The Enderbys

The Enderbys








Shippers to the Whale Industry - and a Revolution


Both Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville mention the firm of Samuel Enderby in connection with whaling, but both make factual errors regarding their history. According to one commentator:
the ships of Enderbys, merchants and shipowners, brought back from America to England whale oil which the Nantucket men had taken in the South Atlantic and elsewhere and returned to America with cargoes for the colonists. [As a result of the War of Independence] Enderby decided to go into the whaling business himself with his own ships and began three operations in 1785. From then onwards the firm fitted out ship after ship to hunt sperm whale regularly and decided to seek them in new fields - the South Pacific." (E.W. Argyle, "Sea Breezes", 1956)
Poe's contention, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, that the company was from Liverpool, is wrong but not particularly significant. On the other hand, whilst Melville is accurate in attributing their home to London, the symbolism of another error is not so easy to overlook. In a chance meeting (or "gam") between the Pequod and the Samuel Enderby he observes:
Ere the English ship fades from sight, be it set down here, that she hailed from London, and was named after the late Samuel Enderby, merchant of that city, the original of the famous whaling house of Enderby & Sons; a house which in my poor whaleman's opinion, comes not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons, in point of real historical interest. How long, prior to the year of our Lord 1775, this great whaling house was in existence, my numerous fish documents do not make plain; but in that year (1775) it fitted out the first English ships that every regularly hunted the sperm whale; (Moby-Dick, Chapter 101)
In view of the parenthetical reiteration of the year, 1775, as well as the narrator's claim to be making a "point of historical interest," if Enderby & Sons did actually send out their first whaling ship ten years later, in 1785, as Argyle claims, why the switch? The odd decade here or there might be nothing, especially when one considers that, as Melville mentions elsewhere, "the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than all the English, collectively, in ten years." However, though it cannot of course be said for certain what Melville was thinking, and assuming even the relatively tardy English didn't take ten years in fitting out, Ishmael's compromise with historical accuracy does invite some possible associations.

In that year (1775) the first shots had been fired in the Revolutionary War, at Lexington, Massachusetts, signalling the start of militant defiance of the king and, conversely, the embarkation of troops across the Atlantic to defend the colonies. Conditions on board were poor:

... the British government, in order to get troops in action against the "rebels" of 1775-83, had to send them by bulky, slow moving sailing vessels which never took less than four weeks (and often ten) to cross the Atlantic against the prevailing winds. Many soldiers succumbed en route to typhus, and the rest had to be conditioned after they landed, weak and groggy, in a strange land with a perplexing climate. (Morison and Commager, The History of the American Republic)
Similarly, although the crew of the Enderby appear to fare slightly better, their plight is undiminished by Ishmael's condescending tone:
They had dumplings too; small, but substantial, symmetrically globular, and indestructible dumplings ... If you stooped over too far forward, you risked their pitching out of you like billiard-balls. The bread - but that couldn't be helped; besides, it was an anti-scorbutic; in short, the bread contained the only fresh fare they had.
The "fresh fare" would likely have been weevils! To make matters worse, the surgeon aboard the Enderby had a drink problem:
"... But I may as well say - en passant, as the French remark - that I myself - that is to say, Jack Bunger, late of the reverend clergy - am a strict total abstinence man; I never drink -" "Water!" cried the captain; "he never drinks it; it's a sort of fits to him; fresh water throws him into the hydrophobia; but go on - go on with the arm story."
An abstinent, fresh hydrophobic, ex-clerical, French-speaking surgeon on board an English ship! For all the absurdity of this encounter, it did at least avoid mention of one type of liquid refreshment which, had the supposedly tee-total "Jack Bunger" been allowed to continue on the subject, might have pushed to the diplomatic limit an already strained conviviality. The Union "Jack" shippers who had suffered the indignity of having their tea "bunged" by, amongst others, the disguised "savage," Melville's paternal grandfather, Thomas Melvill, into Boston harbour on 16 December 1773 were none other than the Enderbys.


INDEPENDENCE - A Storm in a Tea-Cup


G.K. Chesterton contended that:

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.
Certainly, a narrative voice in Moby-Dick is nothing if not righteous when it imputes to Ahab a blasphemous intent:
Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod's voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; and with perfect impunity, both moral and legal, his crew if so disposed, and to that end competent, could refuse all further obedience to him, and even violently wrest from him the command. (Moby-Dick, chapter 46)
The "moral and legal" justification for the narrator's judgement derives its force as precisely as it could from that political and literary creed, the Declaration of Independence wherein it states that:
"... when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [mankind] under absolute despotism it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government..."
However, the object of criticism here is not Ahab's fight with the white whale but his tyrannous attitude towards the crew. Determining the extent to which the basis of such comparisons between maritime and domestic authority may be laid is problematic, but nevertheless important. It is difficult not to extrapolate from Ishmael's apparent patriotism, or blind faith, as well as from criticisms of the Articles of War made under the cover of a self- consciously clad narrator in Melville's White-Jacket, that although the United States navy was subject to criticism, on land, what Ishmael's literary precursor refers to as "those political insititutions" - the Declaration of Independnce and the Constitution - were indeed sacrosant. While White Jacket's ostensibly singular campaign for naval reform and an end to the cruelty of flogging at sea didn't constitute a sufficiently universal topic to sustain Melville's wider imagination, but it did reveal his dislike for authority vested in one person.

There was, after all, very little the victims of tyranny could do. They could consider either escape or mutiny. Melville had dealt with the former in Mardi, and the latter, under widely varied circumstances, in Benito Cereno, Israel Potter and Billy Budd. Although in Moby-Dick the subversive device of mutiny is recounted, in "The Town-Ho's Story," and considered, in Starbuck's temptation to kill Ahab, it is not actually enacted aboard the Pequod. There may be several reasons for this.

Firstly, locating the source of the narrative voice is problematic, Ishmael himself adopting a variety of personae with shifting perspectives. On the quarter-deck:

"I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs."
If the subsequent denunciation of the illegality and blasphemous immorality of Ahab's usurpation was to be acted upon - and it is notable that the accusation is apparently shared only with the reader and may have been meant as a later authorial interpolation rather than as an immediate realization - mutiny would still have had to have been weighed by the entire crew against their sworn "oaths of violence and revenge" against the white whale. Consideration would also have to be given to their earlier tacit acceptance of the reward system inherent in the Doubloon which Ahab had nailed to the mast, an acceptance which subverted their initial contracts with the ship's owners for a share of the profits through the system of "lays."

Secondly, the captain's hold over his crew is matched by his ability to gull:

... Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue true to the natural, nominal purpose of the Pequod's voyage; observe all customary usages; and not only that, but force himself to evince all his well known passionate interest in the general pursuit of his profession.
Thirdly, and most significantly, such historical themes necessitated for Ahab a fate very different from that of being overthrown, or thrown over, by his crew. What was historically appropriate in Benito Cereno, the spectre of threats to the slave-trade in the Caribbean fuelling Southern fears of naked insurrection, was not, for Moby-Dick, the whole story. Behind Ishmael's invocation of the Declaration of Independence was the successful historical struggle of the colonists against the tyranny of George III and Melville was at great pains to remind his readers of this. It is no coincidence that the monomaniacal one-legged American captain has sworn revenge against the very same enemy encountered by the one-armed English captain of the Samuel Enderby:
- the next instant, in a jiff, I was blind as a bat - both eyes out - all befogged and bedeadened with black foam - the whale's tail looming straight up out of it, perpendicular in the air, like a marble steeple. No use sterning all, then; but as I was groping at midday, with a blinding sun, all crown-jewels; as I was groping, I say, after the second iron, to toss it overboard - down comes the tail like a Lima tower, cutting my boat in two ...
This association of the "blinding sun" to the trappings of monarchical splendour is, as an excuse, unlikely to cut much ice with the American captain. Ahab's defiant rhetoric in answer to Starbuck's direct charge on the quarter-deck had included the order: "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." Indeed, that putting at stake the Copernican heliocentric order was very much a part of American naval tradition, and could never have occurred within England, had been made clear by "White-Jacket:"
... a ship is a bit of terra firma cut off from the main, it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king. It is no limited monarchy, where the sturdy Commons have a right to petition, and snarl if they please; but almost a despotism, like the Grand Turk's. The captain's word is law; he never speaks but in the imperative mood. When he stands on his quarter-deck at sea, he absolutely commands as far as eye can reach. Only the moon and stars are beyond his jurisdiction. He is lord and master of the sun. It is not twelve o'clock till he says so.
When even the clocks cannot strike without the captain's say-so, how could they find time to face up to him and consider mutiny? On the other hand, for all Ahab's defiant rhetoric and usurped power, he was captain not of a naval but of a whaling vessel. He too was mortal and, like the captain of the Enderby, had had a limb bitten off by the white whale to prove it. He listens somewhat impatiently to the English crew's account of their conflict, displaying a blend of interest and discomfort perhaps to be explained by deeper historical resonances associated with Melville's own genealogy.

The success of the hereditary monarch's ("Enderby & Sons ... not far behind the united royal houses of the Tudors and Bourbons") naval reinforcement of the colonies in 1775 is history, a discipline in which the "poor whaleman" dabbled: "The abounding good cheer of these English whalers is matter for historical research. Nor have I been at all sparing of historical whale research, when it has seemed needed." From the somewhat confused narrative of the excited English captain's "yarn", and from Ishmael's contorted historiography, the choice of "all crown-jewels" is, then, highly significant. The shining monarchical metonym is chosen by a captain whose attempt to grasp hold of Moby Dick had ended in failure and loss. As, for the English crown, it was to have been no more taxation without representation, so, for the English captain, boatless and disarmed, it was now "No more White Whales for me"

A strictly historical interpretation of this symbolism would therefore suggest that those readers brave enough to seek a "meaning" in the white whale may find it somewhere within the rhetorical creed of the revolutionary era of the American Republic. Since, like the English captain, Ahab has also lost a limb to Moby Dick it would follow that he too had lost an argument with the Republic. Given that Ahab was a citizen of that Republic it is perhaps hardly surprising that the Enderby gam" produced such little mutual understanding of the nature of the leviathan, even less agreement regarding the desirability of its pursuit.

copyright (c) 1994 Andrew L Graham


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Andrew Graham asd00@cc.keele.ac.uk