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Introduction to Leviathan


From the moment the Pilgrims landed until the early twentieth century, whaling was a powerful force in the evolution of the country. Much of America’s culture, economy, and, in fact its spirit were literally and figuratively rendered from the bodies of whales. Thousands of American ships manned by tens of thousands of men killed hundreds of thousands of whales, which were processed into products and profits that in turn created great fortunes, and spurred the formation and growth of the nation.


American whale oil lit the world. It was used in the production of soap, textiles, leather, paints, and varnishes, and it lubricated the tools and machines that drove the industrial revolution. The baleen cut from the mouths of whales shaped the course of feminine fashion by putting the hoop in hooped skirts and giving form to stomach-tightening and chest-crushing corsets. Spermaceti, that waxy substance from the heads of sperm whales, produced the brightest and cleanest burning candles the world has ever known, while ambergris, a by-product of a sperm whale’s irritable bowel, gave perfumes great staying power and was worth its weight in gold.


The heroic and often tragic stories of American whalemen were renowned. They sailed the world’s oceans and brought back tales filled with bravery, perseverance, endurance, and survival. They mutinied, murdered, rioted, deserted, drank, sang, spun yarns, scrimshawed, and recorded their musings and observations in journals and letters. They survived boredom, backbreaking work, tempestuous seas, floggings, pirates, putrid food, and unimaginable cold. Enemies preyed on them in times of war and competitors envied them in times of peace. Many whalemen died from violent encounters with whales and from terrible miscalculations about the unforgiving nature of nature itself. And through it all, whalemen, those “iron men in wooden boats” created a legacy of dramatic, poignant, and at times horrific stories that can still stir our emotions and animate the most primal part of our imaginations. “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” proclaimed Herman Melville, and the epic story of whaling is one of the mightiest themes in American history.


This book was sparked by an image. A large, oval box in my house is painted with a primitive, powerful whaling scene. The image shows a whaleship with its sails unfurled, three whaleboats filled with men, and two whales that appear to be unnaturally buoyant, seemingly floating on top of the waves. Many times I gazed at that painting and wondered what it was like actually to go whaling. Having gone through the academic ritual of reading Moby-Dick in school, I already knew about whaling, especially the Golden Age during the mid-1800s. But the painting continued to stir my curiosity, and soon I discovered that there were libraries devoted to whaling, providing almost unlimited material for an historical narrative. This book then is my attempt to weave that material into a maritime tapestry that attempts to do justice to America’s rich whaling heritage.


Whaling today is a highly controversial and emotionally explosive issue. The debate between those who favor commercial whaling and those that think it is barbaric and must be eliminated is played out, often daily, in the news. And even though America has an important and vocal role in that debate, it is not a subject that is covered here. Instead, Leviathan seeks to recreate what whaling was, not to address what it is or should be now. Similarly, this book does not pass judgment on American whalemen by applying the moral, ethical, and cultural sensitivities of modern times to the actions of those who operated and existed in a bygone era — one that ended during the early days of the American conservation movement and well before anyone had heard of environmentalism. While it is true that a few whalemen worried about driving whales to extinction, their concern revolved more around the viability of their industry, rather than the need to protect another species. To the whalemen, whales were swimming profit centers to be taken advantage of, not preserved. So, if you are looking for commentary on whether whaling should continue, you will be disappointed. But if you want to appreciate and marvel at the way in which whaling influenced the course of American history, read on.

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