Bailey duly does so: whale oil kept the lamps burning; whale bone made piano keys.
The trade is ugly and repugnant, but in offering excerpts from contemporary accounts – notably the journal of 21-year-old Samuel Grant Williams, a boatsteerer on the titular whaler – Bailey shows us men doing what, by the dictates of the time, needed to be done: and much like the oil they harvested, it’s an illuminating work.
Williams signed on for an eighteen- month voyage, and mostly seems to have enjoyed himself. To the young man, a harpooned whale is an awesome spectacle: ‘the contortions that he went through was wonderful’. To an older hand, the dying whale was ‘a big clumsy lout of a fellow’, and he uses a ‘bombgun’ to finish him off: this fires an explosive charge, tearing the whale’s lungs to shreds. ‘He made us sixty barrels of oil.’
In later life, Williams ran a local newspaper. Ashore in Haiti, he notes that ‘the poorer the family, the more dogs it possesses,’ while at sea he observes a fishing pelican ‘come down into the water like a thousand bricks’. The other excerpts are similarly crowded with incidental detail and from them we learn, too, that not all whaling experiences were as happy as Williams’. Francis Allyn Olmstead found life on board the aptly named Styx far harsher, with bullying officers and foul work. His relief when he manages to buy his discharge (‘death is preferable to my current condition’) is a notable tick in the anti-whaling column.
'THE VOYAGE OF THE F.H.MOORE' AND OTHER 19TH CENTURY WHALING ACCOUNTS edited by Greg Bailey, Mc Farland & Co., £35.95 (paperback)
This book review was published in the June 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine