While you could argue that practically everyone who has gone through the American education system has at least heard of Moby Dick, the whaling industry, a main element of the epic, is not so well known. In order to fully understand and appreciate this great work, it is in my opinion, important to have somewhat of an understanding of the industry which it is centered around. This is especially true because whaling was such a prominent, and important aspect of 19th century culture and although far less popular, still exists today. Throughout this essay I will give a brief history of whaling, discuss why it was such an important industry in the 19th century, talk about whaling in modern times, and lastly, tie it in to the novel.
Although not popularized until around the 19th century, whaling as a source of food and materials is believed to go back to prehistoric times. Experts believe that people in what is now Korea hunted whales as early as 5000 B.C. while the early inhabitants of Norway started hunting the enormous mammals about a thousand years later (Encyclopedia.com, 2008). Many early Native American tribes on the northwest coast had also practiced whaling (Encyclopedia.com, 2008). These people traditionally used canoes or boats made of animal skins to hunt whales when groups of them passed by during migration. As time went on other people, like the Japanese and Aleuts began to hunt these huge creatures. The Japanese used nets while the Aleuts used poison dipped spears, and the Inuits used toggle head harpoons (Jackson, 2011). Although early peoples who hunted whales for subsistence only went after small whales like Beluga whales and Narwhals, whaling was still a very dangerous affair (Encyclopedia.com, 2001).
The Basques, who dwelled largely around the Bay of Biscay were the first to hunt whales for commercial use (Jackson, 2011). They primarily hunted Right Whales. Because these whales were slow, submissive, and tended to sleep on the surface they were easy prey for the Basques, who caught the creatures on their journey into the bay to breed. They would chase the whales in rowboats and hurl harpoons at them. Because these particular whales’ bodies floated when they died, they effortlessly dragged them to shore to strip and boil the blubber and harvest the bone, also known as baleen. As far back as the 14th century, the Basques set off on a journey to find other good whaling bays and succeeded in finding some on the coast of southern Labrador.
While the Basques grew more and more experienced at the trade of Whaling, people in the North of Europe began to earn more and develop a more profitable market for the whaling industry. In 1610, the Muscovy Company from England began to recruit experienced Basque whale hunters and set off to exploit many of the prominent whaling areas on the island of Spitsbergen. After realizing how profitable the industry really could be, the Dutch followed in the footsteps of the English. The Dutch however,...