One of the challenges Melville faced in writing Moby-Dick was making the reader believe that Captain Ahab had the ability to enlist the crew in his "vengeful errand." Whalemen, as Melville shows us, were a bunch of rowdy roughnecks. They could be suddenly violent -- as in the fight between Daggoo and the "Spanish sailor" in Chapter XL -- and they could be needlessly cruel -- as when Flask wants to "prick" a giant abscess in the dying whale in Chapter LXXXI.
Yet Ahab managed to persuade them to join enthusiastically in his profitless hunt for the white whale and to keep at it for months.
Modern readers, I think, tend to underappreciate Melville's artistry in this regard, because we project onto nineteenth-century whaleships the discipline we're familiar with from stories about the navy. Books and movies such as The Caine Mutiny and Mutiny on the Bounty (not to mention Melville's own Billy Budd) have accustomed us to the navy's iron rules against resisting officers. We just assume that the same rules governed merchantmen and whalers. And thus Ahab's feat of leadership seems not so wonderful to us.
Captains in the merchant service and the fishery, however, were not entitled to the same kind of unquestioning obedience that naval commanders could expect. A seaman aboard a merchant ship or whaler was not bound to take whatever the captain dished out, on pain of flogging and ultimately death. On the contrary, seamen could lawfully resist unreasonable acts by their superiors, and they could, and sometimes did, successfully sue violent or crazed captains for damages.
I have beside me a copy of the "third American edition" of Charles Abbott's Treatise on the Law Relative to Merchant Ships and Seamen, published in 1822, "with the copious annotations of Joseph Story, One of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States." Abbott's Chapter Four, "Of the Behaviour of the Master and Mariners," is particularly instructive as regards Moby-Dick. As Justice Story explains in his copious annotations, for any substantial ship involved in the merchant service, the coasting trade, or the fisheries, U.S. law required that "a contract for service ... be made in writing or in print by the master with the mariners." We see Ishmael and Queequeg sign such an agreement in Chapters XVI and XVIII.
More importantly for present purposes, Mr. Abbott informs us that "the master [i.e., captain] has authority over all the mariners on board the ship, and it is their duty to obey his commands in all lawful matters relating to the navigation of the ship, and the preservation of good order.... In case of disobedience or disorderly conduct, he may lawfully correct them in a reasonable manner; his authority in this respect being analogous to that of a parent over his child, or of a master over his apprentice or scholar."
"But," lawyer Abbott goes on to warn his readers, "it behoves the master to be very careful in the exercise of it [his authority], and not to make his parental power a pretext for cruelty and oppression." In administering discipline, the captain is advised to consult with "the persons next below him in authority, as well to prevent the operation of passion in his own breast, as to secure witnesses to the propriety of his conduct."
The law as outlined by Mr. Abbott had more than mere moral suasion behind it. A captain's use of unlawful force could subject him to liability: "For the master, on his return to this country may be called upon by action at law, to answer to a mariner, who has been beaten or imprisoned by him, or by his order, in the course of a voyage; and for the justification of his conduct, he should be able to shew not only that there was a sufficient cause for chastisement, but also that the chastisement itself was reasonable and moderate, otherwise the mariner may recover damages proportionate to the injury received."
Now, in referring to the master's "return to this country," Mr. Abbott was referring to England, he being a barrister at law and a member of the Inner Temple. But Justice Story's learned annotations show us that the same law obtained in the United States, and was exemplified by cases decided in the U.S. courts, as I shall show in my next post.