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Archival Report from Helen Cowie, Eccles Centre Fellowship recipient 2015


Archival Report from Helen Cowie, Eccles Centre Fellowship recipient 2015

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The British Library houses microfiche copies of US government regulations and correspondence relating to the Alaskan seal fisheries in the period 1880 to 1920 that have enriched my project into the Alaskan seal industry during the period 1850-1914, says Helen Cowie, Eccles Centre Fellow 2015.

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The Pacific fur seal was heavily hunted in the nineteenth century for its coat. Every year, thousands of seals were culled on the Pribylov Islands in the Behring Sea and their skins shipped to London, where they were prepared and processed. They were then distributed to consumers in North America and Europe as shawls, pelisses, gloves and jackets. By the mid-nineteenth century, the fur seal industry was a global business, employing men and women in Alaska, San Francisco and London. It was also a highly

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]fragile and contentious enterprise whose existence was threatened by the uncontrolled exploitation of the natural resource upon which it was built.

My research project explored the development of the Alaskan seal industry in the period 1850-1914. In 1867, Alaska passed from Russian into US hands, and the USA gained control of a precious natural commodity. Over the next half century, the US Government attempted to protect that commodity, introducing legislation that brought it into conflict with Canada and Britain.

My research centred on two key aspects of the sealskin industry. Firstly, it focused on ecological concerns. A much sought after commodity, the fur seal had already been wiped out in the southern Pacific Ocean. By the 1890s, its survival in the Aleutian Islands was also under threat, with the number of seals arriving on the island to breed falling to an estimated 959,000 in 1890 – just a third of the number counted by naturalist Henry Elliott in 1874.[1] Drawing on copies of governmental regulations and scientific reports held at the British Library, as well as articles in contemporary newspapers and periodicals, my research explored responses to this environmental crisis and assessed the effectiveness of the new legislation. I situated US policies towards the fur seal within a wider context of ecological awareness and conservation in this period, which also saw the creation of National Parks on the US mainland and the first measures to protect big game in British Africa and Asia.

Related to, but distinct from, these broader environmental concerns, animal rights activists also began to question seal hunting from a humanitarian perspective. In Britain, the RSPCA published several articles on seal culling in the late 1870s in which it alleged that seals were often skinned alive.[2] Thirty years later, in 1910, campaigner Joseph Collinson penned a highly graphic and emotive description of the seal cull, citing chilling testimony from individuals who had witnessed the slaughter. One of these described the ‘pitiful’ sight of a seal, ‘its nostrils wide and quivering, its dark ox-like eyes trembling in agony as the knife tears down its white skin’. Another claimed that seals were often skinned while still alive – deliberately so, for ‘in the utmost agony the wretched beast draws its muscles away from the sharp steel, which tears away its skin, and thus assists in parting with its own coat’.[3] Making use of the writings of humanitarians in Britain and the USA, I considered how far the sealskin controversy reflected changing attitudes towards animals in the Anglophone world and positioned sealing within a broader raft of animal welfare issues, including anti-vivisectionism and the slaughter of wild birds to decorate ladies’ hats. I also assessed the role of zoological gardens and aquariums in changing public attitudes towards seals by making them visible to a wider audience; in 1888, Forepaugh’s circus featured a troupe of ‘highly educated’ performing seals, whose skills ranged from playing the banjo to smoking a pipe!

My project benefited greatly from access to the collections at the British Library. The Library houses microfiche copies of US government regulations and correspondence relating to the Alaskan seal fisheries in the period 1880 to 1920 and reports from the United States Bureau of Fisheries. These are not available elsewhere in the UK. The Library also holds copies of correspondence between the US and Britain on the seal fisheries and important scientific reports submitted to the government by expert observers, including Henry W. Elliott, Report on the condition of the fur-seal fisheries of the Pribylov Islands in 1890 (Paris: Chamerot and Renouard, 1893), D.O. Mills, Our fur-seal fisheries (Washington, 1890) David Starr Jordan, Observations on the Fur Seals of the Pribilof Islands, Preliminary Report (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), and Harold Heath, Special Investigation of the Alaska Fur-Seal Rookeries, 1910’ in United States of America.-Bureau of Fisheries. In addition to studying this material, I used my time at the Library to study several important works by conservationist William Hornaday, superintendent of the National Zoological Park, Washington, and to read a range of animal welfare literature related to the practice of sealing – notably Collinson’s How sealskins are obtained (London: Animal’s Friend Society, 1910) and the RSPCA’s magazine The Animal World.

During the period of my fellowship I completed a chapter on the seal industry in Alaska, which I hope to publish as part of a larger, book-length project on animal commodities in the nineteenth century. I contributed an entry on sealing to the British Library’s Science blog and was grateful for an opportunity to give a paper at the Eccles Centre Summer Scholars programme.


[1] Henry W. Elliott, Report on the Condition of the Fur-Seal Fisheries of the Pribylov Islands in 1890 (Paris:Chamerat et Renouard, 1893), p.91.

[2] The Animal World, April 1878, p.54.

[3] Joseph Collinson, How sealskins are obtained (London: Animal’s Friend Society, 1910), p.3.

Helen Cowie is lecturer in history at the University of York. Her research focuses on the history of animals and the history of natural history. She is author or Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire, 1750-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2011) and Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Empathy, Education, Entertainment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). She is currently working on a history of animal-based commodities in the nineteenth century, including sealskin, ivory and alpaca wool. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][ultimate_carousel title_text_typography=”” slides_on_desk=”1″ slides_on_tabs=”1″ slides_on_mob=”1″][dt_teaser image_id=”8907″ lightbox=”true”]

‘Arbitration’, Punch, 17 January 1891. Author’s own image.