Adonis Diaries

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History of whaling expeditions and industry, the Essex ship, Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I watched a documentary on ARTE on the US Whaling expeditions and industry that started around 1780 and effectively bloomed in 1797 after discovering a new kind of whale, the Whale Sperms, with exceptional oil quality (of sperm consistency and located in the skull) for lighting lamps.

People in the Nantucket have been harvesting the whales that came ashore for centuries, before the arrival of the European colons to the Americas. The Quakers were the most active in hunting for whales close to the seashore, and it was done as a divine undertaking.

By the end of the 18th century, the American colons were venturing far away in the Atlantic, hunting for whales, and the Quakers improved their skills in fabricating harpoons and building whaling ships for storing the fat and oil extracted from whales, while at sea. About 50% of the oil were exported to England and North American colonies expanded their wealth, due mainly from the whaling industry.

The American whaling ships were the most advanced at the time. The British noticed the presence of the American whaling mariners everywhere they ventured for whale hunting, even to the deep arctic and antarctic poles.

The war of independence from England slowed down this industry and most of the ships were destroyed and the colonies could not export the surplus oil. After independence, the whaling industry shifted to Connecticut, and the port of New Bridgeport in particular.

By 1850, the whaling industry was at its zenith and New Bridgeport was the capital of this industry. The city had invested $70 million in infrastructure and had over 300 modern whaling ships, 20,000 people navigating the oceans for many years at a stretch, mostly in the pacific Oceans. The whaling ship would not return before storing about 200 tons of oil. Over 70,000 people lived from this industry.

In 1819, the whaling Essex reached the pacific with about 30 mariners. The ship needed 60 more tons of oil before returning home.  The biggest male whale of about 35 meters shook the ship as an earthquake and then came back with double speed and split the ship in two. The boarded safely in three whaling canoes, but they had to row thousands of miles to the nearest shore.

They could have landed in Tahiti, but they preferred another direction to avoid the man-eating “savages” of the islands. Only 5 from Nantucket were eventually saved: the remaining (all blacks) were eaten by their comrades in order to survive.  Later, Captain Pullock ended up taking the job of a night guard in the city, and every November, he would go on a celebration binge for surviving a certain death.

The account of this horror story inspired Melville in his novels, particularly Moby Dick.

At the age of 23, Herman Melville boarded a whaling ship and spent 3 years on whaling ships and jumped ships 3 times. Once, Herman decided to jump ship at one of the islands known for cannibalism and he related his experience in a novel.

In 1851, Melville (32 of age) published Moby Dick and he was convinced that he has written his life master work. To his surprise, the book was a flop. Why?

One account is that the American public was more interested in “going west” stories. This is doubtful: the first adventure of expanding westward was a total fiasco. The real going west myths happened shortly before the civil war in 1861 and in earnest after war in order to satisfy the thousands of soldiers out of a job and unemployed.

The most probable reason was that the whaling industry did its best not to propagate this book that described in minute details the horrors of the whaling jobs: The worst job that mankind could have contemplated.

After a whale is spotted, canoes holding ten people row for miles toward the whale. If they are lucky and the whale is practically peaceful and still, a harpoon is launched and the whale remorques the canoe for days until he feels weak. The captain of the canoe takes on the honor of stabbing the whale repeatedly in the lung area: It is not possible to pierce the heavy skull or reach the heart deep in the body.

When the whale start ejecting plumes of blood, he is near death and start circling the canoe in ever tighter circles. The next harder task is to trail this big fish to the mother ship. Once there, the mariners have to work 24/24 hours for many days in order to remove the fat. A large a deep hole is perforated in the skull to remove the precious oil.

The ship is now flooded with fat and blood. The fat is sliced and dropped in cauldrons. Some of the calcified fat is reused instead of wood for heating.  The dark and stinky fumes invade and envelop the ship and the environs for days. And the ship has to be cleaned…

Studies revealed that the whaling job exhibited the same emotional and psychological traumas as soldiers in active fighting engagement.

Melville described and covered the new extreme capitalist behavior of the USA at the period.

Melville desisted from now on to writing. Only at his centennial, did Moby Dick received its due honor and appreciation.

On his death, Melville left this note: “Never relinquish the dream of youth

In 1857, oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, and whaling for just oil was no longer profitable.

The civil war struck a heavy blow to this industry: Most of the ships were wrecked to form barriers.

It is estimated that before WWI, 250,000 whales were massacred. This number is the top of the iceberg compared to the systematic modern whaling industry.

After WWI, New Bridgeport launched the last whaling ship, which was immediately wrecked by a storm on the shore.

Mind you that the old wealth of New Bridgeport invested on the railway to the west and the new oil industries…

Old wealth accumulated for centuries from all the suffering, miseries and death of the whaling industry… Just to service fucking oil lamps.




June 2023

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