Follow the Whale

This charming book is not about what whalemen read, but rather about good reading about whales. While presenting a broad picture of the history and literature of whaling, Sanderson does offer a caution: We still don’t know very much about anything, and our current ideas on the past are grotesquely warped in certain respects. Our cultural background in western Europe bequeathed to us a singularly lopsided view of ancient history and a strangely biased opinion of our own importance. Europe has been regarded by Europeans for over a thousand years not only as the hub of the universe, but also as the fountainhead of civilization. In point of historical and geographical fact, it is nothing more than a large, rugged peninsula at the west end of Eurasia, the greatest land block on earth, and the womb of culture, as possibly also of modern man himself. One, two, three, or even four thousand years of ascendancy by Europe or any other part of the world is of little real significance in the over-all sweep of history, and even our history is now being discovered to be much more ancient than was previously supposed possible. Stone Age man in Europe, and his more cultured counterparts in other continents, was not nearly so stupid and primitive as we used to think. Jewelry was traded between Ireland and Crete two thousand years before Christ; the Koreans used ironclad ships centuries before we did; Indian princes sailed the open oceans with seven hundred retainers in one ship before the Greeks had invented a fore-and-aft sail; and rorquals were shot with harpoon guns a thousand years before Svend Foyn initiated the modern whaling period. What is more, all kinds of people were roving the oceans from continent to continent millennia before the peoples of western Europe had so much as put a mast in a coracle. Not until the lateness of our own times is appreciated, can any real concept of the past be obtained. And when we come to the history of the whales, we have to start thinking in altogether different terms again. In order to gain a proper perspective, therefore, let us turn from contemplation to action and follow the whale. (p. 12-13)

In a word then, Stapleton has provided an exemplary history of whaling, written with style and wit. One example should suffice:

p. 61-62: Gaius Plinius Secundus, commonly known as Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23 to 79 a.d., penned a whole shelf of volumes into which he gathered information upon practically everything he could lay his hands on, a most astounding assemblage of facts gleaned from any and every source quite irrespective of their merits or veracity. Never was there more entertaining reading, not even in our own small predigested periodicals. In Pliny anything may be encountered — word-for-word plagiarisms from Aristotle and the older classics, the shrewdest observations upon current events, and the most arrant nonsense that any gullible idiot could unearth from under Egyptian stones or from the darker recesses of barbarian fetishism. In this out- pouring we find, moreover, many items of the utmost interest that reveal the wisdom and beliefs of a successful empire and display the accumulated knowledge then current in the world….

We must, however, confine our narrative to what he had to say upon our own particular subject, the whales, which in some respects surely cannot be surpassed in any other work, ancient or modern. This delicious publicist, whom many persons of lesser mentality have presumed to call naive, launches out with altogether carefree abandon to deal with the whole matter of whales in a most comprehensive manner. There can be no question, moreover, but that he succeeded in accomplishing exactly what he set out to do and that, in the doing of it, he carried the early Christian world along with him for a number of centuries. He starts off with the axiom that the greatest beasts are in the sea. This would seem to be irrefutable. He then goes on to say, "But the most numerous and largest of all these animals are those found in the Indian Seas; among which are balenae [whales] four jugera in extent, and the Pristis, 200 cubits long." … For all this, Pliny is full of topical information; in fact, he was really a newspaperman at heart and is much better when he is doing a straightforward job of reporting.