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||Posted on: Apr. 20 2008,13:14
Chapter LX The Line
In the grand romantic fashion, Melville now devotes a piece to the thing that connects the whale to the ship--after the whale is harpooned: the rope, or the line. This is the whole philosophy. The connection. The thing that enables the whalemen to bring in the goods.
Meville (Ishmael) says hemp was the original material of the line. But, in his day (1850s) Manilla rope had taken over the market as the preferred line. It was lighter than hemp, both in color and in weight, and softer, more flexible, and every bit as strong. Whale line, according to Meville, is only 2/3 of an inch thick. This is curious. We would have expected something that at least looked stronger. But Meville says each of the 150 individual yarns that make up the rope can sustain 120 pounds, so that the united rope can handle nearly 3 tons. The length, in sperm whale hunting, was 200 fathoms, or 1,200 feet.
The rope is coiled ever so carefully, and placed in the tub, or the stern of the whaling boat. When the whale is harpooned, it swims rapidly away, and the line is drawn out with vicious speed. The coil has to have been coiled with a scientific precision, or disaster could easily ensue. Meville said the harpooners often spent an entire morning getting that coil made just right.
Of course, there is more than one harpoon cast into the whale, and more than one line gone out. The complexity of this aspect of the hunting procedure, these "hempen intricacies," is wonderfully described by Melveill--as if his readers really want to know!
Then Meville offers these observations of human social commentary over the whole process:
|Nor can any son of mortal woman, for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly. Yet habit -- strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish? -- Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the half-inch white cedar of the whale-boat, when thus hung in hangman's nooses; and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say. |
Once the whale is hit, and running, life on the whaleboat is intensely imperiled.
|Perhaps a very little thought will now enable you to account for those repeated whaling disasters -- some few of which are casually chronicled -- of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost. 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. It is worse; for you cannot sit motionless in the heart of these perils, because the boat is rocking like a cradle, and you are pitched one way and the other, without the slightest warning; and only by a certain self-adjusting buoyancy and simultaneousness of volition and action, can you escape being made a Mazeppa of, and run away with where the all-seeing sun himself could never pierce you out. |
Then, in his tradition of philosophical commentary upon otherwise the most insignificant or uninteresting aspects of life, making them crucial in all affairs of life, Melville says,
|so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play -- this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side. |
Whaling was quite dangerous, to say the least. It was an exciting profession, a kind of war, as it were. But, in those days, whale oil was as important as gasoline is today.