The fat-takers cross the oceans

Also published on Resilience

Ecological overshoot is a global crisis today, but the problem did not begin with the fossil fuel age. From its beginnings more than five centuries ago, European colonization has been based on an unsustainable exploitation of resources.

In Seeker of Visions, John (Fire) Lame Deer says “The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun – fat-takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land.”

The term, often also written as “wasi’chu”, has engendered discussion as to what the words originally meant in the Lakota language.1 In any case, the phrase “fat-takers” seemed fitting to Lame Deer, it caught on quite widely – and it took literal meaning to me as I learned more about the history of European colonization.

When I wrote a newspaper review of a then-new book by Farley Mowat in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but recall Lame Deer’s words. Nearly thirty years later, I’ve come to regard Mowat’s book, Sea of Slaughter, as a foundational study in biophysical economic history.

Here, Canadians may ask incredulously, “Since when was Farley Mowat a biophysical economist?” And readers from everywhere else are likely to ask “Farley who?” A brief bit of biography is in order.

Farley Mowat (1921 – 2014)  was one of the most successful Canadian writers of all time, author of dozens of best-selling books beginning in 1952 and continuing into the twenty-first century. He wrote in a popular style about his own experiences in Canada’s far north, the maritime provinces, travels in Siberia, and his life-long love of the natural world. Never shying from controversy, Mowat became a hero to many Canadians when he was banned from entering the US, and he was vilified by many for his support of the direct-action Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which named two of its ships in his honour. His books also received withering criticism from some writers who questioned Mowat’s right to use the label “non-fiction” for any of his books.2

Later in this post I will touch on Mowat’s shortcomings as a historian. First, though, a personal note in the interest of full disclosure. For ten years I lived just a few blocks from Mowat’s winter home in Port Hope, Ontario. Although we crossed paths and occasionally shared a few words while walking the Lake Ontario shoreline, I was formally introduced to him only once, near the end of his life. He had decided to sell off much of his collection of his own books. Though he was famously computer-averse, he recognized that the new-fangled “world wide web” could help sell his library. I was part of the team that built him a website, and at the launch party he honoured me with the title “the big spider”.

Of more lasting significance for me, though, was a brief correspondence with Mowat in 1985. After reviewing Sea of Slaughter, I wrote to Mowat that the systematic exploitation of animal resources, over several centuries starting in the 16th, likely played an important role in the dramatic economic advance of western European societies. Mowat sent back a courteous note agreeing with this observation and encouraging me to carry this line of thinking further. Decades later, I’m following up on Mowat’s suggestion. 

A 1985 trade paperback edition of Sea of Slaughter

While many of his books were written and received as light reading, Sea of Slaughter was anything but cheerful. He often said it was the most difficult of all of his books for him to complete, because the content is almost unrelentingly brutal.

In the opening pages Mowat writes, “This is not a book about animal extinctions. It is about a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” (page 13)3 With a primary focus on the North Atlantic coasts of North America, but moving across the continent and to far-away oceans, Sea of Slaughter spotlights the price paid by many species – in the sea, on land and in the air – wherever colonizers determined that slaughter was profitable. Some of the species he discusses were hunted to extinction, but far more were reduced to such small remnant populations that the killing machines simply moved on.

A key reason for the slaughter, Mowat explains, is that so many animals of the North Atlantic necessarily carry a generous layer of fat to protect them from cold water. And animal fat, he took care to remind readers of the current era, has throughout history been a key nutrient and a key energy source, especially for people in cold climates. This was no less true in Europe during the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, but Europeans had a problem – they had already taken unsustainable numbers of the fattest marine species from the eastern North Atlantic.

The Basque people of what is now northwest Spain and southwest France had become the unquestioned leaders in hunting whales on the open seas, and it was due to this prowess that they feature so prominently in Sea of Slaughter.4 Discussing the intertwined histories of the Basque culture and marine mammals, Mowat writes:

“By 1450, a fleet of more than sixty Basque deep-sea whalers was seeking and killing sardas [black right whales] from the Azores all the way north to Iceland. They wrought such havoc that, before the new century began, the sarda, too, were verging on extinction in European waters. At this crucial juncture for the future of their whaling industry, the Basques became aware of a vast and previously untapped reservoir of “merchantable” whales in the far western reaches of the North Atlantic.”

The same was true, Mowat argued, of many other fat-rich species that lived in cold northern waters. Several types of whales, walrus, water bears (known today as polar bears), and other species had become scarce or non-existent in European waters – but were found in great abundance at the other side of the Atlantic.  

Fishermen spearing whales from the safety of their boats. This image also depicts other fat-rich species which were intensively exploited by Europeans in North American waters, including the narwhal, a “morse” – the Old English term for walrus – and plump waterbirds. Coloured etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Before the fur trade

Though Canadians learn that the fur trade was the essential economic development in our early history, Mowat says that fur trading was a relatively late development. The first economic resource, in chronology and in priority, was the oil known as “train” (from the Dutch traan, meaning “tear” or “drop”) rendered from fatty marine animals. This was followed by fish, then hides for durable leather, and finally by furs.

“Late fifteenth-century Europe found itself increasingly short of oil,” Mowat wrote. “In those days, it came mostly from rendering the fat of terrestrial animals or from vegetative sources. These were no longer equal to the demand …. As the sixteenth century began train became ever more valuable and in demand ….” (page 206)

Only the Basques had the ship-building, provisioning, ocean-going and hunting expertise to find new sources of train across the ocean, and they did so at the dawn of European colonizing of the “New World”, Mowat writes. He notes that “the municipal archives of Biarritz contain letters patent issued in 1511 authorizing French Basques to whale in the New World ….” (page 213) Within a few decades, Basque whaling stations dotted the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There were dozens of rendering factories, where the whales were cut into pieces so the blubber could be dropped into cauldrons and rendered into high-quality oil that was shipped in barrels to European markets.

The major whale species near shore could not long withstand such intensive depredations, but the heyday of the Basque whale “fishery” was not destined to last much longer in any case. Most of the Basque fleet was dragooned into the ill-fated Spanish Armada and destroyed in 1588, and by then plenty of foreign competitors were moving into the train trade.

By the late 16th century, fleets from several other nations were taking fish, seabirds, and marine mammals in great numbers. Though there was specialization, even ships outfitted primarily for fishing or whaling would capture and consume seabirds by the thousands.

The cod fishery, Mowat explains, rapidly became an industry of huge importance to the European diet. But cod is lean, and “if eaten as a steady diet in cold latitudes can result in chronic malnutrition because of a low fat content.” (page 28) The crew of a sailing venture were not going to earn a profit unless they had high-energy provisions. Fat-insulated seabirds, found by the tens of thousands in coastal rookeries, met the need:

“The importance of seabird rookeries to transatlantic seamen was enormous. These men were expected to survive and work like dogs on a diet consisting principally of salt meat and hard bread. … Some Basque ships sailing those waters displaced as much as 600 tons and could have comfortably stowed away several thousand spearbill [great auk] carcasses – sufficient to last the summer season through and probably enough to feed the sailors on the homeward voyage.” (page 28 – 29)

The great auk, a flightless bird which stood nearly a meter tall and weighed 5 kg, originally numbered in the millions. Not a single live great auk has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century.

Ships which specialized in bringing back oil could and did switch species when their primary quarry got scarce. They learned that “as much as twelve gallons of good train could be rendered from the carcass of a big water bear” – with the result that in North America as well as in Europe, the ursus maritimus was soon confined to arctic seas that were hard to access by ship. The same pressures applied to walruses, which were highly valued not only for oil but also for ivory and for hides which were tanned into the toughest grades of leather.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence was home to huge numbers of walrus. In 1765, a Lieutenant Haldiman was asked to report on the prospects for walrus hunting at the Magdalen Islands. “The Magdalens seem to be superior to any place in North America for the taking of the Sea Cow,” he wrote. “Their numbers are incredible, amounting, upon as true a computation as can be made, to 100,000 or upwards.” (page 318)

Just 33 years later, the British Royal Navy asked for another report on the walrus population of the Magdalens. Captain Crofton’s report was terse: “I am extremely sorry to acquaint you that the Sea Cow fishery on these islands is totally annihilated.” (page 319)

The various species of seal were more numerous and geographically dispersed. Yet the colonial exploitation system showed itself capable of taking seals at a far faster rate than could be sustained. Mowat writes,

“The period between 1830 and 1860 is still nostalgically referred to in Newfoundland as the Great Days of Sealing. During those three decades, some 13 million seals were landed – out of perhaps twice that number killed.” (page 361)

By the end of the 19th century, seals, too, were in steep decline. Whales and walruses, meanwhile, were being slaughtered in the most distant seas, with steep drops in their populations occurring within decades. Once Yankee whalers had reached the far northern reaches of the Pacific in about 1850, “It took the Americans just fifty years to effectively exterminate the Pacific bowhead.” (page 240) It was difficult for ships to get around the coast of Alaska into the Beaufort Sea, but high prices for train and baleen made the trip worth the trouble – for a couple of decades: “By 1910 the Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi Sea tribe of bowheads was commercially and almost literally extinct.” (page 241) 

Arctic Oil Works, in San Francisco, about 1885. Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. John R. Bockstoce writes that this facility was capitalized at $1,000,000, and adds: “the Arctic Oil Works had the advantage of allowing the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s ships (upper left) to unload directly at the refinery. Oil could be pumped into the 2,000-gallon tanks …. Refining was done in the three-story structure at the right.” (In Whales, Ice, & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, University of Washington Press, 1986).

Facts or fictions

Several of Mowat’s books were criticized as being more fiction than fact. His angry responses did not, in my eyes, enhance his credibility. Professing to work in service of fundamental truths, Mowat said “I will take any liberty I want with the facts so long as I don’t trespass on the truth.”5 In that attitude, he sounds like a pioneer of “truthiness”, “telling my truth”, and “alternative facts”.

Rereading Sea of Slaughter twenty-five years after its publication, I find it frustrating that the wealth of statistics is accompanied by very few footnotes or references. But I have not seen the same type of criticism of Sea of Slaughter that some of his other books attracted, and much of the story he tells has been corroborated in other books I have read in the ensuing years.

As I was working on this essay, I was particularly glad to see an excellent new article by editor and writer Ian Angus. Entitled “Plundering a New Found Land”, published on the site Climate & Capitalism, the article not only confirms the picture Mowat paints of the Newfoundland cod fishery, but also provides important context and scale about this venture. Angus writes,

“While Spanish ships carried silver and gold, a parallel trade involving far more ships developed far to the north. Historians of capitalism, including Marxists, have paid too little attention to what Francis Bacon called ‘the Gold Mines of the Newfoundland Fishery, of which there is none so rich.’”

Mowat had quoted Charlevoix, writing in the 1720s about the cod fishery in similar terms: “These are true mines, which are more valuable, and require much less expense than those of Peru and Mexico.” (page 169)

While Mowat described the drastic reduction, over a few short centuries, of the once abundant North Atlantic cod, Angus tells us what this fishery meant to the recipients of the bounty:

“The Newfoundland fishery drove ‘a 15-fold increase in cod supplies … [and] tripled overall supplies of fish (herring and cod) protein to the European market.’ Cod, formerly a distant second to herring, comprised 60% of all fish eaten in Europe by the late sixteenth century.”

Back in 1985, when I wrote to Farley Mowat in response to Sea of Slaughter, I suggested that the resources taken from the oceans were likely far more important to European economic advancement than were the gold and silver taken from mines. Years later, viewing the world through a biophysical economic lens, it seems clear that the gold and silver would have been of little or no value unless the populations of Europe had been adequately fed, with adequate energy for their work, plus adequate fuels for heat and light in their homes and workplaces.

Angus’ research confirms that the North American cod fishery was of huge dietary importance to Europe. And I think Mowat was correct in saying that meals of lean cod also needed to be supplemented with edible oils, and that a hard-working labour force in cold northern Europe must have benefited greatly from the thousands of shiploads of fat taken from the animals of the northern seas.6

Angus also tells us about the important work of Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham, whom he credits with having “radically changed our understanding of the 16th century fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.” It was Huxley Barkham, Angus writes, who unearthed in the 1970s the evidence that the Basques pioneered the large-scale exploitation of both cod and whales off the coasts of Newfoundland, starting at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The name Selma Huxley Barkham does not appear in Sea of Slaughter. Yet I was to learn that her work was essential to the next chapter of this story.

The sheltered harbour at Pasaia, on the Basque coast near San Sebastian, was home port for  many of the whalers who ventured across the Atlantic in the early 16th century.


In November of 1565, a storm blew up along the coast of Labrador, striking the Basque whaling station at Red Bay. Farley Mowat tells us how one ship ended far beneath the waves:

“The 500-ton San Juan has begun to drag. … Having torn her anchors free of the bottom, the ponderous, high-sided carrack, laden to her marks with a cargo of barrelled oil and baled baleen, swings broadside to the gale and begins to pick up way ….

“Nothing can stop her now. With a rending of oak on rock, she strikes. Then the storm takes her for its own …. She lurches, and rolls still farther, until she is lying on her beam  ends and is flooding fore and aft. Slowly she begins to settle back and slips to her final resting place five fathoms down.

“She lies there yet.”

She lies there yet, and was all but forgotten for centuries. But due in no small part to the archival research of Selma Huxley Barkham, the San Juan was located in the mid-1970s. The wreck had been exceptionally well preserved by the nearly freezing waters, and divers gathered a wealth of documentation about its design, Basque construction techniques, and its contents of crew, cargo and provisions.

I have not been to Red Bay, but in October of 2018 I paid a visit to the Basque port from which the San Juan and so many other ships were launched. In this port today, a dedicated team at the Albaola heritage centre is partway through a difficult and lengthy process: they are building an exact replica of the San Juan, using only materials and tools that would have been available in the sixteenth century.

Visitors can see the shipbuilding in progress, along with extensive exhibits about Basque shipbuilding history, the sources of materials for the ships, and the provisions the ships carried for their trans-oceanic voyages. They have also published a beautiful and informative book, The Maritime Basque Country: Seen Through The Whaleship San Juan. (Editions in French and Basque are also available.)

The Albaola centre’s research paints a picture of a sophisticated, highly organized industrial enterprise that reached far beyond the shipbuilding yards. Because the Basques of the 16th century built so many ships, which each needed lots of strong timber in a variety of configurations, some areas of the Basque region specialized in growing oak trees in particular ways: some trees were kept very straight, while others were bent while still supple, so the wood was already shaped, and at maximum strength, for use many years later in parts of the ship that needed angular timbers. Clearly, this industry could only have developed through the accumulated experience of many generations.

A worker at the Albaola centre shaping a timber piece for the San Juan replica, in October 2018. For this project, the builders were able to search area forests for oak trees with sections naturally shaped to approximately the dimensions needed. Centuries ago, when many such ships were built every year, foresters through the region carefully trained growing trees for these purposes, producing “grown-to-order” pieces that had maximum strength but required minimal carving.

Similarly, the barrels used for holding cider – safer to drink on long voyages than water, and consumed by sailors on an everyday basis – and for packaging the whale oil, required vast numbers of barrel staves, all made to standard sizes, with the ships’ holds designed to carry specific numbers of these barrels. Even the production of ship’s biscuit or hardtack – the dry bread which kept for months and which was the monotonous basis for sailors’ diet – was a big business. The Maritime Basque Country says that before the whaling fleet left port each spring, 250 tons of hardtack had to be baked by bakers throughout the region.

Seeing the replica of the San Juan under construction, it was impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity of the sixteenth century society which built the original San Juan and so many ships like it. Centuries ahead of what we term the Industrial Revolution, there were highly sophisticated and complex technologies and forms of social organization at work, making possible what we refer to today as “economic development”.

At the same time, it is clear from Sea of Slaughter that European societies were already practicing ecological overshoot, centuries before the Industrial Revolution and centuries before the fossil fuel phase. Europeans had already taken the fat from many of the nearby ecosystems, and though they found apparently abundant sources of fat across the oceans, within a few short centuries those resources too would be drawn down.

In biophysical economic terms, Europeans (and colonizers with roots in Europe) boosted their economies through rapid and unsustainable exploitation of resources, including, in particular, energy resources, and they did so long before fossil fuels came into use. The challenging implication is that in the coming decades, faced simultaneously with a climate crisis, a social equity crisis, dwindling accessible supplies of the energies we have taken for granted, and a biodiversity crisis, we must do far more than return to pre-fossil-fuel practices. We must learn to live within the earth’s means. We must un-learn patterns that have shaped European civilizations for more than five centuries.

Next in this series: The reality behind the illusion. Lame Deer understood that the green frog-skin world, in which everything is measured in dollars, is a bad dream – but in the mid-20th century that dream seemed to have immense real power. To conclude this series, I will examine the ideas that helped me to make sense of this riddle, and to make sense of economics. (Previous posts: Part I and Part II)

Image at top of page: A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by A. M. Fournier after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)



  1. The article “Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Wasichu” says that wasichu means both “non-Indian” and “one with special powers”, and didn’t originally have any negative connotation. However, an almost-sound-alike phrase does mean “takes the fat”, and “wasichu” or “wasicun” might well have been a pun poking fun of greedy settlers. (In the Native Languages of the Americas website, here.)
  2. This article from Salon in 1999 is good summary of Mowat’s controversial place in Canadian culture: “Northern Exposure”, by Steve Burgess, archived in the Wayback Machine.
  3. Except where otherwise noted, all citations and page numbers in this article are from the July 1985 “specially illustrated edition” in trade paperback of Sea of Slaughter, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto.
  4. The chapters about Basque whalers are particularly significant to the theme of this review, but Sea of Slaughter casts an equally negative light on rapacious exploiters from many nationalities, including the French, British, Norwegians, Americans and Canadians.
  5. Quoted in an obituary by Sandra Martin, the Globe & Mail, May 7, 2014.
  6. I have seen limited reference to human dietary consumption of whale fat by Europeans in the modern period, besides the short-lived but large scale use of hydrogenated whale oil in margarine for part of the 20th century. However, whale oil was extensively used as lamp oil, lubricating oil, and in making soaps. It seems logical that having abundant whale oil for these purposes would have allowed Europeans to save more of the vegetable and animal fats for dietary use, resulting at least indirectly in a higher dietary consumption of fats.