A Filthy Enactment - The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare 

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 4. A Filthy Enactment

Who aint a slave? Tell me that.

Loomings, Moby-Dick

Housed in its own vaulted, purpose-built hall is New Bedford’s grandest exhibit: a half-scale replica of a whale-ship. Even allowing for its reduced size, the confined lower decks of this vessel are intimidating. They resemble nothing so much as the slave ships of the age: the one designed to carry the harvest of dead whales; the other to convey living souls. In a nearby cabinet is a much smaller specimen: a framed daguerreotype of a handsome man with a sweep of sleek wavy hair, fine cheekbones and serious, querying eyes; he wears a dandy’s high-collared shirt and tie and an elegant dark coat. But this composed figure was the fomenter behind the campaign to abolish slavery–in a city that shackled men to the pursuit of the whale.

In 1838 Frederick Douglass, the son of an enslaved mother and a white father whose name he never knew, escaped from Baltimore dressed as a sailor. He arrived in New Bedford where, for four years, he lived and worked, rolling casks, stowing ships, sawing wood, sweeping chimneys and labouring at a blacksmith’s bellows till his hands were like horn. Ishmael claimed that ‘a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard’ for Douglass and his brethren, ‘the ship-yard…was our schoolhouse’.

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Like the rest of America, New Bedford is a place made up of other places. If more white Americans were descended from pickpockets and prostitutes than from the Pilgrim Fathers, then, as Ishmael informs us, ‘not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born’. While America’s railroads were built by Irish navvies, its dirty business of whaling was done by Africans and Indians or Azoreans and Cape Verdeans. The heroes of the harpoon were more likely to be men of colour than sons of the Mayflower.

By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, one in twenty New Bedfordians was black, a greater proportion than that of New York, Boston or Philadelphia. ‘In New Bedford,’ marvels Ishmael, ‘actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh. It makes a stranger stare.’ The South End of town was known as Little Faial for its Azoreans; another downtown neighbourhood was named New Guinea after its inhabitants. On these shingled and clapboarded New England streets a dozen languages could be heard and dark figures seen, fellow countrymen of Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo, the Polynesian, American Indian and African-American harpooneers of the Pequod. Visiting in 1917, Mary Heaton Vorse saw an ‘illusion of the South’ about the port, with its ‘Bravas’ or Cape Verdeans and entire neighbourhoods in which white people were the foreigners; where children stared back, and ‘a splendid Negress with thin Arab features…checked her stride to wonder about us’.

Black sailors were engaged by owners who did not ask questions, or whose Quaker beliefs opposed slavery. Some rose to become captains or mates. Others succeeded in supply industries: Lewis Temple of New Bedford invented the toggle-iron harpoon, with its ingeniously hinged head. But below deck, bunks were still segregated and conditions were such that by the end of the century only men of colour could be persuaded to sign up; hence the preponderance of black faces in photographs of whaling crews. Charles Chace, one of New Bedford’s last whaling captains, kept two loaded pistols in his cabin in case of trouble–so his descendant told me–and when his Cape Verdeans were discharged with a suit of clothes and a ten-dollar bill, many gave up their African names and, like slaves, adopted their master’s, for the sake of conformity with their new home.

New Bedford owed at least part of its success to its communications with the rest of America; the same year that Frederick Douglass arrived, the city was connected by rail to the New England network. But for Douglass and for Henry ‘Box’ Brown–who was smuggled out of the South in a crate, emerging at the other end as a human jack-in-the-box–New Bedford was a vital stop on another network: the Underground Railroad, an invisible system secretly helping thousands of slaves to escape to the North and Canada. A port was the perfect place for such illicit trade; and whaling offered a tradition of disguise as well as employment. For Douglass and his fellow fugitives, New Bedford’s transience itself was a kind of liberty: ‘No coloured man is really free in a slaveholding state…but here in New Bedford, it was my good fortune to see a pretty near approach to freedom on the part of the coloured people.’

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whaling and slavery co-existed as lucrative, exploitative, transoceanic industries; while whale-ships sought to disguise themselves as men o’ war in order to forestall pirates (and sometimes harboured fugitive slaves themselves), slave ships seeking to evade Unionist blockades during the Civil War would masquerade as whale-ships. It was no coincidence that in 1850, as Melville began to write Moby-Dick, the issue of slavery was coming to a head. The stresses that would eventually sunder a nation also gave Melville’s book its symbolic charge.

That year, a new Fugitive Slave Law gave owners extraordinary powers to pursue their ‘property’ over state limits. To America’s great philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was a ‘filthy enactment’. Meanwhile, his Concord neighbour, Bronson Alcott–whose utopian, strictly vegan commune, Fruitlands, just outside Boston, was an early example of ethical living where the wearing of cotton was forbidden because it exploited slaves and where oil lamps were proscribed because they were the result of the death of whales–hid fugitives in a modern version of a Reformation priest-hole.

War between the states seemed imminent; and as the North and South argued over the right, or otherwise, to maintain their fellow man in chains, Melville turned the crisis into an elegant, cetological analogy.

Some pretend to see a difference between the Greenland whale of the English and the right whale of the Americans. But they precisely agree in all their grand features; nor has there yet been presented a single determinate fact upon which to ground a radical distinction. It is by endless subdivisions based on the most inconclusive differences, that some departments of natural history become so repellingly intricate.

Elsewhere, Ishmael describes a whale of ‘an Ethiopian hue’, hunted until its heart burst; while the whiteness of Moby Dick itself seemed a reflection on America’s preoccupation with colour.

Determined to protect his fellow fugitives from ‘the blood-thirsty kidnapper’, Frederick Douglass began an unprecedented campaign, the first black man in America publicly to oppose such injustice. Historians like to imagine that Douglass and Melville saw each other in New Bedford’s narrow streets; in the same year that Melville sailed from the port, Douglass was ‘discovered’ lecturing on abolitionism in the Nantucket Athenæum. Four years later, the publication of his memoir, the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, attracted violent opposition. Some even questioned the author’s authenticity, turning on his fierce beauty–not quite black, not quite white–calling Douglass a ‘negro imposter’ and ‘only half a nigger’ (to which he retorted, ‘And so half-brother to yourselves’). In May 1850, Douglass’s appearances in the New York Society Library–the same building in which Melville was even then researching his story of the White Whale–were disrupted by ‘Captain’ Isaiah Rynders and his Law and Order Party, a gang that attacked abolitionists, foreigners and blacks, encouraged by one newspaper which demanded its readers

STRIKE THE VILLAIN DEAD.

When Douglass strolled up Broadway with his two English friends, Julia and Elizabeth Griffiths, passers-by uttered exclamations ‘as if startled by some terrible sight’. Worse still, when walking near the Battery, the trio were set upon by five or six men shouting foul language; Douglass was hit in the face, and the women struck on the head. It was a scene that had its counterpart in Melville’s autobiographical Redburn, published the previous year, in which the young sailor sees his ship’s black steward walking the Liverpool streets ‘arm-in-arm with a good-looking English woman’, and remarks: ‘In New York, such a couple would have been mobbed in three minutes; and the steward would have been lucky to escape with whole limbs.’

Douglass reacted to these assaults in his essay, ‘Colorphobia in New York!’, and later became Abraham Lincoln’s adviser on slavery during the bitter war that followed. Melville, whose father had been a friend of the Liverpool abolitionist William Roscoe, would invest Moby-Dick with the same blackness and whiteness, the same deceptively simple quandary. Strangely intertwined in history, slavery and whaling were both expressions of antebellum America; both doomed by their reliance on unsustainable resources, human and cetacean.

By the time Melville arrived, New Bedford was experiencing an unparalleled boom. In the 1840s, three hundred whale-ships–more than half of the American fleet–sailed from the port, often returning with two or three thousand barrels of oil and profits running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many New England boys, fired up by the heroism and glory it offered, volunteered for the chase. While their peers went to California in search of gold or the Dakota plains for buffalo, they found another wilderness: whaling was the Wild West of the sea.

Like a cowboy or a jockey, the experienced whaler was physically tailored for the job–or perhaps his job moulded him. ‘He is a rather slender, middle-sized man, with a very sallow cheek, and hands tanned of a deep and enduring saffron color,’ wrote Charles Nordhoff, who sailed from New Bedford soon after Melville, ‘…very round-shouldered, the effect possibly of much pulling at his oar.’ A vagabond cast in ‘this shabby part of a whaling voyage’–as Ishmael puts it–the well-travelled whaler bore

a singular air of shabbiness…His shoes are rough and foxy, and the strings trail upon the ground, as he walks. His trowsers fail to connect, by several inches, showing a margin of coarse, grey woollen sock, intervening between their bottoms, and his shoes. A portion of his red flannel drawers is visible, above the waistband of his pantaloons; while a rusty black handkerchief at the throat, fastened by a large ring, made of the tooth of a sperm whale, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, keeps together a shirt bosom…innocent of a single button.

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New Bedford Whaling Museum

The whaler was a kind of pirate-miner–an excavator of oceanic oil, stoking the furnace of the Industrial Revolution as much as any man digging coal out of the earth. Whale oil and whalebone were commodities for the Machine Age, and owners and captains adopted the same punitive practices employed in mills and factories, reducing pay and provisions to pursue a better profit.

When you’re fast to a whale, running risk to your life

You’re shingling his houses and dressing his wife.

It was to this often iniquitous trade that innocent young men found themselves signed up, almost unwittingly. Engaged in New York, they were shipped to New Bedford, the price of their passage deducted from the seventy-five dollars they had been promised. Sometimes the ‘landsharks’ got them drunk and virtually press-ganged their victims, who woke to find themselves aboard an outgoing ship, unable to get off.

At worst, whalers were treated like migrant workers, little better than bonded labourers. Nordhoff spent months ‘in all the filth, moral and physical, of a whale-ship’, and returned feeling that he had thrown away two years of his life: whaling, he declared, ‘was an enormous, filthy humbug’. One young whaler came home after a five-year voyage to discover that while his friends had made their fortunes in the gold fields, he had earned just $400, half of which he owed in outfitter’s bills.

To Ishmael, New Bedford was a ‘queer place’, a city that wore ‘a garb of strangeness’. It certainly mystified Nordhoff when he first arrived. This whaling metropolis reached out from a corner of New England to light the world, yet it was remarkably still. ‘One would never guess that he stood within the bounds of a city which ranks in commercial importance the seventh seaport in the Union, and whose ships float upon every ocean.’ The reason for this complicit silence was the confinement of the port’s commerce to a relatively small downtown area, as if it were keen to restrict its vulgar, even disreputable transactions to a whalish ghetto.

New Bedford is still a blue-collar place, a working port; perhaps that is why I like it so well: it reminds me of my home town. It still conducts its business from the same buildings used by the whaling trade; newspapers are published and radio stations broadcast in Portuguese; and in the north end of town, Antonio’s restaurant sells salt cod and shrimp fritters to descendants of whalers and mill-workers on a Friday night. As the customers sit drinking at the bar, with an icy wind blowing down the street outside, it isn’t hard to imagine a modern-day Ishmael walking in the door; or even his creator.

When he arrived in New Bedford on that bleak December day in 1840, Melville saw the city rising ‘in terraces of streets, their ice-covered trees all glittering in the clear, cold air’, endlessly unravelling in a panorama of activity. The port was alive to the business of the whale. Scores of ships lay in dock, preparing for long voyages, taking on supplies in holds which, as they emptied, would be filled by the fruit of their hunt. It was an efficient exchange: if ‘greasy luck’ was with the Acushnet, she would never need ballast. Flat-pack barrels–loose staves to be assembled by onboard coopers–provided further storage. Other ships were drying their sails like cormorants’ out-held wings, their cargo unloaded by men back from tropical seas; they were easy to spot, for their sunburn glowed next to the pale faces of those who had wintered at home.

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New Bedford Whaling Museum

The wharfside was a centre of industry, like the whales never still by day or night, piled high with ‘huge hills and mountains of casks on casks’ while ‘the world-wandering whale-ships lay silent and safely moored at last’. Here Ishmael listens to carpenters and coopers at work, ‘blended noises of fires and forged to melt the pitch’. It is a Sisyphean sign, both quickening and deadening: ‘that one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.’ This was a task as dreary as a container ship sailing predetermined distances, bringing stuff in, taking stuff out, heavy with oil and whalebone and human effort.

Nordhoff too saw wharves laden with ‘harpoons, lances, boatspades, and other implements for dealing death to leviathan’. Beyond lay the inns and offices, chandlers and sail lofts, smithies and dining rooms, banks and brokers, all trading on the whale, directing every effort down to the river and the ocean beyond in an unremitting, profitable pursuit. Clapboarded and shingled, walled in wood like ships themselves, the five blocks tethered off Water Street–‘New Bedford’s Wall Street’–were said to be the busiest in New England. This main thoroughfare, running uphill from the waterside, was devoted to the outfitters’ shops and suppliers, while its side streets were home to boarding houses kept by whaling widows ‘for numerous youthful aspirants to spouting honors’. For other honours, they could visit a waterborne brothel, anchored offshore.

Removed from this gritty business were the grand mansions of County Street, New Bedford’s most prestigious address. These houses still occupy block after block in every permutation of architectural style, their details picked out in contrasting colours, each wildly different, yet each the product of factories that turned out decorative trim by the yard. Like the millionaires’ ‘summer cottages’ in nearby Newport, Rhode Island, they vie with each other for extravagance. Most magnificent of all is the house built in 1834 for the whaling Quaker, William Rotch Junior, whose grandfather Joseph came from Nantucket to found New Bedford’s industry.

Occupying a block of its own, this elaborate pile, with its verandahs and parterres, its reception rooms and bedrooms, seems incompatible with its owner’s austere face, long silver hair and plain black coat. Nevertheless, William Rotch presided over the world’s greatest whaling fleet from the glazed lantern that sits on the roof like a lighthouse, looking down on the waterfront and the source of his wealth. On a darkening winter’s afternoon, I climbed to this eyrie through the attic-like servants’ quarters, the sodium lights of the port already twinkling in the distance. ‘Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford,’ Ishmael declares. ‘Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?’ His answer lay with ‘the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion…Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged hither from the bottom of the sea.’ For every stoop and pillar on County Street, a whale died; each extravagance was bought at the cost of a cetacean. Oil for marble, baleen for wood, this was the rate of exchange from sea to shore.

And down at the quayside late at night, where the fishing fleet lies tethered to rusty piles, hulls bumping gently and engines purring, I wonder how it must have been for these young men to ship out from this port, to leave these homely waters for uncertain seas. A sense of utter abandonment to fate, disconnecting from America, seeking escape wandering the oceans, orphans in search of a new home among a family of men, yet enslaved to the movements of the whale, man and animal forever linked.

The next morning, as I leave, snow starts to fall, turning the mural over the highway into an impressionist canvas, flecked with white. As the traffic picks up speed, I look over my shoulder. The painted whales are fading from view, losing their shapes. A hundred yards more and they are gone, vanishing with the city into the flurrying swirl, to be replaced by the concrete clamour of the road ahead.

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Nantucket Historical Association