The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)
Chapter 9. The Correct Use of Whales
There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales…Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale…articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities–spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan–and swing all day upon his lower jaw.
A Bower in the Arsacides, Moby-Dick
Even its name sounds inexpressive, yet more so in the dialect of the flat east Yorkshire coast, barely a word at all: ’ull. But seen from the suspended bridge that sails over the Humber before it reaches the grey waters of the North Sea, the city aspires to its proper name: Kingston-Upon-Hull, a pride evinced in its cream-painted and crowned telephone boxes–a defiantly independent network for an imperial place.
As you descend to the banks of the estuary, the industrial sprawl becomes evident; factories compete with retail sheds to brutalize the landscape. They cannot quite destroy the impression, so carefully constructed by the civic forefathers, of an age of trade and certitude; of an affluence set in sandstone and grand municipal works. In the city centre, at the end of a narrow street, is the gabled home of Hull’s favoured son: William Wilberforce, liberator of slaves and founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Nearby stands a giant column, surmounted by a statue of the man, broadcasting his achievement in capital letters–
–although it faces another building, one that belies the city’s claim to manumission.
Passing through the double doors with their polished brass fingerplates, I follow a sombre corridor over which hangs a skeleton, showing the way, just as I can hear a strange sound rising to a stifled focus, sometimes like a choirboy, sometimes like a trapped dog, luring me on, just as all the sounds I ever heard are compressed into one continuous noise in my head. The lighting is barely brighter in the room beyond. There is a bench, although not for public use. It is built from the bones of a whale: blade bones for the seat, ribs for the back and arms. Next to it is a hat stand created from a narwhal’s tusk nailed to a wooden base.
On the far wall of this macabre salon hang a pair of portraits both labelled, confusingly, William Scoresby. In the first, a rotund man points over a homely cottage to a ship in the distance; with his white waistcoat, belly and ruddy face, he might be a bluff farmer, rather than a reaper of the sea. The second picture shows his son in starched collar and stock; his are the refined features of a man of the Enlightenment. Between them, these two Scoresbys–one a lifelong merchantman, the other destined to be a fellow of the Royal Society–preside over a collection whose enthusiasm for its subject has faded over the years, like a stamp album put away in the attic, partly from embarrassment at such youthful and compulsive fervour.
The museum’s displays are contrived to resemble a ship’s superstructure. Everything seems subfusc. Set into the bulwarks are framed photographs, backlit to give them life, although one might almost wish they weren’t. Sepia ghosts projected out of the ether, Yorkshire’s hardy sons labour in the Arctic, in scenes as industrial as any in Bradford’s mills. Tall ships stand glamorously rigged in the ancient sunlight, while their workers’ faces stare out, stilled in the moment.
Above them, curious souvenirs are caught in the cordage. Hauled up the mainmast is the sleek carcase of a narwhal, its leopard spots losing their sheen; its tusk points downwards like a dart, about to impale itself in the deck below. A sailor saunters by this lynching, adjusting his hat for the photographer’s lens.
From another chain hangs another prize: a polar bear, caught up at its waist like a wet fur rug. It dangles snout-heavy, claws unsheathed as though only just yanked off the ice as it pawed at the water for fish. Behind it, the ship’s laundry flutters in the breeze. A third photograph, almost unbearably sad, shows a young bear still clinging to its mother’s dead body. Destined for life in a zoo, cubs were brought back in barrels barred at the top. Adults were chained to the mast like dogs. Sailors feared them more than whales: Horatio Nelson, who sailed to the Arctic on the unpropitiously named HMS Carcass in 1773, nearly died when he tried to kill a polar bear as a prize for his father.
Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum
A nearby canvas dramatizes just such a scene. Painted in 1829 by William John Huggins–later maritime artist to William IV, the Sailor King–it is entitled Harmony, after the main ship in the picture, although that is hardly an appropriate description. With an unerring eye for detail, Huggins has sought to record every activity carried out by the whaling fleet in the north. Presided over by a distant iceberg that erupts like a frozen flame from the sea, the picture presents an icy Eden under assault. In one corner bobs a baby-eyed walrus, plaintively addressing the viewer while three narwhals flee, tusks tilted high. A sailor stands over a seal, raising his club. The beast backs off towards the edge of the floe, silently barking. In the mid-distance, a bowhead brandishes its broad black flukes. Stuck in its back are two harpoons, and there’s fire in the chimney. Birds scatter into the air.
Sailing through this bloodlust is the bringer of destruction, the Harmony, a barque of nearly three hundred tons. Around her masts are tied two pairs of jaw bones, trophies announcing a successful voyage in their own triumphal arch. Higher up hangs a garland, a circlet wound round with ribbons given by wives and lovers and tied aloft on May Day eve by the youngest married man. A relic of a medieval rite–attended with ‘grotesque dances and other amusements’ by men in strange costumes–it stayed in place until the ship reached home, when young cadets would race up the rigging to claim possession of the now weather-beaten wreath.
Below this Brueghelian spectacle, with its fleeting figures and vessels top-heavy with blubber and bones, the guilty parties are named: Harmony of Hull, Margaret of London, Eliza Swan of Hull; Industry of London; workaday ships, doing their job. We may look upon such scenes with horror, but a nineteenth-century Huller saw a vision of plenitude to be rendered in barrel-loads and marked by a whale’s tail stamped in the captain’s log. Such bloody acts–the plunging flukes, the spray the sailor felt on his face and the guts that spilt on deck–represented security from beggarly poverty, only ever a footstep away.
Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum
By 1822 Hull was England’s most successful whaling port. One-third of the British whaling fleet sailed from there–thirty-three ships in 1830. Contemporary directories list more oil merchants than eating houses in the port, while maps show ‘Greenland Yards’ on the river banks where whale oil was processed, along with manufactories where whalebone was turned into ‘SIEVES and RIDDLES of every description, NETS…for folding Sheep…’ and ‘STUFFING, for Chair and Sofa Bottoms…preferable to Curled Hair’. They have long since vanished, but other reminders of the industry survive in the city’s museum. A sperm whale’s deformed jaw hangs on the wall; a giant vertebra once used as a butcher’s block stands on the floor; and ranged in a rack like billiard cues are ivory tusks which once formed a four-poster bed for some northern worthy–
In old Norse times, the thrones of the sea-loving Danish kings were fabricated, saith tradition, of the tusks of the narwhale.
The Pipe, Moby-Dick
–while in the middle of the room like a tobacconist’s kiosk, a dimly lit case displays a row of glass-stoppered bottles.
Whale meat extract; an oily substance rich in protein
used in margarine manufacture etc.
Whalemeal prepared from powdered whale meat.
Used for animal feedstuffs.
Whale liver oil; a source of vitamin A.
Sperm oil; partially solidified. When refined it is
used for lubricating light industry.
Arthur Credland, the well-informed curator–himself a zoologist, and a man who has eaten both whale and seal–opens the cabinet and hands me a phial. The glass still feels oily as I tilt the amber liquid to and fro, slightly scented. Pure and transparent, this is what it all boils down to, a whale in a bottle. Now I recognize the sound as it winds around the room: the song of a whale, lamenting its long-dead cousins.
Leaving the city behind, suburban Hull gives way to the flat fields of the Holderness Plain. This is a levelled, alluvial landscape. Its coastline might look as though it is shouldering the storms, but this is where England is falling into the sea, at a rate of yards, rather than feet, every year.
Turning off one of the B roads that run inland but seemingly to nowhere, a rail-straight drive leads to the door of Burton Constable Hall. The Constables have lived in this elegant house with its red-brick towers and battlements since the sixteenth century, conserving their Catholicism in their private chapel while their land was eaten away by the waves. This far from London, no one really cared that the Popish faith was kept in the wilds of Yorkshire.
Out of season, the ticket office-cum-tearoom is empty. The woman behind the counter looks relieved. ‘I thought for a moment you were wanting to look round the house.’
I set off in the failing light, only to be told by a passing groundsman that the bones I’m looking for were removed years ago. He tells me, hesitantly, ‘I can show you some vertebræ.’
From the back of a shed filled with farm vehicles, his colleague emerges, rag in hand. ‘He wants to know about the whale, Dave,’ says my reluctant guide.
Taking a pencil stub from his pocket, Dave sketches out a shape on the claw of his excavator, outlining what looks like a giant fish bone. He describes how the skeleton once stood in the field beyond, articulated to mimic the animal in the water, held up by iron struts and bolted to a frame. The supports rusted away long ago; some Boy Scouts camping in the grounds had even attempted to make a fire with the remains.
But the bones had since been rescued. In the gloom of the outhouse, Dave pulls at a piece of sacking with the dramatic flourish of a pathologist drawing back a shroud. Underneath lies a great grey bone, eroded by decades of exposure to the weather; more a gigantic piece of coral than the skull of a cetacean.
‘This is the only whale from Moby-Dick to exist,’ he declares. The reality is as incongruous as his claim, all the more so for lying next to a disused caravan. This crumbling lump of calcium once held the animal’s huge brain, controlling its sinewy muscles and the broad flukes and fins; listening to the watery world and watching it through sentient eyes; issuing mysterious clicks from its mountainous head.
In other outhouses lay the rest of the animal, scattered relics awaiting resurrection. Their bony diaspora was a measure of this martyred whale, ready to be reassembled to satisfy its modern pilgrims: scoured backbones the size of tractor wheels; pitted ribs resembling mammoth tusks dug out of Siberian permafrost; hulking masses of decaying calcium like debarked trees.
I walk to the end of an avenue of oaks, where a funereal urn is set on a crumbling plinth. In the tussocky grass to one side is an empty space. Bits of brick still lie in the turf, remnants of the foundations that once bore up the whale on iron waves. And as jackdaws caw in the darkening sky, I imagine the leviathan’s bones luminous in the twilight. Could this really have been the whale of which Ishmael spoke, washed up in a muddy field in Yorkshire?
In April 1825 a dead whale was seen off Holderness, close to Burton Constable. There was nothing particularly unusual in that; such animals often wash up on this coastline, one of England’s most desolate shores, where the North Sea eats away at the boulder clay leaving entire villages to crumble into the waves, and where fossilized forests lie under the surf. But this was a huge specimen, and as it floated out at sea, fishermen steered clear of the whale for fear it might damage their boat. Soon enough the tide did its job, and on the afternoon of Thursday, 28 April, the carcase was cast onto Tunstall beach. There, below the low, soft, chocolate-coloured cliffs, which turn the water a dolorous reddish brown, it was stranded like an enormous flounder.
The next day, Reverend Christopher Sykes, a keen amateur scientist, arrived to record the animal’s vital statistics. By Sunday, a crowd of one thousand souls were drawn to witness this fabulous beast. Like their Dutch cousins across the sea two centuries before, they were amazed at what they saw: a bull sperm whale, fifty-eight feet long–although this was not the shiny black monster they might have expected. Thrown out of the sea, its proud jaw was dislocated and most of its paper-thin skin had peeled, revealing a strange layer of ‘fur’ between it and the blubber–as if the whale were in disguise all along. Slumped on the cobbles, the putty-coloured carcase had already begun to decay, a process hastened by onlookers who hacked about the body, pulling out the long, thick tendons and using horses and ropes to tear out the throat.
All Holderness was alerted to this deputation from the depths, as twenty-six-year-old Sara Stickney reported. ‘You will doubtless have heard of the monster washed up on this shore–the bustle it occasioned in the neighbourhood was marvellous.’ The village was ‘more gay than sweet,’ she confessed, ‘the whale becoming every day more putrid–it was a loathsome thing at best. I never could tolerate the sight of an inanimate mass of flesh in any shape.’
The whale was soon rendered unrecognizable. Men cut into its huge head; the liquid looked like olive oil, but soon began to coalesce. At eighty degrees Fahrenheit, it was nearly thirty degrees warmer than the outside air, although the investigators could not determine whether this was a result of animal heat or of ‘putrescent fermentation’. As it came apart, the wonders of the beast were examined. Its blubber, once tried out, would fetch £500; the case yielded eighteen gallons of spermaceti; and the meat would have fed a few families for weeks (one Hull recipe claimed that the animal’s skin made a tasty dish, with a mushroom flavour). However, this foundling had a scientific value greater than its commercial or culinary worth; and, accordingly, Dr James Alderson was appointed to perform a post-mortem.
Son of a well-known Yorkshire physician, Alderson was a Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and of the Cambridge Philosophical Society; his encounter with the whale was a chance not only to address the contradictory evidence about these creatures, but also to further his academic status. ‘Nothing can be more contrasted than the view of the animal perfect, and its skeleton,’ Alderson told his fellow society members, having had the extant parts brought to his laboratory in Hull. ‘The enormous and preposterous matter upon its cheeks and jowl bearing no proportion to that of any other animal whatever, when compared with the bones of the head.’
The sheer logistics of examining this mountain of blubber presented Alderson with his greatest challenge–even as he received it in instalments. The whale’s eyes had already been removed, being small and oddly shaped, ‘in the form of a truncated cone’, although they presented their own exquisite beauty. Alderson described the iris as ‘bluish-brown; very dark; the pupil…transverse, as in ruminating animals’ while ‘the tapetum presented a very beautiful appearance…its color was a green, formed by an admixture of blue and yellow; with a slight predominance of blue…speckled with lighter colored spots throughout.’ That the doctor could discern such pulchritude in this mass of decaying flesh was a measure of the animal’s fascination. Its parts presented themselves as if to say, Look how beautiful I was when I was alive, when I scooped up squid from untold depths, when I dealt death myself.
Embedded in its lance-like lower jaw were forty-seven teeth, scarred with its adventures in the abyss. Alderson observed that the penis ‘protruded about 11/2 feet from the body, and was surrounded by a shaggy process of the cuticle. The urethra admitted the point of the finger.’ Fingering the whale was ever a common abuse. The three-foot-long heart was preserved in formaldehyde, and later presented to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society for their further ruminations.
Alderson was frustrated by the treatment of his specimen: ‘indeed, the viscera were so quickly removed, with a view to clearing the bones of the animal, that it was impossible to examine every organ.’ For all his delving, the doctor could find no cause of death, despite the presence of a five-inch section of a swordfish spear buried in its back, ‘enveloped in the adipose cellular membrane’, as well as another ‘fistulous-like opening in the cutis’ apparently made by a harpoon. Sperm whales were known to carry foreign objects in their flesh, like shrapnel in a soldier’s war wound, and Thomas Beale recorded swordfish attacks on whales. One animal was found with an entire swordfish blade in its dorsal ridge, the result of a violent collision during which the weapon had slid clean into the whale, snapping off at the base; when the scar healed, the sword remained embedded in blubber, a fishy Excalibur. Similarly, Ishmael says that harpoons could lodge in a whale, one entering ‘nigh the tail, and, like a restless needle sojourning in the body of a man, travelled full forty feet, and at last was found imbedded in the hump’.
Speared and nailed, whales carried not only the scars of their martyrdom, but the instruments of torture themselves. Yet even as this unfortunate, war-weary creature was washed ashore, its destiny was assured: for as Ishmael notes, from that moment on, the whale became the property of the Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness, the Squire of Burton Constable Hall.
Almost anywhere else on the English coast, the Tunstall whale would have belonged to the Crown, a royal fish; but here, on what amounted to a personal fiefdom from the cliffs of Flamborough Head to the filigree finger of Spurn Point, the Lord Paramount exercised that right. One of the first men on the scene had been the Constables’ own steward, Richard Iveson, come to lay claim to this odoriferous prize. Iveson had measured and sketched the body as it lay on the beach, as if to reinforce his master’s right. His drawing was subsequently reproduced as an engraving, the accuracy of which would not have pleased Ishmael, resembling as it does a giant tadpole, with an out-of-scale surveyor–Iveson himself–striding across its head.
David Connell/Burton Constable Foundation
More accurate were the illustrations made by Alderson’s brother, Christopher, and included in the doctor’s An Account of the S. Whale Cast on Shore at Tunstall, 1825, a copy of which, suitably bound in red morocco and stamped with gilt flourishes, was subsequently presented to the Lord Paramount. This portrait of the whale is distinctly romantic, every curve and undulation lovingly shaded like the Rokeby Venus–an impression reinforced by the animal’s oddly waisted form and feminine hips, despite the exposed member close to its lackadaisical tail. It is seen from front and rear, from every enticing angle, while yachts flutter in the distance, lending a lyrical air. More pathologically, a second illustration displays its jaw and skull in close-up, as well as a study of the eye, sliced open to display its beauty. A third shows a squid beak, one of a bucketful found in the belly of the beast.
Although a stranded whale might represent a valuable contribution to the Constables’ coffers–in 1790 a whale found at Little Humber yielded 85 gallons of oil at 9d per gallon–the accounts of previous stewards show that the costs often exceeded the profits.
Minutes of Escheats, Deodands, Royal Fishes, Wrecks, &c.
John Raines, Steward to William Constable.
Jan. 30th 1749. A Sperma Ceti Whale was thrown on the shore at Spurn Point–Mr Constable sold it to Mr David Bridges of Hull for £90.
Sept. 13th 1750. A Whale 33 yards long was thrown on shore upon Spurn Point. Mr George Thompson cut it up for Mr Constable–Mr Thompson’s charge for the Exp of cutting up amounted to £7 more than the Whale sold for.
Nov. 7th 1758. A Grampus came on shore at Marfleet–Mr Constable sold it to Mr Hamilton Merchant of Hull for £5. 10.s.
Nov. 9th 1782. A Whale 17 yards long came on shore at East Newton–It was sold for one Guinea & an half, being much damaged, & in a state of putrefaction.
Jul. 14th 1788. A Whale 36 Feet long, came on shore at Spurn Point, opposite the Lights upon the Humber Side. Mr Pattinson the Baliff sold it to Mr De Poyster of Hull for £7. 7.s
–But it proved good for nothing, having died of poverty…
David Connell/Burton Constable Foundation
Whatever its financial benefits, the Tunstall whale was destined for a different fate. Sixty years earlier, the Bishop of Durham had laid claim to another of the spermaceti tribe thrown up on the north-east coast–a fifty-foot ‘Sea Monster’ still alive when it was beached at Seaton in 1766, where its ‘calls of distress as it touched ground could be heard for several miles’, and whose skeleton was later displayed in the undercroft of the cathedral; an image that reminds me of William Walker, the Victorian diver who was sent into the flooded foundations of Winchester Cathedral to shore up its medieval timbers. So too the Yorkshire whale was to be preserved for perpetuity. To that end, its remains were buried in a series of pits, and there they were left to rot.
The new owner of Burton Constable Hall, Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable, second baronet, was just eighteen years old in 1825, and whales were far from his mind. He was more concerned with the business of spending the substantial legacy he had just inherited. Two years later, Sir Thomas married Marianne, youngest daughter of Charles Chichester, and his Yorkshire pile lay empty while its lord lived in Staffordshire, closer to London and its amusements.
Dry bones proved unequal to such diversions. While its owner enjoyed the fruits of his fortune, the whale’s skeleton, now picked clean and disinterred, languished ‘in a very neglectful condition, being laid in an irregular heap, in the middle of a field’, as one frustrated naturalist noted in 1829. ‘Whether it has since been put together and taken care of, I have not heard.’ Seven years later, little progress had been made in the matter. The geologist John Phillips found the bones in a barn, save those of the tail, which unaccountably hung in a tree. Then, in 1836–when Sir Thomas finally deigned to move to his ancestral home–Edward Wallis, surgeon, anatomist and astronomer, was engaged to articulate the whale: to give it life after death.
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, whales were suddenly à la mode. Popular interest in science and natural history met sensationalism and showmanship, and whales were exhibited around Europe and America, preserved or in skeletal form. In March 1809 ‘the curious were gratified’ by a seventy-six-foot ‘stupendous monster of the deep’ shown on a barge moored on the Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridge. The whale was claimed to be a year old, and ‘pronounced by judges to be the Balena Boops, or pike-headed species’–a confusion of the former Latin name for the humpback and another common name for a minke, neither of which reach such lengths. ‘But the prudence of bringing into the centre of a popular city, for the mere gratification of gazers, a monster of such bulk, in a state of putrefaction is quite another consideration,’ queried The Times. ‘In all events, those who visit the whale will do well to use the expedient of holding to their mouths and noses handkerchiefs well moistened with strong vinegar, to guard against inhaling the putrid effluvia it emits, than which few things can be more noxious to health, and even life.’
Other showmen had the acumen to make their displays fit for more refined tastes. In 1827 a blue whale taken off Ostend was reduced to its skeleton and toured from Ghent to Brussels, Rotterdam and Berlin before arriving, four years later, in London, housed in a custom-built wooden pavilion–‘a wondrous lengthy booth’–at Charing Cross, close to where Melville would stay. The Times claimed–virtually in the voice of the fairground barker–that at ninety-five feet, the whale was ‘of larger dimensions than any that is known ever before to have fallen into the possession of man’. Visitors paid a shilling to enter what one doggerel called ‘a tomb/A sort of bed-crib, sleeping room/For what they call–a Whale’. The hut was stocked with volumes of Lacépède’s Natural History of Whales, and customers could quaff wine while sitting in the animal’s ribcage, an ‘unwonted saloon’. They were, however, not treated to the twenty-four-piece orchestra that performed within the whale during its European sojourn.
Whales were the sensation of the age. A few years later, England produced its own regal specimen, claimed to be even bigger–
As a man of fashion and taste himself, Sir Thomas now saw fit to have his own whale put on display. Its spine was duly riven with an iron rod, its ribs hinged with stirrup-like irons, and long bolts were driven through its skull. Artificially jointed, the skeleton was set to swim along an avenue of trees which became known as the Whale Belt. It was here that Thomas Beale–the foremost authority on sperm whales–came to pay his respects. Alerted by Mr Pearsall, curator of the museum of the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society, Beale sought an audience with the Yorkshire specimen; with his arrival in the East Riding, the whale would be made immortal.
Natural History Museum, London
Unlike many scientists who pronounced upon the subject, Beale had actually seen living sperm whales. As a young man, he had studied medicine at Aldersgate from 1827 to 1829, remaining as an assistant in the school’s dissecting room, then as curator before moving to the London Hospital on Commercial Street. But in 1830, at the age of twenty-two, Beale left the grimy streets of the East End to sail on the whale-ship, the Kent, captained by William Lawton and owned by Thomas Sturge.
Beale’s journey took him down the coast of South America to Cape Horn, then across the Pacific to Hawaii and on to the Kamchatka Peninsula–almost as far from England as it was possible to be. During his travels he watched whales being hunted, making extensive notes about their behaviour and physiology, gathering scientific information in a manner that echoed the work of Charles Darwin, whose own voyage on the Beagle was under way even as Beale reached the South Seas.
While Beale was fascinated by the life beyond his ship, he was appalled by the oppression on board it. ‘When I saw thirty-two good, industrious, and harmless, though brave men, abused and browbeaten to a most shameful extent, by a mean and contemptible tyrant…I turned from the scene with horror, and plainly intimated that I could no longer endure the sight.’ At midnight on 1 June 1832, at the Bonin Islands, Beale jumped ship, joining another Sturge whaler, the Sarah and Elizabeth, under whose more temperate captain–who happened to be the gallant William Swain, later master of the Christopher Mitchell and himself to lose his life to a whale–he sailed home, having travelled fifty thousand miles.
Like Thoreau, Beale’s experience of whales left him amazed at the lack of knowledge about them. ‘It is a matter of great astonishment that the consideration of the habits of so interesting and in a commercial point of view of so important an animal, should have been so entirely neglected,’ he wrote. ‘In fact, till the appearance of Mr Huggins’ admirable print, few…had the most distant idea even of the external form of this animal; and of its manners and habits, people in general seem to know as little as if its capture had never given employment to British capital, or encouragement to the daring courage of our hardy seamen.’ Beale referred to William John Huggins’s South Sea Whale Fishery–an image so enduring that it was still being used as the basis for a New Yorker cartoon in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
New Bedford Whaling Museum
Back at his Bedford Square home, Beale set out to correct the cetological lacunæ. A year later, he presented his paper on Physeter macrocephalus to the Eclectic Society of London, which awarded him their Silver Medal for his efforts. Having published his text as an elegant, illustrated booklet in 1835, the surgeon spent the next four years working on an expanded version. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, published in 1839, was a wide-ranging and eclectic work, part scientific study, part adventure story. Its frontispiece (and this chapter’s) is an all-action scene showing sperm whales in an ocean they have whipped up into a freeze-framed, foam-flecked frenzy as they toss boats out of the water and send harpoons and humans flying into the air.
Equally evocative are Beale’s chapter headings, succinct summaries of his experiences on far-flung oceans and among exotic peoples.
the Author is robbed–Sea-Lion fight–Music of the Birds–Shocking Diseases–instances of religious tyranny–an Apprentice drowned–narrow Escape–intense heat–we kill a female Whale–a Dandy Savage–a Necromancer–Tyranny of our Captain–Six Men flogged–I leave the “Kent” at midnight–see immense numbers of large Whales–a young man is bled–a Bolabola Girl’s Eyes–we are invaded by thirty Women–three Men washed from the Jib-boom–crossing the Line the sixth time–Reflections on seeing our Native Land–stern Disease has been raging during our absence–we approach Home with faltering steps–the old House–my emotion and fate trade.
Beale’s narrative–its retelling of myths a presentiment of Sir James Frazier’s anthropo-religious The Golden Bough, its human exploits redolent of a picaresque novel–provided a framework for Melville; an articulation for his own whale. If Moby-Dick owed its metaphysics to Nathaniel Hawthorne, then it owed its facts to Thomas Beale. Entire passages in Melville’s book are filched directly–one might say almost brazenly–from Beale’s. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale was the archetype for Moby-Dick; not only in its cetological details, but in its other preoccupations, too.
Beale was intrigued by the whale’s role in the human chain of consumption. It was as if, in the spirit of emancipation, he saw the whale as enslaved–a notion underlined by the dedication of his book ‘to Thomas Sturge, Esq, of Newington Butts’.
As the trusty friend of MACAULAY, you fought the battle of the Negro…and it was not until the enemies of the dark human race began their precipitate retreat, that the wavering friends…flocked around the banner you had helped raise…And now that the Negro is free…I have no doubt…that your greatest reward is in your own feelings, independently of worldly praise.
Thomas Sturge was scion of an old Quaker family; his kinsman was the even more famous abolitionist, Joseph Sturge. He owned the two ships on which Beale had travelled, and, like his friend Elhanan Bicknell, ran his whaling company from the New Kent Road, near the Elephant and Castle in south London, a decidedly unoceanic address. (He also benefited from strandings. When the sperm whale of which Buckland wrote beached at Whitstable in the winter of 1829, to the accompaniment of terrible bellows and groans–and was attacked by man with an axe for its pains–Sturge paid sixty shillings for its blubber.)
There was a certain distance between these refined men and their noisome business. Bicknell–who held the monopoly on the British sperm whale fishery in the Pacific–was a well-known patron of the arts who commissioned Huggins to paint his whale-ships–works that would in turn inspire J.M.W. Turner, another beneficiary of Bicknell’s patronage. In this complex web of connections, whales linked writers, artists, scientists and businessmen in a manner that reflected the reach of the British Empire and the very size of the animals themselves. Whales lent a romantic focus to their gruesome industry. Indeed, Turner, the greatest artist of the age, realized that vision in paint, just as Melville attempted it in words.
In 1845 and 1846 Turner exhibited four scenes of whaling at the Royal Academy, along with a catalogue attribution: ‘Whalers. Vide Beale’s Voyage p. 175’. They portray the heroic hunt for the whale in luminous, almost abstract forms; the whales themselves are the merest, ghostly suggestions. It is likely that Melville had heard of these famous pictures on his visit to London. Certainly, back in New York, having bought his copy of Beale’s work–for three dollars and thirty-eight cents–he in turn wrote on its title page, ‘Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book’.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Melville’s passion for Turner almost rivalled that of the artist’s champion, John Ruskin. (Critics themselves drew the comparisons: one reviewer of White-Jacket declared, ‘Mr Melville stands as far apart from any past or present marine painter in pen and ink as Turner does from the magnificent artist vilipended by Mr Ruskin for Turner’s sake–Vandervelde.’) Turner appealed deeply to Melville’s sense of the romantic. In his book, Modern Painters–which Melville read before his trip to England–Ruskin described how Turner had himself tied to a ship’s mast to paint his Snowstorm at Sea. Perhaps the painter had more than a little of Ahab in him.
The influence of Turner’s sublime vistas, numinous with storms and shadows, emerges in Moby-Dick from the first. When Ishmael arrives at the Spouter Inn, he sees ‘a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something…floating in a nameless yeast’. Through the gloom, he makes out a whale launching itself over a storm-tossed ship, seemingly about to impale itself on its masts. ‘A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted,’ Ishmael allowed, with ‘a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant’. It was a dream version of Huggins’s graphic scenes; a fantastical Turner, seen through Ishmael’s ostensibly amateur eyes.
From these colourful scientists and eccentric artists, and from his own visit to Liverpool and London, Melville’s enterprise acquired an English anchor. Their personæ, as much as their efforts, were integral to the intricate tapestry of cross-references and diversive threads from which Moby-Dick was woven. Above all, it was Beale who supplied Ishmael’s cetology, and who sought to correct those erroneous pictures of whales, applying true science and firsthand experience to the natural history of the sperm whale. He criticized the respected French naturalist Baron Cuvier, for instance, for claiming that the whale struck fear into ‘all the inhabitants of the deep, even to those which are the most dangerous to others; such as the phocæ, the balænopteræ, the dolphin, and the shark. So terrified are all these animals at the sight of the cachalot, that they hurry to conceal themselves from him in the sands or mud, and often in the precipitancy of their flight, dash themselves against the rock with such violence as to cause instantaneous death.’
To Beale–as to anyone who had seen sperm whales in the wild–this was so much hogwash. ‘For not only does the sperm whale in reality happen to be a most timid and inoffensive animal…readily endeavouring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance, but he is also quite incapable of being guilty of the acts of which he is so strongly accused.’
Beale comprehensively addressed every aspect of the whale, point by point, fin by fluke. Yet no matter how many facts and figures, how many observations he assembled, no matter what physiological detail–from the function of its stomach to how much blubber its carcase might yield; from its ‘favourite places of resort’ to the ‘rise and progress of the Sperm Whale Fishery’–his quarry remained elusive. Only by laying his hands on the very bones of the animal could the surgeon make his final diagnosis; and even then, he might wonder at the reality of the beast he pursued.
The sperm whale had taken Beale halfway round the world. Now it summoned the surgeon to east Yorkshire, by no means an easy journey. Having made his way to Holderness, Beale was rewarded for his efforts by a spectacular sight: a skeleton key to the innermost secrets of Physeter. He may have seen the animal in life, but in its decay its true nature was revealed, and he was enthralled by what he saw. ‘The description of the skeleton of the sperm whale at Burton-Constable, which I shall presently give, interests me exceedingly, principally on account of its being the only specimen of the kind in Europe or in the world.’
Practically falling over himself in his eagerness to get at the bones, Beale lost no time in making notes on ‘this enormous and magnificent specimen of osseous framework’. His report extends for many pages: ‘Extreme length of the skeleton 49 feet 7 inches’–the shrinkage being due to the creature’s unboned flukes and blubber–‘extreme breadth of the chest 8 feet 81/2 inches…The gigantic skull…forms more than a third of the whole length of the skeleton…The lower jaw is 16 feet 10 inches long…The spinal column consists of forty-four vertebræ…In the lower jaw there were 48 teeth.’
Beale’s examination endowed the Tunstall whale with eternal life. This was the first accurate description of a sperm whale skeleton; it became the ur-whale, the whale by which all others would be measured. Seen through Melville’s literary lens, these bones acquired a kind of poetic licence. They pervade Moby-Dick. Dave was right: the jumble of ribs and vertebrae he showed me in a Yorkshire outhouse were indeed the only physical relics of Melville’s book; and they achieved their place in perpetuity via Beale’s ground-breaking book. When his own copy of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale surfaced a century later, Melville’s marginalia had been erased by an owner who had little idea that they were worth more than the volume itself. Enough marks remained to show that the book supplied the scaffolding for Moby-Dick’s construction; and that Melville specifically drew on Beale’s notes on the Tunstall whale to create an elaborate conceit–one that fused his own visit to St Paul’s Cathedral with those travelling exhibitions of whale carcases and skeletons that had become so fashionable. The result was an arch architectural exercise in irony, a wry and witty metaphor for man’s use of the whale.
Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities–spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan–and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.
Yet in his gentle satire, Melville could not know that, only months before his visit to London, the author of this seminal work had died in that city, aged just forty-two. For ten years Beale had worked as medical assistant to the Royal Humane Society; he also joined the Institut d’Afrique, a Parisian organization pledged to the welfare of slaves, and spent the rest of his life as a poorly paid officer at the Stepney Poor House in the East End. There, while caring for his patients in the cholera epidemic of 1848–9 which had claimed 60,000 lives, Beale contracted that same ‘stern Disease’. Within twenty-seven hours, this ultimately humane man was dead.
The narrow stone-flagged and dark-panelled corridor gives way to gracious Georgian rooms, all wrapped up for the winter. A cantilevered stairway turns creakingly on itself, without obvious means of support. It is early in the morning; the house is empty. I open door after door, finding bedrooms filled with exquisite marquetry wardrobes, elegant chaises longues and beds covered in embroidered velvet. On one trunk lies a discarded military frock coat, as if its owner had just stepped out of the room. At the other end of the landing stands a pair of mirrored double doors, and beyond them, the Long Gallery.
Once this was used for indoor recreation, for fencing or strolling in inclement weather. Now it is lined with bookcases and a plaster frieze in seventeenth-century style. It depicts a veritable menagerie of chimerical and transgendered beasts. One has a woman’s torso and breasts, but a stallion’s body and penis. Another shows a snarling, scaly Jacobean whale, fighting to free itself of its entablature; all teeth and flukes, it heads down the hall towards its time-honoured opponent–a giant squid splayed above the door, flanked by a curly-tailed mermaid.
This antique animation carries on, regardless of the silence of the room, orchestrated by its commissioner, William Constable, whose own portrait hangs below. He is clad in a Rousseauesque gown and turban, a man of Enlightenment tastes–that much is evident from the contents of his cabinet of curiosities, now housed in an anteroom at the end of the gallery. Like the Quakers, Constable was barred from high office by his faith; and just as they directed their energies into business–the business of killing whales–so the squire of Burton Constable was excused the expense of political service, and could spend his considerable fortune elsewhere.
Chemistry, astronomy, botany, zoology and ancient history all clamoured for Constable’s attention: from ornate shells and polar bear skulls to casts of Roman and Greek coins kept in specially made cases. One cabinet contains early electrical equipment, an elaboration of hardwood wheels, brass cylinders and rubber belts producing sparks to be stored in glass Leyden jars, ready for a Frankenstein experiment. On another shelf lie relics of a true monster: the teeth of the Tunstall whale, arrayed as though newly pulled from a dragon’s jaw.
John Raleigh Chichester-Constable, the current tenant of Burton Constable Hall, is a dapper man in tweeds, cravat and Geo. F. Trumper cologne. He recalls how, as a boy, more than seventy years ago, he would play in the whale’s skeleton which then stood in the grounds, using it as a giant climbing frame. As heir to the Seigniory, Mr Chichester-Constable is still notified when any cetacean is thrown on this coast, and may dispose of it as he will. He once took a dead porpoise into Hull to have a pair of fashionable ankle boots made for his wife from its skin, only to be asked by the cobbler–who, he claimed, was a relative of Amy Johnson, the aviatrix–to take the carcase out of his shop before its smell drove his customers away.
As a young man, Mr Chichester-Constable was also an amateur pilot, landing his private plane on the long narrow field next to the Whale Belt, while the whale looked on, in an ever more dilapidated state. It endured the decades, exposed to the pouring rain, the freezing frost, the blanching sun, neglected in the nettles and long grass, awaiting the day it would be revived. On a late summer’s day in 1996, the bones were exhumed by Michael Boyd, zoologist and historian. Like Melville before him, Boyd was assisted in his task by Beale’s description in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale; by referring to his nineteenth-century predecessor, Boyd was able to salvage most of the skeleton.
It was a hot afternoon, and exhausted by his efforts as he worked in his shirt sleeves and vest, Boyd felt as Ahab had felt about ‘thou damned whale’. Although the Victorian articulation had corroded, he still had to saw through thick iron bars before the great ribs and vertebræ appeared, remarkably preserved, not unlike the ichthyosaurs he had excavated from the strata of nearby Robin Hood’s Bay. Slowly, the whale emerged, bit by bit, bone by bone. The skull was still riven by rusty bolts as though it had undergone some ancient and rudimentary cranial surgery. And when the jaw bone was uncovered–split in half like a giant wishbone–an unerupted tooth was found in it, as if the whale had reverted to infancy in its interment.
Now the result has been brought into the great hall, where it lies on the floor, overlooked by ancestral portraits and narwhal tusks, like a hunted tiger laid out for its master’s delectation. In a house filled with strange beasts–dead-eyed impala impaled on the walls, and silver-gilt Chinese dragons crawling up the window frames–the whale is an elegant whimsy to greet modern visitors. Yet its bones represent only a reduction of the animal. Alive, it would not have fitted into this huge chamber. Its forehead would have nudged the doors, and its flukes would have squashed against the landscapes hanging on the far wall, like a salmon squeezed into a goldfish bowl.