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Herman Melville’s Whaling Years

Wilson Heflin

Publication Year: 2004

"This rich storehouse of a study of Herman Melville’s whaling years promises to be both an instant classic and a constant resource. . . . It reconstructs the story of Melville’s four-year Pacific adventure with clarity, force, and freshness, using an astonishing variety of new and out-of-the-way sources."—Christopher Sten, President, The Melville Society Based on more than a half-century of research, Herman Melville’s Whaling Years is an essential work for Melville scholars. In meticulous and thoroughly documented detail, it examines one of the most stimulating periods in the great author’s life—the four years he spent aboard whaling vessels in the Pacific during the early 1840s. Melville would later draw repeatedly on these experiences in his writing, from his first successful novel, Typee, through his masterpiece Moby-Dick, to the poetry he wrote late in life. During his time in the Pacific, Melville served on three whaling ships, as well as on a U.S. Navy man-of-war. As a deserter from one whaleship, he spent four weeks among the cannibals of Nukahiva in the Marquesas, seeing those islands in a relatively untouched state before they were irrevocably changed by French annexation in 1842. Rebelling against duty on another ship, he was held as a prisoner in a native calaboose in Tahiti. He prowled South American ports while on liberty, hunted giant tortoises in the Galápagos Islands, and explored the islands of Eimeo (Moorea) and Maui. He also saw the Society and Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands when the Western missionary presence was at its height. Heflin combed the logbooks of any ship at sea at the time of Melville’s voyages and examined nineteenth-century newspaper items, especially the marine intelligence columns, for mention of Melville’s vessels. He also studied British consular records pertaining to the mutiny aboard the Australian whaler Lucy Ann, an insurrection in which Melville participated and which inspired his second novel, Omoo. Distilling the life’s work of a leading Melville expert into book form for the first time, this scrupulously edited volume is the most in-depth account ever published of Melville’s years on whaleships and how those singular experiences influenced his writing.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. xi-xiii

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Editors’ Preface

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pp. xv-xxii

For years the log of the USF United States, the ship on which Herman Melville served after his whaling career had come to an end, lay on a shelf in the National Archives in Washington. ...

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Author’s Introduction

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pp. xxiii-xxv

The most stimulating and exciting objective experiences of Herman Melville’s life came during the four years (1841–44) when he sailed the Pacific Ocean and wandered about its romantic isles. In three whaling vessels, two American and one Australian, he cruised for the great spermaceti whale...

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1. Merry Christmas

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pp. 1-14

After mid-year 1840, there was little promise in the land for Herman Melville. The twenty-year-old schoolteacher was unemployed, his family was destitute, and the country was still suffering, without much hope of respite, from the effects of the depression of 1837.1 ...

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2. The Acushnet and Her Owners

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pp. 15-17

The Acushnet, in which Herman Melville first learned whaling, was a new ship. She was carvel built, with two decks, three masts, and a square stern with minimum tuck. Her displacement was 358 and 71/95 tons. ...

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3. Captain Valentine Pease, Jr.

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pp. 18-24

Few New England families were more intimate with the occupation of whaling than that of Captain Valentine Pease, Jr., master of the Acushnet. Valentine Pease the elder, his father, and Malatiah Pease, his grandfather, were both master mariners before him.1 ...

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4. Ship’s Company

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pp. 25-30

Six days after the Acushnet came to anchor in the harbor of Fairhaven, Joseph Waren Stedman, engaged as the cooper, became the first member of the ship’s company to sign the Whalemen’s Shipping Paper, or ship’s articles, for the voyage.1 ...

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5. The Agreement and the Law

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pp. 31-36

The ten articles of the Whalemen’s Shipping Paper that Herman Melville and twenty-five other members of the original ship’s company of the Acushnet had signed on December 30, 1840, constitute an important document in the study of Melville’s whaling career. ...

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6. All Astir

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pp. 37-42

Like Ishmael of Moby-Dick, who arrived at Nantucket at a period when the Pequod’s preparations for sea were hurrying to a close,2 Melville came to Fairhaven at a time when the fitting-out of the Acushnet was well advanced. ...

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7. On Passage

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pp. 43-49

After the Acushnet was settled well upon her course, Herman Melville and his new shipmates were doubtless mustered aft, according to the custom aboard whalers, to be told off into two watches for the passage and divided into whaleboat crews.1 ...

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8. There She Blows

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pp. 50-58

If, with the exception of Moby-Dick, every account of the taking of whales and the cutting-in that turned them into barrels of oil was lost, we would still know a good deal about the essential action of the whale hunt. But there are multitudinous accounts, and the story of whaling is told again and again. ...

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9. Rio, the Horn, and the In-Shore Ground

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pp. 59-68

On her seventieth day out, Saturday, March 13, 1841, the Acushnet passed between bold and precipitous barriers flanking the narrow entrance to the Bay of Botafoga. She worked her way into the beautiful sheet of water that fills an oval basin 30 miles long and 15 miles wide and came to anchor in the harbor of...

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10. Santa

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pp. 69-72

The men of the forecastle broke out their go-ashore clothes and straw Payta hats on Wednesday, June 23. At noon the Acushnet was moving a little to the west of La Viuda Island and northwest-by-west of the Bay of Santa. ...

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11. The Off-Shore Ground

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pp. 73-81

When Captain George W. Gardner of the whaler Globe returned to Nantucket in 1820 with a full ship—one of the first to carry more than 2,000 barrels of sperm oil to the island—he brought exciting news of the discovery of a new whaling ground. ...

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12. A Dead Whale or a Stove Boat

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pp. 82-89

“Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity” (7:37), Ishmael observes in Moby-Dick after describing the gloomy marble tablets of the whalemen’s conventicle at New Bedford, which recounted fatalities in the fishery. ...

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13. Enchanted Isles

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pp. 90-105

After leaving the Off-Shore Ground the Acushnet sailed for the Galápagos Islands. Melville reacted strongly to the sight of them: ...

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14. Tumbez and More Cruising

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pp. 106-125

The passage from Chatham Island to Tumbez, Peru, although not direct, was brief, requiring a week for the Acushnet to make good something more than 600 miles.1 Winds were either fresh or moderate, and the weather remained pleasant. ...

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15. Authentic Eden in a Pagan Sea

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pp. 126-143

Soon after his ship entered Taiohae Bay, Melville tells us in Typee, a South Sea island vagabond—an Englishman jovially and almost helplessly inebriated—came alongside in a whaleboat and insisted on piloting the craft to her anchorage.1 ...

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16. Jimmy and Toby

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pp. 144-157

When Gansevoort Melville, newly appointed secretary to the United States Legation in London, sailed on July 31, 1845, aboard the clipper ship Great Western, he carried with him the manuscript of his brother Herman’s first book. ...

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17. The Troublesome Crew of the Lucy Ann

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pp. 158-175

Five months after he sailed on a whaling voyage in the barque Lucy Ann of Sydney, Australia, Captain Henry Ventom lost ascendancy over the rebellious crew and had to appeal to external authority for aid in restoring order. ...

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18. Nantucket Whaler

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pp. 176-186

The customary chore of writing a cruise report to owners of the ship under his command seemed most disagreeable to Captain John B. Coleman, Jr., after his arrival at Eimeo (Moorea) in late October 1842. In all his whaling years—at least seventeen according to the record and more than ten of them as a captain—he had never made a worse voyage. ...

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19. Lahaina and Honolulu

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pp. 187-193

It was the height of the spring recruiting season at Lahaina when Melville’s ship arrived. Fourteen whalers lay in the roadstead on April 27, and another cast anchor during the day. The Midas of New Bedford, now on a new voyage under a new master and making ready to sail, the William Lee of New-...

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20. Mutiny, Mayhem, and the Town-Ho

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pp. 194-205

Herman Melville’s whaling career ended May 2, 1843, when he was discharged from the Charles and Henry at Lahaina. He had no further personal experiences on the decks of blubber hunters or in their cedar whaleboats. ...

Appendix I: Toby Greene

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pp. 207-219

Appendix II: The Marquesas

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pp. 221-229

Appendix III: Oil from Whales

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pp. 231-240


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pp. 241-295


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pp. 297-307


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pp. 309-332

E-ISBN-13: 9780826591449
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826513823
Print-ISBN-10: 0826513824

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2004

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Childhood and youth.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Travel -- South Pacific Ocean.
  • Americans -- South Pacific Ocean -- History -- 19th century.
  • Whaling -- South Pacific Ocean -- History -- 19th century.
  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Knowledge -- Whaling.
  • Novelists, American -- 19th century -- Biography.
  • Whalers (Persons) -- United States -- Biography.
  • South Pacific Ocean -- History.
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