by Phillip Dumouchel
“Nothing on earth is his equal – a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty;
He is king over all that are proud.” – Job 41:31-34
“He piled upon the whale’s white hump all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” –Herman Melville, Moby Dick
When Moby Dick was first printed in 1851, it was a critical and commercial failure. It now is considered to be one of the foremost masterpieces of american literature and is currently in its 1,444th edition.
What starts out as the first-hand account of the shipping-out of an inexperienced seaman named Ishmael quickly escalates into a struggle of biblical proportions between the monomaniac Captain Ahab and the white whale that crippled him: Moby Dick. Ishmael is relegated from protagonist to witness and we, like the rest of the crew, are along for the ride.
In 2000, Jim Burke's adaptation of Moby Dick toured the UK aboard Walk-the-Plank's theatre ship, the Fitzcarraldo, in a co-production with Liverpool company Kaboodle. It won Best New Play and Best Fringe Production in the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards. Epic about a sea captain’s suicidal revenge against a marine mammal
Herman Melville (1819 - 1891) was born into an impoverished branch of a New York establishment family. Faced with the prospect of a life of penury as a schoolteacher, at twenty years of age, Melville opted instead for a career at sea,joining the crew of a New Bedford whaling ship on his second voyage.
Whaling ships of this period stayed at sea for years at a time, often circumnavigating the earth in the process. This proved to be a bit much for the young man who jumped ship in the South Pacific. He returned to New York and published two books based on his nautical experiences before submitting to the task of writing Moby Dick.
Long-haul open-boat whaling of the kind practiced in Moby Dick was first developed in New England in the years immediately following the American Revolution. By the 1820s, the New England whaling fishery had grown to employ over ten thousand seamen.
The expansion of american whaling in the early nineteenth century coincided with a shift toward a near exclusive focus on hunting sperm whales in response to rising demand for an oily white fluid in the sperm whale’s nose called spermaceti.
Those who could afford it burned spermaceti as lamp oil and mixed it into expensive cosmetics. However, its primary use was as a mechanical lubricant. Before the invention of synthetic machine oils, the moving metal parts of everything from pocket watches to steam engines was greased with sperm whale oil.
Though scientists are still unsure about its exact function, recent research suggests that the vibration-sensitive spermaceti oil is used by the whale to “listen” to the surrounding ocean over great distances.
Fact Behind Fiction
The events of Moby Dick are at least partly derived from the true story of the whaling ship Essex. In 1820, after killing two female whales traveling in a pod with their young, the Essex was attacked by an exceptionally large male sperm whale. The enraged bull rammed the Essex at high speed, splitting the ship, and sinking it. The remaining crew was left stranded in rowboats in the middle of the Pacific without food or fresh water. Those who survived did so by resorting to a grim expediency.
Moby Dick himself is almost certainly based upon an albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick who was first sighted by whalers around 1810. Mocha Dick was a notoriously dangerous whale that foiled over 100 attempts upon its life before being finally caught and killed in 1838.