Ever since its publication in 1851, Moby Dick has sparked the imagination with its prophetic, digressive and dangerous themes. So much so, it eclipsed the true story the novel is based on. This story – that of a vengeful whale taking out a whaling ship – has now been adapted in true swash buckling style by Ron Howard, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s maritime history book of the same name.
In 1819 the whale-ship Essex set sail from Nantucket. A year into the voyage, 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) west of South America, a pod of whales was sighted by the lookout. The harpoonists set out in their small cedar whale boats to reap their bounty. One boat – that of first mate Owen Chase – was smashed to pieces by a whale’s tail and returned to the Essex, whereupon according to Chase they saw “a large spermaceti whale about 85ft in length heading directly for them as if fired with revenge”. The whale struck the boat. Ramming the ship a second time, it was obvious that it would sink. The remaining crew of twenty men, thousands of miles from land, salvaged what supplies they could and set off in three small cedar boats.
Then ensued an incredible tale of maritime survival. The men spent over three months at sea and had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell survived in one boat and were discovered gnawing on the bones of their shipmates. In all, seven sailors were consumed. Owen Chase, Lawrence and Nickerson also survived to tell the tale.
While the Yankee whale men of Nantucket were at sea brutally harvesting whales, the first global commodity- illuminating and lubricating the Industrial Revolution, and generating vast fortunes, the Quaker women in their hours of domestic leisure, spent their time lace making. One of the many ‘by-products’ of a thriving whaling industry was its impact on community and family life. Away at sea for up to four years at time the wives of whale men on shore waiting for their loved ones to return also thrived, removed from the constraints of a subservient role in the family. Similar to women during wartime they became very independent and adept in managing both domestic, intellectual and community life.
Like Melville’s Moby-Dick, which followed on from hearing of the survivors account, The Heart of the Sea is a modern parable for our time. When confronted with nature on the scale of a “vengeful” whale we must ask of ourselves: why did a passively shy and intelligent creature attack the boat?
The relationship between humans and cetaceans has long been something of a paradox. We are drawn to their mystery and intelligence, in awe of their size and grace, yet we hunted many whales to near extinction. The most likely reason was not revenge but self-defense, or protection of their calves that where provocatively slaughtered to attract their oil rich mothers to their untimely demise.
Sperm whales are matriarchal; they form strong social groups, babysit and suckle each other’s calves and act collectively to protect their young. If threatened several females will form what is know as a marguerite pattern (daisy) around a young whale in need of protection to fend off attack. Bull whales are solitary and leave the pod upon maturation returning only to mate.
There is a fifty percent that the whale that stove the boat was indeed a large female.
For several years now the whale has been a recurring vessel to anchor my own work. In particular a white whale, the ambiguous, mythical Moby- Dick, an association that has help me to unite my fascination with natural sciences, the rigours of visual culture and contemporary fine art practice. Moby-Dick is a shape shifter, as a work it hovers somewhere between natural history, philosophy, autobiography and fiction. A compendium of cetology, anthropology, obsession, prophesy, self-destruction and morality, it is saturated with both science and metaphor.
Rich pickings-the whale in both The Heart of the Sea and Moby-Dick is a charismatic beast; and seems to signify many contemporary themes – capitalism, religion, colonialism, and gender in her banishment, morality, ecology and racism. Digressive and allusive it prophesises our fallibility. The whale like the canary in the mine is an ecological barometer; in our pursuit and dominion over nature we expose our own flaws and vulnerability.
The Heart of the Sea regenerates a mythical story. The whale not only embodies philosophical debate and critical commentary, but also is also an emblem, that serves as a barometer of our place in the world and dangers we encompass in our search of resources and our abuse of our environment.
These unfortunate mariners in pursuit of whale oil – the first global commodity to fuel the industrial revolution – crossed the unutterable taboo of cannibalism (ironically, once stranded they voted against trying to head west to the nearest islands, the Marquesas, due to rumours of cannibalistic inhabitants). And while the good Quaker folk of Nantucket fought for the abolition of slavery, they also continued to pursue the noble domestication of the savages encountered on whaling voyages. Placing missionaries among cannibals they asked them to “eat” the flesh and drink the “blood” of a new god.
Our pursuit of the highly intelligent whale that has roamed the ocean for 60 million years, which we have persecuted, almost to extinction, says much about our own species. Sperm-whales are armed with powerful sonic radar capable of zapping giant squid at sixty paces, yet they appear to live in harmony with no walls or castles to defend, they rely on social cohesion. We have much to learn from their peaceful existence with our ongoing wars over ‘liquid gold’.
The whaling industry has been compared to genocide- over harvesting ‘natural resources’. The modern oil industry likewise exposes our climate to potential catastrophic global warming, and war. Like Ahab we seem to have a propensity to self-destruction.
Whale oil has lubricated our own voyage through an imagined and uncharted space that traverses land and sea, ocean floor to outer space. We engineer what we have yet to evolve, seeing into the unknown, as satellites, telescopes and submarines voyage into a void of freezing black enabled by the oil made from spermaceti, in pursuit of our quest for dominion of nature and resource.