In the seventeenth century, the climate of the Arctic cooled, warmed briefly, and cooled again, just as European merchants established new industries to extract the region’s resources. Few were larger or more violent than the Greenland Fishery, the whaling industry that exploited bowhead whales between Jan Mayen and Svalbard.
This paper explores how linked changes in climate and animal behavior influenced violence between whalers during three stages of the Greenland Fishery. In the first, cooling discouraged violence by increasing the regional extent of sea ice, which led whales to congregate in tight quarters and thereby increased the cost of hostilities between whalers. In the second, the threat of violence encouraged attempts to colonize fortified whaling stations year-round, and thereby led to a shift in polar bear behavior while exposing overwintering whalers to some of the coldest weather of the Little Ice Age. In the third, sweeping changes in climate and whale culture undermined whaling companies and their fortified whaling stations, while encouraging open-sea whaling that transformed where and how whalers could fight one another.
This paper reveals the influence of linked changes in climate and animal culture on the history of European capitalism. It demonstrates that affected the geography, character, and consequences of conflict between whalers, more than it did the likelihood that conflict could occur.