.

The Horrid Business

Clearly the men who worked in the seal trade were aware that seals could be intelligent and affectionate creatures. But this awareness was not enough to discourage sealers from pursuing their work and a robust market for whale and seal oil continued even after synthetic replacements were discovered. That didn’t mean the sealers felt no guilt or remorse. In later passages du Baty describes ‘the horrid business’ of hunting seals. 

“I am not proud of our exploits, for it was a sheer massacre, and only done out of stern necessity. One need not sentimentalise over sea-elephants. Their only use to the world is to provide blubber, and on the rocks of the worlds wild places they lead a lazy life, varied only by savage and bloodthirsty fights ; but for all that, I did not like the work of killing them. Still less did I like the melting of the blubber, which made me a living grease-spot, contaminating anything I touched. If any one had put a match to me, I should have burned like a tallow candle.”

On his return journey to Melbourne, du Baty seems to have come close to some sort of mental breakdown. Having spent several weeks processing seal oil and fat on the deck of his small ship, du Baty described the moment when he became overwhelmed by the stench.

“[the blubber] began to melt, and it began to stink, and it went on melting and stinking until it seemed to us that humanity would rise in revolt in every part of the world and come in big ships to Kerguelen to kill us. We should have deserved it!”

The demand for whale and seal oil in the early 19th century was driven by the need to provide lighting and lubrication for a range of machines and vehicles and sealers could credibly make the claim that they were an essential element in Europe’s industrial revolution. This sort of ‘social licence’ might not have mattered to the men on the beaches but it certainly helped insulate the industry as whole from criticism. Recounting his expedition in 1907, du Baty admits that he felt better knowing that he was just one small cog in a much larger machine but his choice of metaphor suggests that he still had mixed feelings about what he was doing.

“We had consolation also in the knowledge that we had not been alone in our shamefulness. We could smell the Norwegian factory for six miles around in any direction. At night, if we climbed to the heights, we could see the flares of their factory, glowing red like a hellish pit in the darkness, and figures crossing the light like little black devils.”

According to the State Library of NSW the original caption stated ‘Superposed carcases[sic] of defunct bull elephants’

The Pits

While conducting research for his book ‘Killing’, Australian journalist Jeff Sparrow decided to test his own tolerance for violence by riding shotgun with a professional kangaroo shooter in Queensland. Sparrow – who counted himself a vegetarian for many years – marvelled at how quickly he managed to account for his cognitive dissonance:

“…the more roos we killed, the less any of it—the killing, the hauling, the gutting—bothered me. I became acclimatised to activities that nauseated me simply by doing them; since my attitudes conflicted with my behaviour, I adjusted my attitudes. I am a fundamentally good person, I told myself, and, by and large, I do good things. Yet here I was in the midst of blood and gore. Did this mean that I was a bad person? No, it meant that the blood and gore must be OK.”

Over the last seventy years a significant amount of research has been conducted into how victims of violence deal with psychological trauma. Until recently, however, there hasn’t been much research into the psychological after-effects experienced by those who inflict violence for a living. This is slowly starting to change. In the last decade or so researchers have begun to gather testimony from soldiers who’ve experienced combat, prison officers who’ve carried out executions and workers in industrial slaughterhouses. Perhaps unsurprisingly this new research has revealed that those employed in violent professions have a similar risk of developing mental health problems to those who’ve been victims of violence.

In 2002 U.S. psychologist Rachel MacNair described a cluster of symptoms similar to PTSD experienced by people who carried out violence – some of whom were never in any physical danger themselves. These symptoms included hypervigilance, violent outbursts, recurring nightmares and a general state of depression or anxiety. MacNair referred to this condition as Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). 

As MacNair noted, this condition was undoubtedly exacerbated by the social stigma associated with jobs that involve inflicting violence – which made it harder for those affected to obtain sympathy and support from the wider community. Most research indicates that those suffering from PITS generally end up self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs rather than seeking professional help. 

It’s undoubtedly true that some of those who witnessed the slaughter came away deeply shaken by the experience. In 1832 the son of a Canadian shipowner, Philip Toque, stowed away aboard a sealing vessel in order to understand the ‘modus operandi’ of the Newfoundland sealers. The hunt had a profound effect on Toque’s outlook and he became a vocal critic of the industry. Later in life, as a minister for the Anglican church, Toque argued strenuously that sealing damaged the moral fibre of those who engaged in it, claiming that the job “…has a tendency to harden the heart and render it insensible to the finer feelings of human nature”. He described the hunt on the ice sheet as:

“…a constant scene of bloodshed and slaughter. Here you behold a heap of seals which have only received a slight dart from the gaff, writhing, and crimsoning the ice with their blood – rolling from side to side in dying agonies. There you see another lot, while the last spark of life is not extinguished, being stripped of their skin and fat; their startings and heavings making the unpracticed hand shrink with horror to touch them.”

The writer and geologist Joseph Jukes witnessed a similar hunt off the coast of Newfoundland in 1840 and admitted that he experienced nightmares in the aftermath.

“…the vision of one poor wretch writhing its snow white wooly body with its head bathed in blood, through which it was vainly endeavouring to see and breathe, really haunted my dreams.”

In the early 20th century, British zoologist Leonard Matthews (who started out as a sealer on the islands of South Georgia before becoming one of the world leading mammalogists) reached a similar conclusion to Toque – insisting that the slaughter of seals “degrades and brutalizes those who do it.” Confirmation of this tendency came from one sealer who reported that “…by having our hands daily bathed in the blood of animals our natures were so changed that acts of cruelty which, one year previous, had been revolting us [we] now seemed to enjoy.”

Typically the first exposure to these slaughters made the greatest impression on witnesses. A monograph on the whale fishery published in 1831 described a seal hunt in Greenland in the following terms. 

“In one day the seamen killed 1138 seals, and the entire number caught in five days exceeded 3070. This scene, however, could not be contemplated without some painful impressions. The seals attacked were only the young, as they lay fearlessly reposing on the ice, before they had yet attempted to plunge into the watery element. One blow from the club stunned them completely. The view of hundreds of creatures bearing some resemblance to the human form, writhing in the agonies of death, and the deck streaming with their gore, was at once distressing and disgusting to a spectator of any feeling.”

Clearly there was a certain amount of hand-wringing and distress from the passengers on these voyages but we still don’t know how common these reactions were amongst the men who wielded the clubs. The descriptions of sealers made by visitors to Macquarie mention many of the outward symptoms of psychological trauma – including violence, alcoholism and erratic behaviour but it’s difficult to determine whether these behaviours were a side effect of killing seals or whether they were the reason those men volunteered to join sealing expeditions in the first place. Press-ganged sailors, former convicts and indigenous peoples displaced by colonial violence had plenty of reasons to be traumatised without bringing slaughtered animals into the equation.

Gentleman explorer Raymond Rallier du Baty was born in Brittany in 1881 and who carried out surveys of the subantarctic Kerguelen Islands in the early 20th century before returning to the region on a sealing expedition in 1907.

Du Baty’s memoir clearly shows that sealers themselves could be traumatised by their experiences but we should be wary of extrapolating too much from this one account. Rallier du Baty was a ‘gentleman explorateur’ from a well-to-do French family and his sealing expedition was prompted more by a sense of adventure rather than any sort of financial necessity. In terms of class and education du Baty was hardly representative of the men who wiped out Macquarie Island’s fur seals and his voyage took place at the tail end of the sealing era when the market for whale and seal oil was drying up. All these factors suggest that it might have been harder for du Baty to rationalise his decision to join the hunt and harder for him to justify the violence. 

In our current era we have a tendency to think of psychological disorders like anxiety or depression in the same way we think of physical ailments like indigestion or arthritis. In an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health the profession of psychology has generally adopted the view that modern psychological disorders have always been with us – they’ve simply gone undiagnosed in the past. According to this view, modern psychology is simply defining and labelling conditions that are essentially universal. 

This was certainly the position taken by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in his study on soldiers and PTSD. In his book, Achilles in Vietnam, Shay drew comparisons between the experiences of modern combat veterans and the experiences of warriors in Homer’s epic of the Trojan War. He also argued that the psychological trauma experienced by soldiers couldn’t be explained solely by fear of death or the stress of combat. When Shay was writing research was beginning to show that soldiers who had actually inflicted violence were significantly more likely to experience PTSD than those who had only witnessed violence. In order to explain this phenomenon Shay introduced the concept of ‘moral injuries’ – lasting distress experienced by people who, at some point, were forced to make decisions that violated their core values.

But while the symptoms of moral injury seem universal, the circumstances that give rise to them almost certainly differ according to the era and the culture within which they take place. In the jargon of clinical psychology moral injury is a ‘culture-bound’ syndrome. We might experience grief and depression in the same way as Achilles but our reasons for being grief-stricken or depressed will differ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To take just two examples from the ‘western’ world: modern parents are unlikely to suffer from the specific form of postnatal anxiety arising from mediaeval christian doctrine which condemned unbaptised infants. By the same token, I think it’s safe to assume that mediaeval women probably didn’t suffer from the body-image anxieties and eating disorders associated with the rise of modern mass media.

Penguins surround the remains of the wreck of “The Gratitude”, Nuggets Beach, Macquarie Island, 1911.

If the experience of guilt and trauma is bound up with the values of a particular culture then we can finally make some assumptions about how 19th century sealers were affected by their work. Back when the general public firmly believed that the earth’s polar regions were a buffet set down by the almighty, the work of killing seals was probably tolerable to those that undertook it. But as public opinion shifted and scientific discoveries expanded the moral sphere, the job of being a sealer arguably became more traumatic. It’s clear that, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, sealing acquired more and more social stigma. While public pressure didn’t bring an end to the whale and seal oil industry it did pave the way for the modern environmental movement and the legal protection of marine wildlife.

Escape Hatch

The last licence for harvesting seals on Macquarie island was issued to New Zealander Joseph Hatch in 1890 but his operation continued well into the 20th century. The job of sealing had not gotten any safer and, over the following decades, three of Hatch’s ships were sunk enroute or wrecked on Macquarie island – claiming the lives of twenty men. Hatch’s company might have been able to continue for a long time if it had confined itself to sealing but, in addition to killing seals, Hatch installed steam-pressure chambers known as ‘digestors’ at several Penguin colonies on the island’s east coast. Using these devices Hatch’s company managed to harvest hundreds of tons of oil from the carcasses of penguins. At the height of Hatch’s oil operation one gang of sealers at The Nuggets was rendering down 2,700 king penguins every day.

This massacre went largely unnoticed until the first decade of the 20th century when Macquarie Island finally received some long overdue attention from the outside world. Amid a frenzied international race to reach the south pole, Antarctic expeditions led by Englishman Robert Scott and Australian Douglas Mawson both used Macquarie Island as a staging point. In particular Mawson’s 1911 expedition established a radio relay station on the island in order to communicate with their base in antarctica. The first real attempts to research the island’s flora and fauna were undertaken by members of these expeditions – several of whom became vocal advocates for the island’s wildlife.

The frost-bitten and wind-burned face of Apsley Cherry-Garrard taken during the disastrous 1910 British antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott.

Early Antarctic explorers enjoyed an almost rockstar status in the 1910s and 20s and their exploits – documented in books and on film – were published and screened all over the world. This gave them a substantial platform from which to draw attention to environmental causes and Mawson, in particular, emerged as a fierce critic of the penguin and seal oil industry. In this he was assisted by a groundswell of public fascination with penguins. As New Zealand writer Geoff Chapple explained:

“By the end of the 1914-18 world war, penguins had gained a place in the world’s affection. Polar explorers were the heroes of the age, and from successive expeditions the polar explorers brought back tales of penguins’ endearing oddities: their comic demeanour, their curiosity, their bravery, their habits of pecking the hulls of ice-bound ships and gathering to stare upwards as ice-bound explorers sang to them.”

In 1918 one of the survivors of Scott’s expedition – English explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard – kicked off a letter-writing campaign aimed at petitioning the Australian and New Zealand governments to end the seal and penguin oil trade. Editorials published in British newspapers were taken up by other outlets around the world. Among those who threw their weight behind the campaign was writer H. G. Wells who drew attention to the plight of Macquarie’s penguins in his 1919 book The Undying Fire which includes the paragraph:

“…the king penguin draws near the end of its history. Let me tell you how its history is closing… These birds are being murdered wholesale for their oil. Parties of men land and club them upon their nests, from which the poor, silly things refuse to stir. The dead and stunned, the living and the dead together, are dragged away and thrust into iron crates to be boiled down for their oil.”

Photographer Frank Hurley, who had documented Mawson’s Antarctic expedition, also weighed in on the debate by repeating the sensational claim that penguins were fed into digesters while they were still alive (Hatch insisted that this particular claim was a vicious slander). This campaign to raise awareness of the threat to Macquarie’s penguins represented one of the first international conservation efforts and it succeeded in short order. In 1920 the Tasmanian Minister of Lands refused to renew Hatch’s licence and, in 1933, Tasmanian authorities declared the island a wildlife sanctuary.

Since that time the elephant seal and penguin populations have bounced back and fur seals have begun to breed on the island once again. In 1997 the island was granted world heritage status by UNESCO which is supposed to ensure that everything on Macquarie will be preserved for the foreseeable future – including the archeological remains of the sealing industry. But nature has other plans and, in some of the coves on the east coast, the pacific ocean is rearranging the beaches and reclaiming the metal digesters left behind by Joseph Hatch’s crews. Until they disappear beneath the waves and sand they’ll serve as reminders of an almost incomprehensible callousness towards our fellow creatures. Time will tell whether future generations will look at our factory farms, our battery hens and our industrial abattoirs with the same horror.

Sea-elephants fighting on the beach at Macquarie

Rachel M. MacNair (2002) – Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress
Jessica Slade, Emma Alleyne (2021) – The Psychological Impact of Slaughterhouse Employment
Geoff Chapple (2005) – Harvest of Souls
Allan W. Eden (1955) – Islands of Despair
Mark A. Hindell and Harry R. Burton (1988) – The History of the Elephant Seal Industry at Macquarie Island and an Estimate of the Pre-Sealing Numbers
Charles M. Scammon (1874) – Marine Mammals of the North Western Coast
Douglas Mawson (1915) – The Home of the Blizzard 
Raymond Rallier Du Baty (1922) – Fifteen Thousand Miles In A Ketch
Briton Cooper  Busch (1985) – The War Against the Seals
Keith Thomas (1983) – Man and the Natural World
Cyrene M. Clarke (1854) – Glances at Life Upon the Sea
D. R. Hainsworth (1967) – Iron Men in Wooden Ships

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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