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

Chapter 5. Far Away Land

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse…a mere hillock, and elbow of land; all beach, without a background…What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood!

Nantucket, Moby-Dick

Off-season Hyannis is deserted, closed for the winter. This morning’s storm has cancelled ferry sailings; the evening’s schedule may be called off as well, the seas too high for a safe crossing. It seems that, like Ishmael, I will be frustrated in my attempt to make Nantucket tonight. It is the coldest weather of the year, and the wind is picking up. In the ferry office, the woman delivers the expected news. But what about the plane? she says. There’s fifteen minutes to the last flight.

On the darkened runway, the light aircraft rumbles along until its wings seem to stretch and straighten. Soon the sodium flares of the town fall away, to be replaced by the silver-black waves far below. I’m sitting in the co-pilot’s seat; the young pilot wears a baseball cap, and the cockpit smells of his sandwiches. The dual controls tick and turn in my lap. Through the windscreen I see a shape on the horizon, bracketed by flashing lighthouses. A clutter of stars bursts around Orion. Twenty minutes later we are falling through the clouds, twin beams meeting in the mist, guiding us down. With a bump the tyres bite tarmac, and as we few passengers step out onto the airstrip, Flint the boxer dog scents home.

When Ishmael and Queequeg arrive in Nantucket, by schooner from New Bedford, they put up at another inn while they search for a suitable whale-ship. As they do so, Ishmael takes the opportunity to delineate the island in great detail, from its remarkable history down to its clam chowder–even though his creator had never actually been there. Such was Nantucket’s fame: it already lived in the American imagination, a name that summed up the pioneering, heroic spirit of the new republic. Early cartographers even saw the shape of a whale in its harbour, as if its myth were incarnate in the island’s very geography. But like its neighbour, Cape Cod, Nantucket was both part of America, and set apart from it at the same time.

The word is Native American, Nattick, meaning far away land; and from far away, its wharves once stank so much that visitors could smell the island before they saw it. Now they bob with expensive boats gleaming with brass and veneer. The town’s Main Street is unevenly paved with hefty stone setts, undulating as if to shrug itself of unwanted visitors. Smart shops and old-fashioned drugstores with high counters serving sodas and sandwiches give way to sandy lanes lined with clapboard homes. Many have door-knockers and weathervanes in the shape of whales, ‘but they are so elevated, and besides that are to all intents and purposes so labelled with “Hands off!” as Ishmael complains, ‘you cannot examine them closely enough to decide upon their merit.’ Nearby is the Athenæum where, in 1841, Frederick Douglass spoke to a mixed-race audience at the island’s first anti-slavery convention; a second meeting the following year ended in a riot. It would be hard to imagine such insurrection here nowadays.

The higher up the hill you go, the more the houses increase in size. Unlike New Bedford’s showy homes, however, they announce their wealth quite quietly. Three identical buildings, built in the 1830s by Joseph Starbuck for his three sons, were the first brick houses on the island; they speak of a fantastical New England. Even a century ago Mary Heaton Vorse saw Nantucket as ‘some beautiful old woman sitting dreaming in a garden…proud of her faded and excellent beauty’ its summer visitors already outnumbered year-rounders, and ‘no immigrants swarmed through the wide houses of the old whaling captains, as in New Bedford’.

Nowadays, an island which furnished the world with the names of Macy, Folger and Starbuck rejects commerce. There are no supermarkets selling cheap postcards, no homeboys’ stores with piles of jeans. It all adds up to a faintly unreal perfection. The cold light turns each streetscape into an exquisite composition of towers and trees laid bare by an acid-blue sky. Colours shade into each other; flat grey shingle and dusty green lichen; roots disrupt brick pavements with slow-motion earthquakes.

These lanes also lead back to one place. New Bedford’s mansions were dragged up from the ocean; these houses were landed at the harbour in barrels; came totalled in copperplate figures in bound books; were marked in ivory teeth over years spent on the other side of the world. They may look innocent, but they too were built by heathens and monsters.

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In Nantucket’s refurbished whaling museum, the bones of a sperm whale look across to a wall arrayed with harpoons and lances like medieval hardware in the Tower of London. Upstairs, the galleries are filled with the more delicate by-products of this bloody business. Standing on plate-glass shelves are fine examples of scrimshaw, a craft which in itself was an expression of an industry of excess.

On long voyages, the large crews required to hunt whales were idle for much of the time. To occupy hands that might be otherwise engaged, they were given whale teeth on which to record images of their fancy or everyday life. Soaked in brine to preserve their suppleness and polished with sharkskin, the teeth–which could be up to ten inches long–were etched with needles or knives, creating patterns to be inked with soot from the ship’s try-pots. Some were little more than graffiti; others were traced with illustrations snipped from Victorian periodicals, or imaginary classical scenes. Often, they portrayed the ships themselves.

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Decorated with bosomy women or fey-looking youths or feats of whaling endeavour, these were folk artefacts of an industrial age. Ishmael compared their ‘maziness of design…full of barbaric spirit and suggestiveness’, to engravings by ‘that fine old savage, Albert Durer’. Tactile lumps of creamy-smooth ivory once gripped in a seaman’s fist, they are imbued with a sensual, primitive significance akin to tattooing, ‘or pricking, as it is called in a man-of-war’. As their designs resembled tattoos on a sailor’s biceps, so tattooing instruments, themselves distinctly tribal, were made with whale-ivory handles, while other sailors assembled ‘little boxes of dentistical-looking implements’, custom-made for scrimshanding. They were direct records of the whalers’ experiences and desires, journals for illiterate men. Some were decorated with pornographic cartoons, or were carved into phalluses.

The most artful pieces mark the pomp of whaling; the peak years of scrimshaw were those of the great voyages to the South Seas in the 1830s and 1840s, when whale bone was also turned into delicate ‘flights’–trellis-like structures for winding yarn–or carved into pastry-cutters to be sold in fancy-goods stores or given to loved ones. But as history moved on, these macabre objects languished in attics, unloved, unvalued; only in the late twentieth century were they seen anew, and one man in particular was responsible for their revival: John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The Kennedys are synonymous with the Cape and its islands, an American aristocracy convened around the family compound at Hyannis. Even before he became thirty-fifth President of the United States, John F. Kennedy had moved to declare the Outer Cape’s beaches from Eastham to Provincetown as National Seashore, sacrosanct from urbanization. And it was as an extension of his love of maritime New England that Kennedy began to collect scrimshaw. Soon his collection stood at thirty-four whale teeth, favourite examples of which he kept on his Oval Office desk, to be turned in the same hand that held the world in its balance.

In 1963 the First Lady ordered a special Christmas gift for her husband–a whale tooth engraved with the presidential seal. He would never receive it. Shortly before he died, the President threw a private dinner for Greta Garbo at the White House, when he gave the actress a piece of scrimshaw. ‘I might believe it a dream,’ Garbo wrote to Mrs Kennedy afterwards, ‘if I did not have in my possession the President’s “tooth” before me.’ Two weeks later, on the night before his funeral, his widow placed her husband’s Christmas present in his coffin. It was a potent act: the king of Camelot interred with the talisman of a heroic age; a relic invested with the power of its original owner. It was a ritual as charged as Ishmael’s claim that the British monarch was anointed with whale oil–

Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!

–while the President’s amulet was ready for the moment when this Arthur was needed anew; as if he might yet scan the Atlantic horizon with his pale blue eyes, waiting for the whales to reappear.

It was on Nantucket that modern whaling began; on its narrow shoulders lies the glory. In 1659 nine new citizens acquired the rights to the island, Quakers such as Thomas Macy, Tristram Coffin and Christopher Hussey who had suffered Puritan persecution in New England. For an island that ‘seemed to have been inhabited merely to prove what mankind can do’, whaling came as a kind of destiny, as told in Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket, and quoted by Moby-Dick’s sub-sub-librarian:

In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed; there–pointing to the sea–is a green pasture where our children’s grand-children will go for bread.

For centuries Nattick Indians had foraged for whales in these plentiful waters. The new Nantucketers learned from their techniques. At first, land masts with crude ladders were used to spot right whales on their migration north. Harpooned and towed back to the beach, their two-foot-thick blubber yielded more oil than any other whale, and their baleen was taller and finer–the same ‘limber black bone’ from which Captain Peleg’s wigwam is constructed on the deck of the Pequod.

Then, in 1712, a new prey was discovered. According to legend, Christopher Hussey was out hunting when his sloop was blown beyond the normal limits of the Nantucket fisheries. There, in deep waters, he encountered the sperm whale, hitherto considered ‘fabulous or utterly unknown’, says Ishmael. Now it would usurp the right whale ‘upon the throne of the seas’. In assuming that crown, the sperm whale became a more fitting quarry for the lordly islanders, ‘this horrible and indecent Right whaling, I say, compared to a spirited hunt for the gentlemanly Cachalot’. Whaling for such a noble animal was like riding with foxhounds compared to the lowly bear-baiting of right whales. Soon it was a crucial part of the island’s economy, still more so as the right whales became scarcer. By 1730 there were twenty-five vessels in the island’s fleet. By the end of the century, it would lead the world in whaling.

‘And pray, sir, what in the world is equal to it?’ quotes our sub-sub-librarian, from Edmund Burke’s reference in Parliament to the Nantucket Whale Fishery. Burke went on to inform Britain of ‘the progress of their victorious industry’: ‘No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils.’ Old Europe could not rival ‘this recent people, a people who are still, as it were but in the gristle and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood’. The new nation seemed to prove itself by the whale. For Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex and scion of an old Nantucket family, he and his fellow whalers were crusaders ‘carrying on an exterminating warfare against those leviathans of the deep’. They were knights and squires bound up in a new chivalric order; outriders of an empire, even as the whales were driven ‘like the beasts of the forest, before the march of civilisation into remote and more unfrequented seas’.

It was a pattern of plunder of the New World’s resources. As their land-borne counterparts drove buffalo from sixty million to extinction, so these oceanic cowboys pursued whales to the brink. It was as if the antediluvian beasts had to die in order to assert the modern world. For America, the common enemy was the wilderness; and just as that wilderness was in fact full of animals–and native peoples–so the American seas were full of whales, ready for the slaughter. Hostilities were declared in 1712; it would be a war of attrition ever after.

At first Nantucket whaling was a family business, a trade passed down from hand to hand. Any young man of promise could expect, after two whaling trips, to captain his own ship. Crews were ‘composed of the sons and connections of the most respectable families on the island’, Owen Chase wrote; ‘they labor not only for their temporary subsistence, but they have an ambition and pride among them which seeks after distinguishment and promotion.’

Initially, whales were brought back to port to be rendered, but by 1750 shipboard try-works–a Basque invention of brick ovens with giant cauldrons in which to boil down the blubber–were being used. In a neat flip of cause and effect, these contraptions permitted the rendition of whales on the ever longer voyages required to find them. At the same time, whaling became part of a greater, political game. The Wars of Independence stalled Nantucket’s growth–its fleet declined from one hundred and fifty to thirty-five ships–while the islanders attempted to remain loyal to Britain, their greatest customer. But with the new republic, the ships returned in greater numbers than ever.

And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits…overrun and conquered the watery world…let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it…There is his home; there lies his business…

In 1944 Ishmael’s hymn to Nantucket was broadcast to American troops overseas as a means of raising morale, reminding them of an heroic age. ‘Indeed a Nantucket man is on all occasions fully sensible of the honour and merit of his profession,’ Owen Chase had written a century earlier, ‘no doubt because he knows that his laurels, like the soldier’s, are plucked from the brink of danger.’ Here was honour untainted by ‘the luxuries of a foreign trade’. Its reward was God’s bounty for His own country.

Nantucket was the purest expression of this holy quest. Its houses seem to say it, plain and angled and sharpened against the light, as much ships as they were homes, their shuttered windows and narrow doors facing all fortune and affliction. New England ports sent out more ships a week than old England did in a year, and ‘our sails now almost whiten the distant confines of the Pacific’, boasted Chase. Through whaling, America reached across the world for the first time; whaling exported its culture and ideas. And Nantucket was at its heart. By 1833, seventy thousand souls and seventy million dollars were tied up in whaling and its associated crafts; ten years later that figure had nearly doubled. The United States exported a million gallons of oil to Europe each year. At its peak, no fewer than thirty-eight American ports would pit themselves against the whale, from Wiscasset in Maine to Wilmington in Delaware, although many failed in the attempt.

The appeal of this filthy business was money: vast sums of it, for some. An owner could expect a threefold return on his investment. The first industrial fortunes in America were built on the whale fishery. In New England it remained an industry controlled by the Quakers, who saw no contradiction between their pacifist beliefs and their daily business. It certainly did not concern Captain Bildad, part owner of the Pequod, who ‘though a sworn foe to human bloodshed, yet had he in his straight-bodied coat, spilled tuns and tuns of leviathan gore…very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.’

Of all the products that were made from the whale, the pure-burning candles produced on Nantucket were the finest, as if the Quakers’ Inner Light shone from the whale itself. The technique of turning whales into candles was introduced to New England in 1748, by a Sephardic Portuguese Jew, Jacob Rodriques Rivera. It was a complex process. Headmatter from sperm whales was brought directly from the ships to large wooden manufactories, where it was heated in great kettles to remove water and impurities. It was stored in casks and, over winter, cooled to a coagulate mass. This was placed in woollen bags, which were then compacted in a wooden press from which spermaceti trickled, like juice from an apple press, or oil from olives. This first pressing, the purest, was known as ‘winter-strained’ sperm.

The remaining matter was made into ‘black cakes’, and stored until the spring, when in warmer temperatures it began to ooze. Re-pressed, this was ‘spring-strained’ oil. After a third and final pressing, a brownish mess remained; heated with wood shavings and potash, it clarified like butter, and the result made pure white wax. It also made fortunes.

Kezia Coffin was scion of one of Nantucket’s first families, a ‘she-merchant’ famous for her fine clothes, the forbidden spinet she played, and the opium she was reputed to use. She began selling pins, but her merchandising business expanded into whale products. Loyalist Nantucket continued to trade with Britain, and during the Revolution Kezia made a private deal with a British admiral to ship oil and candles to London, along with smuggled goods sold at inflated prices. Kezia was a paradigm of feminine fortitude and enterprise on an island of women used to the absence of men. ‘Aye and yes, Starbuck,’ as Ahab confesses to his first mate, ‘out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore…leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow.’ Whaling separated sexes; and in this isolated place, as isolated as any ship, and yet bleaker in midwinter, whaling ‘widows’ had recourse to opium to cope with the loneliness. Others used plaster dildos known as ‘he’s-at-homes’.

The American war with Britain complicated matters for Nantucket whalers. The island was officially neutral–not least because of the pacifism of its inhabitants. They were only allowed to sail from New England if they proclaimed themselves on the side of the rebels; but if they did, the British would claim their whale-ships. Some moved to Newfoundland or Canada to pursue their trade. Others sailed to the Falkland Islands to exploit its newly discovered whaling grounds on behalf of the British.

In the aftermath of revolution, Nantucket grew richer than ever on the wealth of whales. It also exported its trade and expertise. Nantucket Quakers had founded a whaling port at Hudson, New York, where, despite being a hundred and twenty miles from the sea, a thirty-five-strong fleet prospered. Other colonies were founded in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, by Timothy Folger and Samuel Starbuck, and in 1785 Starbuck, Folger and William Rotch Senior made approaches to Britain about setting up a whaling port there. Rotch and his son Benjamin travelled to London for talks with the Prime Minister, William Pitt. After lengthy negotiations–Rotch wanted £20,000 removal costs and naturalization for thirty ships and five hundred of his countrymen, but during the talks Rotch set up at Dunkirk, having been offered better conditions by the French–the British finally invited the Nantucketers to create a new station at Milford Haven in 1792, granting them ‘the rights and privileges of natural-born subjects’. Here, in a pre-echo of the Welsh who would settle in Patagonia, an enclave of Nantucketers was founded, complete with New England architecture, a Quaker meeting house, and a Pembrokeshire cemetery populated with Starbucks and Folgers.

Like other religions, Quakerism owed its power to its restrictions. Forbidden by their beliefs from swearing oaths of office, Quakers were debarred from professions such as the law and medicine. This had the effect of directing their talents into business, at which they succeeded pre-eminently. And while Quaker ethics also precluded the flaunting of wealth, they did allow fine materials to be used in simple designs; hence the unadorned architecture of Nantucket’s ‘Golden Age’, an æsthetic that still shapes the island today.

Such wealth stood in sharp contrast to the growing black population that serviced it–initially slaves, then, with the Quakers’ early abolition of slavery in 1773, free men and women. Some prospered in their own right: in 1822 Absalom F. Boston sailed on the Industry with an all-black crew, returning as the island’s richest African-American, his success explicit in the thick gold earrings he wore in each ear. None the less, the island’s ruling class remained resolutely white, reiterated in a roll-call of industrious names: Coffin, Chase, Folger, Gardner, Macy, Starbuck, Hussey. The street maps show house after house of them, a freemasonry of spermaceti; a territory divided between families and manufactories on an island-whale made out of whales, telled and ledgered and decanted from barrels and beaten into silver, the only precious metal acceptable to a Quaker.

Nantucket’s skyline announced its own fortune. It was spiky with ship’s masts, studded with lantern towers topped with whale-shaped weathervanes, and animated by windmills with cart-wheel props which gave the appearance of ‘huge wounded birds, trailing a wing or a leg’. This little island was one big machine: processing whales and wind to create candles and flour. Stern, stalwart and blessed, Nantucket was a nation of its own, existing in the hearts of its men at sea and in the work of its women at home.

For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billow; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

Nantucket, Moby-Dick

But in the 1840s a succession of adversities began to turn Nantucket’s fortune into failure. The new, larger whale-ships required to sail further for sperm oil could not negotiate the treacherous sandbar across the island’s harbour, which had begun to silt up. Business began to favour the easier access of New Bedford, as did many islanders, who emigrated there. The new port was the brash newcomer; and while Nantucket’s haughty sailors stubbornly pursued now depleted old hunting grounds, New Bedford’s whippy young whalers profitably exploited the Pacific seas.

In 1846 a great fire destroyed a third of the town’s businesses–burning all the brighter for warehouses filled with barrels of whale oil. Two years later, the Gold Rush tempted young Nantucketers in search of quicker fortunes. In 1849 the fittingly named Aurora was the first Nantucket ship to sail for San Francisco, where whale-ships lay abandoned as their crews deserted for the gold fields, joining the crowds flocking to the west; many left home with little or nothing, not even underwear, reasoning that they had gone to wash gold, not their own dirty linen.

The final knell for Nantucket came with other discoveries from the earth. From the 1840s, kerosene and coal gas were already lighting city streets and houses, although initially the use of domestic gas only encouraged the demand for whale oil as the passion for bright light spread. Then, in 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled for oil on a farm in Titusville, Pennsylvania; the black-gold spurt that gushed from the ground like a whale’s spout signalled the end of the sperm whale fishery–and the beginning of another elemental plunder.

After fire and oil came war. Four hundred Nantucket men and boys left to fight the cause of the Union, as Confederate ships wreaked havoc on the Yankee whaling fleet. Many ships were captured or burned, causing other owners to keep theirs at home. Some were sacrificed by the Union itself: forty whale-ships–known as the Stone Fleet–were filled with rubble and scuttled to block southern harbours. The industry limped on for a few more years, but in 1869 the last whaling ship left Nantucket.

Slowly, surely, the island was cut off from time. Sealed from the modern world like land requisitioned by the military, its blasted heaths remained pristine, its cottages hidden in hollows away from fierce Atlantic winds. Cobbled streets fell silent, unclattered by carts carrying barrels of oil. Blank windows of brick mansions built by Quaker captains looked down to an empty quayside, while their owners lay in barren graves.

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“THERE SHE BLOWS!”