Crawford on Fielding, 'The Wake of the Whale: Hunter Societies in the Caribbean and North Atlantic'

Russell Fielding
Sharika Crawford

Russell Fielding. The Wake of the Whale: Hunter Societies in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 342 pp. Ill. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98637-4

Reviewed by Sharika Crawford (United States Naval Academy) Published on H-Environment (January, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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In The Wake of the Whale: Hunter Societies in the Caribbean and North Atlantic, Russell Fielding transports his readers to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Written as half travelogue and half ethnography, the book introduces hunters and explores their hunting practices of small cetaceans, or whales, dolphins, and porpoises, for local consumption. Moving beyond the more familiar cases of Japanese and Inuit whaling communities in the Pacific, Fielding highlights two artisanal whaling communities. Throughout his narrative, he humanizes the Faroese and Vincentian whale hunters who have increasingly drawn outrage from animal rights activists in the past decade or so. This interdisciplinary study draws on archival documents, scientific reports, folk songs and stories, and participant-observation fieldwork.

In The Wake of the Whale, Fielding seeks to explain why the Faroese and Vincentian communities continue to hunt whales and whether it is illegal or unethical. To answer these questions, he takes readers on a journey to learn more about these faraway places. The Faroe Islands are a dependency to Denmark. For hundreds of years, the Faroese participated in opportunistic hunting where they drive pods of pilot whales to shore to be killed by an entire community in a slaughter, or grindadráp, and then distributed widely to the community. Despite the gruesome scene at a grindadráp, with dead whales strewn along the beach, Fielding insists that this is a key aspect of Faroese cultural identity, especially among rural islanders. Unlike the opportunistic hunting of the Faroese, the Vincentians at the port of Barrouallie carry on a form of whaling learned from their globetrotting Yankee predecessors who frequented the whaling grounds around St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Although on the island of Bequia, hunters pursue the humpback whales, Vincentians at Barrouallie set off to capture blackfish; they are similar to the pilot whales found around the Faroe Islands. No communal slaughter occurs on shore, but it happens at sea. Vincentian whalers then sell their catch to female vendors who process and sell it locally.

Despite differences in origins and practices, both whaling communities hunt to eat. Food-driven hunting, Fielding argues, is the last type of hunting to stop in spite of increasing criticism and international regulation. He insists that the Faroese and Vincentians have adopted culturally responsible ways to hunt whale, whether from limiting the places devoted to hunting, or closing the hunting season for a period. Although these indigenous systems of sustainability coupled with a lack of interest in whale hunting from younger generations in place like Barrouallie suggest that whaling is on the decline, Fielding cautions that the demand for whale meat will only subside when replaced with another easily accessible animal protein. Like other scientists, he claims that the real threats to existing whale populations come not from artisanal whalers but commercial whaling fleets and human-derived contaminants in the oceans.

Divided into ten chapters along with an introduction and conclusion, Fielding moves back and forth in telling the story of the Faroese and Vincentian whale hunting traditions. Some may find that this organizational structure does not always work effectively. The book meanders across the chapters and within the chapters occasionally. Drawing on an array of sources from medieval folk stories to ethnographic field notes, Fielding’s prose is engaging with his lurid descriptions and colorful accounts of the hunting communities under study, especially the Faroese. His attention to the miniscule details of Faroese mythology to language shows an unevenness in his two-pronged approach to this study. Fieldling never quite rises to this same level of detail or engagement with the Vincentian whalers with whom he spent several summers conducting fieldwork between 2008 and 2016. As a result, there may have been some missed opportunities to address more fully aspects of the whaling traditions on both islands. For example, Fieldling examines the gendered experiences of the whale industry in both societies. He argues that the Faroese and Vincentians adhere to traditional gender roles in terms of whale hunting: it is male-dominated. After he spends a few pages noting incidences of women (usually due to the absence of men) directly participating in or leading the whale slaughter, Fielding then introduces one of the few pilot whale women, or grindakvinnur. Yet his comparison to St. Vincent offers no insight into the experiences of Vincentian female blackfish vendors, and Fielding missed an opportunity to humanize and sketch out more fully the lived experiences of members of the Barrouallie whaling community.

In sum, In the Wake of the Whale will inform a broad range of readers, including students, faculty, and non-academics interested in environmental issues. This book would make an excellent addition to any syllabus focused on fisheries, oceans, conservation, and the environment. The prose is inviting and Fielding seamlessly raises important yet provocative questions about conservation and preservation. His role as the participant-observer even begs the question about methodology when studying such topics. Fielding includes a number of graphic photographs and descriptions of the Faroese grindadráp. If readers can move past some of the queasy visual and mental images, they will walk away a more complicated understanding of whale hunters and their societies.

Citation: Sharika Crawford. Review of Fielding, Russell, The Wake of the Whale: Hunter Societies in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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