Why 'Moby Dick' Explains the American Empire
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A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
But what’s really frightening isn't our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age. The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago. The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals, and managers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves as morally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities. They are a type that has been with us for a long time. More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression -- for his moment and ours.
For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific. Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile. They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law. When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.
From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston. During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious -- at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.
Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t.
Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal. When they spotted Delano’s ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer’s vessel and supplies. Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.
Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his “other” masterpiece. Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature. It’s told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.
One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard -- he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery -- and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him. The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.
In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.” Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier. “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.
Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening -- or even the most destructive of American faces. Consider Amasa.
Since the end of the Cold War, extractive capitalism has spread over our post-industrialized world with a predatory force that would shock even Karl Marx. From the mineral-rich Congo to the open-pit gold mines of Guatemala, from Chile’s until recently pristine Patagonia to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and the melting Arctic north, there is no crevice where some useful rock, liquid, or gas can hide, no jungle forbidden enough to keep out the oil rigs and elephant killers, no citadel-like glacier, no hard-baked shale that can’t be cracked open, no ocean that can’t be poisoned.
And Amasa was there at the beginning. Seal fur may not have been the world’s first valuable natural resource, but sealing represented one of young America’s first experiences of boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders.
With increasing frequency starting in the early 1790s and then in a mad rush beginning in 1798, ships left New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London, and Boston, heading for the great half-moon archipelago of remote islands running from Argentina in the Atlantic to Chile in the Pacific. They were on the hunt for the fur seal, which wears a layer of velvety down like an undergarment just below an outer coat of stiff gray-black hair.
In Moby-Dick, Melville portrayed whaling as the American industry. Brutal and bloody but also humanizing, work on a whale ship required intense coordination and camaraderie. Out of the gruesomeness of the hunt, the peeling of the whale’s skin from its carcass, and the hellish boil of the blubber or fat, something sublime emerged: human solidarity among the workers. And like the whale oil that lit the lamps of the world, divinity itself glowed from the labor: “Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God.”
Sealing was something else entirely. It called to mind not industrial democracy but the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism, and warfare. Whaling took place in a watery commons open to all. Sealing took place on land. Sealers seized territory, fought one another to keep it, and pulled out what wealth they could as fast as they could before abandoning their empty and wasted island claims. The process pitted desperate sailors against equally desperate officers in as all-or-nothing a system of labor relations as can be imagined.
In other words, whaling may have represented the promethean power of proto-industrialism, with all the good (solidarity, interconnectedness, and democracy) and bad (the exploitation of men and nature) that went with it, but sealing better predicted today’s postindustrial extracted, hunted, drilled, fracked, hot, and strip-mined world.
Seals were killed by the millions and with a shocking casualness. A group of sealers would get between the water and the rookeries and simply start clubbing. A single seal makes a noise like a cow or a dog, but tens of thousands of them together, so witnesses testified, sound like a Pacific cyclone. Once we “began the work of death,” one sealer remembered, “the battle caused me considerable terror.”
South Pacific beaches came to look like Dante’s Inferno. As the clubbing proceeded, mountains of skinned, reeking carcasses piled up and the sands ran red with torrents of blood. The killing was unceasing, continuing into the night by the light of bonfires kindled with the corpses of seals and penguins.
And keep in mind that this massive kill-off took place not for something like whale oil, used by all for light and fire. Seal fur was harvested to warm the wealthy and meet a demand created by a new phase of capitalism: conspicuous consumption. Pelts were used for ladies’ capes, coats, muffs, and mittens, and gentlemen’s waistcoats. The fur of baby pups wasn’t much valued, so some beaches were simply turned into seal orphanages, with thousands of newborns left to starve to death. In a pinch though, their downy fur, too, could be used -- to make wallets.
Occasionally, elephant seals would be taken for their oil in an even more horrific manner: when they opened their mouths to bellow, their hunters would toss rocks in and then begin to stab them with long lances. Pierced in multiple places like Saint Sebastian, the animals’ high-pressured circulatory system gushed “fountains of blood, spouting to a considerable distance.”
At first the frenetic pace of the killing didn’t matter: there were so many seals. On one island alone, Amasa Delano estimated, there were “two to three millions of them” when New Englanders first arrived to make “a business of killing seals.”
“If many of them were killed in a night,” wrote one observer, “they would not be missed in the morning.” It did indeed seem as if you could kill every one in sight one day, then start afresh the next. Within just a few years, though, Amasa and his fellow sealers had taken so many seal skins to China that Canton’s warehouses couldn’t hold them. They began to pile up on the docks, rotting in the rain, and their market price crashed.
To make up the margin, sealers further accelerated the pace of the killing -- until there was nothing left to kill. In this way, oversupply and extinction went hand in hand. In the process, cooperation among sealers gave way to bloody battles over thinning rookeries. Previously, it only took a few weeks and a handful of men to fill a ship’s hold with skins. As those rookeries began to disappear, however, more and more men were needed to find and kill the required number of seals and they were often left on desolate islands for two- or three-year stretches, living alone in miserable huts in dreary weather, wondering if their ships were ever going to return for them.
“On island after island, coast after coast,” one historian wrote, “the seals had been destroyed to the last available pup, on the supposition that if sealer Tom did not kill every seal in sight, sealer Dick or sealer Harry would not be so squeamish.” By 1804, on the very island where Amasa estimated that there had been millions of seals, there were more sailors than prey. Two years later, there were no seals at all.
The Machinery of Civilization
There exists a near perfect inverse symmetry between the real Amasa and the fictional Ahab, with each representing a face of the American Empire. Amasa is virtuous, Ahab vengeful. Amasa seems trapped by the shallowness of his perception of the world. Ahab is profound; he peers into the depths. Amasa can’t see evil (especially his own). Ahab sees only nature’s “intangible malignity.”
Both are representatives of the most predatory industries of their day, their ships carrying what Delano once called the “machinery of civilization” to the Pacific, using steel, iron, and fire to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.
Yet Ahab is the exception, a rebel who hunts his white whale against all rational economic logic. He has hijacked the “machinery” that his ship represents and rioted against “civilization.” He pursues his quixotic chase in violation of the contract he has with his employers. When his first mate, Starbuck, insists that his obsession will hurt the profits of the ship’s owners, Ahab dismisses the concern: “Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, Owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.”
Insurgents like Ahab, however dangerous to the people around them, are not the primary drivers of destruction. They are not the ones who will hunt animals to near extinction -- or who are today forcing the world to the brink. Those would be the men who never dissent, who either at the frontlines of extraction or in the corporate backrooms administer the destruction of the planet, day in, day out, inexorably, unsensationally without notice, their actions controlled by an ever greater series of financial abstractions and calculations made in the stock exchanges of New York, London, and Shanghai.
If Ahab is still the exception, Delano is still the rule. Throughout his long memoir, he reveals himself as ever faithful to the customs and institutions of maritime law, unwilling to take any action that would injure the interests of his investors and insurers. “All bad consequences,” he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, “may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”
It is in Delano’s reaction to the West African rebels, once he finally realizes he has been the target of an elaborately staged con, that the distinction separating the sealer from the whaler becomes clear. The mesmeric Ahab -- the “thunder-cloven old oak” -- has been taken as a prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian, a one-legged Hitler or Stalin who uses an emotional magnetism to convince his men to willingly follow him on his doomed hunt for Moby Dick.
Delano is not a demagogue. His authority is rooted in a much more common form of power: the control of labor and the conversion of diminishing natural resources into marketable items. As seals disappeared, however, so too did his authority. His men first began to grouse and then conspire. In turn, Delano had to rely ever more on physical punishment, on floggings even for the most minor of offences, to maintain control of his ship -- until, that is, he came across the Spanish slaver. Delano might have been personally opposed to slavery, yet once he realized he had been played for a fool, he organized his men to retake the slave ship and violently pacify the rebels. In the process, they disemboweled some of the rebels and left them writhing in their viscera, using their sealing lances, which Delano described as “exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.”
Caught in the pincers of supply and demand, trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with no seals left to kill, no money to be made, and his own crew on the brink of mutiny, Delano rallied his men to the chase -- not of a white whale but of black rebels. In the process, he reestablished his fraying authority. As for the surviving rebels, Delano re-enslaved them. Propriety, of course, meant returning them and the ship to its owners.
Our Amasas, Ourselves
With Ahab, Melville looked to the past, basing his obsessed captain on Lucifer, the fallen angel in revolt against the heavens, and associating him with America’s “manifest destiny,” with the nation’s restless drive beyond its borders. With Amasa, Melville glimpsed the future. Drawing on the memoirs of a real captain, he created a new literary archetype, a moral man sure of his righteousness yet unable to link cause to effect, oblivious to the consequences of his actions even as he careens toward catastrophe.
They are still with us, our Amasas. They have knowledge of their duty and are disposed faithfully to follow its dictates, even unto the ends of the Earth.
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Copyright 2014 Greg Grandin
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