The ship on the left of this painting is the flute Prins Willem, distinguishable as a whaler by the beam across the top of the after cabin, from which two longboats are slung, and by the flag she is flying from the mainmast featuring a large whale. The stern has a carved image of Prince Willem, with the inscription P Willem below. The ship was named after William III of Orange, Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland from 1672 to 1702, and King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. The escutcheon with his arms, supported by two lions, can be seen atop the stern. The red, white and blue flag with the whale at the mainmast indicates that the whaler is the flagship of the Admiral of the whaling fleet. Flying from the poop is the Prince’s flag, from the foremast the Dutch jack, while the States flag on the bowsprit indicates that this flagship had overall command of the whaling fleet that sailed that season. At the mizzen is a flag with the colours of Rotterdam, which might be an indication that the skipper was a native of that town.
The whaling fleet always sailed in squadrons led by an admiral, a Vice-Admiral and a Rear-Admiral, who were experienced commanders appointed by the delegates of the Greenland Fishery Committee, a body comprising the leading shipowners. In times of danger the whaling fleet would be escorted by a number of men-o-war, which shepherded it through the perilous zones. After that the flag officers of the whaling fleet were on their own. Their most important task was to guard the fleet, keep it together for safety, and to turn up at the appointed rendezvous with the men-o-war for the journey home. The flag officers also took part in whalehunting.
The Prins Willem is a flute from the early period of the Arctic ice fishery, which began around 1670. Up until then whales had been hunted in the bays of Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Island and in the open waters between these islands. In those days, ships of standard construction like merchantmen could still be used, but when the whales began retreating into the drift ice it became necessary to use whalers designed to sail through the floes. The most popular type was the flute, because its rounded hull allowed the ice to slide smoothly past. For whaling purposes these ships would be reinforced internally and externally to enable them to withstand the enormous pressure of the ice. The Prins Willem’s beakhead shows that she dates from the early period of the ice fishery, because these vulnerable structures were soon abandoned as being totally unsuitable for Arctic conditions. Although the decks of the Prins Willem already resemble those of the eighteenth century bootschip, she still has the narrow stern typical of seventeenth century vessels.
The crew are unloading the blubber into two Rotterdampoons, which are carrying it from the whaler to the try-house on the left of the painting. On the other side of the Prins Willem is one of her longboats. Beyond the whaler is the osier dam built by the city of Rotterdam in 1648 to divert the current and ensure an adequate depth of water in the river. Rotterdam had owned two-thirds of the island of Feijenoort since 1591, but in order to build the dam it had to buy the remainder from the manor of IJsselmonde. Two barges with chisel-shaped bows are moored to the dam, where men are carrying out repair work on this structure which was so vital to Rotterdam’s prosperity.
Feijenoort was also economically important to the city. In 1649 the Rotterdam Council gave several shipowners permission to build a try-works on the island. The city assisted in this project by building a small harbour and by raising the terrain. This particular rendering works could not have been in operation for very long, for in 1662 the brothers Pieter and Bastiaen van Harlaer rented the island for a period of 25 years for grazing cattle. In 1664 they complained about the stench of the try-works and sought permission for a monopoly of the trade on the island. The Rotterdam merchants and shipowners agreed, on condition that they build a decent furnace and a coopers’ shed where blubber and oil could be stored, and which could serve as a shelter for the other workers. The Rotterdam shipowners were prepared to pay the sum of five strivers for each kwarteel (cask with a capacity of 232.8 litres) of oil.
The rent of the island was accordingly raised, which initially caused the Van Harlaer brothers some problems. Due to the war with England no whalers sailed in the period 1665 – 1667 and no blubber was brought in for boiling. A period of prosperity followed however, with the exception of the years 1672 to 1674, when war with France and England once more prevented the whalers from sailing. The year 1683 was a record for whale fishery, with 242 whalers setting out for the Arctic waters, 33 of them from Rotterdam.
The Van Harlaers’ try-works must have ceased to exist shortly after 1684, a few years before the actual lease expired. In that year the Rotterdam Council had decided it would be more profitable to plant the island with alder trees, and the try-works and the cattle had to go.
The painting must date before this period, because behind the whaler we can still see cattle grazing and there is no sign as yet of alder trees.
The try-house is in full operation. Above the furnace are three men who are boiling the blubber to extract the oil. The residue of the blubber was then used to make glue. Workers can be seen carrying loads of blubber to and fro. In the foreground, by a row of casks, the foreman of the try-house is talking to the oilgauger, an official appointed by the city to monitor the quantity and quality of the oil produced at the try-house. Behind them is the coopers’ tent, which also served as storage room and as shelter for the other workers. It seems that the proposed shed was never built.In the left background is the IJsselmonde shore. The building among the trees is the Katendrecht toll-house, where the passenger ferry from Rotterdam landed. It was from here that the mail-coaches set out for Antwerp. On the other bank of the Nieuwe Maas is Rotterdam itself with, from left to right, East India House, the entrances to the New Docks, the Pelikaan, Oranjeboom and Roomolen windmills, and the Rotterdam Admiralty and East India Company yards.
In front of the line of mooring posts is a second whaler firing a salute, which was the customary mark of respect to a flagship when leaving harbour. Its cargo has already been unloaded and beam and longboats have been removed. This whaler lacks the beakhead of the Prins Willem and must therefore be of a later date. Approaching in the immediate right foreground are two lighters with fishermen, which are heading towards the mooring posts on the Feijenoort bank.
There are two clues to the dating of this picture: the fact that there was a tryworks on Feijenoort from 1649 to around I684, and the Prins Willem herself. As she is clearly a whaler from the early period of the Arctic ice fishery, it is unlikely that the painting dates from before 1670.
The Zaandam notarial archives of 15 April 1670 mention a flute of this name which came into the possession of a local shipowner called Claes Gerritsz. Ouwekees in the early 1670s and sank off Greenland in I678. In the same archives there is a shipbuilder’s deed of sale of 1682 for a second whaler of the same name, which was to be ready for the 1683 season. However, since most whaling flutes no longer had beakheads by then, it can be assumed that the whaler in the picture is the earlier Prins Willem. The possibility of two whaler with the same name at the same time must be ruled out, as it would have led to confusion when the catch or a shipwreck had to be reported.
Also relevant in this case are the shipowner’s identifying marks, which can be seen on the longboats of the Prins Willem. Although they are not distinct enough to be read with absolute certainty, they do resemble the marks used by the Ouwekees family.
The earlier Prins Willem is known to have sailed as a whaling flagship from 1671 to 1677. NThe years 1672, 1673 and 1674 can be ruled out as a date for the painting, because the war with France and England kept all the whaling fleets in harbour. The presence of a second whaler of a type which only made its appearance in the latter half of the 1670s makes it likely that this picture was painted after 1675, but probably before 1678, the year in which the Prins Willem sank.