Most of us are familiar with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but not everyone knows Melville served as a seaman on the War of 1812 frigate, United States and lived to report on the Civil War. He lived in wild times, seeing the colonies grow from independence to prosperity to tragedy.
He was born in New York City, overlooking the Battery in 1819. As a boy he saw the docks, the great ships, the pig-tailed men who sailed and the well-dressed merchants who traded in wealth and tragedy. He saw the ships go out with the tide, and come back two years later with half the crew.
His father was a gambling importer who lost much more than he earned. When Allan Melvill’s debts climbed too high he failed (he spelled his name this way). He had to move the family to Albany, NY, to be close to his mother’s home. And then Allan Melvill died of a raving brain fever.
Herman had to grow up in a hurry, with underlying doubts about life but with no time to waste. The introverted young boy with deep quiet undercurrents went to school, he worked as a clerk, he taught older boys in Pittsburg, MA. He never did learn to spell.
His family moved to Lansingburg, NY, where Melville got a job writing for the local newspaper. But he didn’t cover the town council; he wrote columns called, Fragments From A Writing Desk. One was a gothic tale in the style of Poe, but with silences and doubts that became characters themselves in Moby Dick.
Then Melville changed, and with it his life was made.
He got the itch to travel. He signed aboard a merchant ship, the St. Lawrence, sailing to Liverpool, England. From a small desk at a newspaper office he went to a small bunk aboard a big ship. Four months later, Her-man was back, penniless just like his father had been. He traveled west to see his uncle, who also was penniless in Indiana. Herman knew he had no future where he was. So, like men did in the early days of the re-public, he made a sea change. He signed on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the wild and unknown South Pacific. It was like going to the moon in your pajamas. The Acushnet was his college, it was his fate.
But his career as a seaman didn’t last long. As if confinement agitated him, he jumped ship in the Pacific to an island called Nuku Hiva, spending a month with the natives in an unknown valley. He had escaped, but he didn’t stay. He snuck on board an Australian whaler but refused to work. On working ships, not working meant he was useless, taking food that could go to seamen. They imprisoned him in Tahiti. When he was released, he lay around the beaches and the bums and the thatched bars and trading posts. Among dark-skinned men in white clothes, he drank, had women, and got himself thrown out of a few places. Then, wishing to be home, he shipped on board the frigate United States, serving the US Navy, from Hawaii to the
Now the year was 1844. Melville had tales to tell of the South Pacific, the whaling trade, the Polynesian natives, of being a foreigner, a drifter, unwanted, longing for home. He spent the rest of his life telling weird haunting tales of men who never belonged, who questioned God, who sought a ship through the fog of death into some sort of life.
What has made Melville famous is that his harpoon strike into nothingness never gave him transcendence. He never did find that fair wind into a saint’s cove of white sand; he found a restless faith that feeds among the tombs ending in repose, but not victory. This readers can understand.
Let’s begin with the ships of his day, the decks under his feet. As a boy in New York, he would have seen the merchant ships of the day. New York was not the furious cauldron of trade, slaves, pirates, and drifters that Charleston and San Juan were, but it was the port of significant trade with European powers. They had the wealth, the Americas had the goods and luxuries they wanted. Ships were big, barrels by the hundreds sat on the wood-plank dock laden with rum, whale oil, salt, flour. Often pilots lied about how many barrels, and exactly what was in them. Prices could be outrageous, fortunes rose and fell with the tides, and the seaman’s life was as obscure as the X he put on the crew list.
As a boy wandering along the Battery, Melville would have seen the Whitehall. Named after a street in New York where they were built by the hundreds, the Whitehall was the pickup truck of the harbor. In fact, the designer Thomas Jones once called them, ‘bumboats,’ since they did the ordinary work in a working harbor. Many were built hand-and-eye to a formula that builders had carved on a board. They were used to ferry goods, services, sailors, pilots on and off the great ships coming into New York harbor. They ranged from 14 feet to 24 feet.
A Whitehall Rowboat
The historians say this was the first boat to be built upside down, to make them faster since the formula for their planks were well known. The formula is a straight stern, slight flare to the bow, rounded sides with capacity amidships, a keel from stem to stern, and a wine-glass transom with skeg. The upright bow handled the harbor chop, the wide sides gave it capacity, and the wine-glass stern kept it from dragging. The first John Gardner book, Building Classic Small Craft has a great description of a Whitehall.
The young boy Melville with the grand imagination must have dreamed of himself rowing in a Whitehall, dipping oars with all his might to get the crusty old captain to shore, to get a good price for his ship’s goods. Usually the men rowing could get the Whitehall to windward or to any berth without a board or deep keel.
Melville’s first enlistment was on the merchant brig St. Lawrence. While this isn’t the St. Lawrence, this is a brig of the day, the Gigino:
You can see from the midsection view how much space for cargo these brigs held. They were the ocean-going barges of the day, with the trades to Liverpool and against the trades back to New York. The crews were paid better than those of the US Navy, but these ships were driven hard. Spankers, royals, outrunners, kites, whatever they were called, every stitch of sail was hoisted with the wind.
Some men never did get used to climbing the yards, standing on ropes 60 feet in the wind, but they all had to do it. If they had a good ensign on watch, he’d tell them, ‘Don’t look down, just watch your yards and lines in your hands, work together, and come down together.’
Melville must have watched a great deal, putting notes down, seeing where men were from, how they spoke in dialects, how they worked and fought and got drunk and told tall tales.
Meanwhile, the whaling ship Essex sailed out of Nantucket, August 1819. Young Owen Chase was the first mate. The crew numbered 20 men with food and supplies for 2 1/2 years, headed for the Pacific Ocean. In the middle of December, the Essex made Cape Horn without incident. The Essex arrived off the coast of Chile in January 17, 1820. They restocked, sailing on for the Galapagos Islands. Now it was October, the Essex now looking for whales. On November 20th the Essex spotted a huge sperm whale. Whaleboats were lowered, with Owen Chase manning the harpoon on the second boat. The whale surfaced huge and spouting seawater high in the air. The boats gave chase, Owen then hurled his harpoon into the whale’s side, striking him, angering the beast. It rammed Owen’s whaleboat, splintering it but not so bad that Owen could not get back to the Essex.
||A typical whaleboat design, one that Owen Chase would have had on the Essex, in 1820.
A typical whaleboat de-sign, one that Owen Chase would have had on the Essex, in 1820.
He made the ship, covering the hole in his boat with canvas and lifejackets. The whale disappeared, then shot into the air from below the sea, furiously shouldering his way directly at the Essex, pounding at them, pounding the sea into wicked foaming waves behind him. The whale struck the Essex at the port bow, crushing in a hole, splintering heavy timbers, raking its huge head up and around to free itself from the planks.
The crew scrambled to save whatever food they could, as seawater bubbled into the Essex. They got to the whaleboats just in time. Lowering them to the sea, they salvaged some planks, which they used to raise the topsides six more inches. Owen Chase says this saved them all, as the sea would have swamped them often, were it not for those extra planks.
Owen says about the whaleboat which saved his life:
At best a whaleboat is an extremely frail thing the most so of any other kind of boat. They are what is called clinker built and are constructed of the lightest materials for the purpose of being rowed with the greatest possible celerity (speed), which is in accordance to the necessities of the business for which they are intended. Of all species of vessels they possess but one advantage over any other that of lightness and buoyancy, which enables them to keep above the dash of the sea with more facility than heavier vessels.
The crew in three whaleboats sailed together eastward, back toward South America. On December 20, after starvation, gales, and the whaleboats weakening enough to take on water, the survivors found land. They had sailed due south, to Henderson Island, not far from Pitcairn Island of Bounty fame. Some of the men decided to stay on Henderson Island, to wait for a rescue. Owen Chase and his crew decided to rest, eat, and then sail on for South America. They were rescued in January of 1821, eventually making their way back to Nantucket on June 11, 1822.
Now we go to 1844. Herman Melville is on the whaler Acushnet, near the equator in the Pacific. The Acushnet meets up with the whaler Lima. They anchor together, called gamming. Young Melville meets and spends time with a lad of 16, the son of Owen Chase. Owen had published an account of the whale and his eventual rescue in 1821. The young boy gives Melville a copy of his father’s book, called The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex. This small volume, about 100 pages long, gave Melville the inspiration for the conclusion of Moby Dick. This is a typical whaler of Melville’s day, although by 1844 the great age of whaling was nearly over.
This is the whaler Charles W. Morgan, at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Obviously, whalers were not built for speed. Whaling declined as Melville wrote. The last whaler to leave Nantucket was the Oak, sailing in 1869, the year Owen Chase died. The Oak never made it back to Nantucket, selling its whale oil and then being sold in Panama in 1872. By then oil wells were being drilled in Pennsylvania, the new energy source. In 1925 the last whaler returned to New Bedford, MA, the schooner John B. Manta. It never sailed again.