Death to the living, long life to the killers. Success to sailors’ wives & greasy luck to whalers
Let the filmmakers speak:
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Premieres Ric Burns’ “INTO THE DEEP: AMERICA, WHALING & THE WORLD” May 10 on PBS
The Epic Story of America’s Quest For The Leviathan
03.18.2010 – A fantastic sea adventure, a cautionary economic and environmental tale, and a mythic saga of man and nature, INTO THE DEEP: AMERICA, WHALING & THE WORLD will premiere on the PBS series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Monday, May 10, 2010 at 9PM.
“The ship? Great God, where is the ship?”
– Herman Melville
INTO THE DEEP: AMERICA, WHALING, & THE WORLD, from filmmaker Ric Burns, tells the thrilling and epic story of three centuries of American whaling, and the unique relationship between American whalers and the giant creatures they hunted. The hunt for these mysterious, mammoth beings helped fueled the expansion of the American economy – propelled tiny backwater ports like Nantucket and New Bedford to the unrivalled center of the whaling world – and pioneered the first truly global enterprise America ever knew. At the height of the whaling industry, U.S. whaleships encircled the globe, a massive state-of-the-art fleet crewed by highly-skilled mariners whose ever-widening search for whales enabled them to chart the seven seas. The magnificent creatures were slaughtered for the precious oil that filled their massive heads, the high-quality illuminant that lit the drawing rooms of Europe and greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution.
Few aspects of the American experience have struck more deeply into the imagination of the American people – or resonated more profoundly with deepest American hopes, fears and dreams – than the savagely primal, unfathomably limit-testing experience of whaling. Says Ric Burns, “the epic story of whaling is intimately bound up with the story of America, in strange and telling ways: as a riveting case study in maritime culture at its most extreme – as a dark and shining parable of American capitalism on the rise – and as an allegory for the American, and the human experience – long before a restless sometime whaleman and would-be writer named Herman Melville ever went to sea.”
Pacifists and Profiteers
Whaling was part of the American experience from the earliest days of European settlement. Within ten years of the arrival of the Mayflower, drift whaling—the passive capture of beached or stranded whales—was underway up and down the Atlantic coast. But it was on the island of Nantucket, a Quaker enclave off the Massachusetts coast, that whaling took the most tenacious hold. In 1690, after a few decades of farming had exhausted Nantucket’s meager resources, the island’s inhabitants turned to whaling as their shared path to financial success, and never looked back.
The worldwide demand for whale oil began to soar and Nantucket threw itself with a vengeance into the dangerous and bloody art of deep-ocean sperm whaling and the island’s whalemen brought that complex enterprise to a pitch of state-of-the-art perfection never equaled before or since. Still, for all of the technology that attended it, at the center of the whaling enterprise remained a simple, primordial drama, not so far removed from a paleolithic hunt. The killing of the whale required proficiency in a method at least centuries old: fastening a small boat to an enraged mammal with a “harping iron” and rope; waiting for the massive creature to gradually exhaust itself as it towed the boat behind it; then stabbing it to death with an iron lance or spear at close range. Blood gushing from the blow hole signaled the whalers’ victory. Generation after generation of Nantucket men, many of them pacifist Quakers schooled at whale-killing since childhood, would become among the world’s most skilled practitioners of this lethal but lucrative art—perhaps the defining paradox in an industry that had more than its share.
A Tale of Two Ships
INTO THE DEEP explores two events that would forever anchor whaling into the American consciousness. On August 12, 1819, the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket, bound for the Pacific. By now a truly global enterprise, whaling produced huge profits, but required more capital, covered vast distances, and consumed massive amounts of time. Voyages that once took six months now took years as the hunt for declining whale populations required farther exploration. Vessels and crews became larger; labor and costs were squeezed and an industry that had once been paternalistic and community-based became more specialized, cosmopolitan and anonymous. And more dangerous.
Danger had always been an integral element of the whaling enterprise. Many whale ships never returned home but none suffered a more horrific fate than the Essex, which, on November 20, 1820, thousands of miles off the coast of Peru, was rammed not once but twice, by a sperm whale as long as the ship itself. The awesome power of the whale sent the vessel to the bottom of the ocean, but twenty sailors made their frantic way onto whaleboats. Eight would ultimately survive after a harrowing ordeal that lasted months and reduced the sailors to cannibalism.
It was in the 1840s that the golden age of American whaling reached its zenith, and New Bedford replaced Nantucket as the whaling center among some sixty domestic ports. By the middle of that decade, 735 out of the 900 whale ships sailing the world’s oceans sailed under an American flag. Seventy-thousand people made their livelihoods from whaling, including 20,000 men who populated the ships themselves, sailing the oceans in pursuit of every variety of whale: right, humpback, bowhead, gray, and the most valuable of all, the sperm whale. During the industry’s most profitable year they killed more than 8,000 whales, generating profits of $11 million.
Into this heady world walked Herman Melville, a restless 21-year-old from New York whose family had fallen on hard times. In December of 1840, he arrived in New Bedford, looking for work. He soon set sail aboard the Acushnet, a whaling ship bound for the South Pacific, toward the same marine wilderness that the ill-fated Essex had traveled some twenty years before.
By one of the most fortuitous events to occur in literary history, Melville’s ship tied up alongside another vessel, a mid-ocean “gam,” or rendezvous. On that ship was a young seaman, William Henry Chase, whose father, Owen Chase, had been first mate of the Essex, and one of the tragedy’s few survivors. The younger Chase gave Melville a copy of his father’s memoir, and the harrowing tale of man vs. nature would haunt him for a decade. In 1850, he set to work on Moby Dick, arguably the greatest novel ever written by an American. “For God’s sake,” he implored his readers, “be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled.”
The fictional crew aboard the Pequod reflected the incredible diversity Melville had experienced in his own whaling career. His characters include Native Americans, Indians, Africans, Pacific Islanders and others from China, Denmark, England, Spain, and the Azores, as well as Quakers from Nantucket, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
Even though the novel was written in the white heat of the whaling moment, when Moby Dick was published in 1851 it was met with scathing reviews and, far worse, indifference. Two years into the California Gold Rush, Americans were losing interest in the maritime wilderness of the great oceans, focusing instead on the boundless possibilities of the American West.
The golden age of whaling was drawing to a rapid close. In 1854, out on Nantucket, where so much whaling history had been written, the town replaced its whale oil street lamps with gas lights. Then, in 1859, the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania identified the illuminant and lubricant of the future, and quickly relegated whale oil to a rapidly fading past. The Civil War ship-crushing disasters in the Arctic during the 1870s only accelerated the American whaling fleet’s drift toward oblivion.
“INTO THE DEEP’s look at our whaling past is stark reminder of not only the volatility of the global marketplace but the danger of viewing the planet and its creatures as commodities,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels.
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About the Participants (in order of appearance)
Nathaniel Philbrick lives on Nantucket and is the author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, a winner of the National Book Award. His newest book, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, will be published in May 2010.
Daniel Vickers is the head of the department of history at the University of British Columbia and the author of Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail.
Lisa Norling is a history professor at the University of Minnesota. She has written several books and about women and maritime history including Captain Ahab Had a Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870; Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920, ‘How Fought With Sorrow and Heartpangs’: Mariners’ Wives and the Ideology of Domesticity in New England, 1790-1880, and The Sentimentalization of American Seafaring, 1790-1870.
Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Her publications include Melville’s Sources (1987), Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (2004), and “Ungraspable Phantom”: Essays on Moby-Dick (Kent State University Press, 2006).
D. Graham Burnett is a historian of science at Princeton University; his Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature won the 2007 Hermalyn Prize in Urban History and the New York City Book Award in 2008.
Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
Stuart Frank is Curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in Massachusetts.
Michael Moore is a Marine Biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts.
Margaret Creighton is a Professor of History at Bates College and the author of Rites and Passages: The Experience of American Whaling, 1830–1870.
Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia, is the author of Melville: His World and Work.
About the Filmmakers
Ric Burns (Producer) is best known for his acclaimed series New York: A Documentary Film, a sweeping chronicle of the city’s history, which garnered several honors, including two Emmy Awards and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award. Burns’ career began with the celebrated series The Civil War, which he produced with his brother, Ken. Burns’ other films include Coney Island, The Donner Party, The Way West, Eugene O’Neill, and Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. Most recently, Burns wrote, produced, and co-directed Tecumseh’s Vision, part two of the groundbreaking five-part miniseries We Shall Remain. A graduate of Columbia University and Cambridge University, Burns lives in New York City.
Mark Samels (Executive Producer) was named to lead PBS’s flagship history series, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, in 2003 after serving as senior producer since 1997. Produced by WGBH/Boston, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is television’s most-watched and longest running history series, and the recipient of every major industry award, including the Peabody, Primetime Emmy, Writers Guild and duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Numerous films for the series have been recognized at major film festivals, including Sundance, and eight have been nominated for Academy Awards®. Prior to joining WGBH, Samels worked as an independent documentary filmmaker, an executive producer for several U.S. public television stations and as a producer for the first co-production between Japanese and American television. A native of Wisconsin, he is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For further info and photos visit www.pbs.org/pressroom.
Links to the participants’ works shall follow in the Bücherliste.
Loads of thanks for attention and sharing to Cohu!
1:52 hours video on WGBH American Experience Films! Use Full Screen!
Text and image: American Experience Films.