Oil was used more than five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia; bitumen was mined by the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, who used it in architecture, building roads, caulking ships, and medicines. Later, knowledge of oil and its uses declined.
Oil seeps to the surface in many parts of the world, so the knowledge of oil did not disappear. This is true in northwestern Pennsylvania, where the Seneca tribe, part of the Iroquois nation, collected seep oil for hundreds of years, using it as a salve, insect repellent, and tonic.
Europeans called the dark, gooey substance Seneca Oil and found it effective for treating sprains and rheumatism. It also burned, but was unappealing as a lamp oil due to its unpleasant odor and smoke.
In the 1840s, scientists in Britain began producing an illuminant from the distillation of coal. Dr. Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist, made the first successful coal oil in North America, using a bituminous mineral found in New Brunswick. Gesner called it “keroselain” from the Greek word for ‘wax’ and ‘oil,’ which soon became kerosene. (American Chemical Society)
Then, Edwin L. Drake demonstrated practical oil recovery by applying salt-well drilling techniques, including the use of the derrick, and invented the modern method of driving iron pipe.
On August 27, 1859, Drake struck oil 69-feet down in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The well yielded an average of 1,000-gallons daily for three years. The first export was in 1866, relieving the first glut in the market. (American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
So, what does this have to do with Hawai‘i? Let’s look back …
Candles and whale oil provided most of the artificial light in the decades before the Civil War. Whale oil was also used for heating and lubrication in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.
Demand for whale oil intensified – and prices skyrocketed – with the development of mechanized transportation and industrialization. (American Chemical Society)
The over-fishing of “on shore” New England whales in the 1700s forced local whalers to venture “offshore”, journeying further out in search of their lucrative prey.
The first New England whalers rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific in 1791, and fished off both the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. Many sailed around South America and onward to Japan and the Arctic.
Edmond Gardner, captain of the New Bedford whaler Balaena (also called Balena,) and Elisha Folger, captain of the Nantucket whaler Equator, made history in 1819 when they became the first American whalers to visit the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i.)
A year later, Captain Joseph Allen discovered large concentrations of sperm whales off the coast of Japan. His find was widely publicized in New England, setting off an exodus of whalers to this area.
These ships might have sought provisions in Japan, except that Japanese ports were closed to foreign ships. So when Captain Allen befriended the missionaries at Honolulu and Lāhainā, he helped establish these areas as the major ports of call for whalers. (NPS)
The whaling industry had a major effect upon Hawaiian commerce and trade. As the Northwest fur trade decreased and sandalwood supplies and values dropped, the whaling industry began to fill the economic void.
By 1822 there were 34-whalers making Hawaiʻi a base of refreshment. The whaling industry was the mainstay of the island economy for about 40 years. For Hawaiian ports, the whaling fleet was the crux of the economy. More than 100 ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824.
From that time the number increased rapidly. Over time, several hundred whaling ships might call in season, each with 20 to 30 men aboard and each desiring to resupply with enough food for another tour “on Japan,” “on the Northwest,” or into the Arctic.
The effect on Hawaiʻi’s economy, particularly in areas in reach of Honolulu, Lāhainā and Hilo, the main whaling ports, was dramatic and of considerable importance in the islands’ history.
Over the next two decades, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846, 736-whaling ships arrived in Hawai‘i.
Then, whaling came swiftly to an end.
Within a few years of the successful 1859 oil well in Titusville, this new type of oil replaced whale oil for lamps and many other uses – spelling the end of the whaling industry.
By 1862, the whaling industry was in a definite and permanent decline. The effect in the Islands was striking. Prosperity ended, prices fell, cattle and crops were a drag on the market, and ship chandleries and retail stores began to wither.
Sugar soon took its place.