The Natural History of the Sperm Whale…, to which is Added, a Sketch of a South-Sea Whaling Voyage.

Part I is a scientific and fairly analytic description of the sperm whale, from physiology to diet to reproductive systems. Part II on the voyage begins in October 1830, observing no land between England and Cape Horn, where the Fuegians despite the gloomy terrain and wretched conditions “seem to possess a considerable share of that inestimable blessing—happiness” (p. 200). It is both charming and frightening in its description of certain adventures, and very good at describing the extremes of ennui and excitement.

p. 130-33, a curious example of a reading experience which I find compelling though off the usual path of this compilation:


ALTHOUGH ambergris, even during the sixteenth century, appeared to be much valued as a mercantile commodity by the English, it is curious that we knew nothing of its source, and very little of the use which was made of it in other countries.

In the year 1672, we find the Hon. Robert Boyle claiming the honour of having discovered its source from a manuscript which was found on board a Dutch East Indiaman which had fallen into our hands by the chance of war. This precious document stated, that “ambergreese is not the scum or excrement of the whale, but issues out of the root of a tree, which tree, howsoever it stands on the land, alwaies shoots forth its roots towards the sea, seeking the warmth of it, thereby to deliver the fattest gum that comes out of it, which tree otherwise by its copious fatness might be burnt and destroyed: wherever that fat gum is shot into the sea, it is so tough that it is not easily broken from the root, unless its own weight and the working of the warm sea doth it, and so it floats on the sea; there was found by a souldier 7/8ths of a pound, and by the chief two pieces, weighing five pounds. If you plant the trees where the stream sets to the shore, then the stream will cast it up to great advantage! March 1st, 1672, in Batavia.”— Phil.Trans., vol. viii. p. 6113.

But notwithstanding the above statement, Dr. Thomas Brown, in his work published a few years afterwards (1686), in his description of a sperm whale which was thrown on the coast of Norfolk, states that “in vain it was to rake for ambergriese in the paunch of this leviathan, as Greenland discoverers, and attests of experience dictate, that they sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the sea—insufferable fetor denying that inquiry; and yet if, as Paracelsus encourageth, ordure makes the best musk, and from the most feted substances may be drawn the most odoriferous essences, all that had not Vespasian’s nose might boldly swear here was a substance for such extractions;” which proves that the Dr. still suspected that the ambergris was found in the sperm whale, although it was found by this animal floating in the sea, and swallowed by it in “great lumps!”

But it was reserved for Dr. Boylston, of Boston, to enlighten mankind on this important subject, and he therefore claims the discovery of its source in the following manner: “The most learned part of mankind are still at a loss about many things even in medical use, and particularly were so, in what is called ambergris, until our whale fishermen of Nantucket, in New England, some three or four years past made the discovery. [There follows two pages of detail about ambergris and a letter from an American Fellow of the Royal Society, Hon. Paul Dudley on various uses of the substance]: Further on in the same letter he states, “I meddle not here with the precious ambergris found in this whale, because I design to close the whole with that discovery.” And here is his conclusion: “But truth,” says he, “is the daughter of time; it is now at length found out, that occultum naturae is an animal production, and bred in the body of the spermaceti whale. I doubt not,” he continues, “but in process of time some further particulars may be procured with respect to ambergris, and I shall be proud to transmit them; in the mean time I hope the Society will accept of this first essay, and allow my poor country the honour of discovering, or at least ascertaining, the origin and nature of ambergris.”—Phil. Trans. vol. xxxiii.

In a paper which was read before the Royal Society by Dr. Schwediawer, in 1783, respecting the medical properties of ambergris, he remarks, that “if we wish to see any medicinal effects from this substance, we must certainly not expect them from two or three grains, but give rather as many scruples of it for a dose; though even then I should not expect much from it, as I have taken of pure unadulterated ambergris in powder thirty grains at once, without observing the least sensible effect from it. A sailor, however, who had the curiosity to try the effects of some recent ambergris upon himself, took half an ounce of it melted upon the fire, and found it a good purgative, which proves that it is not quite inert.” Phil. Trans. vol. lxxiii. p. 226.

p. 235, on their first view of the magnificent islands: If I could feel so great an excitement in beholding the exceedingly beautiful scenery of this place, what must the discoverers have felt when they first found these islands? Lying in the midst of the vast North Pacific Ocean, after having cruised in search of land week after week, month after month, at length almost despairing, all on board dull and melancholy—nothing new, nothing seen to disturb the monotony on board—all at once rises to their astonished and delighted sight a chain of romantic and magnificent islands, with a new people, having a new language to any yet known, new manners and customs for their observation; no one can describe the feelings which they must have enjoyed on that great occasion.

p. 317, after another threat of total shipwreck: We sincerely thanked the Disposer of all things for again preserving us from so horrible a calamity; as in the event of our shipwreck in this part of the world we should have been surrounded by savages whose sordid souls know naught of kindness to the stranger.

Thus Beale effortlessly swings from extreme excitement to ennui, with nary a word about how sailors tried to amuse themselves with mere books.