On the historical and scientific route of whales and whaling in Portugal and the Portuguese Atlantic during the early modern period


Start . 2013

Duration . 45 months

Principal Investigator . Cristina Brito (CHAM)



Main Research Unit

CHAM — Centro de Humanidades


Escola de Mar / Faculdade de Ciências/Universidade de Lisboa



Since time immemorial, human beings have been fascinated by whales. The great marine mammals have always captured our imagination, figuring in ancient legends and visual representations as terrifying sea monsters and inspiring poets and artists with their strange grace and immense size. Over the years an entire whale mythology grew, inspired by the mystery surrounding these creatures’ habits. But the shared history of whales and humans is a bitter one, for the animals have long been hunted for their valuable oil, meat, bones and baleen. For centuries the chase was dangerous and romantic, sending mariners and whalers on perilous voyages in search of profit and adventure. Scientific knowledge about whales and conservationist concerns are, in fact, very recent. It was not until the 18th century that the whale was classified as a mammal rather than a fish, while cetology as a scientific discipline and a branch of zoology dates back only to the 1960s. In Portugal, the history of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and humans is documented throughout time not only in reports, descriptions, and tales but also in legal documents, laws and regulations, and tithes. In the mainland the first references to cetaceans found are from the 13th century, through stranding records, scavenging of whale remains or whaling related activities, registered in several coastal villages. In fact, Portugal together with the Basque Country, the renowned place of birth of occidental whaling, seems to have been an important whaling location where a whale culture has developed. Besides, organised whaling and development of related techniques started in the Iberian Peninsula and moved towards the Atlantic along with the oceanic Portuguese journeys from the 15th and 16th centuries. The present project will start on Portugal mainland and will follow to the Portuguese Atlantic aiming the identification and analysis of the historical and scientific route of the whales and whaling in the early modern Atlantic. It will provide a better understanding of some aspects of our past, namely the relation between humans and whales in a time of clear exploitation approaches and highly predatory perceptions towards these marine resources and the marine environment.




This study builds on a large timeframe from medieval to early modern times, just before the starting of industrial whaling in Portugal during the late 19th century, and on distinct historical (written, material, heraldry and cartography) and material sources (remnants from whales kept in collections). Aspects of marine environmental history will be addressed engaging with elements from the history of science, also framing Portuguese maritime history within an Atlantic history. Atlantic history is an analytic construct and an explicit category of historical analysis that helps to organise the study of the emergence of this ocean basin as a site for several and distinct forms of exchange, where whaling, whale products trade and scientific knowledge transfer may work, in the future, as unit of coherent analysis for the Atlantic. The main objective of this project is to place Portuguese medieval and early modern whaling into the Iberian Peninsula and worldwide panorama. This project will be a starting point to a more interdisciplinary, transnational and circum-Atlantic project regarding the historical routes of whaling and its dispersion through the Atlantic over time. For the moment, importance of the activity, starting and ending period, captured species and numbers, and relevance in local economical and cultural aspects over time will be identified and explored. Also, whaling and whales’ impact on society´s self-representative ways will be addressed. Besides the scientific outputs, we expect to start a natural history collection and to establish a Portuguese label and an historical, cultural, and ecological route of the whales’ presence - The Route of the Whales. This project will demonstrate new and cohesive perspectives and perceptions of the relevance of disseminating Portuguese History and Culture, and will create a hypothesis for a broader venture endeavouring for an international audience of both scholars and general public.







Cristina Brito    .    Coordenator

António Teixeira (ICNF)
Inês Carvalho (APCM)
Nina Vieira (CHAM)
Vera Jordão (Escola de Mar / FCUL)