Becker on Cheever, 'The Whale and His Captors; or, The Whaleman's Adventures'
Henry T. Cheever. The Whale and His Captors; or, The Whaleman's Adventures. Edited by Robert D. Madison. Seafaring America Series. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2018. xxxv + 242 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5126-0264-7; $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5126-0265-4.
Reviewed by Erin Becker (Long Island Maritime Museum) Published on H-Environment (May, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56096
During the golden age of whaling, the whaling industry was the fifth most important industry in the United States. At sea for four years at a time, whale ships carried men to the tropics and the polar regions in search of whales. Whaling literature grew from a long tradition of sea literature, beginning with James Fenimore Cooper’s Pilot of the Sea (1824) and Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1822). This genre often incorporated themes of wonder and discovery. In 1850, Henry T. Cheever wrote The Whale and His Captors; Or, the Whaleman’s Adventures. In the preface to the first scholarly edition of The Whale and His Captors, literary scholar Robert D. Madison argues that Cheever’s work grew out of the “Emersonian Wordsworthianism” that sent “Henry Thoreau to the pond, Francis Parkman to the plains, and Dana to the sea” (p. xix). After Richard Henry Dana Jr. established whaling literature as a profitable genre, Cheever’s work made a splash.
Cheever went to sea in 1842 after graduating from Bowdoin College. He reportedly hoped being at sea would cure a “vocal impediment” that threatened his aspirations of becoming a preacher. He traveled aboard the Commodore Preble, a whale ship. Madison states that Cheever’s role on the Commodore Preble was “that of a man of the cloth evangelizing the crew of a Sabbath-keeping ship” (p. xiv). His religious beliefs were fundamental to his experience on the whale ship and to his writing. As Cheever stated, his purpose in writing the book was “to finish the complement of whaling literature, and supply what was wanting, in order to put the reading public in possession of a full length portraiture of the whaleman as seen in the actual pursuit and garb of his perilous occupation” (p. 9). According to Madison, “the purpose of sea fiction for Cheever, obvious from The Whale and His Captors and stated here obliquely, is ‘instructive literary aliment’ for sailors” (p. xxix). In this book, Cheever offers a bird’s-eye view of the whaling industry within the context of nineteenth-century America, reveals the lived experience of whaling work, and condemns the lack of acknowledgment for the Sabbath in this industry.
Cheever’s argument is strengthened by his organization and his descriptive writing style. He opens his book by tracing the historical origins of whaling for commercial interests and establishes the context for New England’s deep sea whaling industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He begins his tale about his travels on the homeward cruise of the Commodore Preble, under Captain Lafayette Ludlow. He details a stop on the island of Rimatrara, his crew’s interaction with the Native peoples on the island, and the impact of missionaries. Early on in his work, Cheever describes the sighting, chase, killing, raising, and processing of a female whale; he clearly details the physiology and natural history of the whale so that the reader will understand the blubber cutting-in and trying-out process. Cheever carefully navigates the line between viewing whales as a commercial product and as creatures of God. He establishes for the reader that whales are mammals and cetaceans, and that they give birth to live young and nurse their young. He also engages in an interesting discussion about the wastefulness of the whaling industry. He takes particular issue with the problem of whale carcasses, which sink before they can be hoisted aboard: “If owners knew how much might be saved by it, they would never let a ship go from port without buoys to hold up dead whales, and long hawsers to lay with by them in gales of wind. The Commodore Preble has lost, in the course of this voyage, seven by sinking after they were ‘turned up,’ and three from alongside in rugged weather” (p. 33).
Midway through his narrative, Cheever offers doubts about the long-term environmental sustainability of the whale fishery. As he gets further into his narrative, Cheever becomes more and more certain that the whaling industry will not be able to sustain itself long term. He repeats that older sperm whales are gone and the whales’ numbers are reduced to the point that “sperm whale fishing alone will not be much longer attempted” (pp. 73-74). After watching the slaughtering of a mother and her calf, Cheever reacts with unexpected emotion. He seems to be struck by two competing drives: economical desire for profit and sympathy for the whales as creatures of God.
Cheever does not shy away from discussing the human cost of the industry. He spends a chapter recounting the story of the tragic American whale ship, the Essex. He muses: “we often wonder that so many escape with their lives from a battlefield; and we equally wonder that, comparatively, so few perish in this most hazardous pursuit” (p. 110). Cheever draws on stories of the “tragedies and perils” of whaling—boats rammed in by whales, sunk when a whale dove, separated from the ship, and/or iced in. Cheever also argues against the spiritual cost of whaling. In chapter 15, for example, he explicitly condemns the whaling industry for its lack of acknowledging the Sabbath. He approximates that the whaling industry has resulted in approximately eighteen to twenty thousand “habitual Sabbath breakers” (p. 113). He blames the owners and captains. Cheever argues that lust is to blame for whaling on the Sabbath and states that “whaling captains and owners are seldom willing, for the honor of GOD or regard to his law, to forego the profits which they think accrue from Sabbath whaling; and therefore, once at sea and on whaling ground, they are unwilling to stop and take breath for a long Lord’s day” (p. 120). Ultimately, Cheever calls for a public outcry to make change.
To construct his narrative, Cheever pulled from an impressive array of sources. First and foremost, he used his experiences drawn from living aboard a whale ship for eight months. He also drew from a variety of secondary sources. He looked at William Scoresby’s writings about Arctic exploration, Charles Wilkes’s work with the US Exploring Expedition, and the work of Francis Allyn Olmstead and Ross Browne. Rather than focusing solely on the work of whaling, Cheever also mused on the whales themselves. He pulled from Thomas Beale’s work on the natural history of the sperm whale and engages in an interesting discussion about whale biology, physiology, behavior, and population demographics over the course of his work. Cheever’s work is significant as it sheds light on historical relationships between commercial interests and religion. It also provides a window into public perceptions of the whaling industry. He immerses his readers in the language used by whalers; the sights, sounds, and smells of whaling; and the particular dangers of the industry. Significantly, Herman Melville drew inspiration from Cheever. The Whale and His Captors is a valuable tool for understanding nineteenth-century maritime life.
Citation: Erin Becker. Review of Cheever, Henry T., The Whale and His Captors; or, The Whaleman's Adventures. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56096This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.