Archival Kismet
Whale, Actually

Whale, Actually

Andrew Muldoon

Across the cover of the worn brown file, now property of the British National Archives, someone had written “Rations and Supplies – Dehydrated” in bright red pencil. This bland title gave little indication of what lay inside: a lengthy discussion about how Britain might feed its troops in South Asia in 1944, and specifically how it might convince these soldiers to eat “dehydrated whale meat.” These papers demonstrate a couple of things about the British war effort, and the British colonial enterprise. They remind us that an essential part of bureaucracy is the process of classification: one cannot determine where to put something until one determines what it actually is. This bureaucratic back-and-forth also reveals the recurring disjunction between Britain’s desire to have an empire and its concern not to look despotic while doing so. These were the issues that animated British military officials in 1944 as they sought to answer a fundamental question (albeit one they brought upon themselves): can a whale sometimes be a fish?

When Britons remember the Second World War, as they have in a variety of oral history projects since the 1980s, they often talk about life under rationing, and about the food ration specifically. The beef or mutton that was handy was tinned as “bully beef” and sent to the troops fighting abroad. Government efforts to provide protein for civilians at home meant that shops featured very little beef or pork, and instead presented more exotic fare: horsemeat, rabbit, snoek (a particularly reviled oily fish), and whale. Regarding the last, one woman could not remember if it was available at the butcher’s or the fishmonger’s.[1] This distinction did not matter to ordinary Britons, most of whom would decline to purchase it at either location, but it did actually illustrate a larger question about classification that would concern officials when they envisioned consumption by Indian Muslim soldiers, a group for whom the provenance, slaughter, and description of meat mattered enormously.

Sketch of men inside a traincar, lounging comfortably, in soldiers uniforms.
“Indian Troop Train,” India, World War II. (John G. Hanlen/US Army Art Collection | US National Archives)

By the end of 1943 two problems, one domestic and one overseas, concerning British food supply had emerged: one, the great British public had tasted whale and decided it was worse than going meatless[2]; and two, soldiers in South East Asia Command – where the number of Indian, British, and African troops had increased rapidly – needed more food. History does not record the name of the brave soul who looked at, on the one hand, the four hundred tons of whale meat the UK had stored, and on the other, at armies that needed protein to stay fighting fit, and declared both problems solved.[3] Given that the War Office was already trying to create “dehydrated beer,” it was easy to rationalize dehydrated whale meat, suitable for long-distance shipping and flaked for easy rehydration.

While perhaps solid (or less glutinous) in theory, this solution faced all sorts of obstacles in practice. British troops in India were not the intended consumers. Military officials considered beef or mutton more effective for European fighting men than fish or vegetables, and also more suitable in a colonial society where vegetarianism and fish-eating were associated with the idea of Hindu physical weakness or effeminacy. Yet that did not seem enough to rule out the possibility absolutely, for officials declared that “It is intended for issue to I[ndian] T[roops] only to make up for the scarcity of I.T. meat. There is, however, no objection to issue to B[ritish] T[roops] if it were necessary.”[4] Colonial sensibilities and military opinion would have to give way so that British soldiers would not starve.

Breakfast, Dinner, and Supper US army rations - three photos, one of each meal, all packaged in tinfoil and metal - but from the photo, it is unclear what's in each of the packages!
US Army rations, 1942. (James Vaughan/Flickr)

The more successful argument against whale meat for Britons was that morale in 1944 was only beginning to improve among these soldiers who called themselves a “forgotten army.” After several years of consistent protests, soldiers were finally receiving more amenities like beer and better cigarettes. The British soldier’s standard of living nevertheless still paled beside that of American troops in India who had better pay, ice cream machines, and much more beer, and any backwards step, such as the distribution of whale meat, would certainly provoke anger in the ranks.[5] These troops might also have heard from home about whale meat, so some healthy skepticism was likely even for food labeled as “fish.” As part of this effort to improve conditions of service, the army spelled out explicitly that “Dehydrated Fish does NOT appear as a main item or substitute in new . . . ration scale. There is therefore no question of issue to BT of Dehydrated whale.”[6]

This disavowal of whale meat for these troops is interesting not only for what it says about the army’s newfound sensitivity to morale. It also reveals the taxonomic journey upon which this bureaucracy had embarked. In this specific time and space, the whale, a mammal, had become a fish. Throughout 1944, the army repeatedly categorized “dehydrated whale” under the heading of “dehydrated fish.” However, whale was always classified as a separate sort of ocean fish, while mullet and cod were usually lumped together. There were occasional references to East African freshwater fish, but these were not the main issue. This façade did sometimes crack, as in December 1944 when officials noted the proposal “to include dehydrated fish and [my emphasis] dehydrated whale amongst the substitutes for fresh meat.”

Three paragraphs later, though, they declared the intention “to issue dehydrated whale as dehydrated fish” in the new ration scales for non-British soldiers. And just in case Indian Muslim troops had questions about the propriety of eating whale, “the advice of the Grand Mufti in INDIA was taken.”[7] He was willing to consider whales as fish, and thus not subject to rules for ritual slaughter that applied to other mammals.[8] But even with this clerical approval, dehydrated whale did not receive an enthusiastic welcome from Indian soldiers. John Shipster, a British officer in an Indian unit, later recalled that the whale meat came labeled as such, not as “fish,” provoking questions from his men about what it was and how it had been killed. His commanding officer purportedly then told Shipster: “Shippy, we have never ever lied to our soldiers and we are not going to start now.”[9] Whale was off the menu thereafter, not only in this unit, but throughout the Indian Army. A brief notice in a Singapore newspaper in 1947 advertised that the army was looking for buyers for the three tons of dehydrated whale that had been sent to India in 1945 for “experimental purposes.”[10]

This brief flirtation between the British Army and dehydrated remains of some North Atlantic mammals can teach us an important lesson about British colonial rule in India, expressed in Shipster’s commander’s assertion that “we have never ever lied to our soldiers.” Britain benefited greatly from ruling India, but the colonial state was always cautious about justifying that rule. This imperial power was also the nation of Magna Carta and Westminster, so while materialistic and self-interested reasons drove colonialism, this was not something Britain was ready to admit publicly. Paternalistic, philanthropic, and educational rationales for the Raj emerged instead. The key was to make Indians do what the state wanted, but without making it look like coercion. This was how the British government sought to defang Indian nationalism in the interwar years: through careful concessions that seemed progressive on their face, but in fact concealed how much British control would remain. What had changed by 1944 was just how much Britain needed Indian cooperation even to try to hold onto its Asian colonies, and how much British mismanagement of the war there had weakened the impression of a powerful and capable colonial state, and thus that state’s coercive capacities.

There’s no question that British officials wanted to solve several problems by feeding whale meat to soldiers, but they also felt that “the issue of an order would be unfortunate.” Yet there had been little enthusiasm for this unappetizing food in the UK; why would India be different? These documents also mostly show an unwillingness to lie outright about these rations, and the food’s packaging demonstrated this. Not only would misrepresentation run against the image of a moral colonial regime, but any discovery by Indians of lies about food especially could be catastrophic for the war effort. Without coercion or deception, what remained was persuasion or, perhaps more aptly, elision. Whales, or what remained of them, would float (forgive me) between the worlds of fish and mammals. As in the ocean, whales could dwell among fish, but not be of them. Whales could not be fish according to science, but they might be like fish, as the Grand Mufti seemed willing to concede. If fish were off the menu for Britons, then a whale was like a fish. If fish were meant for Indians, then a whale would be like a fish as well.

This was the colonial state muddling through: unwilling, and sometimes unable, to impose what it wanted; fearful of the consequences of deception; driven to elide the relationship of whales to fish, and yet too punctilious not to separate whales from cod and mullet. Indians rejected whale meat quickly. Like British rule in South Asia, the meat remained until 1947, by which point, like the Raj itself, it was time for it to go.


    1. Interview with Audrey Parsons, Imperial War Museum oral history collection (IWM), No. 34419.
    2. Marguerite Patten, a home economist at the Ministry of Food during the war, said later of whale meat: “If I talk about it long enough, I start to smell it.” (IWM interview, No. 16630).
    3. The documents upon which this article is based come from the United Kingdom National Archives (UKNA) file at WO203/801 (“Rations and Supplies – Dehydrated”)
    4. Director, Supplies & Transport, Indian Army GHQ to Deputy Quartermaster-General, 24 August 1944, UKNA WO203/801.
    5. For a good description of American troops’ relative bounty, and for a general history of food during the war, see Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin Press, 2012).
    6. Rear HQ, Allied Land Forces, South East Asia (ALFSEA) to Rear HQ, 14th Army, 20 November 1944, UKNA WO 203/801.
    7. HQ, 14th Army to 4 Corps, 33 Corps, 28th E. African Brigade and 254/255 Tank Brigades, 5 December 1944, UKNA WO203/801.
    8. Tarak Barkawi, Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 83. Barkawi relies on the memoir of a British officer and attributes the ruling to the Grand Mufti of Cairo, but the official documents indicate it was Delhi.
    9. John Shipster, Mist over the Rice Fields: A Soldier’s Story of the Burma Campaign 1943-45 and Korean War 1950-51 (Leo Cooper, 2000), 86–87.
    10. The Straits Times, March 9, 1947, 5.

Featured image caption: Provision of emergency rations for India Office during WW2. (Courtesy British Library)

Andrew Muldoon is Professor of History at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a friend to all marine mammals.

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