Whale business -- first global trade

January 30, 2000|By MICHAEL SHULTZ | MICHAEL SHULTZ,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Ahab's Trade: The Saga of South Seas Whaling," by Granville Allen Mawer. St. Martin's Press. 393 pages. $29.95.

Let the scholars debate what drove Ahab's megalomaniac search for Moby Dick. It was profit that drove his Yankee whale-boat cousins, Granville Allen Mawer tells us.

And drove them it did. As they depleted the whale grounds within a comfortable cruise of their cozy New England villages, the whalemen found themselves sailing farther, in larger boats, and on longer voyages, than they had before. In search of the sperm whale, the most lucrative whale of all they pushed beyond the South Atlantic's two great southern capes into new seas. And on the way they opened the world's first global industry.

Mawer's story is a well-documented account of South Seas whaling drawn from logbooks and earlier writings about the industry and its voyages. It is an engaging gathering of material that will appeal to a reader with an interest in maritime history.

Mawer tells us early on, in his preface, that we are in for a wandering voyage. "Complexity and ambiguity have left their mark on the structure of this book, as much as on its contents, for the story of an industry is not like that of a person, who can be relied on to call an author back to the path no matter how far he or she may have strayed into the woods," he writes. And wander we do, much like the whaleman crisscrossing the wide Pacific.

Along the way we learn that neither subsidies nor tariffs could protect the English from the competitive Americans and Australians. That the Crews of all nations suffered terrible hardship, and as the industry changed and the voyages grew longer, the social order shifted. In the early 1700s through the Revolution, the crews of Yankee whalen consisted of men from the same small towns. They apprenticed in the trade. By the mid-19th century unskilled, and often dangerous, social misfits filled the crews.

Yet the whalers opened vast territorles. They circumnavigated Antarctica. They provided the impetus for scientific exploration and charting of the Pacific. They pushed north into the Bering Sea and through the straits. Their travels redefined the Pacific as they called on the paradise of islands, leaving behind new religions and deserting seamen.

They hunted with technology that hardly changed through two centuries-- wooden ships, wooden whaleboats, iron harpoons and lances. They hunted the whales well. The catches steadily fell. The whalers thought it was because the whales had grown skittish, or "gallied" as they said, and had left their familiar grounds.

Throughout the telling, Mawer refrains from moral judgments, tie chronicles mutiny with the sarne dispassion with which he explicates how the whalemen whittled down Leviathan, boiled him to oil, and put him in barrels. He notes that where the long-suffering crews and captains were once he-roes they came to be villains.

It is now the whale that is the hero. In his closing, Mawer has this to say. "We would he spared much hypocrisy today" were all would-be whalers allowed to whale under only one condition: that they "take their chances from an open wooden boat, trusting in strong arms, an iron harpoon and a few hundred feet of line."

Michael Schultz, an ocean sailor, is the vice president for public affairs at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He worked as a reporter and editor at The Sun for 21 years.

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