Segment from Thar She Blows

Anacharsis Cloots Deputation

Joanne continues her conversation with scholar Hester Blum about the brutality and danger of whaling, while also showing how Mocha Dick and Melville’s Moby Dick romanticized whalers as representative of universal rights and American industrial prowess.

Deep Thoughts by Joel Thomas Hunger

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Joanne Freeman: So we’ve heard about the economic boom that the whaling industry brought to New Bedford, and the northeast coast of the United States. And while it was a profitable business, the act of hunting whales and harvesting sperm oil was actually extremely brutal. We heard from scholar Hester Blum earlier. Here, she explains how the dangerous life of whalers was glorified in both Mocha Dick and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Hester Blum: As you may know, whales are much larger than whale ship. And they’re hugely larger than whale boats, which were the smaller craft that whalers used to actually hunt whales. If one is not steeped in the history of whaling, one might not realize that the whale ships are the engine that brings the sailors to the site of whales, and also processes their blubber into oil. But, the whale ships are not the place from which sailors hunt the whales. They lower boats. There’re usually about six wheel bolts on each ship, and a couple are kept in reserve, and those boats can be 10 to 12 feet long, only.

Hester Blum: And from those boats, which usually hold five or six men, the sailors are on the surface of the water. They’re just a foot or two off the water, and facing a whale that can be 10 times their size.

Joanne Freeman: I can’t actually even imagine how terrifying that would be. I mean, I guess there’d have to be a strategy, right? If there are several different boats, that they’re going to have to figure out some kind of way to surround the whale so that he doesn’t have one target or something.

Hester Blum: Exactly. There’s usually a kind of triangulation. Often whales tend to travel in pods, so sometimes each ship will be dispatched to a different whale. And what happens is that the sailors row as fast and as hard as they can to get close to the whale, at which point the harpooneer, the man in the ship, who in the boat that has the Harpoon plunges it into the whale. It’s attached to thousands of feet of thick rope. In an ideal situation, if the whale is not killed instantly by the harpoon, the whale will pull the boat from this long rope until it tires, until they’re able to get closer to a strike it again, until it bleeds to death, until it gives up the chase.

Hester Blum: And so it’s a very dangerous job. Maritime labor is not a safe profession, even today. But whaling was in particularly dangerous for reasons that you might imagine Whales could very easily knock the small boats, and knock men out of the boat. They could get tangled up in the whale lines. There are all kinds of accidents that could happen. But what makes the story of Mocha Dick unique, and what turn makes Melville’s Moby Dick different is that, the whale is represented not just in hitting or knocking or disrupting the smaller whale boats. But in targeting the larger whale ship.

Joanne Freeman: I see. So particularly dirty, rotten, and nasty whale.

Hester Blum: Exactly.

Joanne Freeman: Who has a mission.

Hester Blum: Indeed. And a whale that seems to have some kind of sense of agency, that it’s targeting the ship. Which is not always the circumstances in which hunters or fishermen encounter the natural world.

Joanne Freeman: I’m assuming that both the story of Mocha Dick and the story of Moby Dick or partly capitalizing on the fact that, I would assume the sea and whales, in addition to making good stories, are probably foreign climates to many people. So I would assume that, that’s a place where people could imagine adventures taking place. Is that true? That there were sort of a romance to the sea?

Hester Blum: There was definitely a romance to the sea. And one thing that’s interesting about Moby Dick, and Mocha Dick as well, is that for all of the huge popularity of sea narratives of sailor stories, up until Moby Dick, and Mocha Dick to a certain extent too, whaling was not necessarily the focus of those stories. They were more interested in naval battles, or in pirate stories, or in exotic travels to places that would not be familiar to white Americans or white Britains. Such as the South Pacific or the Antipodes.

Hester Blum: And so most sailor narratives talked about those kinds of travels, or represented naval battles. Whaling is a really dangerous and dirty business. It’s a heavy industry. The whales are processed industrially on the ship. They are giant cauldrons that are burning oil. They look like floating factories in a time when industrialization is starting to produce factories, visible in cities. Whale ships look like floating giant industrial factories, when they were processing oil.

Hester Blum: And so whaling was not an elite maritime trade at all. It was much more elite to even be a merchant sailor, much less a naval sailor, which was probably the most elite. And so what Moby Dick has done as a cultural legacy, is give the impression that whaling was more popular and more beloved a profession, that it actually was. But what Melville also did in telling the story was stress the ethnic racial diversity of whale ships, which Melville celebrated. But that ethnic and racial diversity is also because it was not an elite profession.

Hester Blum: So it was open to sailors who might not have found their way onto a naval ship in the same way. Sailors from multiple nations, black sailors, native sailors. And so the vision of the world of whaling that Melville gives us, was designed to elevate those mariners, renegades and castaways as he calls them. But people would have known about whaling because it was the largest industry in the US for several decades of the early 19th century.

Hester Blum: The petroleum trade, which the refinement of petroleum begins in 1859, after which whaling becomes less important. Whale oil was used for lighting, for lubricating machines, for the engine of much of the economy. But after petroleum is refined, which is easier to refine, it’s less expensive. It’s less dangerous. It’s had much more cataclysmic results for the state of our planet, but at the time-

Joanne Freeman: There is that.

Hester Blum: There is that. At the time the people would have known about whaling because of the oil that it produced, because of the baleen, and the various whale products that were used throughout the economy.

Joanne Freeman: So actually let me ask you a sort of out of the blue question, but given that you know so well, both the knickerbocker story and the Melville version, or gloss on it, between those two tellings of this kind of epic adventure story, are there differences between the two that you find particularly striking or revealing?

Hester Blum: That’s a great question. I was struck in looking at the story anew, that Reynolds, his story ends with a call for a kind of American global economic prowess. He ends the story by saying that the death of Mocha Dick and the success of the whaling industry is what he calls, and I’m quoting here, “The natural result- [crosstalk 00:26:19]

Speaker 6: Of the ardor of a free people have a spirit of fearless independence generated by free institutions alone, can the human mind attain its fullest expansion in the various departments of science and the multiform pursuits of busy life.

Hester Blum: And so Reynolds cast this story in an American nationalist light. Moby Dick while celebrating in many things about American democracy, has a much different and much more internationalist vision of what whaling is and what whalers are. He’s also explicitly elevating the labor interests of a particular working class, and advocating for them as a working class. At one point in Moby Dick, and this is a phrase that Melville uses in several novels. He calls whalers, and this is a name that is an unusual one and you might not have heard before, he calls them an “Anacharsis Cloots deputation”.

Joanne Freeman: I have definitely not heard that before.

Hester Blum: Not familiar with Anacharsis Cloots? He was an oppression advocate for international and universal human rights in the late 18th century. And he’d shown up at a parliamentary conversation and at an assembly, with a rainbow assortment of peoples from all over the world. And Melville makes the argument repeatedly that sailors are this is Anacharsis Cloots collection, that they represent universal rights and universal freedom. That’s a different sense from what we have from the Reynolds, which is stressing American prowess and American industrial night. Melville’s a little more skeptical of that.

Joanne Freeman: Well, it’s fascinating, first of all, because I’m sure that there are many people thinking and adventure stories not necessarily going to have this, in the case of the Reynolds’ story, this great sort of nationalistic gloss. But it’s even more fascinating then that Melville has such a broader perspective, and widens that message even more.

Hester Blum: He does. It’s also characteristic of Moby Dick as a whole in that, he Melville is drawn from the rental story, certainly. He’s also drawing from the story of the wreck of the Whaleship Essex in 1820, which was first popularized by a narrative written by its mate Owen Chase. This produced a popular recent history called In the Heart Of the Sea, and a movie by the same name. And that story of the Owen Chase is also about a whale, not a white one, deliberately ramming a ship. And so, that’s another source for Moby Dick, but also there are hundreds and hundreds of other sources.

Hester Blum: Melville was drawing indiscriminately from his wide reading, and from the many stories that sailors tell. So part of that process of transformation of Mocha Dick, is not just taking the story of this unusual whale, and the way that it is hunted, but embroidering the story and filling it in with this incredible body of knowledge. It becomes this accretion of all the pieces of whale stories.

Joanne Freeman: Wow. I mean, our conversation here is just making it so apparent why Mocha Dick and Moby Dick are such powerful forces. And I guess why Moby Dick, even for the many people who haven’t read it, is a presence, even now.

Hester Blum: It’s a book that I’ve read dozens and dozens and dozens of times, and I’m shocked anew every time I read it. By something I haven’t noticed, or some turn of language or something weird, and odd and funny. It’s just an endless gift to live with that novel.

Joanne Freeman: Hester Blum is an Associate Professor of English at Penn State University.