The savagery of man still haunts Earth
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.