Sealed Orders - 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 6. Sealed Orders

Wm. Bartley. How came you to think of running away? Why sir, to tell you the truth I am afraid of a whale…

Examination of deserters from the whaling ship, Houqua, 1835

Down the coast in Connecticut, white clapboard houses rise out of the hoary grass like Christmas cakes. At dawn, every puddle has turned to ice; even the moss cracks beneath my feet. According to my hosts, this road is one of the oldest in New England, an Indian trail turned into a colonial way. Last night, as I walked by moonlight along the deserted lane, I imagined shapes at the dark edges where house lights yielded to the woods and civilization abruptly fell away.

This morning, the sun climbs over granite rocks, and the highway that crosses the lane is already roaring with trucks. On the other side is the river, widening towards the sea and the site of another whaling port: Mystic. This, too, is a place of memory. Here, in 1637, the Puritans waged war on the Pequots, killing four hundred men, women and children. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Ahab’s ship appropriated the name of this slaughtered tribe. Or that, looming through the leafless trees ahead of me are the masts of the Charles W. Morgan, America’s last remaining whale-ship, built and launched on the Acushnet in the same year that Melville sailed on the voyage that would inspire the story of the Pequod.

But the Morgan is no fantastical vessel with a whale jaw for a tiller or whale teeth for pins. This is a real ship with all its constrictions and discomforts; an instrument stripped to its essential parts. Everything here was designed for the collection, production and storage of the whale, rather than the comfort of those expected to process it. This was a mobile factory, a nineteenth-century oil tanker; but it is also surprisingly sleek, like the clippers that ferried tea to England from Ceylon, and on one of which my own ancestor was a captain until he was lost at sea.

The Morgan is laden with equipment, almost top-heavy with it. As I duck through shrouds and step over holds, I am aware of how much danger such a ship represented for the unwitting, even before it set sail. Swaying ropes and blocks meant every movement had to be made with care. Here life was lived in public; even the captain shared his stateroom, a semblance of a landlubber’s salon, dining room and study all shrunk into one. The space seems homely, with a faded red sofa built into the side like a bunk in a caravan. In the captain’s cabin itself, an ornate bed is gimballed so as to swing in high seas and rock its occupant to sleep; and in the corner, a cupboard conceals the only private ‘head’ onboard.


In this miniature world-so small compared to the ocean all around-every inch is used efficiently. Shelves fit into corners, drawers are set above the sofa, chests stowed under bunks. Lamps hang from hooks, pots and pans stand in compartments to stop them rolling around the galley-itself little more than a larder. There is a neatness worthy of a Shaker interior; a cosy arrangement, like a grown-up Wendy house. Sometimes an entire family travelled in these quarters. Through their eyes I see life lived on board, children at their schoolwork on the table built around the mast, their mother sewing as the ship lurched to and fro. One four-year-old, Eugene, playing in a whaleboat, nearly fell overboard, screaming for his Pa as he clung to the side. At bedtime their father told them stories about what the whale said and did.

The reality of ship life was less comforting. There are cupboard-like cabins for officers and mates, the accommodation growing ever smaller as rank reduces until, beyond the blubber room, double tiers of bunks are built into the narrow forecastle, shelves for human stowage. Here the lowly slept, clustered like cockroaches at the prow, subject to class distinction even in the light they were allowed. Set flush into the deck are solid glass prisms, shaped like upturned hexagonal pyramids-so-called deadlights that could concentrate the sun’s rays, producing a luminescence equivalent to seventy watts. But theirs was an undemocratic illumination: while the staterooms boasted a cluster of these nineteenth-century bulbs, the forecastle had just two, shedding a watery light barely enough for a sailor to read in his bunk; and that was frustrated when obscured by a stray rope on the deck above.

The forecastle was seldom a good place to be. One sailor claimed to have seen ‘Kentucky pig-sties not half so filthy, and in every respect preferable to this miserable hole’. Not only was it dark and odorous, but damp, too; in bad weather, crewmen might spend days on end wearing wet clothes. ‘Those who had been to sea before found this nothing new,’ wrote Nelson Cole Haley, aged just twelve years old when he ran away from his home in Maine. Now sixteen, Haley signed on for the Morgan’s voyage of 1849-53 as a boat-steerer.

Still, it was hard, even for them. After standing their watch, often wet through as soon as they came out of the forecastle, they had no chance to change clothing, if they had dry to put on, until they were relieved and went below. There twenty-five men lived in quarters so small that it was impossible for all of them to find standing room at one time…And this was not for one day or month, but was their only home for four years…

In the tropics, the unrelenting sun which sparked deadlights into life made duties even more difficult to bear. As the ship languished in dead calm, with no whales seen for weeks, lassitude overtook the company. The top deck was kept cool by watering, and its walking larder of pigs squealed with delight when buckets of sea water were thrown over them, too. Some men could shelter in the shade of the sails, but those aloft ‘had to take it straight up and down’, their eyes dazed by the cataractic sun reflecting off the sea. In the forecastle, the heat was worse. ‘The watch below lay in their berths trying to sleep, the perspiration streaming from their bodies, with nothing but the curtains drawn in front of their bunks for covering.’

Yet even on such a ship it was possible to keep secrets. One welcome relief for sailors was a gam, a meeting with another vessel when letters and news were exchanged and men could socialize. On one such gam with the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket-the same ship whose previous captain, William Swain, had been lost to a whale, as his memorial in the Seamen’s Bethel testified-young Haley heard about one of her crew who, despite ‘showing no more fear of a whale than the bravest of green hands’, had faced jibes about his appearance. On falling ill in his bunk, was seen naked-and found to be a woman.

This anonymous Orlando told an extraordinary story. Her lover had promised marriage, only to run away to sea. Through the services of a New York detective, she discovered he had signed up to a whale-ship. Not knowing which one, she set off for New Bedford, where she bound her breasts with calico and, being tall and slim, ‘passed herself off as a green boy who wanted to go a-whaling’. After her confession, she broke down in tears, but was comforted by the captain, who found her rather attractive, once she had sewn herself a loose dress, and as sickness and shade returned to a more lady-like pallor. When the ship called at Lima, the woman was placed in the hands of the American consul; only when the Christopher Mitchell returned home did her story become public.

Such was the no-man’s-land of the whale-ship, where boys would be boys and girls would be boys, too. Life onboard was peculiar to itself and of itself: enclosed yet open, confined yet free, disciplined yet liberated. For months on end a ship’s crew knew only this world. Time was measured in the watches of the day and by the shadows of the masts; on the featureless ocean they might be anywhere on earth, living within wooden walls, a colony of men ruled over by erratic officers and determined by the wilful meanderings of whales. Yet for all the depredations, the romance remained. Why else would men volunteer for this life, if not for its sense of adventure? Hardly for the pay, or the conditions.

It was this containedness about which Melville wrote so well in his novels of the sea, especially in the two works that preceded Moby-Dick: Redburn, a fictionalized account of his first sea voyage to Liverpool; and White-Jacket, another slice of his life story whose subtitle proclaims ‘The World in a Man-of-War’. It is set on board a naval ship, a ‘bit of terra firma cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king…Only the moon and stars are beyond his jurisdiction.’ Here men lived ‘in a space so contracted that they can hardly so much as move but they touch…the inmates of a frigate are thrown upon themselves and each other, and all their ponderings are introspective.’

Such intimacy permitted desires forbidden by the civilized world. Redburn extols the beauty of his English shipmate Harry, with dark curling hair and ‘silken muscles’, and a complexion as ‘feminine as a girl’s’ an equally handsome Italian boy plays his concertina with a suggestive enthusiasm almost embarrassing to read. The narrator of White-Jacket is more circumspect, although he notes that one midshipman is ‘apt to indulge at times in undignified familiarities with some of the men’. When they resist, he has them flogged-a scenario that would inspire Melville’s last work, Billy Budd, in which the villainous first mate, Claggart, becomes obsessed with the Handsome Sailor, Billy or Baby Budd, with fatal consequences for them both. In real life, other seamen found different outlets: Philip C. Van Buskirk, a contemporary of Melville’s, left a startlingly frank journal of his onboard addiction to self-abuse.

Ishmael himself is never more than ambiguous on such matters; but since nothing in his creator’s work is accidental (about the only thing his critics agree on), it is impossible not to see a pattern in Melville’s emblematic titles-





-books set in a world without women and in an age that had no name for love between men (although his peer, Walt Whitman, devised the term ‘adhesiveness’ for what he felt for his fellow man). From the fiery youth of Redburn to the masculine discipline of White-Jacket, from the phallic pallor of Moby-Dick to the virginal Billy Budd, Melville fictionalized his past and obscured his emotions in a matrix of literary intent.

The sea was the perfect arena for such arch invention. A fatherless middle-class boy had deliberately placed himself as far from land-and female influence-as it was possible to be, creating a new family, and a new identity for himself. Instead of his mother and his sisters, he answered to a captain and lived among men. Removed from the security of home, and freed from its confines, Melville was launched into the brutal reality of living with men united only in the common pursuit of a bloody business. He and his fellow sailors had cut all ties with civilization, sailing to islands where murderous natives with filed teeth threatened to eat their shipmates. They were boys in a boy’s own story, although they travelled on a vessel whose very ceilings kept them down, as if perpetually tugging their caps.

Descending below the waterline to the Morgan’s hold, I feel as though I were within the whale, contained within wooden ribs. In the dampness, I sense the pressure of water from without, even knowing this massive chamber is braced by sturdy knees cut from live oak, like flying buttresses on a great cathedral. The church-like air is illusory, for this maritime crypt was filled with barrels of oil, a visible measure of success, an ascending scale marked up the hull as a prisoner ticks off the days on his cell wall. It was in everyone’s interests-from the captain with his magnified lay, to the seaman’s humble fraction-to see this space diminish. Each barrel represented incremental profit; its absence, potential loss.

The Morgan’s timbers are still stained with decades of oil. Like the candle works of Nantucket, whose infused floorboards oozed when they were removed, the years have left this vessel saturated with the products of the animals she had processed. As a whale’s skeleton retains its sap, so these soaked knees and ribs became the bones of her prey, transforming this death ship-this whale widow-maker—into a simulacrum of the creatures she pursued. In 1941, when she was brought to Mystic for restoration, objects were found between the Morgan’s bilges: bits of clay pipe, coins, whale’s teeth, and strange shell-like bones-the inner ears of a whale-archæological relics that had rattled around for decades in the belly of the vessel. It was as if the ship had become a repository of herself.

Back in the staterooms, sitting at the captain’s table as the wind sways the ship to and fro on her moorings, breaking the ice around the bows which promptly refreezes into abstract shards, I try to imagine life lived in this wooden box filled with more than forty men and boys and the rendered fat of tens of whales. Perhaps such conditions merely merged men into the visceral business in which they were engaged; perhaps they gave up their humanity for the duration, to wallow in whale oil for its own sake; to live and die for the whale.

Melville sailed on the Acushnet from New Bedford on Sunday, 3 January 1841. He may have been no greenhand-despite what it said on his shipping papers-but his earlier passage to Liverpool, carrying cotton rather than oil, bore little resemblance to the adventure that lay ahead of him.

Once at sea, the mates made their selection for the whaleboat crews. Mustered aft, men were interrogated about their experience as the mates checked their hands and feet and felt their muscles in an inspection that resembled a slave auction. Ships had three or four such crews, comprising the captain, or a mate, four foremast hands (as Melville was), and a harpooneer; fewer than five men might be left behind to run the vessel when the boats were lowered from the divots on which they hung on the ship’s side, ready for action. As with everything in whaling, periods of frenetic energy alternated with soporific inaction or numbing drudgery. Time itself was different at sea. Far from land, the levelling ocean flattened out the days to be recreated in nautical dispensations, reordered from noon to noon.

First part, noon to 8 pm

Middle part, 8 pm to 4 am

Latter part, 4 am to noon

Four hours on, four hours off, watch and watch regulated the crew’s life. When no whales were seen, the ship would sail in and out of as yet undetermined time zones. When the chase was on, time would accelerate, or even disappear. And all this-all these men, all their efforts, all their aspirations-existed for those few minutes when a whale might be won. All this human striving-from recruitment and requisition to searching and finding a distant disruption, followed by the frenetic hunt-all in order to fill wooden barrels that would ensure only a brief stay on land till the call to sea came again. As Ishmael says, the whole process was a remorseless cycle; a man might not be free of it till nature or the whale’s caprice released him. As surely as those shrouds held the mast to his ship, as surely as the line held the harpoon to the whale, so was the sailor tethered to his prey in an unerring deposition of faith.

‘Ah the world! Oh the world!’

Decks were scrubbed, men sent aloft for two-hour watches to look for whales. Until then, the ship and her crew lay in a kind of limbo. New recruits would practise in the boats, hardening muscles and honing co-ordination in a gymnasium of the sea. They rehearsed their techniques on passing porpoises or pilot whales, whose oil would occasionally be mixed with spermaceti to swell the profits of less honest whalers. For sixty-nine days the Acushnet sailed on a course now unknown to us, although it is probable that, like most New England whalers, she called at the Azores, seeking fresh provisions and new hands. Only then, as they sailed over the five-mile-deep chasms of the mid-Atlantic, would the hunt begin in earnest.

Sperm whales are not bound to seasonal migrations like the humpbacks; even so, they still roam tens of thousands of miles each year, often congregating in certain areas known as ‘grounds’ to the whalers. These were plotted on mariners’ charts, marked with whalish symbols like maps in a military campaign. A favourite ground was the equatorial region, the Line. Here, at the earth’s midriff, the whales seemed to gather as if in a preordained meeting with their fate.

The men had watched for weeks from the topgallant crosstrees, tiny figures swaying ninety feet in the air, everyone waiting for the magic words-

There she blows! T-h-e-r-e s-h-e b-l-o-w-s!

-at which the animals would appear, as if mystically summoned from the deep.

And lo! close under our lee, not forty fathoms off, a gigantic Sperm Whale lay rolling in the water like the capsized hull of a frigate, his broad, glossy back, of an Ethiopian hue, glistening in the sun’s rays like a mirror.


Sometimes they saw twenty or thirty whales riding the waves like surfers, ‘tumbling about when the big seas would catch them and almost turn them over’, as the teenaged Haley recorded, with not a little admiration. ‘Sometimes one could be seen on the crest of a wave. As it broke he would shoot down its side with such a speed a streak of white could be seen in the wake he made through the water. When reaching the hollow between two seas he would lazily shove his spout holes above the water and blow out his spout, as much as to say, “See how that is done.”’ But even as the young whales were at their sport, the order was given to lower the boats.

The Yankee whaleboat was ‘the most perfect water craft that has ever floated’: a sleek, sharp-pointed vessel thirty feet long, yet ‘so slight’, as Melville wrote, ‘that three men might walk off with it’. Double-ended for maximum manœuvrability, enabling it to be rowed in either direction, its cedar clinker-built sides and eighteen-foot oars were made to slip silently and swiftly through the water with its crew of six. ‘Buoyant and graceful in her movements,’ wrote Frederick Bennett, a British whaling surgeon, ‘she leaps from billow to billow, and appears rather to dance over the sea than to plough its bosom with her keel.’ At the rear, the mate gripped a great steering oar as he issued orders to men stripped for action; just as the boat’s rowlocks were muffled, so they went shoeless so as not to scare their prey. A sperm whale was as ready to rear as a startled deer-and a gallied whale was good to no one.

Their pursuit was impelled by each boat’s commander.

‘Do for heaven’s sake spring’, the mate implored in whispered tones, ‘The boat don’t move. You’re all asleep; see, see! There she lies; skote, skote! I love you, my dear fellows, yes, yes, I do; I’ll do anything for you, I’ll give you my heart’s blood to drink; only take me up to this whale only this time, for this once, pull.’

They were the words of an urgent lover, just as the harpoons were the darts of a deadly Cupid; exhortations alternating between passionate blasphemies and competitive imprecations.

‘Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull my little ones,’ drawlingly and soothingly sighed Stubb to his crew…‘Why don’t you break your backbones, my boys…Why don’t you snap your oars, you rascals?…The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull…’

So the small, lethal boats sped through the water, fast and fragile, ready if necessary to be turned into matchwood in the affray. As they drew near their prey, the oars were put aside as they waited.

And waited.

Sperm whales spend most of their time below the surface, and can sound for ten minutes or an hour. An experienced whaler knew how long an animal would stay down by its size: for every foot of whale they must wait a minute more.

It was a fearful calculation: the longer they waited, the greater the monster they faced.

A mile below, the whale might be scooping up squid in the silent depths, unaware of the danger that lurked above, the shapes that sculled over the ceiling of its world. But the time came when it needed to replenish the oxygen in its blood, returning to the light and air. The irony was that the sign of its renewed life-its characteristic angled blow, easily spotted from miles away-was also the signal for its demise.

Now came the moment for which these men had broken their backs. It too came shrouded in silence. ‘Every breath was held; no one dared move a jot. The dropping of a pin in the boat might almost have been heard…Now we were within dart.’ It was a meditation on what was to come, on the enormous task in hand. In this stillness was invested all the might of the whale versus the ingenuity of man.

They relied on the animal’s design flaws: its blind spots, fore and aft. To approach a whale ‘on the eye’ was foolhardy; from its side it could see all that they were trying to do. So pulling head-on or behind, the boat crept as close as it dared. Through the surface they could see the fearsome flukes, three times the size of a man.

How palpitating the hearts of the frightened oarsman at this interesting juncture! My young friends, just turn about and snatch a look at that whale. There he goes, surging through the brine which ripples about his vast head, as if it were the bow of a ship. Believe me, it’s quite as terrible as going into battle, to a raw recruit.

This was the ultimate test, when each man would be judged; the moment on which their fortunes relied. It was also remarkably, almost stupidly dangerous: to pit a man against an animal so far in excess of him in size and power that even in the twentieth century, when hunting bottle-nosed whales-notorious for their ability to sound abruptly and take down a line with unbelievable speed-Norwegian ships would send out only single men, considering the task too hazardous for husbands with families.

Fear met fear. A harpooneer expected to spear a living creature one hundred times his size. A gigantic mammal startled by the appearance of an object it had never seen before. Through its very bones, connected to the auditory canal deep within its head, and through its startled eyes, protected by a film of oil, the whale sensed danger in unidentified noise and movement. Panic was its first response.

Once alerted, the entire school could swim off, at speed, invariably to windward. ‘The slightest noise causes them to disappear with marvellous celerity,’ as Charles Nordhoff observed. Giant whales could vanish into thin air. ‘That’s magic,’ said Nordhoff’s shipmate as one whale sounded with barely a toss of its head, so suddenly that ‘it seemed just as though the vast mass had been suspended in space, and the suspensor had been suddenly cut asunder’. One minute a sixty-foot animal would be alongside them; the next, it had entirely vanished.

To gally a whale risked the failure of all that had brought the ship thousands of miles, captain and crew, provisions and whaleboats towards this one end. Sometimes the whale won even before battle was joined. Nelson Cole Haley’s failure to harpoon a young, five-barrel calf as it dived after its mother (‘I saw the shape of the little beggar under water’, but his irons missed their target), earned him a volley of abuse and a confrontation with the captain back on board the Morgan.

More often than not the hunters were outwitted; proof, if it were needed, of the madness of whaling. Yet ‘going on to a whale’ was an intensely exciting moment; perhaps the most exciting thing these young men had ever done. It was ‘glorious sport’, rowing with their mates as they entered into the spirit of the chase, a rush of testosterone to coincide with a target on which to work out their rage. They were, in the argot of the time, bully boys, bully for the chase. This was why they forbore all the privations, for this one supreme moment, the adrenalin pumping in their arteries, even as the oxygen-rich blood coursed through the whale’s.

Now the harpooneer rose to balance precariously at the prow, taking up his long iron from the crotch of the boat-the vessel and its weapons extensions of his power. As he stood, every muscle tensed towards the oncoming whale, the boat itself became a kind of brace, his right thigh set hard into a semicircle cut from the gunwale. This was the so-called clumsy cleat into which the hunter fitted, just as Ahab’s peg-leg slotted into a socket made on the Pequod’s deck. Wood versus blubber; man’s frail construction pitted against nature’s formidable creation.

‘Give it to him!’

Whaling was like war, ‘actual warfare’ in one whaler’s eyes. For the young men in the boat, it was equivalent to going over the top; even more so for the man expected to throw the first blow for the first time. Only now did he realize the enormity of what he had to do, as he looked down into the water and the whale that seemed to fill his eyes. Some greenhands fainted at the sight, and had to be replaced by more experienced mates. Some went ‘quite “batchy” with fright, requiring a not too gentle application of the tiller to their heads in order to keep them quiet’. Equally, the whale itself would react ‘with affright, in which state they will often remain for a short period on the surface…lying as it were in a fainting condition’, as if both man and whale were as shell-shocked as each other.

It was a military manœuvre, requiring superhuman strength. The harpooneer, rowing even harder than his mates, had at the last moment to drop his oar, pick up his weapon, and throw it twenty or thirty feet towards the whale; a man’s straining blood vessels might burst with the effort, says Ishmael. At the crucial instant, the razor-sharp spear was released, hurtling through the air on its wooden stock, umbilically attached by the line as it whistled towards its target. More often than not it drew or failed to find its dreadful home. ‘But what of that?’ wrote Melville. ‘We would have all the sport of chasing the monsters, with none of the detestable work which follows their capture.’

Time stopped still. Such was the intensity of the experience that, as their descendants would discover when rescuing rather than killing whales, the adrenalin of present danger obliterated all memory of anything else, even of the moment itself.

Harpooneer braced, power passing through iron to the whale.

Line curling in lazy loops, tightening to the fish.

Crew in mid-scull, every muscle tensed.

Mother ship on the horizon, fast fading into the distance.

Silence, before the clamour of life over death.

With a barely audible thud, the successful barb sank deep into blubber. With it all hell broke loose. The entire school of whales, feeling the blow communally, suddenly scattered to windward, causing the sea to erupt like an earthquake. Bucking and rearing, the harpooned whale tried to rid itself of the spear buried ‘socket up’ in its flesh. Sometimes the harpoon was bent double in the struggle. Its shaft was cast from flexible iron, so that it could be beaten back into shape, even if twisted to a corkscrew. As soldiers wore medals, so sailors kept such ‘wildly elbowed’ weapons as mementoes of their heroic encounters.


Arthur Credland/Hull Maritime Museum

Now the whale would sound fast and deep, threatening to take its assailants with it. The line, long enough to run for a mile or more, paid out of its bucket where it lay like a coiled cobra, splashed with sea water to prevent it from burning with the friction and guided by hands covered with protective canvas ‘nippers’. To sit with ‘the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line’, says Ishmael, was like sitting within a dangerous machine, ‘the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you’. The whipping manilla rope could catch a man and yank him out of this world and into the next.

At one end, a sixty-ton animal. At the other, six men. Through the line they could feel the whale; an intimate connection between man and prey. The crew fought to haul the creature out of the depths as an angler tussles with a fish; an effort of resistance and power; a tug of war, or a tug of love. Suddenly, their enraged quarry surfaced with an almighty blow. Its very breath was fearful: sailors believed the spout to be acrid, able to burn skin or even, warns Ishmael, cause blindness, ‘if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes’.

Holding its buoyant, oil-filled head high out of the water, with its narrow jaw cutting the water below, the whale transformed itself ‘from a bluff-bowed sluggish guillot into a sharp-pointed New York pilot-boat’. Now the terrified animal towed its tormentors on a Nantucket sleigh ride; at twenty-six miles an hour, this was the fastest any man had travelled on water: ‘whole Atlantics and Pacifics seemed passed as they shot on their way’.

Sooner or later-and it could be hours later-the whale would tire. Only then, alongside or even on top of the animal itself, ‘wood and black skin’, did the scene reach its climax. Those rowing with their backs towards the whale might have been glad of their orders not to turn around. At any moment the whale might raise its tailstock twenty feet in the air, a towering slab of muscle so swift to deal death that it was called ‘the hand of God’. With one flick it could send one of their number into eternity, an act as disdainful as theirs was arrogant. Worse still, the animal might actively turn on their craft, lunging with its toothed jaw held terrifyingly at right-angles to its body like a lethal saw. There was no defence against such an assault. It was man, or whale.

At the command, ‘stern all’, the harpooneer swapped place with the boat-steerer or mate, whose privilege it was, in that absolute hierarchy, to administer the coup de grâce. Drawing his long lance from its sheath, with both hands over the end to place his weight behind it, the mate plunged his iron in and out of the blubber. Blood running in rivulets over its black body, the maddened whale sought to wreak its revenge, impotently snapping its jaws open and shut. Then the blade found the life of the whale: the heart and lungs that lay behind its left flipper.

and they pierced his side with a lance

There it churned about like a poker until the cry went up, ‘There’s fire in the chimney!’, its life-giving spout turned to a red fountain as thick blood pumped from the rapidly expanding and contracting blowhole. Now the whale entered its death flurry, swimming in a spiralling circle, the condemned animal vomiting up its final meal of squid, a pathetic reaction to its mortal internal wounds. With a juddering halt, its torment came to an end. ‘His heart had burst!’ And drawing its last breath, the whale rolled on its side, fin out, with one eye to the sky and-so its killers claimed-its head turned towards the sun.

they will look on the one whom they have pierced

For all the argot that served to distance them from their butchery, these were not men without hearts. They were not immune to the pathos of these scenes, to the death of something that represented life on such a scale. Charles Nordhoff would describe the wanton destruction he saw on his whaling cruise through the Indian Ocean and up the coast of Africa in search of sperm whales, as his crew mates harpooned and lanced any living thing they came across, from anaconda and hippopotamus to sea lion, as if anything alive became, by virtue of the fact, automatic targets. Young men like to kill things, sometimes just to see what happens.

And yet, when no sperm whales had appeared for weeks and the ship was driven to hunting humpbacks, even hard-bitten sailors objected to the killing of a mother and calf, the cow trying to protect her offspring by holding it tight to her body with her flipper or nudging it ahead and out of harm’s way, only for the infant to fall prey to a well-directed lance. To one man, ‘it was a useless waste of life…and besides had a tendency to excite the cow whale’. Later they saw one of the calves they had orphaned, now half-starved, desperately trying to suckle at a bull whale’s belly, only to be violently driven off.

Men must eat, as must their families; their children must be shod, captains’ houses must be shingled, their wives corseted; citizens must see by night. Their quarry was claimed with pennants, plaintively named ‘waifs’, planted directly into the whale’s gaping blowhole. It was a final statement of possession: what was the whale’s was now man’s. These waifs also served to reunite the straying boats with their mother ship, perhaps miles away by now, perhaps even out of sight. Meanwhile, a sperm whale calf might nudge the whaleboat, searching the cedar sides for its mother’s teats.

Physeter dolorosa

Rove through its flukes like a ring through a Moor’s ear, the whale was chained and towed back, a fifty-ton dead weight dragged through the water at a mile an hour. If night had fallen by the time they returned, the whale would be secured to starboard, head astern. There it waited as the crew slept, their prey alongside, barnacle to barnacle, cosily safe until sunrise.

Then the real work began.

On the larboard or port side a section of the bulwark was removed, allowing a narrow cutting stage to be lowered, like a window-cleaner’s platform, from which the mates, experts at the task, sliced at the whale with sharp spades. Other men dangled from ropes as whale mountaineers, hacking away to bring lumps of flesh and bone on deck, while their mates clambered over the slippery skin wearing crampon-spiked boots to carry out their delicate, brutal task. A hole was cut in the animal’s side for the purchase of the giant blubber hook which swung from the mast. Thus the ‘blanket’ was unrolled, divesting the whale of what had given it warmth.

Pared off like the peel from a Christmas clementine, the result was cut into huge chunks and passed down to the blubber room. Here it was cut into manageable portions by half-naked men working in semi-darkness, often maimed by misaimed spades as the sharpened steel sliced off their own toes and fingers. Thick ‘horse pieces’ became ‘bible leaves’, thin slices to melt faster (while invoking images of the whale itself as a holy book). These were then hauled back up top and tipped into cast-iron try-pots set into brick ovens-strangely domestic structures, somewhere between blacksmith’s furnace and kitchen range, as though someone had begun to build a house on deck.

For two days the work continued. Men laboured six hours on, six hours off, to the slithering, ripping, rippling, snapping sounds of torn tendons and sundered muscles, to the stink of blood and guts as the creature’s severed head was separated into its constituent parts: the case, the chamber containing liquid spermaceti; the junk, the mass within the head; and the white horse, the fibres that held more oil in spongy cells. This was the rendering, a due process on this slavish ship, as the men in turn were enslaved to the whale, paying obeisance to the vast creature dissected on deck: ‘the entire ship seems great leviathan himself; while on all hands the din is deafening.’ Most of the whale went to waste, chucked over the side to be gnawed by sharks and pecked by birds flocking to the scene.


As the animal came apart, it was in its blunt head that the hidden treasure was to be found: gallons of precious spermaceti. Ishmael takes us into this cavern, filled with a substance described by another as ‘of a slightly rosy tint, looking like soft ice cream or white butter partly churned’. As man became part of the whale, the whale might even now take the life of a man. In a terrifying scene, Ishmael watches as Tashtego the harpooneer is lowered into the tun to bail out its spermaceti, only to fall in head-first, ‘with a horrible oily gurgling’. The severed head bobs in the sea while the Indian struggles inside, about to drown in whale oil.

At that moment, a naked Queequeg appears, clutching a boarding-sword. Diving to the rescue, he pulls Tashtego out by his hair, delivering him from the fleshy pit like a Cæsearean-born baby, even as it threatens to become his grave. It would have been ‘a very precious perishing’, muses Ishmael, regaining his usual phlegm, ‘smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale’.

And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Such a deep-seated fear, of being engulfed by the whale, reached back to the Bible and beyond. The Victorian naturalist Francis Buckland described how one scientist had attempted a dissection of a beached sperm whale at Whitstable in 1829, descending into ‘the gigantic mass of anatomical horrors’, only to lose his footing and fall into the animal’s heart, trapping his feet in its aorta. In the 1920s, an Oxford professor named Ambrose John Wilson sought to prove the possibility of Jonah’s fate. He reasoned that only a sperm whale could have swallowed the prophet, baleen whales having throats that could admit nothing larger than a grapefruit. As it does not chew its food, the sperm whale uses strongly acidic stomach fluids to digest entire sharks and giant squid. ‘Of course, the gastric juice would be extremely unpleasant but not deadly,’ added the don, noting that the whale would digest only dead matter, lest it consume its own stomach.



In support of his theory, Wilson cited two case histories. In 1771 it was reported that a whaleboat working in the South Seas had been bitten in half by a sperm whale, and one of its crew seized by the assailant and taken down in its mouth as it sounded. Back at the surface, the animal disgorged the man, ‘much bruised but not seriously injured’, onto some wreckage. The historical distance made this story difficult to prove, but Wilson’s second incident was recorded in 1891, when James Bartley of the Star of the East, then whaling off the Falklands, had disappeared into the water when a sperm whale’s flukes lashed his boat. Hours later, the whale was killed and brought alongside the ship.

After working on the carcase all day and part of the night, the crew hauled its stomach onto the deck, and discovered their shipmate curled up inside, unconscious but alive. The man was laid out and given a sea-water bath to revive him; where he had been exposed to the animal’s gastric juices, his skin had been bleached white, like some ghastly full-grown fœtus. For two weeks Bartley was a raving lunatic unhinged by his experience, only to recover his sanity and resume his duties. The captain’s wife would later question the veracity of this story, but it encouraged those who believed a man could survive within a whale-although no one could explain how he could breathe in its belly.

More credible was another report by Egerton Y. Davis, a surgeon on the Toulinguet, sailing from Newfoundland in 1893 in search of harp seals, even if his account, too, is clouded by memory. As an old man, Davis recalled that one of the crew had slipped off an ice floe and into the jaws of an angered whale, which swallowed him before attacking the other sealers. Shot by the ship’s cannon, the whale swam off in its death agony. It was recovered the next day, and when the crew cut into its gas-filled stomach, they found their mate.

It was a fearsome sight, said Davis, who proceeded to deliver a pathological description. The young man’s chest had been crushed by the animal’s jaws, so he was probably already dead by the time his body reached the whale’s stomach. Gastric mucosa covered the victim like the slime of a giant snail; it was particularly thick on those parts of his flesh that were exposed: his face, his hands and part of his leg where his trousers were torn; these areas were macerated and partly digested. Oddly enough, the lice on his head had survived.

The surgeon sought to reassure his shipmates that the man had not suffered. ‘It was my opinion that he had no consciousness of what happened to him.’ The idea that the victim might have been aware as he was swallowed was too terrible to contemplate; although in secret his fellow sailors may have wondered what it was like to be within the belly of the whale, to slither down its gullet like a whiting down a gannet’s neck and into the nameless horror of the leviathan’s maw.

Such stories would persist, from the whale that gulped down Pinocchio, to George Orwell’s Coming up for Air, in which the narrator recalls his Edwardian father reading of ‘the chap…who was swallowed by a whale in the Red Sea and taken out three days later, alive but bleached white by the whale’s gastric juice’, adding that ‘he turns up in the Sunday papers about once in three years’. Indeed, in a letter to The Times in 1928, a correspondent claimed to have met a missionary to the Southern Whaling Fleet who was swallowed by a sperm whale. For a man of the cloth, he appears to have been rather accident-prone, having often fallen overboard-a regular Jonah-but ‘could hold his breath longer than most men’. More fortuitously, his shipmates had seen him fall, and harpooned the whale which, in its flurry, evacuated its stomach, and the indigestible cleric along with it.

And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Evidently fascinated with such stories, Orwell elaborated on the theme in a famous literary essay written just as the Second World War broke out. Inside the Whale saw something strangely appealing in the idea:

the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought…The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality…Even the whale’s own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.

Allegory or tall tale, such notions merely lend more mystery to the whale; an animal so strange and savage and innocent, so monumental in man’s imagination now reduced to bits on the deck of a ship.

So the process continued. The jaw was wrenched from its cartilaginous hinges, the conical teeth yanked out as if by some cetacean dentist. One whale could yield forty or fifty fist-sized pieces of sea-ivory, issued to sailors for scrimshanding, work for idle days when whales were few. Some teeth might be swapped for supplies; they were highly valued in Fiji, where the captain of the Morgan exchanged sperm whale teeth for food far in excess of their value on the streets of New Bedford, where, as young Haley noted, they’d fetch a dollar fifty at the most.

By now the deck was awash with oil, one great slick sliding rink; men might slip off and into shark-infested waters. Life was tentative: others could be crushed by lumps of whale, or splashed with boiling oil, or sliced by flenshing knives. Compared to such perilous butchery, the sorting of spermaceti was a popular chore. Collected into tubs, sailors squeezed the lumps from the oil which coagulated as it cooled away from the heat of the body. Some climbed into the tubs themselves like grape-tramplers, pulling out the fibrous integuments which would mar the superior quality of the product.

‘No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath,’ wrote one whaler. ‘I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.’ The task imparted a feminine air to otherwise grisly and dangerous duties; for the narrator of Moby-Dick, it induced an erotic reverie as his fingers began to ‘serpentine and spiralize’ like eels and he was lulled by the scent and sensuality. In the easily stirred Ishmael, such ‘sweet and unctuous duty’ becomes a kind of Blakean transcendence, and ‘in thoughts of the visions of the night’, he sees ‘long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti’.

Elsewhere, a hellish scene held sway. As the try-pots were heated, the flames were fed with slivers of blubber called ‘cracklings’ thus the whale cooked itself. Naturally, such an irony did not escape Ishmael. ‘Like a plethoric burning martyr, or self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies its own fuel and burns by his own body.’ And as darkness fell, the flickering red light turned it all into an infernal vision akin to Loutherbourg’s painting of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale, satanic womb of the Industrial Revolution; or something more apocalyptic:

the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed.

Notions of horror mar these honest acts of industry in our eyes. What did Melville feel at the time, as he watched, and took part in such scenes conducted far from civilized gaze? Words had the power to conqueror memory; but they were useless in the catching and rendering of whales, save to supply captions to Victorian engravings: ‘There she blows!’, ‘Whereaway?’, ‘She has fire in the chimney!’

After it was all done, the ship was scrubbed; in another example of cetacean self-sufficiency, unrefined sperm oil possessed ‘a singularly cleaning virtue’, and ‘the decks never look so white as just after what they call an affair of oil’. But no sooner was the place clean and its crew with it, ‘the poor fellows just buttoning the necks of their clean frocks’, than the lookouts would shout,

There she blows! and they would ‘fly away to fight another whale, and go through the whole weary thing again’.

Ah the world. Oh the world.



Rockwell Kent/R.R. Donnelly & Sons/The Plattsburgh College Foundation