This painting is the best-known whaling scene in Tasmanian colonial art. The painter, William Duke, emigrated to Australia from Ireland with his wife and son, arriving in Hobart in 1845. That year saw the peak of the whaling industry in Tasmania, and Duke set up business as a portraitist and scene painter, specialising in whaling views. This scene depicts two whaling ships and a frenzy of whales and whalers engaged in combat. On the left is the Aladdin, an ex-British naval vessel that was converted to a whaler and worked out of Hobart for 50 years. In the centre is the Jane, a whaling ship that worked mostly out of Sydney and Auckland, but also briefly from Hobart.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the River Derwent was home to a large number of whales. The number was so great, in fact, that the water was considered dangerous for boats and waterside residents complained of being unable to sleep due to the calling of whales at night.
The local whaling industry was established by Harbourmaster William Collins, with the first whaling station erected at Ralph’s Bay in 1806. Until 1824, restrictive laws prevented trade from flourishing, but by the late 1830s the shore-based whaling industry had 32 stations in operation and revenues from whale products exceeded that of any other Tasmanian industry.
After 1845, the whaling industry in Tasmania declined due to over-hunting and the ensuing diminished number of whales. By 1850, William Duke’s commissions for whaling scenes had also declined and he moved to Geelong in search of fortune in the Victorian gold rush. He died there, in 1853, at the age of 38. By 1890, all the whaling stations that had been established on the Derwent had closed.
The figurehead of the Aladdin is currently on display in the ‘Islands to Ice’ exhibition at TMAG.