The sav­agery of man still haunts Earth

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - PETER WOODS

It is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that whal­ing off the SA coast only ended in 1975

Watch­ing south­ern right whales breach­ing off the coast­line in the breed­ing sea­son, it is dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that whal­ing off the SA coast only ended in 1975 when the Dur­ban whal­ing sta­tion closed.

De­spite our modern aver­sion to whal­ing, the prac­tice of slaugh­ter­ing these leviathans is an an­cient prac­tice, and still sur­vives in the Inuit com­mu­ni­ties of Canada and Alaska.

To any English speaker the men­tion of whal­ing con­jures up that ar­che­typal tale pub­lished by Her­mann Melville on Oc­to­ber 18 1851.

Moby Dick, along with Cap­tain Ahab and his ship, the Pe­quod, were all com­plete fic­tion, but the tale had been in­spired by a real event in 1820 when a whaler, the Es­sex, was sunk by a sperm whale that rammed her twice.

The year af­ter Moby Dick was pub­lished Melville vis­ited Nan­tucket, the is­land set­ting of his novel, for the first time.

Imag­ine his syn­chro­nis­tic sur­prise when he chanced to meet the then 60-year-old man who had cap­tained the Es­sex on its fate­ful ex­pe­di­tion.

Melville did not spend much time with Cap­tain Ge­orge Pol­lard jnr, who was only 29 when the Es­sex went down, but he was im­pressed by the old man who had given up sea­far­ing and was em­ployed as Nan­tucket’s night watch­man.

The rea­son Melville did not en­gage Pol­lard was mainly out of re­spect for the ordeal and hor­rors the cap­tain had suf­fered at sea, and surely carried with him.

“To the is­landers he was a no­body,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unas­sum­ing, that I ever en­coun­tered.”

Pol­lard had told his story to a mis­sion­ary, Ge­orge Ben­nett, from whom Melville had heard it sec­ond hand.

Long be­fore post-trau­matic stress disor­der ther­apy, con­fes­sion was the only cure for these trau­mas.

The Es­sex set sail in Au­gust 1819 and had whaled thou­sands of miles to sea, when in Novem­ber 1820, the sailors spot­ted a mon­strous whale of 26m (just 60cm shorter than the Es­sex it­self) ly­ing qui­etly in the ocean watch­ing the ship.

Sud­denly it bore down on the ves­sel at about three knots (5.5km/h) and rammed her head on.

Af­ter thrash­ing about in the sea, the gi­ant turned again and charged, this time at dou­ble the speed.

It struck the Es­sex just be­hind the bow.

Within hours the whaler sank, leav­ing 20 men in three lifeboats.

Res­cued af­ter 89 days at sea, there were only five sur­vivors who had stayed alive by draw­ing lots and then can­ni­bal­is­ing their own mates, a sea­far­ing cus­tom from the 1700s.

One of the vic­tims was Pol­lard’s own cousin.

Ac­cused of “gas­tro­nomic incest”, Pol­lard re­mained for­ever haunted.

Each year on the an­niver­sary of the Es­sex’s sink­ing he locked him­self in his room and fasted to hon­our the dead who had kept him alive.

Hap­pily global whale pop­u­la­tions are now pro­tected, but hu­man sav­agery and en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­ploita­tion con­tinue to can­ni­balise the planet.

● Peter Woods is a pas­toral coun­sel­lor.

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