BOOKS: Men & Whales

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:

Men & Whales
by Richard Ellis
542 pages, 400+ illustrations, paperback. $30.00. 1991.

Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex
by Owen Chase
144 pages, paperback. $12.95. 1821.
Both from The Lyons Press (123 West 18th St., New York, NY 10011), 1999.

Available in paperback for the first
time are two classic works on the subject of
whales and whaling––Men & Whales, the
encyclopedic history of the human/whale relationship,
by Richard Ellis, and Shipwreck of
the Whaleship Essex, by Owen Chase, the
true narrative of a survivor of the event that
would be among the primary inspirations for
Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. With
the Chase narrative are two briefer accounts
of the same incident by other survivors.

Men & Whales is such a lucid, thorough,
and readable chronicle that it is something
of a shock to discover apparent omissions––most
notably that it describes the purported
end of whaling in Norway and Japan,
includes nothing about their revivals of both
undisguised commercial whaling and
“research whaling” on a commercial scale,
and describes Makah whaling as distant history.
Activist opposition to keeping whales in
captivity also seemingly escapes notice.
This is all because Ellis researched
and wrote Men & Whales between 1982 and
1989, when he himself was still better known
as a maritime painter than as the best-selling
author he became. Just 10 years ago it really
did seem, for a time, as if the human war on
whales had ended.
The resumption of the war, and of
efforts to stop it, require that serious antiwhaling
activists reacquaint themselves with
the cultural and economic forces which have
made both whale-killing and whale-saving
into global crusades. Ellis offers more of the
background in one source than may be had
anywhere else, with perspective on the relationship
between historical whaling routes and
current offshore oil claims, the linkage of the
Japanese and Norwegian whaling industries
with their fishing industries, and much else to
help bring the issues into focus.
Thick as it is, Men & Whales is surprisingly
Three pages recount the late World
Wildlife Fund founding member Aristotle
Onassis’ career as a flamboyant pirate whaler.
Onassis got into the business, Ellis explains,
not so much for the money, since he was
already filthy rich, as because “he was
aroused by the spectacle of cruelty.”
Two pages cover Onassis’ opposite,
Captain James Waddell of the Confederate
Navy, whose crew sailed to the north Pacific
in late 1864 and sank four Yankee whalers
before learning that the Civil War had ended,
then sank another 20 whalers on stated behalf
of the whales. Waddell et al did all this without
causing a single human death or serious
injury, capturing and releasing––sometimes
for ransom––as many as 500 men.
The destruction of the E s s e x by a
wounded sperm whale rates four pages from
Ellis, leading into discussion of the most
important Melville inspiration, the distinctively
marked real-life “Mocha Dick.” This
giant sperm whale between 1810 and 1842
attacked ships and killed whalers from the
vicinity of Mocha Island, Chile, to coastal
Japan. Though many times harpooned, he
was apparently never finished off by humans.
When the Owen Chase account first
appeared, in 1821, the whale’s revenge rated
much less attention than the survivors’ 97-day
ordeal afterward––especially their practice of
cannibalism. Of the 20 men who lived
through the sinking of the Essex to escape in
three open boats, 11 died later from starvation,
thirst, exposure, and drowning in rough
weather after one of the boats apparently sank.
Five of the dead were eaten. The four men
remaining aboard Captain George Pollard Jr.’s
boat then murdered and ate Pollard’s nephew,
cabin boy Owen Coffin. The other boat
fetched up on remote Dulcie Island, where
Thomas Chapple was among three men left
behind as Owen Chase and the rest voyaged
on. Chapple and mates later found in a cave
the skeletons of eight sailors who had previously
been marooned there.
Melville apparently started M o b y
Dick soon after meeting Chase and his son.
Of the significant details in the long
account by Chase, who began it as a diary
while still lost at sea, and the short accounts
by Pollard and Chapple, finding the skeletons
is the only omission from Ellis’ summary.
But it may be that this event in the
Chapple narrative partially inspired another
literary work of moral weight, The Sea Wolf,
by Jack London. There, marooned on a
remote island after an unsuccessful attempt to
escape the ruthless sealing captain Wolf
Larsen, the narrator shields the heroine from
making a similar discovery near the wreck
they find of an open boat much like their own.
The Chapple narrative was distributed
as a religious tract to sailors. One can
easily imagine the young Jack London picking
it up at a harbor mission circa 1890, devouring
it as he did any reading matter, and then
in 1904 expanding the simple moral fable it
offered into a far more eloquent and nonsectarian
testimonial for faith and fortitude.
There is no indication, however,
that Chapple in any way inspired the most
remarkable aspect of The Sea Wolf, a chapter
in which London described Larsen’s
vengeance upon a shark who kills a crewman
as the man endures a disciplinary keel-hauling.
To London, blaming and abusing the
shark compounded the initial evil of cruelty
with a further evil, the attempted evasion of
moral consequence, undertaken––as London
clearly understood––to reinforce Larsen’s
dominion over the crew by increasing their
fear of his ruthlessness.
Even a cold-blooded, purportedly
soulless shark, London argued, deserves better
than cruel treatment from humans, if
humans may pretend to higher virtue.

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