Writing About Climate Change, Whaling, and Conflict in the Seventeenth Century Arctic

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This post introduces Dagomar Degroot’s recently published American Historical Review article, “Blood and Bone, Tears and Oil: Climate Change, Whaling, and Conflict in the Seventeenth-Century Arctic.”

When I started researching the dissertation that I would ultimately revise into my first book, The Frigid Golden Age, I didn’t expect to consider the Arctic. My focus was on the Dutch rise to global prominence during an especially cold century of the Little Ice Age (LIA), a longer period of climate change probably set in motion by volcanic eruptions. I thought I’d constrain myself to the history of western Europe.

Yet I soon uncovered evidence that the LIA had altered prevailing winds in many regions: a finding I was able to confirm by sifting through logbooks written aboard Dutch and English ships. I knew the Dutch economy relied to a unique extent on control of maritime trade. I started to wonder whether crews aboard Dutch sailing ships might have benefitted from new patterns of atmospheric circulation. Eventually I found they had – and I decided that part of my dissertation should consider seaborne trade and exploration.

Before long, I learned that in the early years of their republic, Dutch sailors had sought to circumvent Iberian control of southern trade routes to Asia by searching for a quicker passage through the Arctic. Abundant sea ice during the LIA doomed that quest from the start – but I realized it also redirected Dutch journeys of exploration to previously undiscovered islands. Because they overflowed with marine life, these islands would emerge as a crucial resource frontier for burgeoning European empires. Dutch and English sailors, in particular, fought for access to bowhead whale feeding grounds. Oil and bone harvested from the whales were valuable commodities on the European market.

In order to keep my dissertation to a manageable length, I decided to focus on journeys of Arctic exploration, rather than exploitation. Yet as I wrote about those journeys, the seventeenth-century Arctic grew ever more interesting to me. The LIA was a period of relatively modest climate change, and it was often difficult for me to tease out its influence on local environments and human actions or beliefs at low latitudes. In the Arctic, however, even small trends in temperature or circulation can have profound influence on local weather and indeed regional geography. That is because the distribution and thickness of sea ice responds dramatically to those changes, in ways that every Arctic animal – humans included – must contend with. The seventeenth-century Arctic therefore provided me with a kind of laboratory: a place and time that could reveal how historical actors coped with massive environmental change.

Sea ice around the Svalbard archipelago. Bowheads would feed in the western bays. Photo credit: NASA

Not long after starting my dissertation, I grew disillusioned with popular environmental histories of climate change. These histories tend to assume sweeping connections between human and climatic histories, often by correlating political crises, harvest failures, and damaging weather. By thinking carefully about the mechanisms by which climatic trends influence local weather, and in turn local human responses, I was finding something quite different. The modest climate changes of the LIA, I realized, often provoked counterintuitive human responses – when they provoked responses at all.

As I finished my dissertation, I was startled to read an article by archaeologist-geographer Louwrens Hacquebord that reached a very similar conclusion. Hacquebord suggested that when the Arctic climate cooled in the mid-seventeenth century, bowhead whales congregated in greater numbers along the edge of the expanding pack ice between the island of Jan Mayen and the archipelago of Svalbard, where European whalers hunted them. Cooling actually made the “Greenland Fishery” more lucrative for whalers, because congregating whales were easier to hunt. It was one of the only publications I’d come across that linked climate change to the history of the Dutch Republic.

I started wondering: did this linked change in climate and whale behavior benefit some whalers more than others? Did it exacerbate violence and competition between whalers and whaling companies? Did other climate changes influence the emergence of the regional whaling industry, in the early seventeenth century?

As I revised my dissertation into a book – pruning page after page – I realized that I could only explore these questions in a series of articles. And they began to really excite me. It dawned on me that they involved not only human but also nonhuman actors. The whales, after all, seemed collectively to have responded to climate change – in a way that amplified its influence on human actors. Animals rarely feature in histories of climate change as anything more than cogs in agroeconomic machines. Here was a chance to find out just how much agency they had in shaping relationships between climatic and human histories.

I also realized that answering my questions would require me to think across many scales in time and space, from the global to the hyperlocal, and I would have to transgress boundaries between history, archaeology, ecology, and climatology to a degree I never had before. I would need to painstakingly reconstruct microhistories – the actions of just a few frightened whales and whalers – by studying everything from skeletal remains to diary entries. Then I would need determine the far-reaching causes and consequences of those histories across Europe and the Arctic. This is the kind of work I love most. It is a creative act of combining previously isolated evidence, data, and ideas to reveal what was once hidden: some influence on our past that might, in some way, still operate today.

Poring over ship logbooks at the Westfries Archief, in Hoorn. Photo by the author.

My archival work took me from The Hague to picturesque Hoorn, then to London. One of the joys of microhistory is that you gain a sense of how individuals perceived worlds radically different from your own – and how they felt as those worlds changed. By reading correspondence, diary entries, and legal documents, I gained a sense of the fear that seeped into every aspect of whalers’ lives in the Arctic. There were glimpses of similar feeling in the reported actions of whales – hints that, perhaps, there were two sapient mammals entangled in the climate changes that affected the contemporary Arctic.

I have long been fascinated with whales, and from time to time I pick up a book on whale behavior and read it for pleasure. Just before one archival trip, I found a book by cetologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell that had an especially intriguing title: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.1 It was a breakthrough. After reading just a few pages, it dawned on me that the bowhead behaviors described in my textual sources were really expressions of a culture – a culture that changed in response both to human predation and climate change.

Whales and whalers, I realized, were more similar than I had imagined. Both were imbued with cultures that changed as they encountered one another, and then as they struggled to survive in a shifting environment. Whalers first learned to hunt in companies that set up camps along the coast; eventually, they developed technologies, practices, and legal frameworks to pursue whales in the open ocean. Whales altered their migratory patterns to avoid whalers, and then to cope with climate change. Tragically, these changes turned out to be maladaptive: whalers learned how to hunt more efficiently than they ever had before.

I chose to focus on conflict between whalers, rather than the broader influence of climate change on whaling. One reason is that my study of the past is motivated partly by concern for the future. It is often assumed that future warming is most likely to threaten human survival by inciting conflict, and that the thawing Arctic will be a particularly perilous theatre for competition between the United States, Russia, and perhaps China. For me, the seventeenth-century Arctic seemed to provide an opportunity to test how climate change could influence violence between imperial rivals. 

As a scholar of climate change, conflict also fascinates me because its conduct and outcome depend on environmental conditions. Indeed, one could argue that military historians have been doing environmental history since Herodotus. Any change in environmental circumstances can have outsized influence on the outcome of violent encounters, and ultimately geopolitical competition and war between polities. In a sense, conflict appeals to me as a climate scholar for the same reason that the Arctic does: it can reveal – or at least, appear to reveal – the influence of climate change more directly than other kinds of human activity.

While I interpreted my sources, I communicated my emerging ideas in popular articles, conference papers, invited lectures, and of course classes at Georgetown. Occasionally, I realized that my arguments were unconvincing, that I had found correlations but did not yet know whether they revealed causation. In those moments it was back to the drawing board, and sometimes the cutting board.  

Before I knew it, I had written about 30,000 words. This often happens to me. I write until I am content that the questions I had are largely answered – and then I realize I’ve written a short book, not an article. In fact, I thought this article would take up about 800 words and a couple hours of my time – nope! I never learn.

Anyway, I decided to split my little book in half, which would mean publishing two articles. The first would explore how climate change influenced the development of the Greenland Fishery, and the violence that accompanied its inaugural decade. The second would consider how the cultures of whales and whalers changed over the course of the entire seventeenth century, in ways that altered the possibilities for violence between rival whaling fleets.

I submitted the first article to Environment and History. The peer review process encouraged me to think less about the availability of resources – in this case, the bowhead whales that whalers prized – and more about how changes in the distribution of resources altered how defensible they were, and in turn how likely they were to provoke conflict. I can’t say that peer review is my favorite part of academia, but I regularly find that it leaves me with new analytical tools that I carry over to subsequent work.

I had a much tougher time with my second article (the one I was asked to write about in this piece). It was accepted by one journal and then, just before publication, retroactively rejected – apparently because it too closely resembled the first publication, which had just come out. That was quite a surprise. I wrote a response to the editors: the second article, I argued, examined relationships that were not in the first, and considered those relationships over a full century – not a decade. Of course, there was no response, and I had little choice but to revise the piece and submit again.

Given the work I had now put in and my perception of the significance of the revised piece, I chose to submit to the American Historical Review. I had always wanted to publish in AHR someday, partly because my doctoral advisor, Richard Hoffmann, had published a prize-winning piece in the journal that helped me decide I wanted to study with him. The peer reviews were daunting, and I spent many months revising. By the end, I had completely altered my narrative; engaged much more directly with the historiography of animal history; more deeply considered the implications of incorporating animal culture within a study of past climate change; and added some very exciting findings about polar bear culture. I also commissioned some beautiful maps from environmental historian-turned-cartographer, Geoffrey Wallace.

Perhaps most importantly, I finally learned to stop arguing that my work was valuable because it complicated relationships uncovered in previous studies. Being complex was not enough, one of my peer reviewers pointed out, and I realized that indeed I was emphasizing the complexity of my work to avoid spelling out exactly what interventions I was attempting to make. I also realized that by emphasizing the unique complexity of my work, I was essentially denigrating that of the climate scholars whose trailblazing efforts had made it possible. I decided I did not need such a foil to elevate my arguments.

Some four years passed between when I submitted the article to the first journal and when it was published. But the article was far more ambitious for the time my editors and peer reviewers had spent critiquing it, and the time I spent revising it. The other day I received an unexpected note from a guide in Svalbard, asking for a copy. He wanted to learn more about the lives of whalers, he said. Those are the notes that make it all worthwhile.


  1. Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Feature image: A fanciful, late-seventeenth century depiction of Dutch whalers around Svalbard faithfully captures both the technology they used to pursue bowhead whales, and the violence they inflicted on marine mammals in the Arctic. Abraham Storck, Hollandse walvisvaarders voor een bergachtige kust, 1654-1708. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 
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Dagomar Degroot is an associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University in Washington, D. C. He is the founder and co-director of HistoricalClimatology.com and the Tipping Points Project, the co-director and co-founder of the Climate History Network, and the co-host of the podcast Climate History.

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