It’s said that pornography drives developments in cyber-technology and it seems true throughout history that it was the baser instincts that drove men to explore. In the case of the Spanish it was gold, the Portuguese spices and the Russians fur…and seal penises.
Nikolai Rezanov’s first impression of the Pribilof islands was the smell. As his ship approached the largest seal rookery in the world he glimpsed through the mist a shoreline dense in brown slippery bodies and then the stench of rotting meat.
“The number of seals on this island is unbelievable. The shores are covered with them. It is very easy to kill them…Before I arrived 30,000 male seals had been killed in a single day. Their pelts had been discarded.’ This was an appalling waste. With its hairs packed at an incredible 300,000 per square inch the northern fur seal skin was famous for its softness and warmth. So why in this case had the pelts been discarded?
The prize here was the animal’s penis – air dried and sent to Canton to satisfy the Chinese obsession with aphrodisiacs. “More than a million fur seals had been killed by the time I arrived,” reported Rezanov.
The sea otter too had once been plentiful, 3,000 pelts taken in the average season. They were no longer to be found in these waters. And Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction.
Discovered 1741 Extinct 1768
The natives fared little better. Within fifty years of the first Russian contact the Unangaz population had been reduced by eighty percent. But fortunes were made by the ruthless and reckless, the mad and the bad but rarely by good men.