Whaling harpoon, c 1850.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Commercial whaling reached its peak in the early 18th century. Whale oil was in great demand, being used as fuel in lamps as well as for manufacturing soaps and cosmetics. American and European whaling ships voyaged around the world in pursuit of their quarry. When a whale was sighted, whaleboats would be launched, from whih harpoons such as this were thrown into the body of a surfacing whale. They were designed to stick firmly in the whale's flesh and were attached to a long rope. The boat would be towed by the whale, until eventually exhausted, it would surface for the final time to be killed. After 1860, petroleum emerged as a substitute for whale oil, signalling a decline in the cruel and bloody pursuit of the giant ocean mammals.