Annotations and Commentary on Moby Dick

by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 2018

Last Updated 24 Feb 2018

<-  Previous  |  Next  ->

CHAPTER 54: The Town-Ho's Story

Melville claims that "Town-Ho" is an ancient whaling cry. One site says it is probably a Nantucket cry, "Townor!", meaning "I have seen the whale twice." Melville also says it was used in hunting the "Gallipagos terrapin." That would be the Galápagos tortoise, which was hunted so often and so well by whalers (and other seamen, but primarily whalers) that it almost went extinct. (To be fair, the introduction of rats, goats, and pigs were also a major factor, since these animals ate most of the tortoise eggs.) From 250,000 in the 16th century, the population has plummeted to about 3000 in the 1970s. A breeding program has swelled the ranks to about 19,000, but one of the eleven subspecies went extinct in 2012 when the last specimen, Lonesome George, died. But Galápagos tortoises are not terrapins: tortoises are land-dwellers, while a terrapin lives both on land and in water, and always near water, especially in swampy areas.

How an ordinary seaman like Ishmael ends up in such fancy company is not clear, but perhaps his adventures on the Pequod has served as his ticket into society.

"Romish injunctions of secrecy" alludes to the seal of the confessional. Though Tashtego accidentally reveals the story talking in his sleep, "it never transpired abaft the Pequod's main-mast," that is to the rear of the main-mast, where Ahab's cabin would be.

Ishmael says he recounted this story in Lima. The Lima was the ship on which Henry Chase was serving in 1841 when it had a gam with the Acushnet, on which Melville was serving. During this gam, Chase was the son of Owen Chase, one of the few survivors of the whaler Essex after it was destroyed by a whale, and Henry gave Melville a copy of Owen's account of his experience.

"Don" is a title of courtesy used with a man's first name. (The female equivalent is "Doña".) In traditional Spanish and Latin American society, it would be used only for those in the upper class. "Pedro" is the Spanish equivalent of Peter; Saint Peter was a fisherman. Saint Sebastian was martyred by arrows, looking something like a harpooned whale. That Ishmael says that he narrated the story "one saint's eve" is a clue that the names chosen are not accidental, but refer to the saints.

"[The] Town-Ho, Sperm Whaler of Nantucket, was cruising in your Pacific here, not very many days' sail eastward from the eaves of this good Golden Inn. She was somewhere to the northward of the Line." It is not clear how the Town-Ho could be eastward of Lima, which is on South America's west coast. And Lima is about 500 miles south of the Line (the equator).

(Although both the British Penguin edition and the Project Gutenberg edition have "eastward", the edition read on "The Big Read" has "southwestward", which is much more likely. This still leaves the problem of her being northward of the Line, which might conceivably mean the Tropic of Capricorn.)

Callao is Peru's largest port, founded in 1537; "Manilla" is Manila in the Philippines.

The "two great contrasting nations" shoring the Great Lakes are the United States and Canada. The two shoring the Atlantic are presumably the United States and Great Britain, though that seems an odd way of looking at things.

"[The] goat-like craggy guns of lofty Mackinaw" would be the guns at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Mackinac being pronounced "Mackinaw".

Peltry is (are?) raw, undressed skins. Wigwams are also called wikiups, and differ from tipis (teepees).

Gothic genealogies would apply specifically to the Goths, an eastern Germanic tribe. "Afric" is an obsolete word for African, implying exotic wild beasts. The Tartars (or Tatars) were the western part of Genghis Khan's empire, known as the Golden Horde.

Buffalo is on the eastern end of Lake Erie; Cleveland is on its southern shore. The Winnebago villages would have been in southern Wisconsin, along the shore of Lake Michigan. Most of the Winnebago were relocated to Nebraska, though some still live in Wisconsin.

The Great Lakes, Ishmael says, "are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts." Boreas was the Greek god of the North Wind. When he says that these winds have "drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew" I am reminded that this was not just an 18th and 19th century thing. I remember in 1975 learning from the radio that the Edmund Fitzgerald had sunk in a Lake Superior storm with near-hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves, with the loss of all 29 crew members.

A Bowie-knife is a sheath knife with a cross-guard and a clip point. It is named after Jim Bowie, who famously used it in a duel known as the Sandbar Fight. By the way, Bowie is pronounced "boo-ee", not "boh-wee".

A subaltern is a subordinate, or in the British military, a junior officer. A viceroy is a royal officer who runs a geographic area in the name of the monarch.

Saying that Steelkilt had "a soul in him ... which had made Steelkilt Charlemagne, had he been born son to Charlemagne's father." Charlemagne was the founder of the Carolingian Empire, and considered a great ruler. Yet one can also interpret Ishmael's statement as observing that any son of Charlemagne's father that he chose to name Charlemagne would in fact be Charlemagne.

Apparently "merry as a cricket" is a well-known simile, but I cannot find out why people think crickets are merry.

It may have been the censorship of the times, but there is certainly more elegance in referring to "some offensive matters consequent upon allowing a pig to run at large" than the way it would be written now.

A cooper is someone who makes casks, barrels, tubs, and other vessels from wooden staves. A club hammer (a.k.a. lump hammer) is a one-handed heavy hammer with a double-faced head used in demolition work.

A poinard is a long thrusting knife with a tapered, pointed blade.

Chicha is beer made from corn (maize), served in Latin America.

The Erie Canal was first used in 1821, was completed in 1825, and is still in use today.

The Mohawk counties are probably the counties in what is today called the Mohawk Valley of New York: Schenectady, Montgomery, Fulton, Herkimer, Oneida, and Schoharie.

Venice was known as being very corrupt, so "Venetianly corrupt" is more than just ordinarily corrupt. The Ashantee (a.k.a. Ashanti) people had a large empire in west Africa. It was not conquered by European invaders until 1900.

"Dame Isabella's Inquisition" was established by Isabella I in 1480. It was abolished in Spain under Isabella II in 1834, but the Inquisition in Lima had been abolished in 1820. Ishmael is presumably telling the story after the events of MOBY-DICK, so the Inquisition was not merely waning, but finished.

St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice. St. Dominic supposedly was one of the first Inquisitors, though actual historical evidence of this seems to be thin on the ground.

"Sydney men" would be, not surprisingly, men from Sydney (Australia). From 1788 until 1868, large parts of Australia, including Sydney, was a penal colony and it was not until the gold rushes which occurred after the publication of Moby Dick that there was even a substantial non-convict population there.

Steelkilt and his comrades "hastily [slew] about three or four large casks in a line with the windlass, [and then] these sea-Parisians entrenched themselves behind the barricade." There were barricades in Parisian streets as early as the rebellion of 1588, but this is almost definitely a reference to the barricades of 1832 (now better known to Americans because of the musical Les Misérables).

A rope-yarn would be a single strand of a rope, so apparently flogging on the Town-Ho was done with rope rather than leather, or at least was going to be done with rope in this instance.

Melville implies that some sailors sign papers saying that they have "shipped for the cruise," which allow them to leave as soon as anchor is dropped, even if that is at an unplanned stop during the voyage. Some have assumed this is Melville's justification of his jumping ship from the Acushnet in the Marquesas.

"Prick the buffalo" is probably a phrase Melville made up; there do not seem to be any other references to it.

Mincing knives were two-handled knives used to cut the blubber into small squares when it was still attached to the skin. A handspike is similar to a crowbar.

The mizzen-rigging would be the rigging on the mizzen-mast, or the mast aft of the main-mast.

The vernacular is the native language or dialect of a population. In the case, however, when Ishmael says that the captain "administered [a reprimand] in the vernacular," he is implying that the language was coarse and vulgar.

A lanyard is a rope or cord attached to an object and worn around the wrist or neck.

Teneriffe is Tenerife, the Spanish island in the Atlantic Ocean, and not Teneriffe, a fairly recent suburb of Brisbane.

The story of Steelkilt is very similar to Melville's own story of jumping ship, then signing on to a series of other ship to eventually return to the United States.

A "copy of the Holy Evangelists" would be the local equivalent of the Bible as something to swear on.

Auto-da-fés technically were the public confessions and penances of condemned heretics and apostates. However, since the punishments were far more memorable than the confessions, the term has come to mean the punishments (usually burnings).

Mention of the archiepiscopacy presages mention of a bishopric later.

CHAPTER 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

Saladin was Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the 12th century and defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, which represented the turning point in the Muslim re-capture of Palestine. St. George was a Greek of the 3rd century who became a Roman soldier and was a Christian martyr. He is best known for having supposedly slain a dragon, though it is more likely that the dragon was a symbol of either Satan or the pagan Roman Empire.

Elephanta has been mentioned previously. The Brahmins are the highest caste in Hindu society. (In the United States, one used to hear of "the Brahmins of Boston.") Vishnu is the main god of many forms of Hinduism, with Rama and Krishna being the two best-known of his ten avatars. The Matse Avatar (a.k.a. Matsya) is represented as a fish ("matsya" means "fish" in Sanskrit) who saves Manu from a great flood. The illustration I saw from a painting makes it clear that Matsya is a fish and not a whale, but it is possible that the representation in Elephanta is more cetacean.

Guido Reni's "Perseus and Andromeda" was painted in 1635 and portrays a more dragon-like sea monster, complete with scales. The same is true of William Hogarth's "Perseus Descending", which he did as an illustration for Lewis Theobald's "Perseus and Andromeda" in 1730.

Traitors' Gate, on the Thames, was the water gate entrance to the Tower of London.

The "Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald" were from Sir Robert Sibbald's Phalainologia Nova, written around 1700. "Prodromus" refers not to the whales, but to the introductory nature of Sibbald's work. (He was the first to describe the blue whale, which was at one point named after him.)

Jonah's whale has no doubt been portrayed in a wide variety of ways, given the public domain nature of the story.

"The book-binder's whale winding like a vine-stalk round the stock of a descending anchor" is known as the "Festina lente". This is an ancient adage which means "make haste slowly" or "more haste, less speed." It was first used as a printer's mark by Aldus, Erasmus's printer in the early 16th century. Aldus took it from a Roman coin after Erasmus said of him, "Aldus, by making haste slowly, has acquired as much gold as he has reputation, and richly deserves both." Ishmael's claim that the symbol "was introduced by an old Italian publisher somewhere about the 15th century, during the Revival of Learning; and in those days, and even down to a comparatively late period, dolphins were popularly supposed to be a species of the Leviathan," is wrong in presuming the symbol to have originated with the publisher, and probably in assuming it is supposed to somehow represent a whale.

Saratoga (a.k.a. Saratoga Springs) in New York and Baden-Baden in Germany are both known for their mineral springs.

"The Advancement of Learning" is Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human, written by Francis Bacon in 1605.

John Harris's collection of voyages (Navigantium atque itineratium bibliotheca) has six hundred accounts of voyages, and was first published in 1764, going through three editions.

"A Whaling Voyage to Spitzbergen in the ship Jonas in the Whale, Peter Peterson of Friesland, master," was written by Friderich Martens. It was translated into English in 1694

"Captain Colnett, a Post Captain in the English navy, [wrote a book] entitled 'A Voyage round Cape Horn into the South Seas, for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale Fisheries.' In this book is an outline purporting to be a 'Picture of a Physeter or Spermaceti whale, drawn by scale from one killed on the coast of Mexico, August, 1793, and hoisted on deck.'" But apparently this image of a whale "has an eye which applied, according to the accompanying scale, to a full grown sperm whale, would make the eye of that whale a bow-window some five feet long." James Colnett made this voyage between two fur-trading voyages to the Pacific Northwest and one transporting convicts to Botany Bay (Australia). Whale's eyes are much smaller--various web sites describe them as the size of a teacup, an orange, or (perhaps) a soccer ball. Ishmael's statement would be more meaningful if he had actually told us how big a whale's eye was.

"Goldsmith's Animated Nature" was Oliver Goldsmith's A History of the Earth and Animated Nature was published in the 18th century and had twenty editions in the Victorian era. James Hall Pitman has written a thorough study of Goldsmith's sources, Goldsmith's Animated Nature: a study of Goldsmith. A hippogriff is a mythical creature, the offspring of a griffin (a.k.a. gryphon) and a mare. A griffin is another legendary creature with the head, wings, and front legs of an eagle and the body, hind legs, and tail of a lion.

"Bernard Germain, Count de Lacépède" was the author of Histoire naturelle des cétacées" in 1825. Frederick Cuvier's "scientific predecessor," Desmarest, would be Anselme Gaëtan Desmarest, a French zoologist of the early 19th century. Chinese tableware and porcelains became very popular in the late 18th century through the 19th century, hence Ishmael's reference to their "queer cups and saucers."

Later, when Ishmael is describing how whales are portrayed, he says, "As for the sign-painters' whales seen in the streets hanging over the shops of oil-dealers, what shall be said of them? They are generally Richard III whales, with dromedary humps, ...."

A "full-grown Platonian Leviathan" is a reference to Plato's forms, in which there is an abstract but substantial form for a whale that is its most perfect expression.

Ishmael claims that Jeremy Bentham's skeleton hangs "in the library of one of his executors," and says that it "correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy's other leading personal characteristics." Bentham left his estate to the London Hospital with the condition that his skeleton be allowed to preside over its board meetings. While the intent was to use his own head, attempts to preserve it resulted in a botched job, so a wax head was substituted. So if it correctly conveys Bentham's appearance, that is more a tribute to the "wax-maker" than anyone else. The skeleton was dressed in his clothes and then it was placed in a cabinet called the Auto-Icon. The Auto-Icon was moved to University College London in 1850.

"[The] great Hunter" would be John Hunter, mentioned earlier.

Ishmael comments on the skeletal structure of the whale's side fins, which looks like a hand without a thumb, although externally there is no evidence of this. We now understand that this is because the fin was originally--when the whale's ancestor was a land animal--something much closer to a hand. When the whale's ancestors returned to the sea, it gradually evolved into a fin, while retaining the skeletal structure.

CHAPTER 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

Ishmael refers to various sources, "especially in Pliny, Purchas, Hackluyt, Harris, Cuvier, etc. But I pass that matter by. I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett's, Huggins's, Frederick Cuvier's, and Beale's. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins's is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale's is the best. All Beale's drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter."

Pliny would be Pliny the Elder, author of Naturalis Historia, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius on August 25, 79. (He was observing the eruption when he received a message from a friend asking for rescue; Pliny was trapped on shore by the winds.)

Samuel Purchas was an English cleric who in the 17th century published several volumes of travelers' reports. Richard Hackluyt was an Englishman who wrote several volumes about the exploration and development in the late 16th century. Harris I cannot identify. Cuvier (the first mentioned) probably refers to Georges Cuvier, since in the next sentence Ishmael mentions Frederick Cuvier. Colnett and Frederick Cuvier have already been commented on. William J. Huggins was known for 19th century engravings of whaling ships and whales. Thomas Beale was a Scottish naturalist who wrote The Natural History of the Sperm Whale in 1835. The picture of "three whales in various attitudes" is widely available on-line.

J. Ross Browne was an Irishman transplanted to the United States who sailed on a whaling ship in the 1840s and then published Etchings of a Whaling Cruise in 1846.

Ambroise Louis Garneray (not Garnery), was a French corsair and painter of the mid-19th century.

The Patagonian coasts are mostly cliffs, so Ishmael is referring to a general feature rather than a specific spot.

Antoine Philips van Leuwenhoeck was "the Father of Microbiology" and is known for his work in the development of the microscope in the 17th and early 18th century. (When I was in school we were taught that he invented the microscope, but that was probably either Hans Lippershey or Zacharias Janssen.)

Regarding Scoresby's "ninety-six facsimiles of magnified Arctic snow crystals," Ishmael says, "I mean no disparagement to the excellent voyager (I honour him for a veteran), but in so important a matter it was certainly an oversight not to have procured for every crystal a sworn affidavit taken before a Greenland Justice of the Peace." Yet another example of sly wit. "H. Durand" seems to be unknown.

CHAPTER 57: Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.

Tower-Hill is a hill northwest of the Tower of London, where traitors and criminals were executed, including Sir Thomas More.

The London docks were built in Wapping between 1799 and 1815.

The standard definition of a kedger is a small anchor.

Wapping was a traditionally maritime area east of London. When Melville refers to the "three whales [being] as good whales as were ever published in Wapping" it is merely ironic co-incidence that Wapping is now known for the "fortress Wapping" printing works of Rupert Murdoch.

The "western clearings" would seem to refer to the cutting down of the forests and plowing under of the prairies in the western part of the United States (at least west of the Mississippi). This is reinforced by the pun on tree stump (the origin of the term "stump speech"): "his stump as unquestionable a stump as any you will find in the western clearings. But, though for ever mounted on that stump, never a stump-speech does the poor whaleman make,"

Nantucket, New Bedford, and Sag Harbor are all whaling towns, in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York respectively. By adding them to a reference to the Pacific, Melville is stressing the ubiquity of scrimshaw (or skrimshander, as Melville spells it).

A busk was the center "support" of a corset which kept it straight and also provided a way to put the corset on, by lacing the two halves together. The ivory (or wooden) busk was replaced in the middle of the 19th century by a steel busq which fasted with posts and loops, making putting the corset on and of much easier.

The Iroquois were a confederation of five (later six) distinct Indian nations which engaged in many wars against French and English settlers in Canada, New York, and the Great Lakes area, and so were naturally considered savage.

Though the missionary John Gibson Paton was nicknamed "King of the Cannibals", he did not go to the New Hebrides until 1858, seven years after Moby Dick was published. One can presume, therefore, that Ishmael is referring to some theoretic "King of the Cannibals".

Melville compares the Hawaiian war-club or spear-paddle to a scrimshaw shark's tooth and both to Achilles's shield, which is described at great length in Book 18 of Homer's Iliad.

Albert Durer was a German artist know primarily or his engravings. Their Gothic nature led to Melville's seeing them as barbaric and suggestive.

South Sea war-wood is presumably the wood used for the war clubs mentioned earlier.

"[Y]our precise, previous stand-point would require a laborious re-discovery; like the Soloma Islands, which still remain incognita, though once high-ruffed Mendanna trod them and old Figuera chronicled them." The Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira discovered them in 1568; the Spanish upper class wore high-ruffed collars at the time. The "nn" in Melville's spelling is actually the correct original; "ñ" was derived from "nn", which first mutated into one "n" written over the other. Later the upper "n" turned into a mere "~". I have no idea who Figuera was.

By the way, its current official name is "Solomon Islands", not "the Solomon Islands."

"Thus at the North have I chased Leviathan round and round the Pole with the revolutions of the bright points that first defined him to me." Cetus the Whale is a constellation in the Northern Hemisphere in the area of the sky near other water-related constellations, Aires, Pisces, and Aquarius, and as such circles the North Star, presumed to be above the North Pole. Ishmael could not circle the North Pole itself, since there was no water passage between the Arctic and North America.

"And beneath the effulgent Antarctic skies I have boarded the Argo-Navis, and joined the chase against the starry Cetus far beyond the utmost stretch of Hydrus and the Flying Fish." The Argo-Navis (or "Argonauts' Ship") was a constellation in the southern sky described by Ptolemy. In 1752, because of its enormous size, it was subdivided by astronomers into three smaller constellations, but as with the demotion of Pluto, it was not necessarily the case that non-scientists (such as mariners) paid much attention. Hydrus is another southern constellation, whose name means "male water snake". And the Flying Fish is yet another southern constellation, also called Volans, short for Piscis Volans. It is often shown with Argo-Navis.

"With a frigate's anchors for my bridle-bitts and fasces of harpoons for spurs," Fasces (singular fasces) are bundles of wooden rods, sometimes with an axe head showing at the side. The harpoons embody both the wooden rods and the sharp edge of the axe.

CHAPTER 58: Brit

The Crozetts are the Crozet Islands around 46°S, 51°W.

Brit is composed of masses of the crustacean Copepod, which feeds on phytoplankton and is in turn fed on by the Right Whale.

As Melville says in a footnote, the "Brazil Banks" are not so named because they are actual banks, as are the Banks of Newfoundland, but because of their "meadow-like appearance." I suppose this means that where the brit end looks like the bank of a river against the sea.

Much of what Melville said remains as absolutely true today as it was in 1851: "[However] baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make."

"[T]he first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving such much as a widow." That "first boat" would be Noah's Ark, though one suspects that there had been small fishing boats before that.

As for "Portuguese vengeance," this probably refers to some historical event better known in Melville's time than now.

The phrase "under the feet of Korah and his company the live ground opened and swallowed them up for ever" refers to Numbers 16:32-33: And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them: And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods."

The "Persian host who murdered his own guests" was probably actually the Roman emperor Elagabalus (a.k.a. Heliogabalus), who is reported to have once smothered his dinner guests with rose petals released from the ceiling. He was considered the worst and most decadent of the Roman emperors, and such decadence was often identified with the Persian Empire, especially as he occasionally wrote Persian robes.

Or it could be a reference to Muhammed Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1849 and is credited with founding modern Egypt. He started his modernization by inviting the opposing Mamelukes to a banquet in the Citadel and then slaughtering them on the way out.

"Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships." This is only one of the similes that Melville uses that immediately call to mind the similes of Homer and Vergil--and this is not a coincidence. Indeed, this chapter is one of the most poetic in the novel.

When Melville writes of "insular Tahiti," he is not saying that Tahiti is inward-looking or parochial, but rather that it is an island.

CHAPTER 59: Squid

Java is the not the largest island in Indonesia, but it is the most populous and probably was in Melville's time as well. It is at 7°29'30"S 110°00'16"E.

"Preternatural" refers to something which appears to be outside the natural. It differs from "supernatural" in that it is presumed that something preternatural has a natural explanation we do not know, while something supernatural does not.

The bowsprit is a spar sticking out from the ship's bow to which the forestays are fastened.

Assuming that the "great live Squid" is what we call the giant squid, it could have been up to 43 feet long. But the description of it as "furlongs in length and breadth" is clearly hyperbole: a furlong is 660 feet, so "furlongs" implies a creature at least 1200 feet in each direction, or about a quarter of a mile long and wide. (A furlong was determined by the length of a furrow a team of oxen could plow without resting.)

However, a few paragraphs later, Melville refers to the "detached arms" of the squid being twenty or thirty feet in length--this is actually quite reasonable.

"There seems some ground to imagine that the great Kraken of Bishop Pontoppodan may ultimately resolve itself into Squid. The manner in which the Bishop describes it, as alternately rising and sinking, with some other particulars he narrates, in all this the two correspond. But much abatement is necessary with respect to the incredible bulk he assigns it." Erik Luvigsen Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen (Norway), wrote in 1752 of the kraken as being the size of a floating island. But Melville can hardly fault the Bishop regarding the creature's size, since he initially makes it just as large.

Saying the giant squid was "the Anak of the tribe" o cuttle-fish is a reference to Anak, the father of a race of giants and hence a giant himself, in Numbers 13:33: And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight."

CHAPTER 60: The Line

Hemp comes from the Cannabis plant In the past it was used not only or ropes, but also for sails, and the word "canvas" derives rom the plant name. The rope needed to be tarred to protect it from rot. "Manilla rope" is made from banana and because it is not susceptible to rot it eventually replaced hemp rope.

It is probably good that a replacement was found, because the cultivation of hemp in the United States was made illegal in the middle o the 20th century. Currently ten states have passed laws allowing the cultivation of industrial hemp but are still arguing with the DEA over it. In Colorado in 2013, a few farmers planted and harvested the first hemp crop under these new laws.

"Circassian" refers to the Adyghe people of the Caucuases, who are fair-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed.

"[The whale-line's] one and fifty yarns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that the whole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons." Actually, if you multiply it out, you get 18,000 pounds, or nine tons.

A fathom is six feet, so two hundred fathoms is 1200 feet, or 365 meters.

Reeving is threading through a ring or other aperture.

A loggerhead is a iron tool consisting of two balls attached by a rod and used to heat liquids and tar..

After spending a full third of a page describing various twists and turns of the line, Melville in a fine touch or sarcasm concludes the paragraph with "but previous to that connexion, the short-warp goes through sundry mystifications too tedious to detail."

"Connexion" is an alternate British spelling of "connection" and would have been commonly used in Melville's time in the United States as well.

"[The] oarsmen ... seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest snakes sportively festooning their limbs." Melville here is referring to Asian sub-continent Indians, not Native American Indians. Indians were known to Melville's American readers only as exotic characters in Gothic novels; even in England they were not as common as they are now. So the juggler/snake-charmer stereotype was probably what first came to mind when readers thought of Indians--and possibly vice versa.

"[The] six burghers of Calais before King Edward" refers to the story of Edward III's siege of Calais in 1347. When the town was taken, Edward was going to order the inhabitants massacred, but agreed to pardon them if six of the town burghers would could to him barefoot and bare-headed with ropes around their necks. When six did, he ordered them executed, but then pardoned them because of the pleas of his queen. The event was most famously commemorated in a sculpture by Auguste Rodin.

"For, when the line is darting out, to be seated then in the boat, is like being seated in the midst of the manifold whizzings of a steam-engine in full play, when every flying beam, and shaft, and wheel, is grazing you." The steam engine was patented by James Watt in 1781, and certainly was in widespread use by the time of Moby Dick. Yet Melville observes that as wonderful as it was, there were much more "primitive" devices that had the same characteristic of a mechanistic speed and danger.

To be "made a Mazeppa of" is a reference to the eponymous hero of the poem by Byron. Mazeppa (actually Ivan Mazepa) is punished for an adulterous love affair by being tied naked to a horse which was then set free to run across a large swatch of Eastern Europe. This presages the death of Ahab lashed to the whale.

And "where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce you out" would be taken down into the depths of the sea (by the whale one has become lashed to).

"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All men are born with halters around their necks..." This is an echo of the beginning of the novel and Ishmael's need to get away from the mundane world.

CHAPTER 61: Stubb Kills a Whale

The "porpoises, dolphins, flying-fish, and other vivacious denizens of more stirring waters" are all distinct. Although both are cetaceans (as are whales), and people often use the terms "porpoise" and "dolphin" interchangeably, the families are distinct. Dolphins are longer than porpoises, the shape of the teeth are different between the two, and the neck vertebrae in porpoises allow less movement than in dolphins. Porpoises are also less acrobatic and more cautious than dolphins, which contributes to the fact that they do not adapt to captivity.

To confuse things, there is also a fish referred to as a dolphin, the mahi-mahi or dolphinfish.

Flying fish, of course, are completely different from dolphins and porpoises. For starters, they are fish, not mammals. However, they have in common with the cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises that they leap out of the water and hence suddenly appear to sailors in a similar fashion.

Rio de la Plata forms the eastern end of the border between Argentina and Uruguay. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo are on its banks.

The royal shrouds seem to be the highest lines and sails of the Pequod.

Forty fathoms is 240 feet, less than the length of a football field. The "Ethiopian hue is, of course, black, so the whale is definitely not Moby Dick.

When Melville describes the whale as looking like a portly burgher, this must remind us of the burghers of Calais, mentioned only two pages earlier. Unlike those burghers, though, this one gets no reprieve.

When Ahab calls for them to "Luff!" he is ordering a specific sail maneuver used in tacking, slowing, and so on.

"[To transform oneself] from a bluff-bowed sluggish galliot into a sharppointed New York pilot-boat" is at least a double make-over. "Bluff-bowed" means with a broad, flat bow--the opposite of "sharppointed". The galliot that Melville is referring to is a flat-bottomed French river barge. (However, there were at least three other types of ships called galliots, or galiots, or galiotes.) A pilot-boat, on the other hand, is a small boat used to ferry a pilot familiar out to incoming ships to bring them in (and the reverse to take them out), and as such needed to be fast boats.

A wooden piggin is a small wooden bucket or tub.

Spiracles are openings that are part of the respiratory system in various aquatic animals, including the blowholes of whales.

CHAPTER 62: The Dart

One wonders where the practice of allowing the harpooner to tire himself out rowing started. Presumably it was thus when boats went out with much smaller crews and every rower counted. As whale-boats got larger this necessity changed, but by then there was probably a feeling that all were in it together and so all should row together. This adherence to tradition and "this is the way it's always been done," even when logic dictates otherwise, is not limited to whale-boats.

CHAPTER 63: The Crotch

"Curvetting" (from "curvet") is "leaping gracefully or energetically".

When Melville refers to "scenes hereafter to be painted," he means scenes to be described or related later--word paintings, not "paintings" in the usual sense.

CHAPTER 64: Stubb's Supper

Melville describes the three whale-boats as "eighteen men with our thirty-six arms, and one hundred and eighty thumbs and fingers." That is six men per boat (which does rather indicate that having the harpooner row is a bit of a necessity unless another rower is added). Note that Melville does not say "thirty-six legs," even though none of these eighteen is Ahab.

The "canal of Hang-Ho, or whatever they call it, in China" would be the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal these days, and probably as the Hangzhou Canal in Melville's time. Started in the fifth century B.C.E., the last parts were finally completed about a thousand years later.

Ironically, in 1855 (five years after Moby Dick was written), the Yellow River changed course and disrupted the flow of the Canal, splitting it into two disjoint parts, which then fell into disrepair.

In Melville's time, "four or five laborers on the foot-path [would] draw a bulky freighted junk at the rate of a mile an hour"; this was probably true even as recently as thirty years ago, because it was more important to have full employment than to mechanize jobs. A junk is a Chinese sailing ship with fully battened sails. It is more likely that the laborers towed barges than sailing ships, though.

The "grand argosy" they towed was the whale, though since the term "argosy" refers to a small flotilla, here it probably includes the three whale-boats as well. The term "argosy" comes from the mythological Greek ship, the Argo, built by Argus, on which Jason sailed.

A bullock is a bull in North America, a steer in Britain, and an ox (usually castrated) in Australia and New Zealand. Given that one is unlikely to yoke together bulls, Melville was probably using the British meaning, or even the Australian one.

Why is the whale tied to the ship with the tail toward the front? Probably because it generates less resistance against the water when the ship is moving forward.

The "small" Stubb refers to is the cetacean equivalent of the small of one's back, described later as "the tapering extremity of the body."

The term "spermaceti supper" is inaccurate, spermaceti being the (inedible) waxy substance in a whale's head used for lighting (Stubb eats by the light of two lanterns of sperm oil) and cosmetics.

Melville's paragraph on sharks' behavior during sea fights and in accompanying cargo ships and slave ships is another poetic flight: "Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship's decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other's live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties;"

Stubb's lips were probably "epicurean" not in a literal sense, but in a colloquial one. Epicureanism says that "pleasure" is the greatest good, but that pleasure is the absence of pain and the way to achieve pleasure was by living modestly. Colloquially, it is used as a synonym for hedonism, which strives for pleasure in the more usual sense of the word.

Describing Fleece has having been "roused from his warm hammock" seems more like an ironic reference to being roused from a warm bed than an accurate description, since hammocks by their nature allow air to circulate, which would cool the sleeper rather than warm him.

It seems racist for Melville to say "like many old blacks, there was something the matter with his knee-pans" (even to make a pun on scouring them like other pans), but it may be the statement that slaves who are kept at tasks such as field work or scrubbing floors would naturally develop knee problems. Knee-pans are kneecaps.

A "shindy" would be a shindig.

Fleece's sermon to the sharks, done in typical 19th century literary slave dialect, seems another example of racism, though when one deciphers the content, it is less clear. To please Stubb, Fleece preaches Christianity to the sharks: They should govern their wicked natures and then they will be angels. They should not touch the whale, because it belongs to someone else. And when they do eat something, those with larger mouths that can take larger bites should not eat more, but should bite off pieces to feed to the smaller ones. But then Fleece points out to Stubb that this sermon is useless, since the sharks are not listening and never will. Is this Melville pointing out the uselessness of many of the missionary efforts of his time. Consider the scene in the church at the beginning of The African Queen. It seems obvious that most of the people in the congregation do not understand English, certainly not enough to understand the sermons preached. (And if the hymns are sung in English, that is a sign that the sermons would also be in English.) So how effective are Reverend Sayer's sermons?

Ninety years old seems a bit old for someone to still be going to sea on a whaler, even as a cook. Melville may have been thinking about claims of extraordinary age given to another black slave, Joice Heth, who was displayed by P. T. Barnum in 1835 as a 161-year-old woman who was the wet nurse for George Washington. Melville would have been sixteen years old at the time.

If Fleece was born in a ferry-boat going over the Roanoke around 1760, he was almost definitely a slave for the first part of his life, and presumably may still be one. Stubb certainly treats him as one, but this seems in conflict with Ishmael's early statement about not going to sea as a cook: " And as for going as cook,--though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board..." On the other hand, Ishmael has been mistaken before in his views about whaling ships, such as what lay he might expect to get. (See notes for Chapter 16.)

CHAPTER 65: The Whale as a Dish

However, the description of porpoise meat being made into balls suggests that "whale balls" may actually be meat balls.

Dunfermline Abbey was founded in 1128 and lasted until 1560, when it was sacked during the Scottish Reformation.

"Esquimaux" is an older spelling for "Eskimos", which in turn is the previous designation for the Inuit, Yupik, and other Native American/First Peoples tribes inhabiting Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. "Eskimo" is now considered derogatory, since it was thought to mean "one who eats raw flesh." (It turns out, apparently, that that is not what it means, but the Inuit prefer it not be used.) However, it still shows up used by anthropologists, ethnologists, etc., as applying to the tribes as a group.

In any Case, Ishmael apparently believed that these peoples ate their whale meat raw.

As noted before, "train oil" was another name for whale oil.

Zogranda is probably correct in blubber being nutritious. In any case, it is a major component of the diet of Inuit infants (usually as seal blubber), along with seaweed. (In fact the Inuit diet in general gets the vast majority of its calories from fat.)

"Oly-cooks" are basically doughnuts. Originally spelled "oliekoek" (meaning "oil cake") by the Dutch, they became more commonly known as "oliebollen" ("oil balls") or "oliebols" in the 19th century. They may be more like doughnut holes in shape, since the name sounds more like it describes a sphere than a torus.

Ishmael describes the hump as "a solid pyramid of fat." I cannot confirm this, but since Melville is very familiar with cetacean anatomy at this level, I will believe it is true.

In spite of the description--"the spermaceti itself, how bland and creamy that is; like the transparent, half-jellied, white meat of a cocoanut in the third month of its growth, yet far too rich to supply a substitute for butter"--its uses were not as food, but for candles and cosmetics. It is possible that the sailors did fry biscuits in the oil-pots, especially since the oil was strained as part of its preparation.

These days brains (also called sweetbreads) are served intact, possibly dredged in flour, but it is possible that mixing them with flour was a more popular way in the 19th century.

Young bucks can just mean young men who are lively, but can also mean fops. In either case, they are part of the upper-class, and their food choices would tend to be more expensive than the lower classes.

Again, we see a reference to Epicurus and Epicureanism.

"Et tu Brute!" is what Caesar supposedly said when Brutus gave him the final thrust of his assassination. In this case, the calf's head having such an expression when looking at someone eating it is reasonably apropos, even if the eater was not the actual slaughterer.

"But no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on his trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does. Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal's jaw? Cannibals? who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate-de-foie-gras." After this paragraph, it is somewhat surprising that Melville was apparently not a vegetarian.

"Feejee" is an alternate spelling for "Fiji".

Paté-de-fois-gras is produced by force-feeding geese or ducks to enlarge their livers abnormally. They are no longer nailed to the ground or blinded (as was true in Melville's time) but the force-feeding itself is deemed by many as cruelty to animals and there are many countries and areas where the production and/or consumption of paté-de-fois-gras is now prohibited.

A gourmand is someone who enjoys food and often east too much. The connotation is one who does not have the discernment (or restraint) or a gourmet or of an epicure. To refer to a "civilized and enlightened gourmand" is therefore to engage in at least some level of sarcasm, which Melville does twice.

Knife handles have very often been made of bone, though these days the description does not usually include the type of bone. Still, the use of ox bones would presumably have been fairly common.

The rich used gold toothpicks, but the poor would naturally just use a feather from the goose they were eating.

"The Society for the Suppression of Cruelty to Ganders" seems to be an organization that Melville invented as being particularly apt for his point. While steel nibs were first mass-produced in 1822, quill pens were obviously still in widespread use in Melville's time, since Richard Esterbrook did not open the first steel nib factory in the United States until 1858.

CHAPTER 66: The Shark Massacre

To "lash the helm a'lee" is to lash the tiller so that the bow is pointed into the wind. With the sails all taken in, this would minimize the ship's motion.

An "anchor-watch" is (not too surprisingly) a watch kept on a ship while it is at anchor.

The image of "the whole round sea [as] one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it" is enough to make one a turophobe. (Now there's a word you do not see very often!)

And as proof that more horror writers and filmmakers could learn from the classics, consider this description: "[The sharks] viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound."

"Pantheism" is the belief that divinity suffuses everything in the universe, or that the universe and divinity simultaneously occupy the same space. (I am sure there much be some word for this, parallel to "co-eternal" for time.) This would explain the sharks' apparent "vitality after what might be called the individual life had departed."

When Queequeg says, "Queequeg no care what god made him shark, ... wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin," one presumes he is referring to American Indians rather than South Asian Indians, whalers (especially those in Nantucket) being more familiar with the former.

CHAPTER 67: Cutting In

Melville uses the term "Sabbath" to refer to Sunday, as was quite common among Christians in the 19th century, and still is to some extent. However, the influx of Jews to the United States at the end of the 19th century resulted in the term being used more frequently in its original meaning of Saturday, and its corresponding decline as a synonym for Sunday, at least in civic society.

"Ex officio professors of Sabbath-breaking" would be professors by virtue of holding another position or office. In this case, being whalemen makes them automatically Sabbath-breakers; whalemen would not leave a whale lashed to the ship for an entire day of rest.

When Melville calls the ship "the ivory Pequod" he is reminding us of its first description as its deck embellishments being decorated and built from whalebone.

A hecatomb was the standard large offering of cattle to the gods, and consisted of a hundred cattle. So an offering of "ten thousand red oxen to the sea gods" would be a hecatomb of hecatombs.

Why were the cutting tackles generally painted green? I suppose it could be that a color other than red would make it easier to see when they had been cleaned of all the blood.

During the scarfing operation, the whale must of necessity be unlashed from the ship so that it can spin freely, so it is important that there always be a firm hook in the blubber end, because if it slips or tears through, the whale could be lost (though I suppose it should still float at this point).

<-  Previous  |  Next  ->

Evelyn C. Leeper