"I just begin to find out that whaling will never do for me and have determined to leave the ship here if possible." That sentiment, expressed by a foremast hand aboard the ship Caroline in 1843, is one shared by many of the whalemen in this fascinating book. Interest in Herman Melville's Moby Dick has contributed to a substantial literature on the history and lore of the industry. But not until now has the vast body of surviving whaleship logs and journals been used to paint an encompassing picture of the difficult but colorful life aboard nineteenth-century American whaling vessels.
Briton Cooper Busch, author of a definitive history of the American sealing industry, in this book only incidentally discusses the actual chase for whales. His focus instead is the life of whalemen at sea, and particularly the harsh discipline that kept men aboard through long and often dispiriting years. Busch depicts the complex social world aboard ship, defining and detailing such issues as crime and punishment, competing racial elements, the social distance between officers and men, sexual behavior, and the role of women aboard ships.
For oppressed, discouraged, or simply bored whalemen, several escapes existed, from the rarest of all mutiny through labor protests of various types, to individual desertion or appeal to an American consul abroad. To each of these topics Busch devotes a chapter. He also provides glimpses of those occasional moments of relief such as a Fourth of July celebration and such somber moments as a death at sea.
Fascinating details and original quotations from individual whalemen make this book more than a study of general trends. For anyone with even a casual interest in whaling, it is indispensable.