The Whale Oil Lamp: Illuminations and Reflections on a Mid-Nineteenth Century Commodity

by Jessica Helps

Download Article in PDF


The whale oil lamp tells us – in the twenty first century – that the past from when it came was not a simple time. An examination of predominately recent secondary sources and an analysis of the historical consumption of oil lamp fuel through the current historiography on the period of 1840 to 1870 through a post-colonial lens reveal some of the complexity of the whale oil lamp and the ways in which it exemplified colonial relationships and social hierarchies. Explorations into historical topics, items and issues, can highlight our inherited colonial / settler-colonial / imperial relationships to land and people (objectified as merely resources), and allow us to better understand the multiplicity, complexity, and violence of those relationships. The whale oil lamp thus functions as a frame to examine the nineteenth century as demonstrated by aggressive American whale hunting practices, and colonial relationships with Inuit peoples in the arctic, during the same period as whale oil was being gradually replaced with petroleum based kerosene.


Oil Illuminant ; Post-Colonial History ; American Imperialism ; Inuit / Whaler Relations


Jessica Helps is a Master of Arts Student in Canadian Studies at Carleton University, after having completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in French and History at University of Guelph in 2008 and a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in History at Carleton in 2012. She has had the pleasure of being able to present her original research paper, “Pipelines and Pipedreams; Finding Nationalism in Canadian Oil and Gas 1945-1955” at Carleton University’s Seventh Annual Undergraduate History Student Colloquium in 2011. She is originally from Sarnia, Ontario, home of Canada’s petro-chemical refining centre Chemical Valley; this is only a dozen kilometres from Oil Springs, Ontario, the home of the first oil well in North America. Intrigued by the links between her local and national histories, she focuses much of her research on the history of petroleum in Canada through lenses of critical nationalism and post-colonialism.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.