English harpoons. Fig. 1. Old, original style
harpoon, Fig. 2. Hand harpoon in general use about 1857, Fig. 3. Hand-harpoon
in general use on Scotch whalers. Drawings by Capt. William Adams, Dundee,
The purpose of the hand harpoon was not to kill the
whale, but to weaken it and allow the whalers to move in for the kill.
A much-used refinement of this technique for much of the pre-industrial
era of whaling was that the harpoon was used to fasten the whaling boat
to the whale. As the whale swam off in a panic, it was forced to drag
the whaling boat behind it, making it harder for it to dive and tiring
the whale more effectively.
Initially harpoons were like simple large arrow shapes
with barbs as in the first picture, though these frequently came out
of the whale which then stood a better chance of escape. Later, very
successful refinements of this were the harpoons with toggle heads that
penetrated the whale easily, but then swivelled through 90° so holding
them fast much more effectively.
Harpoons were made of soft iron and would bend easily
when struck in the whale, this would make them more difficult to remove
and so they were less likely to come out than if they were made of stiffer
Image courtesy NOAA