Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
by Eric Jay Dolin. 373 pages, hardcover. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Was there ever a more romantic, legendary occupation in American history than the whaling industry, pitting men, hand-held harpoons, and small boats against the largest creatures on Earth? The industry folklore has given America one of its greatest novels, Moby Dick, and scores of paintings and illustrations of men in small boats being swamped by the jaws of sperm whales. But whaling was a business – an ugly, dangerous business that involved killing. American sailing ships from New England ports like Nantucket and New Bedford set out on round-the-world trips lasting as many as four years, hoping their luck would fill the hold with barrels of oil.
That whaling was a business is closely chronicled by Eric Jay Dolin in his new book, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. From the time the first European colonists arrived in America, Dolin notes, attempts to kill and profit from whales was a major part of the conquest of America. Indeed, some scholars believe whalers from the Bay of Biscay reached North America before Columbus arrived in 1492.
The ups and downs of the industry are well described by Dolin, who also includes plenty of anecdotes about individual voyages and the Yankee entrepreneurs who sailed in search of whales. Some came back with virtual fortunes in whale oil and baleen from one voyage; others came back empty-handed or not at all.
Light was the driving force of the American whaling epic, for whale oil burned bright in the homes of Americans and Europeans in a time before electricity or petroleum. From roughly 1700 to 1900, the US whaling effort thrived. Wars occasionally interrupted the trade, and whaleships often became targets. But after the wars, the demand for more whale oil sent the whalers to the far corners of the oceans, seeking the increasingly scarce whales that could be rendered for the oil.
An additional economic benefit of the hunts was baleen, the plastic of the 1700s and 1800s. Corset stays and buggy whips were made from baleen, which hangs in the mouths of baleen whales and strains the small crustaceans (krill) they eat from mouthfuls of seawater. Women’s fashions could make or break a whaling company.
The killing led to the severe depletion of many species of whales, notably the right whale (which was believed to be so named because it was the “right” whale to kill – it floated when harpooned and had large amounts of baleen and oil), the gray whale, and the bowhead. Sperm whales fared a bit better, but still were scarce by the waning days of whaling. While the gray, bowhead, and sperm whale have shown some signs of recovery (although full recovery is still years away), right whale populations around the world remain in jeopardy.
Dolin’s writing style is entertaining and involving. His account of the complex history of the whaling industry is exceptional and highly recommended.
Dolin is a bit weaker on the biological end of whaling. It is now well established that the “scrag” whales killed in early colonial days along the Atlantic coast were a population of gray whales, and that the sperm whales’ huge head, filled with fine oil, is used in echolocation. Dolin mentions these theories, but goes on to bring up older alternatives that have been largely abandoned by biologists. For example, Dolin repeats the old claim that the sperm whale’s strange, squared-off head is used to cushion the shock of it hitting something, but that kind of behavior has not been observed.
Still, Leviathan is an excellent one-volume history of the age of whaling in America. Commercial whaling is still going on, led by Japan, Norway, and Iceland, and whales are still being sought in this century for much more trivial purposes. America ended most of its whaling effort at the turn of the 20th century. The last US whaling station, in Richmond, CA, was closed in 1972. Since then, a multi-million dollar whale-watching industry has taken its place.
Our nation’s whale fishery has hurt the world’s whales badly. Dolin’s book reminds us of the heroic past of this commercial enterprise. But we must now right the commercial wrongs of the past by protecting whales from current harm, including whaling, toxic pollution of the oceans, and fishing nets. Today, our heroes know that whales are worth much more alive than dead.