Sunday, September 13, 2009

It is here that I skip ahead.

It is here that I skip ahead. I want to tell you of how the boy’s eyes grew when he saw his first whale thrashing about the waves. I want to tell you how suspicion rose aboard the ship as men left ranks to join the sea and the ambitious young cabin boy began to climb the shipboard ladder. I want to tell you of the ruddy faced young man who wooed the daughter of a ship builder in Bristol only to have her locked inside the tallest lighthouse on the Irish coast, waiting for her fair man to return. But each of these moments, incidents, has a history in its own right- belittered with nuance and detail- so that I have not enough time to address them all with the mystery and grief they are owe. Instead we will skip ahead to our crew, living underneath our sullied captain, with neither sight of civilized land, nor proper water to drink, nor a kind hand to fall upon, for the better part of eighteen months.

You'll see now how it is helpful to know something of whaling. Signing on with a captain required little skill, rather it required the foolery of a man in debt, a love for turgid waters, or a suicidal commitment to money. Each sailor signing on with Captain McKay read the clause-it was the only reason for the contract- stating that without consultation, without hesitation, and under no burden to increase ration wages or intent, a whaling ship captain may extend the duration of the voyage, indefinitely in six month increments. His only bound duty was to pay the men a share of whatever was caught in those six months. If the catch was low, so was the compensation. It sat low on the contract of every man boarding a whale bound vessel, hidden in the legal jargon and grazed through by those who could read. Few captains exercised the right if the catch was moderate, and nearly none if the catch was high. So sailors had little to fear in terms of slave labor, and much to gain if the takes were low. McKay’s ship always took high, the men never assumed another six months at sea. They were tired men, moving forward on the promise of riches and soft women. McKay denied them that.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

He was a young man, even a boy, when ill-fate stumbled him onto the water.

He was a young man, even a boy, when ill-fate stumbled him onto the water. His mother dead and his father a stranger, the lad had no family to gather care for or from. All he knew of his past was a love-sick mother and a father’s affair with the torrents of a great ocean. All he knew of his future was the grime of the streets he was left with in her death. That he survived the plague ridden gutters of his youth with neither alcoholism nor the clap speaks well enough for his strength of character, and at the age of sixteen- as best any records from that time might show- he signed on as a cabin boy with his sights set on the water and what might remain of his family.

Or that’s how one version of the story goes. This story, after all, may or may not be true.

Some say that he wasn’t orphaned at all, that even as a child he was obsessed with the vastness of the ocean. The ocean in his child’s eyes was God’s Magnum Opus. Perfection carved by the liquid hand of the divine. Any man seeking to test his might and worth in the eyes of God must at least once set out upon the open sea- to meet Him face-to-face. His childlike piety grew from endearing to obsessive and where his well-to-do parents had encouraged religion in the boy, his watery version of a malevolent God did not fit with the daily goings on of a protestant household. When they sought to placate the boy with weekends at the sea shore disaster ensued. Nights better spent in bed the not-yet-captain would be found rowing a dory toward the eddies and waves. Father and mother screaming from the waterline would watch the pale face of young McKay begging for God to challenge his devotion. When one such night the boy failed to return to shore his parents were overwhelmed with both the intensity of grief and the guilt of relief. Perhaps it was not their right after all to keep the child from reaching his divinity. When they were informed some years later that their disobedient son had signed with a merchant ship as a cabin boy they let their memory of him fade away, and concentrated instead on the docile girl they had given birth to in his absence.

But that’s just another version of the story. Whether searching for his father or searching for eternity one thing remains true. He lost faith in the power of both God and man when he first set eyes on the Great Whale.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It started with a question about whales

It is valuable to know something about whaling, but it is necessary to know something about greed. The kind of greed which consumes a man beyond any shadow of humanity and pushes him into the well of indignity, cruelty, and obsession. Not all men are susceptible to it, few succumb to it, but for those who are lured b the charms it is well said that all is lost. It is the greed men are consumed by when they begin the hunt for the great fish. The greatness of this devilfish is well underestimated by modern men. If you cannot understand these things, my friend, you are better off moving on from this tale. For without that at least an awe for the great whale you will not understand how this one captain dredged his crew through such a misshapen adventure.
A history lesson. In the late seventeen hundreds the world reached the brink of a new age. A shift in human behavior arose that depended solely on the availability of light- artificial light. Invention, commerce, extended shop hours, and later bedtimes riddled cities and towns as for the first time lamps graced tables and counter tops. In the bulb of each lamp, oil from the body of a whale. Unlike the early parts of the century when families treated this phenomena as both privilege and miracle, with the influx of whales came something man has not yet since been able to tear itself away from- a dependency on oil.
It is with this in mind that I ask you to frame the following piece of legality. Come the late eighteenth century whaling boat captains had their crew members sign contracts. These contracts authorized the captain to extend a whaling voyage by six month increments at will and without the cooperation of the crew. With the money to be had on the bounty of the sea few sailors refused to sign, but this contract tested the limits of even the heartiest of men.
With that in mind allow me to introduce our crew. A ramshackled group of 37 men aboard a ninety foot whaling vessel named Misery’s Madame. Strange bedfellows the sailors. Some barely through with pirating, others green to the ocean’s seductive charms. Most with families tucked away safely inland so to remain ignorant of both the rough seas faced by husbands and fathers, as well as the rough women tumbled about the trade. Some good men, some foul-mouthed, and all with the roughness and blight of life enough to fill their own stories. And although without doubt this story belongs to these men- for some those months at sea dominate their biographies- it first and foremost is a story about a captain.
Captain McKay was as charming a man could be at port, to the reverend he was a dear friend, to the tippler a mate, and to the British council a gentleman who paid his dues- but ask any man who’d sailed beneath him and they will tell you the man was nothing short of a cunning beast set to dredge each man of his worth. When he wrangled his crew he saw nothing of the story twinkling inside each eye, he saw only an arms length closer to the belly of a whale. He measured the weight of his crew in barrels of oil, and any man who drained rather than filled would be noted under the watchful stare of Captain McKay. He disliked dishonest men and braggarts. Any man at port who overestimated his skills before the mast was unlikely to keep his post when discovered aloof at sea. Many accidents occur aboard a ship. Many a man disappeared under the court of the Captain.