The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. And one of the barbarous things they do (horrifying to today's whale-watching Australians) is to fire harpoons deep into the flesh of whales. They did it using whaling guns like the one just acquired by the National Museum of Australia.
On Wednesday morning (well timed, with a heated International Whaling Commission under way in Slovenia) the Museum showed off its Greener's Harpoon Gun. Later on Wednesday the chilling (but strangely beautiful and elegant) monstrosity (it is like a blunderbuss built for a giant) and two of its heavy, barbarously barbed steel harpoons were installed in the museum's prominent New To The Collection display case.
Senior curator George Main explained this harpoon gun, made in 1857 in William Greener's factory in Birmingham, almost certainly saw service in the waters of south-east Australia. Gunsmith Greener invented his harpoon gun in the 1840s. Using "cannon powder" (gunpowder) and fixed to the bows of whale-chasing vessels it replaced, for the first assaults on the leviathans, the hand held harpoons flung by intrepid men.
"Should a harpoon [fired from the gun] become bent," operating instructions directed, "it should be heated to a very dark red, laid on a piece of iron, and beaten straight with a wooden mallet."
The initial harpoon fired from this whaling cannon didn't kill the whale, Main explained as this reporter shuddered, but the ropes attached to the missile secured the poor creature. Then "men would use a killing lance to pierce the vital organs of the whale and they'd continually do that until the whale dies".
"These harpoon guns had a far longer range [than a human throw], of about 20 metres and a great accuracy and that's why they became so widely used. They were the beginning of efficient mechanised killing of whales that led to the devastation of whale populations around the world in the 20th century."
The Greener whaling gun, showing some of the scars of its busy, grisly working life, is another of those museum exhibits you wish could talk (and sing, for surely it would sing sea shanties) even though the tales it would tell would be shockingly grisly.
Australian whaling items earn their guernseys in our National Museum's collections in part because whaling was colonial Australia's first major export industry. Oil rendered from whale blubber lit the streets and interiors of Europe and lubricated the new steam engines of the Industrial Revolution.
The museum's Greener's Harpoon Gun (recently acquired at auction) may well have seen service on whaling vessels based at Eden on the NSW south coast from where, today, thousands of us now sail forth to do our whale watching, to marvel at whales instead of hunting them.
The National Museum will have experts on hand for this weekend's annual Eden Whale Festival. Main says that the museum is keen to hear from anyone in the Eden region with whaling industry reminiscences to share.