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Now this ambergris is a very curious substance, and so
important as an article of commerce, that in 1791 a certain
Nantucket-born Captain Coffin was examined at the bar of the
English House of Commons on that subject. For at that time,
and indeed until a comparatively late day, the precise origin of
ambergris remained, like amber itself, a problem to the learned.
Though the word ambergris is but the French compound for
grey amber, yet the two substances are quite distinct. For
amber, though at times found on the sea-coast, is also dug up in
some far inland soils, whereas ambergris is never found except
upon the sea. Besides, amber is a hard, transparent, brittle,
odorless substance, used for mouth-pieces to pipes, for beads
and ornaments; but ambergris is soft, waxy, and so highly fragrant


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and spicy, that it is largely used in perfumery, in pastiles,
precious candles, hair-powders, and pomatum. The Turks use it
in cooking, and also carry it to Mecca, for the same purpose that
frankincense is carried to St. Peter's in Rome. Some wine merchants
drop a few grains into claret, to flavor it.

Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen
should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious
bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is. By some, ambergris
is supposed to be the cause, and by others the effect, of the
dyspepsia in the whale. How to cure such a dyspepsia it were
hard to say, unless by administering three or four boat loads of
Brandreth's pills, and then running out of harm's way, as laborers
do in blasting rocks.

I have forgotten to say that there were found in this ambergris,
certain hard, round, bony plates, which at first Stubb
thought might be sailors' trousers buttons; but it afterwards
turned out that they were nothing more than pieces of small
squid bones embalmed in that manner.

Now that the incorruption of this most fragrant ambergris
should be found in the heart of such decay; is this nothing?
Bethink thee of that saying of St. Paul in Corinthians, about
corruption and incorruption; how that we are sown in dishonor,
but raised in glory. And likewise call to mind that saying
of Paracelsus about what it is that maketh the best musk. Also
forget not the strange fact that of all things of ill-savor, Cologne-water,
in its rudimental manufacturing stages, is the worst.

I should like to conclude the chapter with the above appeal,
but cannot, owing to my anxiety to repel a charge often made
against whalemen, and which, in the estimation of some already
biased minds, might be considered as indirectly substantiated by
what has been said of the Frenchman's two whales. Elsewhere
in this volume the slanderous aspersion has been disproved, that
the vocation of whaling is throughout a slatternly, untidy
business. But there is another thing to rebut. They hint that


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all whales always smell bad. Now how did this odious stigma

I opine, that it is plainly traceable to the first arrival of the
Greenland whaling ships in London, more than two centuries
ago. Because those whalemen did not then, and do not now,
try out their oil at sea as the Southern ships have always done;
but cutting up the fresh blubber in small bits, thrust it through
the bung holes of large casks, and carry it home in that manner;
the shortness of the season in those Icy Seas, and the sudden
and violent storms to which they are exposed, forbidding
any other course. The consequence is, that upon breaking into
the hold, and unloading one of these whale cemeteries, in the
Greenland dock, a savor is given forth somewhat similar to that
arising from excavating an old city grave-yard, for the foundations
of a Lying-in Hospital.

I partly surmise also, that this wicked charge against whalers
may be likewise imputed to the existence on the coast of Greenland,
in former times, of a Dutch village called Schmerenburgh
or Smeerenberg, which latter name is the one used by the
learned Fogo Von Slack, in his great work on Smells, a textbook
on that subject. As its name imports (smeer, fat; berg,
to put up), this village was founded in order to afford a place
for the blubber of the Dutch whale fleet to be tried out, without
being taken home to Holland for that purpose. It was a
collection of furnaces, fat-kettles, and oil sheds; and when the
works were in full operation certainly gave forth no very
pleasant savor. But all this is quite different with a South Sea
Sperm Whaler; which in a voyage of four years perhaps, after
completely filling her hold with oil, does not, perhaps, consume
fifty days in the business of boiling out; and in the state that
it is casked, the oil is nearly scentless. The truth is, that living
or dead, if but decently treated, whales as a species are by no
means creatures of ill odor; nor can whalemen be recognised,
as the people of the middle ages affected to detect a Jew in the


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company, by the nose. Nor indeed can the whale possibly be
otherwise than fragrant, when, as a general thing, he enjoys such
high health; taking abundance of exercise; always out of
doors; though, it is true, seldom in the open air. I say, that
the motion of a Sperm Whale's flukes above water dispenses a
perfume, as when a musk-scented lady rustles her dress in a
warm parlor. What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to
for fragrance, considering his magnitude? Must it not be to
that famous elephant, with jewelled tusks, and redolent with
myrrh, which was led out of an Indian town to do honor to
Alexander the Great?