Taissumani, March 3

The Murrays of Peterhead: A Whaling Family — Part 1


Captain Alexander Murray in Arctic gear. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Captain Alexander Murray in Arctic gear. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The Murrays of Peterhead, Scotland, were whalers.

Alexander Murray had a large family and his sons followed him into the whaling trade, both becoming captains in their own right. Alexander Junior, the elder son, was born May 21, 1860, and John was born eight years later on July 26, 1868. In 1884, Alexander Senior was captain of the Windward and on that voyage he took his 15-year-old son John along. It was the boy’s first experience of whaling.

The following year he sailed, again with his father, on the Perseverance to Cumberland Sound where the ship wintered. This voyage was not commercially successful, for the ship only took one whale which yielded one ton of whalebone and 20 tons of oil. They also took 400 seals and 12 walruses.

In 1887, John sailed on a merchant ship around the Horn and up to San Francisco. He was gone for two and a half years, and also visited Australia, Chile and England.

But he returned to whaling after this adventure. In 1891, John Murray signed on as an able-bodied seaman for a supply voyage to Hudson Bay on his father’s old vessel, the Perseverance, which had been purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

That winter he got his second mate’s certificate in Aberdeen, and the following year joined the same ship, on which his older brother Alexander Junior was now the captain. They wintered at Repulse Bay and returned to Peterhead the following summer with the produce of four whales and 235 sealskins.

By 1894, John had his first mate’s ticket and signed on to the Perseverance in that capacity, again under his brother. This was another wintering voyage, this time at Depot Island, and it was unusual in that Alexander took his young wife, Helen, along.

A white woman in the Arctic was a rarity, and the Inuit flocked to the ship to inspect her. John Murray’s son, Austin, recalled the family lore on this event:

“The Eskimo women were delighted to hear that a white woman had come. They crowded the decks to see her. She waited and kept them waiting, and then came out on the arm of her husband dressed in her best dress with fashionable balloon sleeves. The Eskimo women were captivated; so happy. Then she gave each one of them several yards of good cotton and they all made ballooned sleeved dresses for themselves and came back a few days later to show them to Mrs. Murray. They were terrific craftswomen.”

Helen Murray gave birth to her first child, Alexander Percy, on the Perseverance in 1895. John returned to London that summer with his sister-in-law and her baby, leaving his brother in Hudson Bay.

By 1896, John had his own master’s ticket, and came out on the HBC supply vessel Erik to relieve his brother on the Perseverance. He wintered again at Repulse Bay, and returned home the following summer. The whaling adventure of the HBC had not been a commercial success and the company later sold the ship.

In 1897, John and Alexander sailed together again, John as mate, his older brother as captain, on the Dundee vessel Active. A telling statement in a biography of John Murray indicates the decline of the whaling business:

“By 1898 whales had become so scarce that ships were killing anything that would produce a profit and this voyage the Active was looking for walruses.”

She took 150 walruses, in addition to 17 polar bears, but no whales. It is doubtful if there was any profit to the voyage.

In 1899, John Murray took a group of Aivilingmiut to Southampton Island and remained there for three winters. This was perhaps his most controversial venture.

A few years later, a Dundee paper paraphrased A. P. Low of the Canadian government steamer Neptune, who had been in Hudson Bay in 1903, as follows:

“Professor A. P. Low . . . describes the extinction of a tribe of Eskimos on Southampton Island . . . in a single winter. They numbered one hundred souls, and made shift to live with fair success without employing civilised implements of war or chase, as they were isolated from any neighbours. But in 1900 a Scottish whaling firm established a station there, and managed it with a party of Eskimos from one of its other posts who could use a modern repeating rifle successfully. These recklessly slaughtered the musk oxen and the deer of the region for the sake of the hide, which they sold to their whaling employers, and as a result the whole of the original tribe perished of starvation during the second winter, while the others, who were morally responsible for their death, if not legally punishable, survived through the aid of the provisions furnished to them by their employers. Two years later the whaling station was abandoned again, and now this large island is absolutely unpeopled.”

Of course, the story of the extinction of the Sadlermiut is more complicated than that. Still it is telling that a newspaper in a Scottish whaling port published such an indictment of John Murray and his immigrant Aivilingmiut.

John Murray himself was an accomplished hunter and marksman. Late in life he claimed that he had killed 103 polar bears over his Arctic career.

More on the Murray family next week.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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