Object of the Week

‘Pass the whale, please’: A tin of whale meat

Tinned whale meat, ANMM Collection

Tinned whale meat, ANMM Collection

This tin of whale meat relates to a pivotal stage in Australia’s maritime history, when whale meat became prohibited from import/export in Australia. Produced in Japan by the Taiyo Fisher Company, the tin of seasoned whale meat was confiscated by Australian Customs in the mid-1980s under the Commonwealth Wildlife Protection Act (1982).

Although the import/export of whale meat is prohibited in Australia, and commercial whaling in Australian waters has been banned since the late 1970s, historically whaling has been a vital national industry. During the 19th-century whales were hunted in Australian waters for blubber (melted down for oil), baleen (used in corsets and buggy whips) and ambergris (used in perfumes and soaps).

Nothing was wasted in the whaling process, and by the early 20th-century Australian whalers were grinding the whale carcass to add to fertiliser and livestock feed. Many nations believed, however, that the meat from a whale should be sold for human consumption. Fresh, salted, smoked, cured, preserved or canned, countries all over the world were increasingly eating the ‘by-product’ of whales, particularly Japan, Norway and Germany. Despite these nations best efforts at promoting the meat by distributing canned samples, most American, British and Australians simply found that there was ‘something unpleasant about the thought of eating whale meat’ (‘London Table Talk’, The Advertiser, Adelaide, South Australia, 20 April 1910, p 10).

It wasn’t until the food shortage of World War I that alternative meats such as whale were seriously reconsidered in America and the British Commonwealth.  Renamed ‘sea beef’, the meat became a reasonably priced and plentiful substitute for beef, pork and lamb. Sold fresh in steaks and roasts, Women’s magazine gave instructions on how it should be cooked, preferably with a ‘good brown onion sauce’.

The Australian National Maritime Museum collection includes a vast assortment of objects relating to Australia’s history of whaling and various whale products, which you can now browse on-line.

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