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Concerning the officers of the whale-craft, this seems as good
a place as any to set down a little domestic peculiarity on shipboard,


Page 160
arising from the existence of the harpooneer class of officers,
a class unknown of course in any other marine than the

The large importance attached to the harpooneer's vocation is
evinced by the fact, that originally in the old Dutch Fishery,
two centuries and more ago, the command of a whale ship was
not wholly lodged in the person now called the captain, but was
divided between him and an officer called the Specksynder.
Literally this word means Fat-Cutter; usage, however, in time
made it equivalent to Chief Harpooneer. In those days, the
captain's authority was restricted to the navigation and general
management of the vessel: while over the whale-hunting department
and all its concerns, the Specksynder or Chief Harpooneer
reigned supreme. In the British Greenland Fishery,
under the corrupted title of Specksioneer, this old Dutch official
is still retained, but his former dignity is sadly abridged. At
present he ranks simply as senior Harpooneer; and as such, is
but one of the captain's more inferior subalterns. Nevertheless,
as upon the good conduct of the harpooneers the success of a
whaling voyage largely depends, and since in the American
Fishery he is not only an important officer in the boat, but under
certain circumstances (night watches on a whaling ground)
the command of the ship's deck is also his; therefore the grand
political maxim of the sea demands, that he should nominally
live apart from the men before the mast, and be in some way
distinguished as their professional superior; though always, by
them, familiarly regarded as their social equal.

Now, the grand distinction drawn between officer and man at
sea, is this—the first lives aft, the last forward. Hence, in
whale-ships and merchantmen alike, the mates have their quarters
with the captain; and so, too, in most of the American
whalers the harpooneers are lodged in the after part of the ship.
That is to say, they take their meals in the captain's cabin, and
sleep in a place indirectly communicating with it.


Page 161

Though the long period of a Southern whaling voyage (by far
the longest of all voyages now or ever made by man), the
peculiar perils of it, and the community of interest prevailing
among a company, all of whom, high or low, depend for their
profits, not upon fixed wages, but upon their common luck,
together with their common vigilance, intrepidity, and hard work;
though all these things do in some cases tend to beget a less
rigorous discipline than in merchantmen generally; yet, never
mind how much like an old Mesopotamian family these whalemen
may, in some primitive instances, live together; for all
that, the punctilious externals, at least, of the quarter-deck are
seldom materially relaxed, and in no instance done away. Indeed,
many are the Nantucket ships in which you will see the
skipper parading his quarter-deck with an elated grandeur not
surpassed in any military navy; nay, extorting almost as much
outward homage as if he wore the imperial purple, and not the
shabbiest of pilot-cloth.

And though of all men the moody captain of the Pequod was
the least given to that sort of shallowest assumption; and
though the only homage he ever exacted, was implicit, instantaneous
obedience; though he required no man to remove the
shoes from his feet ere stepping upon the quarter-deck; and
though there were times when, owing to peculiar circumstances
connected with events hereafter to be detailed, he addressed
them in unusual terms, whether of condescension or in terrorem,
or otherwise; yet even Captain Ahab was by no means
unobservant of the paramount forms and usages of the sea.

Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually perceived, that behind
those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked
himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more
private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve.
That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a
good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that
same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship.


Page 162
For be a man's intellectual superiority what it will, it can never
assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without
the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments,
always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base. This it is,
that for ever keeps God's true princes of the Empire from the
world's hustings; and leaves the highest honors that this air
can give, to those men who become famous more through their
infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine
Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead
level of the mass. Such large virtue lurks in these small
things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in
some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted
potency. But when, as in the case of Nicholas the Czar,
the ringed crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial
brain; then, the plebeian herds crouch abased before the tremendous
centralization. Nor, will the tragic dramatist who
would depict mortal indomitableness in its fullest sweep and direct
swing, ever forget a hint, incidentally so important in his
art, as the one now alluded to.

But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket
grimness and shagginess; and in this episode touching
Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do
with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward
majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh,
Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked
at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the
unbodied air!