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  • Whales, Cannibals, and Second Nature
  • Richard J. Callahan Jr. (bio)

Alexander Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery is an unlikely candidate for inclusion in nineteenth-century America’s canon of monstrosity. It is, in size, a monstrous text of nearly eight hundred pages, most of them made up of tables recording “returns of whaling-vessels, sailing from American ports, since the year 1715” (to 1876). These tables report the basic information that constitutes the vital core of the whaling industry: vessel name, class, and tonnage; captain and owner or agent; whaling ground and dates of departure and return; results of each voyage in barrels of oil and whalebone; and special remarks. Taken together, this collection of information itself outlines the contours of a monstrous enterprise of violent global resource extraction that I suggest is basic to the constitution of a particular formation of modern subjectivity, a point to which I will return later. But first, the ubiquitous depictions of whales as monsters in the narrative portion of the text are inescapable. Quoting from ship’s logs and sources like Reverend Henry T. Cheever’s The Whale and His Captors (1850), Starbuck describes in visceral detail the monstrous struggles of man and whale. And it is this word, “monster,” that reappears throughout his text and the texts that he cites (and others not cited). The following example, from Captain William M. Davis’s Nimrod of the Sea (1874), is typical:

“When the monster was struck,” says Captain Davis, “he did not attempt to escape, but turned at once on the boat with his jaw, cut her in two, and continued thrashing the wreck until it was completely broken up. One of the loose boats picked up the swimmers and took them to the ship; the other two boats went on, and each planted two irons in the irate animal. This aroused him, and he turned his full fury on them, crushing in their bottoms with the jaw, and not leaving them while a promising mouthful held together. Twelve demoralized men were in the water, anxious observers of his majestic anger. Two men who could not swim had, in their terror, climbed on his back, and seated themselves astride forward of the hump, as perhaps the safest place from that terrible ivory-mounted war-club which he had brandished with such awful effect. At one time another man was clinging to [End Page 190] the hump with his hands. The boat which had gone to the whip with the crew of the first stove boat now returned and took the swimmers on board.

“The whale now had six harpoons in him, and to these were attached three tow-lines of 300 fathoms each. He manifested no disposition to escape, but sought to reduce still further the wreck about him. Boats, masts, and sails were entangled in his teeth; and if an oar or anything touched him, he struck madly at it with his jaw.”1

Starbuck’s history drills in the deadliness of the whale hunt, presenting it as both risky enterprise and heroic pursuit. The whaling man was not just a laborer but a monster killer. To go to sea in the quest for whale oil, as depicted by Starbuck and so many others, was to engage in combat with monsters.

The monsters of the nineteenth-century whaling industry are relevant today in the present crisis of global climate change. The postcolonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently remarked that emergence of the “Anthropocene”—the new geological era that began, according to environmental data, in the late eighteenth century, in which humans are primary shapers of the earth’s environment—requires that historians reexamine our perspective. Critical historians tend to be wary of universalizing categories like “species.” Yet accounting for how we got to here “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans.” From an ecological, geological, or biological standpoint the kinds of differentiations that historians insist undercut universal categories of the human neglect to take into account the climate and environmental parameters that have made human historical changes possible.2

The Anthropocene was born alongside modernity. Chakrabarty notes that our histories...