How A Voyage and Desertion Inspired Herman Melville

Queequeg and his harpoon - Moby Dick by Herman Melville - from Wikimedia Commons
Queequeg and his harpoon

In a previous post about whaling, I mentioned that desertion was a financial strategy used by management and labor. For management, the goal was sometimes to cause a sailor to desert on the return voyage, after the hold was full of whale oil and baleen, thus increasing the profits for those who stayed on board and for the ship’s owners. For labor, the goal was sometimes to desert soon after receiving the advance. And labor had a major non-financial incentive too, as living conditions on a whaler included bad food, crowded and dirty living spaces, and a work schedule that alternated between utter boredom before the hunt, followed by several days of non-stop work processing the whale carcass after a successful hunt. Jumping ship in Rio de Janeiro or some tropical island might seem like a pretty good idea.

In Leviathan, Eric Jay Dolin has this note about such deserters:

Deserters who decided to live on the tropical Pacific islands were often viewed with derision by other whalemen. John F. Martin, of the ship Lucy Ann out of Wilmington [Delaware?], described the scene that greeted the ships when they stopped off at one of these islands, and in the process paints a none-too-flattering picture of deserters. ‘When a ship comes in the white men flock on board they are called beach combers & a regular set of scoundrels they are, they are too lazy too work at home for a living & prefer staying here where the living grows to their hands without having to work for it. Their object in coming to the ship was to beg clothes as they can not go naked like the natives their skin will not stand the sun…’ Log of the Lucy Ann of Wilmington, entry for February 19, 1843. [from footnote number 58 for chapter 14]

Perhaps the most famous deserter from a whaleship was Herman Melville. Melville’s desertion and return to the mainland is a fairly complicated story involving quite a few islands and ships, one that is told in great detail in Herman Melville: A Biography, 1819-1851 by Hershel Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
In 1840, Melville signed a contract with the agent representing the owners of the Acushnet, a newly-built whaling ship.  His category was “Green Hand” (near the bottom of the ranks), and along with an advance of $84, he was slated to receive 1/175th of the profits of the voyage upon its completion. The share earned by a crew member was commonly called a “lay,” and was the inverse of the fraction of the proceeds from the voyage, so the “50th lay” or “the fiftieth” was 1/50 of the proceeds. According to Davis et al.’s In Pursuit of Leviathan, the traditional dividing line between good and mediocre wages was a lay of 1/100. In Moby Dick, Melville spends a few pages on the lays offered to Ishmael – a relatively unskilled whaleman, who got the 300th lay – and Queequeg – a highly skilled harpooner, who got the 90th lay. See Chapters 16 (The Ship) and 18 (His Mark) for Melville’s account of the negotiations (via Project Gutenberg).

Herman Melville 1846-47 from Wikimedia Commons
Herman Melville, 1846-47

Melville’s Adventures
Melville shipped off from New Bedford, Massachusetts on the Acushnet in January, 1841 (the city of New Bedford sits on the west bank of the Acushnet River), and never got his pay day, because he jumped ship in July 1842 on the Marquesas Islands. He wrote letters to his family, and his whereabouts were also sometimes available in the newspapers published in seaports, which had listings of ship sightings that included the amount of whale oil already stowed, which could give loved ones (and other interested parties, like debt collectors, I imagine) a sense of when the ship would be returning home. This information traveled quite slowly, at the pace of sailing ships.

A life-changing moment for Melville might have occurred in July 1841 (I say might, because Melville’s memory of these events was sketchy, and documentation slight), when he might have met Owen Chase’s son (William Henry Chase) while his ship and Chase’s ship held a meeting at sea (called a “gam” in Moby Dick, see Chapter 53).  At this “gam,” Melville first received a copy of Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.   The sinking of the Essex was well-known to whalers, and haunted many of their days and nights. In 1820, while hunting whales in the wide-open expanses of the South Pacific, a wounded and enraged male sperm whale rammed the ship several times, sinking it. The survivors loaded themselves and as many provisions as they could salvage into three whale boats. One of the boats was lost, but two were saved by other ships, after a harrowing 90 and 95 days at sea, which included cannibalism.   (Into the Deep, a film from PBS’s American Experience, presents the story as the ‘hook’ for an exploration of the American whaling industry in the 19th century.)  Many years later, while working on Moby Dick, Melville wrote in his personal copy of Chase’s book, “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me.”  And the Essex gets a mention in chapter 45 of Moby Dick, when Ishmael recounts sperm whale attacks on ships in order to build up the reputation of the white whale.

Location of the Marquesas Islands

In early 1842, the Achusnet was whaling in the vast stretch of open ocean between the Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas Islands. On July 9, 1842, while his ship was in port in the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a shipmate deserted. After some tough days in the jungle – torrential downpours, fevers, all kinds of biting and stinging insects – Melville and his companion found refuge in a native village and settled down on the island. Melville must have found it unsatisfactory, as just a month later Melville shipped out on another whaler, the Lucy Ann of Australia.

The Lucy Ann was a troubled ship, with some of the crew in open revolt and others in a “sick out” – i.e., claiming they were too sick to work – and others deserting at various ports. After arriving in Tahiti, ten men were charged with various crimes and were thrown in prison by the British consulate. Melville got mixed up in this somehow, and was held as a semi-prisoner on the island, not fully free but not imprisoned. The Lucy Ann, meanwhile, left port on the next leg of its voyage.

After extricating himself from his legal entanglements, Melville joined another whaler, the Charles & Henry, with a contract that bound him only until the next port, and they shipped off from Tahiti in early November 1842. This ship was quite well equipped (in relative terms), and included a library, giving him the first access to books since the desertion in July.  The ship eventually reached the port of Lahaina in present-day Hawaii, and on May 2, 1843 he was a free man again. But again, not for long.  On August 20, he shipped out on the man-of-war United States, as a sailor in the United States Navy. For the next fourteen months, he worked on the United States, which coincidentally made calls in two of Melville’s recent haunts, the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. Finally, in October 1844, Melville returned to the mainland, as the United States landed at Norfolk.

These experiences were invaluable for Herman Melville’s career as a writer, as they led to two slightly fictionalized accounts of his time in the South Pacific – Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas – were inspiration for several fully fictional works, and set the foundation for his greatest work, Moby Dick.

Image Credits: Drawing of Queequeg from a 1902 edition of Moby Dick, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).  Painting of Herman Melville in 1846-47 by Asa Twitchell, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Map showing location of the Marquesas Islands downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

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