The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ishmael's Rights

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.


  1. Nice to "hear" your voice again, Lemuel. How much do you think issues of class came into it? I realize that America was quite different from England. But I recall being astonished by the interactions between two strangers of vastly different class depicted in an early 20th century British film. The, well, subservience shown by the lower class character seemed quite pronounced to me and I have no reason to think that it was overstated for the time period. I understand that English and European visitors to late 19th century America were discomfited by not being able to discern someone's class by their dress. I'm assuming that the captain of a whaling ship would be from a slightly (or greater?) higher class than the typical seaman. Do you think this played into the relationship that Melville is portraying?

  2. That's an interesting question. I've never read MD with class in the forefront of my mind. (I'm sure there must be Marxist critics who have explored that aspect of the book.) As I recall, Melville portrays Ahab and the mates as being of the same class, with Ahab being a more successful version of Starbuck or Stubb or Flask. The harpooneers and other seamen, on the other hand, are mostly outside the American class system, because they come from numerous other societies. I suppose one could argue that Melville purposely separates the action from American or any other society except the usages of whaling, to emphasize the conflict among elemental forces of nature and human psychology.

  3. In your original post you mention some of the differences between the Navy and whaling, including the hierarchy. It's interesting to think about your comments above regarding MD in comparison to Master and Commander (with which I am only familiar in movie form). I'm thinking in particular of the scene in which one of the seamen does not pay his proper obeisance (obedience? I might have misheard the dialogue) to a lower officer. The seaman is clapped in irons and soon after flogged for his seemingly minor insubordination.

  4. HE RISES! Good to see that Lemuel can take some time from his duties at the bar to craft another authoritative post.

    This talk of a master's powers and responsibilities makes me wonder if the dependents of Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask (and maybe even the common seamen) could have made an action against Bildad, Peleg, et al. for knowingly placing their loved ones under the command of a man who "ain't sick; but no, he isn't well either" (Chap. XVI), thereby contributing to the untimely demise of the crew.

    What say ye, Lemuel? Have we fodder for a sequel?

  5. We've got a read of Moby Dick going on over at Librarything, and I've linked to this series of posts over there. You can see the first part of the discussion at:

    I think there is much on class lurking in Moby Dick; two of the four harpooners are identified as royals, for example, and in The Cabin-Table chapter there is a fair bit of discussion as to the relative democracy of the savages and the formal hierarchy of the supposed Democrats among the officers. But it's written, remember, at a point when notions of class in America were only slowly moving from concepts of aristocrats and commoners and slaves to concepts of rich and poor, employer and employed.

    1. Thanks for linking us, Sam! I wish we'd known about the Librarything discussion sooner. It looks like a lot of interesting observations have already been posted. I'll have to sign up!

  6. It is a good group; my more substantive posts are collect here:

    The threads on Librarything will stay live for quite a while; some readers are only a little way in, others have already finished.