Nantucket and the Whales

Nantucket was built around whaling, and its fate was guided by the fortunes of that industry. By the 1840’s Nantucket was in serious decline. By the time of the War Between the States, whaling from Nantucket had ceased. That civilization is long gone, but it lives in our imaginations in the common lore of America as the backdrop of Moby Dick. Melville walked these streets. Nantucket is a tourist trap now, but its history and symbols still speak chapters and verses as you walk down the street.

Everywhere you go on Nantucket you find whale somethings: teeth with ships scrimshawed on them, carved whales, paintings of whales, embroidered whales, cartoon whales, whales on belt buckles, on jewelry boxes, on pillows, and jars of beach plum jam. Nantucket gave its name to the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” (slay rite), the harrowing experience of being towed in a small boat by an injured whale which has been harpooned. Nantucket is a celebration of the wholesale slaughter of the whale, one of the most gentle and intelligent creatures ever to live. After seeing whales in the wild, I know that the whales have great intelligence and personality. Their intelligence may very well be on a par with our own – different, but not necessarily inferior.

What did they make from whales? Candles, lamp oil, corset ribs. If the East Coast sinks as geologists say it will, perhaps the whales will come someday to visit the spot as we do Nazi death camps, telling grim tales to their children about the time when they were hunted like animals. Of course, they won’t tell the tales; they’ll sing them. It is said that the great Blue Whales can sing to each other across whole oceans. That’s not the kind of animal to render down into a candle no matter how dark it gets.


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