A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat

Attacking a whale

American Whaling: Its History, Dangers, and Literary Legacy

Whales and the hunting of them do not figure prominently in the history of Texas. It’s not that they are unknown in the Gulf of Mexico. They can be seen sporting about off the coast or nosing about the bottom. And occasionally they wander or are washed ashore, as a right whale did near Freeport  in 1972, and a sperm whale did near Port Aransas in 2008.

Leviathan     Beached whales were the beginning of American whaling according to Eric Jay Dolin, the author of Leviathan: the History of Whaling in America. Following the example of the native inhabitants, the first European settlers in eastern North America began harvesting whales that washed up or were beached on their shores. They were not interested in them as a source of food. You might dine on the liver or turn the brains into “dainty cakes,” but the flesh at best, was something like a course beef, or as Meriwether Lewis described it in his expedition’s journal in 1805, “it resembled the beaver or dog in flavor.” It was the blubber they wanted, the fat that could be turned into oil, a superior source of illumination and lubrication.

Soon, not wanting to await the whims of fate, small whaleboats, manned by both Americans natives and English colonists were setting out to attack those whales foolish enough to swim close to their shores. Prominent among these shore whalers were those with an abundance of shore, the inhabitants of the coastal islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Long Island and especially Nantucket. It was from Nantucket that Captain Christopher Hussey and his crew set out in 1712. Blown far offshore, they encountered and killed the first sperm whales. In the sperm whales’ heads they found the oily substance called spermaceti. It produced even brighter illumination than the oil rendered from blubber. Thereafter large ships that carried the smaller whaleboats set out to hunt the whale and not return until their holds were filled with casks of oil, first in the North Atlantic, then the South Atlantic, then around Cape Horn to the Pacific, and by the middle of the next century, the Arctic.

At its high point in the two decades before the Civil War “American whale oil lit the world.” But, the industry, in some ways foreshadowing the petrochemical industry that would replace it, was subject to boom and bust cycles. Wars: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War were disasters to an industry dependant on international trade and a sea free of privateers and hostile navies. There was also the danger of drowning because most seamen of the period could not swim, so storms or toppling from the rigging into the sea could be fatal. Then there were the whales themselves, some of the largest animal ever to inhabit the planet, who were known to play role reversal with their hunters. The stove boat, as illustrated by the cover of Dolin’s book was an every present fear of the whale boat crew. And on at least two notable occasions the ship from which the boats issued was the focus of the whale’s fury. 
In the Heart of the sea     In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex / Nathaniel Philbrick.
On November 20, 1820 the Essex out of Nantucket, cruising the Pacific was sunk by a furious sperm whale a thousand miles west of Galapagos. This was the beginning of a harrowing sea voyage of 4,500 nautical miles. Three months later two of the saviors were picked up by another Nantucket whaleship the Dauphin off the West Coast of South America. The two men, sunburned and covered with sores were crouching in a twenty-five foot whaleboat rigged with a makeshift sale. Oddly enough, they resisted rescue at first. They feared the crew of the Dauphin might deprive them of their most precious possessions, the gnawed bones of their shipmates from which they were sucking the marrow.

Drawing on the accounts of the survivors, modern cetology, oceanography, psychology, physiology, navigation, and the history of Nantucket Philbrick has written an extremely readably and fascinating story of survival.

Thirty-one years later, on March 20, 1851 the crew of the whaler Ann Alexander, out of New Bedford, was in pursuit of a large sperm whale. They were surprised when the prey turned around and shattered one of the pursing whaleboats in its jaws, and then proceed to do the same to the boat that rescued the crew of the first boat. When the men clambered aboard a third boat, they gave up the chase and beginning pulling hard for the Ann Alexander, about seven miles away. The whale lunged at the third boat, but missed. When they made it back to the Ann Alexander, they thought they were safe, but they had been followed. The whale rammed the ship, then backed off half a mile and rammed it again, this time breeching the hull and sending the ship to the bottom of the Pacific. Unlike the crew of the doomed Essex they were fortunate enough to be picked up only two days later by another whaleship.

Moby-Dick     When news of the disaster reached America it was widely reported in the newspapers. Frightening though it was, at least one person was ecstatic about the news. Author Herman Melville’s new novel, Moby-Dick had just had just been published in America. Since he based the climatic ending of his novel on the sinking of the Essex, he hoped the news of the Ann Alexander’s fate would boost sales. He would be disappointed. It would be about another seventy years, about thirty after his death before he would become famous for writing one of the classics of American literature. Its short chapters alternate between wild romantic narrative and great slabs of information about whaling. As his narrator, Ishmael sums up in chapter 24:

“…if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. In my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”

In addition to his first-hand experience as a seaman on the whaleship Acushet, he borrowed liberaly from contemporary nonfiction works of whaling. As a result, interleaved with the story, and incorporated into the book is a lively and comprehensive account of whales and the business of whaling from the spotting of the whale to its being rendered into oil on the tryworks.

For more about whaling you may be interested in the website of the New Bedford Whaling Museum
or, of course, your local public library.