Who ain't a slave? Tell me that.
When Ishmael describes (in Chapter XVI) how he came to choose the Pequod for his and Queequeg's voyage, he explains that whalemen were customarily compensated by means of an oddly denominated profit-sharing scheme:
I was already aware that in the whaling business they paid no wages; but all hands, including the captain, received certain shares of the profits called lays, and that these lays were proportioned to the degree of importance pertaining to the respective duties of the ship’s company. I was also aware that being a green hand at whaling, my own lay would not be very large; but considering that I was used to the sea, could steer a ship, splice a rope, and all that, I made no doubt that from all I had heard I should be offered at least the 275th lay—that is, the 275th part of the clear net proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to. And though the 275th lay was what they call a rather long lay, yet it was better than nothing; and if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear out on it, not to speak of my three years’ beef and board, for which I would not have to pay one stiver.Ishmael doesn't tell us a whole lot more about how lays worked; there was no need to for purposes of the story. But fortunately for the curious, the system is very well explicated in a scholarly, highly detailed study of the nineteenth-century whaling industry, In Pursuit of Leviathan, by Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter, published in 1997 by the University of Chicago as part of the National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development.
First, to clear up one misconception, the lays were not sequentially numbered from the largest share to the smallest. In other words, the system didn't involve person A getting a 10th, B getting an 11th, C getting a 12th, and so on, until every last investor and sailor was accounted for. For one thing, such a system would never work mathematically -- you would exceed 100% by the time you got to the 26th share.
Instead, the numbers of the lays jumped. For example, in the November 1843 voyage of the Abigail of New Bedford, the "shortest" lay (i.e., the largest share in compensation) was, unsurprisingly, the captain's, at 16 -- meaning one sixteenth (or 0.0625) of the profits, assuming there were any. The first mate's lay was 29, the second mate's 50, the third mate's 72. The cooper -- typically, one of the most important artisans on a whale ship -- got the 55th lay. Each of the harpooneers (a/k/a "boatsteerers") got the 95th lay. All the remaining lays were well above 100. Added up, the lays totaled about three tenths, which left about seven tenths for the "owners," who could probably be more accurately referred to as partners.
According to In Pursuit, a 70-30 split of the profits between the owners/partners, on one hand, and the captain and crew, on the other, was typical. In addition, looking at data from over a thousand whaling voyages out of New Bedford, the authors of In Pursuit found that the distribution of lays followed a pattern: captains tended to get lays in the mid-teens, first mates in the 20s, second mates in the 30s or 40s, third mates in the 50s or 60s, etc.
One thing the data make clear is that Melville is having a bit of fun in Ishmael's long-lay episode. Ishmael says that he hoped to get 275. Captain Bildad offered him 777, and Captain Peleg, after remonstrating with Bildad, then settled on 300. As he does so often in Moby-Dick, Melville is here exaggerating Ishmael's socio-economic insignificance. Even Ishmael's aspirational lay of 275 was absurdly long -- no one in the In Pursuit data had a longer lay than 202,with unskilled seamen (or "greenhands") usually in the 175-190 range.
How much a whaleman's lay actually turned out to be worth depended, of course, on how successful the voyage was. The incentives built into the lay system were meant to encourage the men to work their hardest to fill the hold with oil. If the voyage was truly disastrous (spoiler alert: like the Pequod's), the whalemen never returned at all. An "average" voyage in the 1830s apparently brought back oil and baleen worth about $21,000 (in 1830s dollars) (see page 120 of In Pursuit). After subtracting about $6,000 for expenses, you were left with about $15,000 to be divided among the owners/partners and crew. Let's say that, realistically, someone in Ishmael's shoes would have had the 175th lay, which is what Melville in fact was assigned when he sailed aboard the Acushnet. One 175th of $15,000 is $85.71. If we plug that into the invaluable Purchasing Power calculator at Measuring Worth, we get $2,280 in today's dollars based on changes in the consumer price index. If the voyage lasted exactly three years, that works out to $63 per month, plus "three years’ beef and board," for which Ishmael "would not have to pay one stiver."
Ishmael spoke the truth when he observed that "this was a poor way to accumulate a princely fortune ... a very poor way indeed." But, he goes on with philosophic equanimity, he is "quite content if the world is ready to board and lodge [him], while [he is] putting up at this grim sign of the Thunder Cloud."