Sarah Burton

Inscrutable lords of the deep

Sarah Burton

Text settings

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

Eric Jay Dolin

W. W. Norton & Co., pp. 479, £

The sperm whale, more than any other whale, has captured the public’s imagination, to the point that when the average person envisions a whale, it is the sperm whale that they most often see.

As a child I definitely saw, in my mind’s eye, the whale that swallowed Jonah as a sperm whale (although I may have conflated this monster with the beast that swallowed Disney’s Pinocchio). Moby Dick was a sperm whale. The huge head, the low, long, tooth-studded jaw, the oddly placed eye, the fountainous blowhole, the massive flukes, and the legendary power of the sperm whale (the only whale known to have deliberately sunk ships) all combine to make it, as Dolin puts it, ‘the whale’s whale’.

It is rare that a factual book can answer pretty much every question one could pose about its subject and still leave the reader keenly aware of its abiding mystery. At up to 60 feet in length, weighing up to 50 tons, the sperm whale is a colossal creature; its brain is the largest, its skin the thickest of any animal. Humans have found uses for almost every part of the whale’s body: baleen from its mouth was used wherever a combination of strength and flexibility was required, in umbrellas, hats, suspenders, canes, fishing rods, shoe-horns, mattresses and, most famously, in corsetry, while whale oil illuminated millions of homes, and later lubricated an increasingly mechanised manufacturing society.

Few animals have been so regularly and routinely dissected while revealing so few of its secrets. Herman Melville wrote that ‘the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature. Far above all other hunted whales, his is an unwritten life.’ Dolin points out that this statement is as true today as it was 150 years ago. The oil for which the sperm whale was primarily hunted, located in a vast tank in its head, remains a puzzle. There is no agreement on its biological function. (Despite the whale’s name, this liquid has nothing to do with sperm, except a similarity in appearance.)

As well as giving an exhaustive history of the industry, Dolin vividly recreates whaling expeditions under sail, giving evocative details such as that when the harpoon (hand-thrown for the vast majority of whaling’s history) became stuck in the whale, the line attached to it was paid out, ‘whizzing around the wooden post at the stern of the boat, called the loggerhead, at such tremendous speed that the men would have to douse it with sea water to keep it from scorching and igniting’. Perils attending whale-hunting included getting caught up in this rope, as well as being drowned or, as it seems did sometimes happen, swallowed.

In common with other industries, whaling was affected by a variety of extraneous factors, such as the introduction of street lighting in London in 1736 (leading to a sharp increase in demand for colonial whale oil) and the Revolutionary war (making the seas unsafe for commercial ventures). Between the war of 1812 and the civil war the American whaling industry experienced a golden age, whale- ships accounting for one fifth of the nation’s merchant tonnage.

In 1853, the industry’s most profitable year, the fleet killed more than 8,000 whales to produce 103,000 barrels of sperm oil, 260,000 barrels of whale oil, and 5.7 million pounds of baleen, all of which generated sales of $11 million.

The effects of the civil war, combined with kerosene becoming the domestic illuminant of choice, subsequently took their toll on the industry, along with the increased use of gas for street lighting and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859.

Dolin’s book covers every aspect of whaling in America , from how whales were found, caught and killed, to the hundreds of everyday articles produced from their carcases; from how the industry’s fortunes were shaped by economic, political and social factors, to the experiences of the whalemen. As well as the physical privations of a life under sail, an average voyage lasted about four years, and even though letters could sometimes be exchanged with other ships, news from home was always long out of date. The following exchange, supposedly between a whaling captain and his wife, made the rounds on Nantucket.

Dear Ezra,

Where did you put the axe?

Love, Martha.

Fourteen months later came the reply:

Dear Martha,

What do you want the axe for?

Love, Ezra.

A year later came another letter:

Dear Ezra,

Never mind the axe. What did you do with the hammer?

Love, Martha.

Dolin’s book is the first readable modern account of one of American history’s great themes. Peppered with true tales of human adventure, its enduring hero nevertheless remains the inscrutable Leviathan himself.