My second favorite book, after Homer’s Odyssey, is Moby Dick. They are both tales of men at sea, but there are not many other similarities. After I read Moby Dick I was hooked on whaling lore for a long time. I read A.B.C. Whipple’s Yankee Whalers in the South Seas, Owen Chase’s Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, and maybe a dozen others. Much of my interest owed to the “call me Ishmael” adventurism of a young man, which I had to satisfy in other ways because unless you are Norwegian or Japanese, the last whaleships set sale well before I was born. Still, I could identify the various types of whales and relate a fairly technical account of the catching of whales and the process of rendering them into the whale oil that lit lamps and lubricated machinery and watches, and the other uses of parts of whale anatomy. Curiously, the adventure meant more to me than the plight of the whales, who never meant anybody and harm—even Moby Dick would have been in a better temper if Ahab would have desisted in turning him into a harpoon cushion.
Whaling, as Eric Dolin’s Leviathon will tell you, was a dangerous and dirty industry. These days it is still dirty, but less dangerous, unless Greenpeace is trying to sink your Japanese factory ship. But thanks to Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, we have learned to like whales for other things than lighting our oil lamps, or providing stays for out corsets (or being processed into pet food if you are not Japanese). If they lose their way and wander into brinish rivers, or get beached, we will pull out all the humanitarian stops to get them back in safe waters. Still, thanks to factory ships, which could find them with sonar, kill them with harpoon grenades, and haul them out and process them with great efficiency, many types of whales were nearing extinction. In the old Moby Dick days at least whales had a chance for some “payback”; if they didn’t often sink your Pequod, they did do in a fair number of whalers who chased after them in the small and fragile dories from which the beasts were harpooned and lanced.
Whaling was the quintessential capitalist enterprise, maybe America’s first real big business. Conservative New Englanders, often Quakers and other up-tight denominations, owned the fleets of blunt bark-rigged whaleships that were captained by often quite young masters. Crews were, for the most part, drawn from the bottom of the social stratum, with more blacks, “portogees” and even native-Americans in their company than whites. These were brave, stupid, desperate, or just adventurous young men who were willing to set to sea for as long as four years (or until the holds were full of oil, whichever came first) without knowing where they were going and ready to be ordered into the boats, or aloft into the rigging in the worst kind of weather, at a moments notice. This was done with pay so low (a “lay” was a tiny fraction of the proceeds) that they often returned home in debt to the company for provisions they needed from the ship’s “slop chest.” There was no doctor, save the carpenter (who had sharp implements), the food was lousy, and a slip into the water at the “carving in” of a whale meant death by shark, only slightly slower than being smacked in a whale dory by the flukes of an enraged bull sperm whale.
Still going down to the sea in ships must have seemed to many a 19th Century young man more interesting and adventurous than ploughing furrows or descending into a dark mine. These were, save for jobs that were beginning to emerge in cities and factories consonant with the growth of the American whale fishery, the only other occupations of the time.
At least one got to see something of the world. Whalers were often the first white men to encounter island peoples. It could be treacherous; some Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians referred to white men as “long pig” because they required a longer spit to roast them than their usual porcine diet. But there was also the prospect of having a nice romp on the palm-fringed beaches with some giggling cutie and contributing some Milkamagnesian DNA to the genetic pool of the South Pacific seas (along with some sexually-transmittable scourges.) Many a whaler decided to jump ship, if only for a while since others came along, to enjoy the blandishments of island life. Melville himself (read Typee) took such a sabbatical, although whalers didn’t often find their human rights any better ashore in these places than they did aboard ship.
I once read some whaleship logs in a former ship’s master’s home in Falmouth, Massachussetts, in which there were some harrowing encounters recorded with island peoples that didn’t even have names at the time. The house was also a trove of spears, masks and other native paraphernalia that the captain had collected on his journey’s. For a while these places ere as remote and mysterious as the backside of the moon, but before long the missionaries and other exploiters were following in the wakes of the whaleships.
Dolin’s history of whaling is often technical, but in between learning about why spermaceti oil is so-called, the differences between baleen whales and toothed whales, and the economics of the industry, there is the thrill of the hunt on high seas and the sense the hubris of men subduing the “leviathan.” Yet is was something rather mundane that did in the whaling industry—the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, that must, as the author states, have sent up a chorused cheer among the pods of sperm, right, bowheads, blue, humpback and other types of whales. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 had put dents in the industry because ships were sunk of commandeered, but one gusher in Pennsylvania was the death knell. In a few years the industry, to use its colorful term for the vanquished leviathan, had “rolled over, fin out.”
And so, whaling has lapsed largely into history, where its blood and stench have been expunged and its dangers relegated to paper cuts from turning pages. It was not only a period of great adventure, but one in which there was a heavy price paid for the improvement it gave to life ashore. It was replaced by another “leviathan” and a new industry that harpooned the earth itself to make it disgorge its thick, black blood to serve the rapacious needs of the dwellers on the surface. Indeed, if the dire prospects of a planet warmed in part by its consumption prove true, Mother Earth may summon her inner Moby Dick, and we plunbereres of the planet will “roll over, fin out.”
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.7.2008)